By Rachel Hoeing
Ready to take your family on a trip to New York City? Save up – it’s not cheap – but it is TONS of fun! My family of four visited NYC for Spring Break this year and created amazing memories! I scoured the internet for tips and also asked friends about the top spots to visit. One thing I couldn’t find online was a daily itinerary. I was very unfamiliar with NYC and knew I didn’t want to spend each day walking in circles asking my husband and children where they wanted to go next while overpaying for last minute tours and bad food.
There are five boroughs of NYC, but our trip focused solely on Manhattan. I hope my ideas and tips below will help you to set up a basic plan for your trip. (I apologize for the length of this blog, but I figure the more info you can get, the better off your trip might be!) I am confident that without the reservations, research, and planning that I did ahead of time, we would not have been able to accomplish half of the things we did. My children are in 7th and 9th grades, so keep that in mind as you read my tips and adjust accordingly to fit the ages of your children.
One thing I wanted to say before I dive in – New Yorkers were incredibly welcoming, kind, and helpful. Sometimes NYC gets a bad rap, but we truly met the friendliest people … whether it was the man who swiped his subway card for us an extra time when we ran out of money, the Airbnb hostess who welcomed us to the city, the many people who took pictures for us, the woman who alerted us that we were about to board the subway going in the wrong direction, or the tour guide who sang Michael McDonald with me … we truly appreciated the hospitality!
Transportation – I hate flying, but I knew we didn’t want to take a car into the city. Parking is astronomical in price and driving in an unfamiliar and crowded area like Manhattan could easily send you over the edge! There are options to park in NJ and take the bus, or even take the train from home directly to NYC, but I checked flights and found some for about $120 each. It was a no-brainer since it ended up being so inexpensive.
Once we were in the city, we used a mix of the subway, taxis, and Uber. The subway was a lot of fun and was usually the least expensive, but even with my inherited gene of good navigation skills, I was overwhelmed. Friends suggested apps like New York Subway and Kickmap, but we still struggled! We successfully navigated ourselves to main attractions, but when traveling to a venue off the beaten path, we either used Uber, or hailed a taxi right from the curb.
Where to Stay – You can stay in surrounding areas like Brooklyn or Hoboken and save quite a bit of money, but I was told that for a first time visit, you want to stay as close to Times Square as possible. (If the traffic noise bothers you, plan to stay a couple blocks away.) One suggestion I got from a friend was to stay anywhere from 26th Street to 57th Street and between 9th Avenue and 3rd Avenue in order to be a short distance from attractions but also in a safe area.
Hotels in the city are not cheap, so we opted to save money and stay in an Airbnb. We had extra space, a kitchen area where we made a few meals, and my teenage kids didn’t have to share a double bed in a hotel room. The only downfall is that they CAN cancel on you! Read the policies before booking. VRBO can also be a great option.
CityPass for Attractions – We purchased this beforehand and it proved to be convenient and much less expensive than purchasing tickets for attractions individually. Check out the NYC website here to get all the details. You can choose six attractions or three. There are a few stipulations (ie – you will get general admission rather than an upgraded tour on some attractions), but in many instances you can bypass the ticket window line. Hands down – one of the best decisions we made!
For each item below, our family gave it a rating of 1 – 5 stars based on enjoyment and value. Under each day you will see why we rated it the way we did! (I will note that everyone’s experiences will be different. When you factor in the time of year for your visit, the waitstaff at restaurants, the ages of your children, or the crowds, it can sway your opinion. BUT, I hope our ratings at least give you a general idea of what to expect.)
Morning –Flight arrives
Check into Airbnb: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ½ , Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Lunch – Barilla Italian Restaurant: Kids ⭐⭐⭐ ½, Parents ⭐⭐½
Afternoon – Circle Line Landmark Cruise w/CityPass: Kids ⭐⭐⭐ ½, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐ ½
Dinner – Beetle House Restaurant w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐ ½
On our first day, we didn’t have a plan for lunch in case our flight was late, so we just happened upon Barilla. It is a make your own pasta type place. Decent food, but nothing to write home about. The Circle Line Cruise was so informative and was a great way to get an overall summary of the city on our first day. Beetle House was recommended by a friend and was definitely unique. It is extremely small and very dark, and fits the theme of “Halloween all year long.” Food was average. If you like quirky and weird experiences, you’ll like it. If not, I would recommend a classic New York pizza joint close to your hotel/apartment instead.
Breakfast – Eat at apartment
Morning – 9/11 Memorial w/ CityPass: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Lunch – Merchants River House w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Afternoon – Battery Park for Statue of Liberty Tour: Kids ⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐ ½
Cookie Dough Confections – Kids ⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐½
Dinner – Puglia’s w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The 9/11 Memorial pools and Museum, although gut-wrenching and somber, were absolutely amazing. We arrived shortly before opening and visited the memorial pools first. We then downloaded the app on our phones to use inside the museum, which gave descriptions of exhibits. (You can bring headphones with you.) The Historical Museum itself is in the center of the hallways. (It’s easy to miss, but it includes some of the most important information.) My children started to get antsy after about an hour or so, but stuck it out for our sake. We left after two hours, but I honestly could have stayed another two. There is so much to discover, remember, and learn. Merchant’s River House had a great atmosphere, delicious food, reasonably priced menu (for NYC), and had amazing views of the Hudson River and New Jersey. We walked along the river after lunch and enjoyed ourselves immensely! The Statue of Liberty tour probably would have rated higher for us had it not been Easter weekend. It was extremely crowded and even with our pre-purchased tickets (I actually bought these separately before I found out about CityPass) we waited almost two hours. Tickets to the crown were sold out prior to my purchasing, which was almost three months in advance, so if you want to go to the crown, purchase early. (The CityPass ticket does not include pedestal or crown access.) The statue is of course something that you want on your Bucket List, but honestly the Circle Line Cruise from yesterday got so close to the statue that we almost felt like we’d already been there. If you are pressed for time and the lines are long, maybe just opt for the Circle Line Cruise or the Staten Island Ferry instead of going to the statue itself. We then went WAY across town and stood in line for about 45 minutes to try Cookie Dough Confections. The cookie dough is delicious for the first five bites and then we all felt like we wanted to puke. It was so heavy. But, many people like this place, so you may want to get other opinions. If I had to do it over, I would have chosen Momofuku Milk Bar for an afternoon snack instead. Puglia’s Restaurant is not for the timid. Located in Little Italy, we had gotten this recommendation from a friend and thought it would be a quaint little dinner where we could meet up with my cousins who were also in town. We were surprised to find live music and people standing on chairs and dancing throughout the meal. It didn’t hurt that there was a large party sitting near us celebrating a 26th birthday that evening. Again, this set-up isn’t for everyone (it was extremely loud entertainment) but our family had an absolute blast! It was one of our favorite memories. I still can’t believe we fit all of this excitement into one day!
Breakfast – Eat at apartment
Morning – Easter Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral w/ tickets: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Lunch – Eat at apartment
Afternoon –Carriage Ride around Central Park w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐½, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐½
American Museum of Natural History w/ CityPass: Kids ⭐½, Parents ⭐⭐⭐
Dinner – Sugar Factory on Broadway w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐½
I filled out a form on St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s website to enter into a lottery for tickets to the Easter Mass. Luckily, we got them and it was beautiful. If you are there on any given day, you can walk into the church to light candles, take pictures, etc. They also offer public and group guided tours. The carriage ride was a welcome event because our legs were so tired from all the walking we had been doing. It was so pleasant to sit and take in all of Central Park from our carriage. We booked with NYC Horse Carriage Rides. After the ride, we sat on some rocks in the park for a bit and enjoyed the sights. If you don’t opt for a carriage ride, I would recommend renting bikes to explore Central Park. I almost feel guilty giving the museum the bad ratings we did because I know it is a National treasure that almost everyone else seems to enjoy. I almost wonder if we missed a portion of the museum because it was so crowded. (Hence, the extenuating circumstances I mentioned in my intro.) I will say that we did enjoy the planetarium show which was included with our CityPass, but the rest of the museum just wasn’t our thing. Lastly, the Sugar Factory had come recommended to us, but I am wondering if we just chose the wrong location (there are two in the city). The restaurant itself was dirty, and there was a lot of unnecessary noise from patrons, loud music, clanking dishes, unprofessional servers, etc. We also thought the food was extremely overpriced. The desserts were delicious, but the main entrees were less than average.
Breakfast – Eat at apartment
Morning – LIVE with Kelly & Ryan w/tickets: Son (⭐⭐ and then ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐), Daughter & Mom ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Dad ⭐⭐⭐½
Empire State Building w/ CityPass: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Lunch – Junior’s Restaurant w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐½, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐½
Afternoon – Times Square for shopping: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Dinner – Carmine’s w/ reservation: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Evening – Back to Times Square or Empire State Building
We woke up to snow this morning, but it didn’t damper our fun. LIVE with Kelly & Ryan was so cool! Free tickets can be reserved on their website. (If you attend a live taping of any show, be sure to check the age requirements. Many are 18+, but Live with Kelly & Ryan was 10+.) Start checking maybe 6 weeks before the date you want to go because they sell out quickly. You are able to show up on “stand by” but are not guaranteed to enter. It is an early morning, but is worth it. My son originally was bored to tears and claimed that he didn’t understand why adults liked this sort of thing, but then when the live show was over, they announced that they were going to pre-tape two more guests, one of which was John Krazinski (one of his favorite actors). My son’s rating quickly jumped to a 5. Our friends even got pictures of us when we popped up on their TVs at home! We then met up with my sister-in-law and niece and ventured to the Empire State Building. It was an amazing sight, and it didn’t have much of a line even at 11am, which we were told would be a bad time to go. Junior’s was a laid-back restaurant with amazing desserts and great salads, burgers, etc. Times Square was crowded of course, but we loved seeing all the sights. My daughter & niece loved the Hershey store and my son loved the NBA store. Carmine’s is a family style Italian restaurant that is tough to get in without a reservation. It was priced fairly, had Frank Sinatra playing in the background, and was absolutely delicious. Our original plan was to head back to the Empire State Building. With CityPass, you can visit once during the day and once at night. Supposedly it is beautiful in the evening! BUT, we were so tired and wanted to stay close by, so we ventured into Times Square again to take in the sites.
Breakfast – Ellen’s Stardust Diner: Son & Mom ⭐⭐⭐⭐½, Daughter & Dad ⭐⭐⭐
Morning – Top of the Rock w/ CityPass: Kids ⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐½
Rockefeller Center: Kids ⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Lunch – Snacks from vendors
Afternoon – Metropolitan Museum of Art w/ CityPass
Dinner – Sombrero Mexican Restaurant: Kids ⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐½
Evening – Wicked: Gershwin Theatre w/ tickets: Son ⭐⭐⭐, Daughter ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐, Parents ⭐⭐⭐⭐½
The line for Ellen’s Stardust Diner was all the way down the block, but surprisingly we were inside within 25 minutes. (It is not owned by Ellen DeGeneres by the way!) The waitstaff is made up of aspiring Broadway stars who sing at your tables. They are extremely talented! Our range of ratings were due to the fact that my daughter thought her meal was not every good, and my husband was not happy with the price of the food compared to quantity. The atmosphere is a ton of fun though! Rockefeller Center has lots of hustle and bustle and was neat to people watch, see the ice skaters, shop a bit, etc. Top of the Rock was cloudy the day we went, but we still really enjoyed it. Sadly, we mixed up the Metropolitan Museum of Art with MOMA (Museum of Modern Art), which was not included in our CityPass. Once we got to MOMA and realized we were at the wrong place, we just didn’t have the energy to find the correct one! We opted instead to rest a bit before our big night of Wicked! We did not have dinner reservations this night and had hoped to grab a quintessential NY pizza before the show. Sadly, every place was packed and we ended up having to duck into a Mexican Restaurant that did not have a wait. Compared to the other places we ate, it was definitely nothing special. It made me thankful that we had made reservations all evenings prior to this! On the other hand, Wicked was amazing! My daughter was singing the songs for days afterward and my husband (who had never been to a Broadway show) was very impressed. The 14 year old boy played nice for my sake and sat through it. I figured a “negative five” rating was coming from him, but was surprised by his “three!”
Other places that were recommended that we never made it to:
Restaurants and Snacks:
Momofuku Milk Bar
The Meatball Shop
Tavern on the Green
The Loeb Boathouse
Angelo’s of Mulberry Street
La Mela Restaurant
La Bella Vita
In summary, my suggestion would be to use my itinerary, adjust to the number of days you are staying, but replace the items you don’t think you will enjoy with others recommended in the list above. I tried to group things that were close in proximity all in the same day to cut down on walking and cab fares, but we still walked a bunch! My schedule left time each day to go back to our apartment and rest if needed and also left ample time where I factored in traffic, subway navigation, etc.
OK readers, this was just my ONE experience. It will go down in the books as one of our favorite vacations to date and we loved pretty much everything. BUT, I know you have tons of tips, advice and recommendations as well, so please share by commenting below!
For other family vacations and day trip ideas, visit our “Recreation and Travel Category” here!
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