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How to Have a Perfect Weekend in New York City with Kids

New York City is a dream destination for tourists, but can you have a perfect weekend in NYC with kids? 

NYC offers experiences of all shapes and sizes, for all ages, at all hours of the day. After years of debating a trip to the Big Apple, we finally decided our children were the right ages (14, 12, and 10) where we could successfully tackle the city and all it has to offer. 

We have survived the stroller stage, and the kids are all self-sufficient, so NYC seemed like the ideal fall getaway. While New York can be overwhelming for someone unfamiliar to the city, we had an amazing four days. You can check out our itinerary below for a weekend in New York City with kids!

Boy in Central Park looking up at NYC buildings.

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How to Plan a Perfect New York City Weekend with Kids

I am a planner. I always have been, and thankfully I have a sister who lives on Long Island. She’s fairly familiar with the city, so I picked her brain for some of the best things to do in NYC with kids. There were certainly things on our New York City bucket list, and then things we discovered along the way.

In New York City, there are not many hotels for a family of five unless you want to book two rooms. Here are some of the best places to stay with kids in NYC.

Navigating your Family Trip to NYC

When we arrived, we planned on heading straight to the hotel and then venturing out for some sightseeing. This is where we learned our first lesson about New York City: traffic is the worst!

As the crow flies, it is less than 9 miles from La Guardia to Times Square. We arrived at noon on a Thursday and it took an hour and a half to get from the airport to our hotel! I don’t know how people do this on a regular basis.

Don’t miss our other posts: Where to eat in NYC with kids and How to Save Money in NYC!

Day 1: Grand Central Terminal, Empire State Building

We have traveled through many train stations with our kids, but nothing prepared us for the sheer enormity and beauty of Grand Central Terminal. Its vaulted celestial ceiling paired with massive columns and windows create a magical space despite the constant hum of activity.

After admiring the main corridor, we headed downstairs to the massive food court, which was far superior to what we expected. Any type of food your stomach desires can be found here, as well as cocktails and high-end restaurants. Once we had our fill we walked to the Empire State Building.

Inside Grand Central Terminal.

I have always believed the best way to get an overview of a city is from above, so what better place to head to next but the Empire State Building. The line was long, but it moved fairly quickly, and in no time we were on the 86th floor, looking out at the city.

From here we could see the major landmarks: The Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc. The boys loved using the high-powered binoculars for close up views. We ended up being there close to sunset and it was worth it, but the crowds were a bit crazy. We took a few pictures and then headed down before everyone else made their way to the elevators.

Fun Things to Do in Manhattan with Kids

Day 2: Picnic in Central Park

We had fabulous fall weather for our second day in New York City. Our children had no idea we had booked a private picnic in Central Park with Perfect Picnic NYC

If you have never been to Central Park, let me tell you it is massive. Thankfully, our GPS gave us directions to our meeting spot for the picnic, Cherry Hill. 

Here, there is a beautiful fountain, and you will find many of the horses and carriages that offer rides through the park. 

Bow Bridge spans the lake nearby and many rowboats can be seen from this spot (they are available to rent at the Loeb Boathouse). It was the most picturesque spot in the park, and it was all ours.

Lake in Central Park with small sailboats.

We arrived a bit early and saw the gentlemen setting up our picnic. Our children were oblivious of course, because they were busy climbing rocks and running through the park. 

When everything was ready, we called them over to join us, one at a time. They all expressed an equal mixture of shock and delight. They couldn’t believe their luck. A stunning picnic in the middle of Central Park, just for us!

Picnic set up in Central Park - picnic basket with champagne, glasses, grapes, strawberries, bread and cheese.

Once I assured them it was real, they wanted to jump right in and try all the delightful food. The picnic included a salad, sandwiches, cheese platter, various hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and dessert. 

The children would smile and wave as people walked by and took pictures of us enjoying our feast. They thought it was fun to be in other people’s vacation photos! 

Boy looking at picnic foods.

When we finished, we just left everything and walked away. The picnic company comes to clean it up when you’re finished. How’s that for service?

The rest of the afternoon we explored Central Park. The boys ran off playing , and we searched for various landmarks such as the Alice in Wonderland statue, Bethesda Fountain, Strawberry Fields, and Conservatory Pond (where the model boats sail around). Sometimes it’s important to let kids just run around and have a day off from sightseeing.

Day 3: Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, World Trade Center

When it comes to things to do in New York with kids, the Statue of Liberty is always on the list. If there was one place my kids insisted on visiting, this was it! 

To reach Lady Liberty, we took a ferry from Battery Park that makes a loop that includes a stop at Ellis Island. Unfortunately, to go up in the Statue itself, you have to book tickets months in advance. We only saw the Statue from the ferry, but it was still a spectacular view.

Three boys posing with Statue of Liberty behind them.

The next stop was Ellis Island, a destination high at the top of my list since my grandmother and her parents came through there when they immigrated from Puerto Rico.

The museum does a wonderful job of sharing the stories of the people who journeyed from far away lands to this very spot. My kids loved the hands-on activities and artifacts telling the stories about families from all over the world and how they came to be American citizens.

After getting off the ferry, we walked to One World Trade Center. Our children learn about 9/11 in school, but taking them to the reflecting pools was something tangible.

The sheer enormity of not one, but two pools with cascading waterfalls, names inscribed in the bronze bordering the ledges, was emotional for all of us. The rain began falling as we were walking around, adding to the somber atmosphere.

To escape the rain, we ducked inside One World Observatory. We would recommend purchasing a skip-the-line ticket ahead of time.

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We didn’t take the tour to the top because it was raining (so we didn’t think we would see anything), but we thought this was a great activity for a sunny day.

Day 4: Natural History Museum and the Top of the Rock

Unfortunately, the rain from the day before didn’t stop, so we were forced to head inside (along with the rest of the city). We went to the Natural History Museum since our kids are fans of dinosaurs, gems, animals, and science in general. We were not disappointed.

Kirsten and her family smiling in the museum.

We found some spots away from the crowds, and our boys continuously pointed out places they recognized from various movies. It was the perfect place to explore on a rainy day.

As a grand finale, we decided to head to the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center. I wanted to compare the view to the Empire State Building and I knew this would give a better view of Central Park. I also liked that the Top of the Rock offered timed tickets so we didn’t have to wait in line, but could return when it was our time to go up.

The view from the 70th floor was spectacular and I did love seeing the park. Unlike the Empire State where the top floor has metal grates around the top, this has plexiglass with gaps every six feet or so where you can stick a camera through for a picture. The photographer in me doesn’t love this, but we still loved the views.

NYC view from Top of the Rock.

New York City can be overwhelming with kids, but if you have a game plan, it is manageable. Book your hotels and activities ahead of time to make sure everything runs smoothly.

If you are planning a three day New York itinerary with teens, you will find it is much easier to see the city than with smaller kids in tow. Even though we moved fast on this trip, we can’t wait to go back and spend more time soaking it all in.

Book Your Flights

You can find discounted fares using sites like Momondo or Skyscanner. If you want to keep an eye on discount fares, we suggest signing up for Going, a daily newsletter with flight sales around the world.

If you travel frequently, consider investing in a Priority Pass for airport lounge access. It’s nice to have a space where you can relax before your flight.

Book Your Accommodation

We regularly use Expedia.com and Hotels.com to find lodging when we travel. It’s a great way to compare vacation rentals, hotels, and resorts.

If your family knows they want to stay in a vacation rental, we recommend looking at VRBO and Plum Guide.

Book Your Transportation

For rental car agencies, try Rentalcars.com. We tend to use Hertz simply for the quality of service.

Book Your Tours and Travel Photos

We regularly used companies like Viator and GetYourGuide to book tours when we travel. Both have great communication and a large variety of activities that work for all ages.

If you’re visiting a city with multiple attractions, be sure to check out a discount pass, such as CityPASS or Go City. Both are worthwhile investments.

Context Travel is another option and they offer more educational-based activities. The former teacher in me loves their tours.

One of our favorite things to do annually is taking photos with Flytographer. They have photographers around the world and we’ve used them on four separate occasions. This is our favorite travel souvenir.

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

With the state of travel these days, it’s important to have some type of travel insurance to cover any unforeseen accidents, illnesses, threats, or cancellations. We always travel with insurance and would recommend SquareMouth, Travelex, or Medjet as good options. And if you want to compare different insurance options, use Travel Insurance Master to find the best policy for your group.