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9 Essential New York City Toddler-Friendly Trips

Even at three, my son misses the city when we’re taking a trip. “Where are all the people?” he’ll ask, used to the hustle and bustle of the New York streets. In spring, the blocks seemed paved with books and toys, which people stack on their stoops during cleaning binges. Pop out for an afternoon tricycle ride and who knows who you’ll bump into — a quick errand to the mailbox might end up an impromptu party, with a gang of little friends hunched over masterpieces in sidewalk chalk, or else racing one another up and down the grey slate sidewalk.

And the playgrounds! Those towers of pipes and shaky suspension bridges spanning fields of spongy, rubberized safety-surface. In the summer, their statues sprinkle and spray water, and even in the depths of winter you’re sure to find at least one hardy playmate up for a game of chase, or else staring into space, contemplating life from the comfortable seat of the swings.

Subways rumble beneath the streets, turning even short jaunts into special adventures. And there’s no end of interesting people to watch, big buildings to marvel, and vehicles to dazzle your eyes even as they deafen your ears. Forget what you’ve heard — New York is a toddler’s town, for sure. I’ve drawn on my almost four years of experience to present nine city spots that are sure to entertain tots and adults alike, whether you’re an NYC native, or just in town for a visit.

  • Click ahead to find out where to go in New York City with your toddler! 1 of 10
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  • Visit Chinatown 2 of 10
    1 Chinatown

    The main draw to Chinatown is the food, to be sure. Vanessa's Dumplings on Eldridge can feed a family of four for under ten bucks, no joke. And if you go for dumplings of any sort — meat or veggie, steamed or fried — it'll be one of the best meals you've ever had. Felix recommends the pork sesame pancake sandwich. For sit-down Dim Sum on the weekend, you can't go wrong with Mandarin Court on Mott Street, and if you miss a good-looking plate, don't fret. The waitresses wheel around the same dishes once every fifteen minutes or so.

     

    Besides the eats, there's a ton to look at on the street, from cheap toys to even cheaper knock-offs to tubs of live eels and vegetables that you've never heard of before. Near Vanessa's, you'll find the expansive playground at Sara Roosevelt Park, which provides welcome air after the tight streets. Head down Mulberry Street to the shady playground at Columbus Park, where you'll find groups of seniors playing cards and mahjong, practicing Tai Chi, and sipping from thermoses full of dark tea. This is pretty much what you'll find at a park in Shanghai as well. On weekends musicians gather (within feet of one another) and play dueling erhus.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Take the Shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central Terminal 3 of 10
    2 Grand Central

    New Yorkers avoid Times Square as much as they can, notorious for its slow-moving throngs and the snaking line of the TKTS booth, which provides cheap Broadway tickets to those willing to wait for who-knows-how-long. Still, kids find the millions of lights awesome, and even the most jaded Manhattanite will admit to feeling the same. And while the clowns clothed in dirty, second-hand Elmo suits might creep you out, your child won't know they're not officially sanctioned by either The Muppets or the NYPD.

     

    When you've had your fill, take the shuttle train to Grand Central Terminal, a true wonder. Felix loves trains so much, he's happy to check out a few tracks, as well as the Transit Museum hub and store. Don't forget to look up to take in the constellations in the Main Concourse, and then head downstairs for some delicious treats. Gelato, cheesecake, pizza, falafel — the dining hall has it all. Or forage for fresher ingredients in the market and move on to Bryant Park for a picnic.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Visit The Queens Museum of Art, The New York Hall of Science, and Flushing Meadows Park 4 of 10
    3 Queens Museum

    The Queens Museum of Art has great exhibitions, but really one of the biggest draws is the panorama of New York City, which contains a model of every building in all five boroughs constructed before 1992. It was originally made for the 1964 World's Fair, which took place in Flushing Meadows Park, where the museum is located. You can see the famous silver globe outside of the New York State Pavilion, and also check out The New York Hall of Science, which has cool exhibits and shiny models of space rockets, donated by NASA. Cool stuff. The panorama of NYC is remarkable though, and worth the trip out to this area alone. You'll feel like King Kong walking around it, and will be truly blown away by the scope of the metropolis.  

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Take the Ferry to Governor’s Island 5 of 10
    4 governors island

    In summer and early fall, the ferry to Governor's Island leaves from several spots in the city, though the terminal at Battery Park probably provides the grandest views. The island is located about half a mile off the tip of Manhattan, and gives you breathtaking views of both the city and The Statue of Liberty. Breathe deep as you wander among its paths, or rent a bike and work up a sweat pedaling the loop. There are great spots to picnic, and usually cool art installations to see, too.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Play in the Imagination Playground 6 of 10
    5 imagination playground

    Many tourist guides recommend a visit to the South Street Seaport, and while better restaurants have popped up there in recent years, I still think a visitor could skip it. Meandering among the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan, on the other hand, is almost as magical as visiting a dense forest. The shadows are just as deep and cool, the sounds come through strange — muted one minute, screaming loud the next — and there are some wonderful treasures to find, like Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated President.

     

    For kids, the draw will be The Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, which is a new style of playground that features sandpits and long curving ramps to run up and down instead of play equipment. There are also big foam blocks scattered about, which kids can use to build castles and walls, or create mazes to shoot balls down. The space is designed to look something like a ship. Climb up the smokestack and take in a great view of the actual ships docked right across the street. There's good eating nearby, and in the summer, on Stone Street, a string of restaurants turn the entire block into an outdoor eatery, which is pretty cool.

     

    Image via GlennWoodNYC

  • Visit the New York Botanical Garden and Arthur Avenue 7 of 10
    06 NYBG

    The New York Botanical Garden is a beautiful respite from the busy urban jungle, with a large conservatory to explore, and extensive grounds to walk. For the little ones, there's an adventure garden with a shrubbery maze and many hands on activities.

     

    But, honestly, I think the food on Arthur Avenue is just as big a draw. In the Arthur Avenue Market, you'll find some of the best sandwiches in the world at Mike's Deli. They'll shower the little ones with attention, and might even cut them a mini-mozzarella ball. Grab a cannoli or cookie afterward, and parents, make sure to get a cappuccino — they're off the hook.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Hang Out in Union Square 8 of 10
    7 Union Square

    The park in Union Square used to be dingy, and there's still plenty of scuffed grass and trash-strewn shrubbery that seem better suited for pigeons than people. The Union Square farmer's market, though, has become a major draw for tourists and New Yorkers alike, and in the past few years the city has done a great job making the square easier to get around. From a parent's perspective, there's the Barnes and Noble flagship store — a great spot to hit on rainy days, loaded with books and (sadly, I think) toys as well. When the weather's clement, buy a treat or piece of fruit from the market, and check out the eclectic mix of traditional play equipment and unusual imaginative structures in the playground. There's sidewalk eating all around, and lots of people passing by that'll keep both you and the kids entertained.

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Visit Chelsea Market and The High Line 9 of 10
    8 high line

    An unused stretch of elevated train track from the Meatpacking district to Midtown was converted into a native flora park in 2009. Walking The High Line's almost mile and a half stretch is awe-inspiring, dream-like, with natural and urban splendor commingling. You'll find beautiful views and lots of structures for the kids to play with — a flight of big stairs to sit and observe 10th Avenue from or else run up and down, and benches that roll over the old tracks. When your appetite is up, head to nearby Chelsea Market for some great eating and to browse Posman Books, which has a fun and full kids section. There's an indoor waterfall in the center of the market that's a big draw, and a tunnel-of-lights that kids love. Felix also recommends stopping for a thick-as-mud hot chocolate at Jaques Torres.  

    Image via Wikimedia Commons

  • Check out the Children’s Museum of the Arts in TRIBECA 10 of 10
    9 childrens museum art

    Looking to pass a rainy or chilly day? Get out some energy and explore your creative side at The Children's Museum of the Arts. You'll find a room full of huge balls to bounce around in, tables stocked with clay, markers, and other art supplies, and fun kid-centric exhibitions to draw inspiration from. Sign up for a tutorial or min-class, pull up a stool to the clay bar, or unwind in the quiet room.

     

    Photo via Children's Museum of Art flickr

    Did I miss any of your favorite NYC spots to visit with the kids? Please let me know in the comments!

    Also, while most of this post was culled from memory, I will admit to checking Wikipedia for a few of the finer points...

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