One of my favorite things about being a work-from-home mom is those days when the kid and I cast our nets wide for adventure. It's even more fun now that we've transitioned away from the neighborhood-bound, diaper-bag laden era of baby and early toddlerhood; at three, the kid's as eager to learn about the city we live in as I am to remember why we're here. But there are limits; and any one of you who has a toddler knows what I'm talking about.
1) There can't be too much walking (or if there is, bring the stroller).
2) There's got to be something to eat at your destination.
3) If it's indoor space you're after, be sure it can handle occasional rowdiness.
4) The ideal total outing time is four hours- enough time to get there, have a blast, turn around and come home before the kid (or let's face it, you) have a meltdown.
Here, assembled, are a few of our favorites- easily accessed from Prospect Heights in a relatively quick round trip (for the most part, these are subway rides, but a few are easier to get to in a car):
There's nothing more beautiful, in any kind of weather, than sailing by the Statue of Liberty from the warmth and safety of a boat. And on the Staten Island Ferry, you can do it for free! The ride's 25 minutes long (be sure to sit on the righthand side for views of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty), enough time to buy popcorn at the onboard snack bar, although your kiddo might be too excited to sit down- there's so much onboard to explore. Once at the St. George terminal on the other side, you can race off the boat in time to get right back on it (you must disembark), or if you want to linger a bit, there's an enormous, enchanting fish tank that will easily entertain your tot for the twenty minutes or half an hour it'll take for the next ferry to show up to take you home. Bonus Points for being free!
On a rainy days, I long for the ease of suburban malls- and Grand Central's a great alternative. All you have to do is get to and from the subway, and then you're inside a world of activity without having to face the wretched weather. The "sky" in the main hall is alluring, the vastness of the hall itself is a thrilling to explore, there's the gallery annex of the Transit Museum, a toy store, some lovely gift shops, and Posman Books has a great kids section (where you can find Maira Kalman's enchanting Next Stop, Grand Central, and Brooklyn's own Mo Willems' Knuffle Bunny). Down a long, enormous ramp (perfect for exhausting tiny legs), there's a huge food court, including a Magnolia Bakery, and, to boot- a Two Boots (you can opt for a slice, or to go into the restaurant and sit down for a full pizza meal). Another free New York experience!
We headed here for the first time last month to catch the Muppets show before it closed. The show was fantastic but we'll definitely be heading back there for the permanent collection alone, not to mention how beautiful it is inside. The museum reminded me of the small, midwestern art and science museums I went to when traveling to the midwest as a child- there's a lot here, but not too much that it feels overwhelming. There's a stop-motion animation area where you can create your own stories (perfect for a 3 year old); a studio where you can make a flip book of yourself (they can print a copy for you in the giftshop); and a phalanx of old video games (Ms. Pacman, anyone?), not to mention a fascinating collection of costumes, production designs and old cameras. One caveat: they'll make you check your stroller and any bag bigger than a purse, but they're happy to give you access to it as many times as you need. Check out the Five Napkin Burger across the street.
Coney Island won't be open on weekends until Easter (it’s open all week long from Memorial Day through Labor Day), but there's still plenty to do down on the boardwalk. The Aquarium is big enough to feel fun to explore, but small enough not to be overwhelming. Be sure to catch the Sea Lion feeding (and if you buy a membership, you’ll also gain access to the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo). Don't stick around to eat; instead, when you've gotten your fill, wander north until you hit Brighton Beach, where there's a series of Russian restaurants where you can nosh on deliciousness- pierogies, borscht, etc. We ate at the Tatiana Grill. Our waitress doted on the kid, which didn't hurt matters. And if it's warm enough, afterwards you can play in the sand for a bit before heading home.
Our favorite Chinatown excursion includes a trip to the newly renovated Hester Street playground, soup dumplings at the Nice Green Bo Restaurant, and ice cream at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. But there are endless, enjoyable variations- a wander up and down streets, or in and out of the hundreds of gift shops (with affordable trinkets for well-behaved tots); Dim Sum in a vast dining room; a visit to Pearl Paint for art supplies; or a venture north into Little Italy.
Now, I'll be honest, I find the AMNH to be a tad overwhelming- all those school groups, and the elevator waits are interminable. But if you go off the beaten path, you can find solitude and a place for the little one to roam. The Gem room far is far enough afield to be relatively empty, and boasts many steps to climb and beautiful rocks to admire; the empty space under the whale is always full of affable kids looking for fun. Don't eat in the dining hall, though- either head into Central Park for a hotdog or picnic, or to the Shake Shack on Columbus & 77th for burgers and fries.
Start north and wander down, or start south and wander up- there's so much to explore on the Highline, for kiddo and child alike. Take your time and encourage your little one to stroll and make the most of the secret pathways the Highline offers. When your stomach starts growling, head down into the Chelsea Market for another adventure, or to grab some food to gobble back up in "the park in the sky."
If you don't have a car, I recommend taking the 2/3 train into the city and taking the water taxi from Pier 11 to Brooklyn for some shopping, before heading back in again. If you do have wheels, drive down to Red Hook and park, then take the water taxi into the city and back, then drive to Fairway. Whatever your destination, there's a ton to explore- and eat. Both Fairway and Ikea offer an affordable dining hall; Fairway's is right on the water, and you can leave your half-full cart and snack mid-shopping, whereas Ikea offers yummy (and cheap) meatballs and an indoor view of downtown Manhattan. Then there's that thrilling boat ride- free for children under 12 and only $5 for adults.
This is a warm weather outing, easily accessible by taking the B63 bus all the way down Atlantic to the waterfront for a visit to an incredible playground, replete with fabulous water area, a climbing structure and long slides, and too many swings to count. Then, in the summer, you can hop on the ferry to Governor's Island, where you can have a picnic, munch on food cart food, and wander around, with unusual views of downtown Manhattan and waterfront.
Jane's Carousel just opened last year. Created in 1922 and lovingly renovated by Jane Walentas, it's open year round, a cheap ($2 for adults, and children under 42” or 3 years old are free) and lovely destination right on the waterfront, enclosed in a glass box. For food, you can head into Dumbo for a baked treat at Almondine, or to the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory just below the Brooklyn Bridge. Or, if the weather's nice, check out one of the food vendors at the park on Pier One, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge. With a playground, lawns, and amphitheater, and amazing views of the South Street Seaport and lower Manhattan, you can eat (and watch) to your heart's content. There's also a fantastic playground just north of Jane’s Carousel, in the greenspace between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges- in the shape of a pirate ship!
Another great mall space, although I'm sad that Border's closed, since it was such a great destination on a cold or rainy day. Still, there's the Whole Foods in the basement, the Bouchon Bakery on the third floor, or, if you want something nicer, Landmarc, also on the third floor- very kid friendly but a nice place to practice manners. Be sure to wander up to the glassed-in atrium on the fourth floor for a dazzling view of the fountain and Central Park South. From there, you can head into Central Park for a trip to the Heckscher playground; across the bottom of the park for a trip to FAO Schwartz, or simply outside to the fountain, where there's great traipsing to be done.
The original Winnie-The-Pooh- along with Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger- resides in the New York Public Library in the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. After paying your respects, browse the books, or head into the chaotic and exhilarating Times Square for a ride on the Toys "R" Us carousel. Afterwards, enjoy a picnic of sandwiches in Bryant Park, or head over to 9th Avenue for a sit-down meal.
All day outings
Sometimes you want more than a four hour outing, so here's a couple places we've loved heading for an all-day affair. Both require a longer trip, and, in the case of Spa Castle, you'll probably want a car (it is possible to take the 7 to the end of the line, and hop onto a Spa Castle shuttle, but the trip is so long I wouldn't relish doing it with anyone but the most patient of children).
1) Spa Castle
This place is incredible. You can come anytime you want in the morning (it opens at six am) and leave anytime in the evening (it closes at midnight). You pay a flat fee ($45 on the weekends, $35 on the weekdays) and are issued a toothbrush, uniform, and awaterproof, watch-like wristband that opens your locker for you and works as a credit card for whatever you buy while in the Spa Castle universe. This 100,000 square foot Korean spa welcomes children, so you'll see families of all ages there- and New Yorkers of all walks of life. Our favorite spot is the nude bathing area on the first floor (divided by gender, there's one in each locker room), but if that's not your style, head upstairs in your uniform (everyone wears one) and enjoy the saunas, sleeping areas, rooftop pools, Korean restaurant and delicious food court. I recommend going with a bunch of other adults- that way, you can trade off doing kid activities and relaxing grown-up-style. You'll want to bring a bathing suit, towel, water bottle, reading matter, a few entertaining toys, and any toiletries for the end of the day when you shower before heading home. My family has spent whole days here, soaking in the bliss. It's like an amusement park for your body.
2) DIA Beacon
This massive museum is right off the Beacon stop on Metro-North- perfect for a rainy day adventure out of the city. The space itself is so vast that there's endless space for a small child to wander (although beware- there's some sculptures made of broken glass), and the Richard Serras and Louise Bourgeois sculptures are alluring for young and old alike. There's a small food shop with yummy sandwiches, and some nice sound sculptures in the outdoor garden. If you're feeling adventurous, head into Beacon for food or wandering, or head back on the train (try to sit in the front, so your little one can pretend s/he's driving).
Do you have any suggestions of where we should go next? Please let me know!