The first time I took my daughter to New York City from Taipei she was only 8 months old. We had brutal jetlag, we met with friends for baby play dates, and I ate as much gelato and pizza as I possibly could. I called that a success.
This time she was 20 months old. What a difference a year makes! She was a walking, blabbering, screaming and laughing toddler who soaked up every morning walk and every playground pitstop.
I loved this trip with her because it was clear that she loved the New York she saw. It was very different from the New York I’m used to — hello, where are you, oyster happy hour? — but it was pure joy to see the city through her curious little eyes.
Pick Your Neighborhoods
New York City is definitely easier to get around than Tokyo, but it still feels like a juggle when you’re with a toddler. My strategy works like this: have everything flagged on Google Maps, then group everything by neighborhood. That way I know where we can play, shop and eat for an entire morning or afternoon.
(Ideally you’ll have activated international roaming on your phone, or bought a prepaid international SIM card before you flew out.)
Typically when I’m in NYC, I hang around the Union Square and Flatiron areas since that’s where we stay with friends. This last time in New York we also spent a lot of time in Lower Manhattan in the Battery Park City area (where another friend lives), which I was surprised to discover is super kid-friendly.
Rockefeller Plaza is perfect during bad weather days (so many fun stores like FAO Schwartz, LEGO and Nintendo) and just a couple of blocks north is the MoMA. And of course, there are some one-off places that are must-sees, like the American Museum of Natural History (Map) on the Upper West Side and The High Line (Map) way on the West side.
This past trip I made an effort to get out to Brooklyn more because there are so many cool things for kids on that side. Brooklyn is huge though, so we didn’t get to everything I was hoping to see. I’d suggest avoiding areas like Times Square, SoHo, West Village and the Lower East Side which aren’t very fun for little kids, in my opinion. You can save those for when they’re a little older.
Where to Eat with Toddlers
Eating with kids in New York is an art. You have to maintain your cool at all times even when your kid is making a huge mess and you feel like everyone is hating you for spoiling their Sex and the City brunch. But hey, kids gotta eat too.
Around Union Square, there’s a Japanese udon place called Tsurutontan (Map) with a huge menu and lots of options for kids. We’ve been so many times by now that my daughter has probably dropped an entire serving of udon on the floor. For take out options, I like The City Bakery (Map) for the salad bar and pastries, or Breads Bakery (Map) for their amazing babka.
Oh, and remember that Joe’s Pizza (Map) has the best slices in the city. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have seats, just figure out a way to get the pizza into your mouths. Or if you’re in the mood for high chairs and kids’ menus, the general noise inside 5 Napkin Burger (Map) will drown out any random cries or screams.
A bit north opposite Madison Square Park, you have Eataly (Map) which sells picnic boxes you can enjoy in the park. Or further south, there’s Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery (Map) for a classy sit-down lunch. They don’t have a kid’s menu but they do have high chairs. I’d recommend making a reservation because it’s just that kind of place.
In Lower Manhattan, Brookfield Place (Map) has an excellent open food court with lots of options. I could eat there every day for a week. Parm (Map) has a branch there as well. Across the street, El Vez (Map) serves really good Mexican food and it works for kids in the daytime, but be warned it gets rowdy at night with the finance crowd. There’s also a quieter Shake Shack (Map) on that block.
We also had a lot of on-the-go meals that consisted of salad bar veggies from the buffets at Whole Foods in Union Square, Chelsea and TriBeCa.
Parks, Parks, Parks
The city has so many gorgeous, well-groomed parks where you can sit on a bench and watch the world pass by, while the kids soak in some sun and big city energy, maybe even pet a dog.
One of my favorite NYC things to do is to get some gelato from Eataly, then pass by the Flatiron Building on my way to Madison Square Park (Map) to do some gelato-eating and people-watching. There’s an enclosed kid’s playground in the north-east corner if your kid wants to get a little dirty. And if you’re not against waiting in one of the most notorious lines in the city then head to the original Shake Shack inside the park.
The Greenmarket at Union Square Park (Map) is a perfect place to browse when you’re up super early from jetlag. It’s open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturday mornings from 8am til 6pm, but they set up earlier than that. If your toddler is a little older, they can check out Evelyn’s Playground on the north side of the park. It’s not suitable for under 3’s though. For the miniest of me’s, the kid’s section at the Barnes & Noble (Map) across the street is open from 9am.
Down in Lower Manhattan, we took a weekend morning walk from the Fearless Girl Statue (Map) — which has been moved from its original spot opposite the charging bull on Wall Street — to the SeaGlass Carousel (Map) in Battery Park. This is also where you go take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, which we did this trip after hearing about the new museum that opened in May 2019. More about that later.
Another day, we went shopping in The Oculus (Map), then had lunch at the Brookfield Place (Map) food court, then spent a couple hours of playing at Rockefeller Park Playground (Map). I later read about the secret slide inside Teardrop Park (Map), which we’ll have to find next time.
Finally, anytime you’re on the west side you can head up to The High Line (Map) for a casual stroll. It’s like an ant-farm for tourists. Just make sure to check their website first for info about entrances with elevator access for the stroller.
Adventures in Brooklyn
I had a few places saved for different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but we only managed to spend time in Greenpoint visiting friends and eating at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop (Map). No complaints though because that pizza was awe-some.
Next time we’re over there I’d love to go to Jane’s Carousel (Map) at Brooklyn Bridge Park, the indie bookshop Books Are Magic (Map) and the New York Transit Museum (Map). I also read that Brooklyn Brewery (Map) welcomes kids under 10 for its tours. That sounds like a good time for everyone. Oh, and apparently the playground at Pier 6 (Map) has legend status.
Getting Around with Kids
Unless you have octopus arms, the subway is pretty much impossible with a stroller, diaper bag and toddler. Some subway stations don’t even have elevator access and if rain is likely, then forget it.
If the distance is walkable, then I’ll always walk. But otherwise I book a car using an app so we can get picked up and dropped off without any hassle. You probably already have Uber and Lyft, but also try Juno and Via which operate in NYC too.
I’d suggest getting a free US number via Google Voice ahead of time so you can sign up for apps that don’t allow international numbers. And if you want some sweet new user discounts, here are my invite links for Juno and Uber. My invite code for Via is kathy9b4. Enjoy.
Have a Rainy Day Plan
Rainy weather is Mother Nature’s reminder that it’s time to go shopping. For baby and kid’s supplies, you’ll want to bookmark Buy Buy Baby (Map). You can go there to test-drive strollers if you’re thinking of getting a new one. Not that you asked, but I have the affordably-priced Contours Bitsy as my travel stroller and I’m really happy with it.
The kids will fall madly in love with CAMP (Map), a toy store on 5th Avenue hidden behind a secret entrance. A short walk away is the Barnes & Noble in Union Square (Map) with its massive kid’s section. There’s also the independent Books of Wonder (Map) which hosts storytime at 11:30am on weekends.
I think the entire Rockefeller Plaza area is great for wet weather. There’s FAO Schwartz (Map), Nintendo (Map), LEGO (Map), NBA Store (Map) and American Girl Place (Map). Who knows if you’ll have the energy to chase your kid around all of those stores, but you can absolutely exhaust yourself while trying.
Another option during bad weather is the American Museum of Natural History (Map). Your kid’s mind will be blown repeatedly while you casually follow behind them. The dinosaur halls are very popular, as is the ocean life hall, where you can lay down underneath a huge whale and maybe rest your eyes for just a minute.
If you find yourself with extra energy to expend, the Statue of Liberty (Map) is well worth it. Go check her out and visit the new museum that opened in May 2019. I went for the first time this past trip and felt like I was transported to a parallel universe where Donald Trump wasn’t the President of the United States. It was really comforting.
The thing is, going to the Statue of Liberty is intimidating as hell. My biggest tip is avoid the long lines by buying ferry tickets through the official website. You’ll want to book the earliest possible time because there’s airport-style, X-ray security and the line for the ferry just gets more intense as the day goes on. If all tickets are sold out on the website, check again in a few hours.
Once you’re there, head straight to the museum then walk around the island. Skip the gift shop unless you desperately need keyrings or ugly fridge magnets.
One final thing: I always stay with friends when I’m in New York, but based on my experience taking my daughter to Tokyo, I think I’d prefer a kid-friendly hotel over an Airbnb for the convenience and housekeeping. As you know, little kids are messy as hell, so coming back to a clean and tidy room every day is priceless.