By Kara Williams, on May 27, 2013

New York City with tweens

As my children grow older, visiting New York City has become even more fun. Now that they are 11 and 13, they will happily walk those long city blocks without complaint (well, mostly no complaints) and can better appreciate Broadway shows, museums, and the variety of good food the Big Apple has to offer.

It goes without saying that New York City is huge, and to see all the great kid-friendly sights, not only in Manhattan but also neighboring boroughs, would take weeks. Our  recent two trips to New York have been only a week long, allowing us to just scratch the surface of things to do and places to see in the city.

Still, we’ve hit many of the major landmarks – and checked out some lesser-known attractions. Our list of “must sees” is still quite long, so below I’ve included some of my firsthand recommendations of things to do with tweens, say 9- to 12-year-olds, as well as some sights we’re planning to visit on future visits to the Big Apple.

The Empire State Building towers over its neighbors


Empire State Building

For a bird’s eye view of Manhattan and its environs, you can’t beat a speedy elevator trip up to the top of the Empire State Building – 102 floors above the city sidewalks. Though it no longer carries the title of “tallest skyscraper in the world,” Midtown’s Empire State Building remains one of the city’s most iconic buildings – and its observation deck is the tallest public spot in the city. While there is an audio tour available for an additional fee, we just bought tickets to check out the view and snap our photos on the outdoor observatory at 1,250 feet (hair whipping in the wind the entire time).

Times Square by night

Times Square

Talk about an assault to the senses! Between the shiny neon lights, the volume of gawkers gathering on the sidewalks, and the smells emanating from the hot dog and falafal carts (and chestnuts in the winter), Times Square is indeed a place where you’ll want to mentally prepare: get ready for the crowds and tell your children they’re never too old for hand-holding across streets. Or make sure your tween has his or her cell phone; no one wants to get lost in Times Square. Not that it’s seedy – no way, not anymore. Sure, there’s the occasional adult-video store, but there’s also a massive Toys R Us (with Ferris wheel), Hershey’s and M&Ms World candy stores, pedestrian-friendly area with tables for resting or eating, and a convenient set of bleacher-like wide steps for best viewing and snapping photos of the surrounding buildings covered in brightly lit advertisements.

American Museum of Natural History

Viewfinder Tip: The American Museum of Natural History is so large that you’ll want to research and map out your visit ahead of time.

If your children have seen the 2009 Ben Stiller flick Night at the Museum, they’ll surely get a kick out of visiting the American Museum of Natural History near Central Park on the Upper West Side. The exhibits here are outstanding, although you can’t adequately hit them all in one day (unless you race through). I’d pick up a map and plan on those that most appeal to your kids’ interests (the AMNH website is good for planning, too): dinosaur bones in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs; fascinating space shows at the Hayden Planetarium; sea creature scenes in the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

Getting up close to the iconic Statue of Liberty and touring the fascinating exhibits at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum was one of the highlights of my family’s 2011 visit to New York City. Alas, Hurricane Sandy damage to Ellis Island has closed the historic site to visitors, with no projected opening date (keep an eye on the Ellis Island Twitter feed for details). The Statue of Liberty also sustained hurricane damage, but Liberty Island is scheduled to re-open July 4, 2013. Visiting the statue is as easy as purchasing ferry tickets and launching from the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park. Since the Statue of Liberty is a National Monument, you can stop by to chat with the friendly park rangers in the Visitor Information Center and also pick up a Junior Ranger activity booklet; fill it out and your tweens can earn a Junior Ranger badge.

Signage in Chinatown

Chinatown and Little Italy

I group these two neighborhoods together because they are adjacent, and small enough to cover on foot in one morning or afternoon. Grocery stores and produce shops selling uniquely Asian products – including unusual items like chicken feet – may overwhelm the senses, but it is quite a scene to experience: bustling sidewalks, competing scents of raw fish, fresh fruit and just-cut flowers, and the cacophony of foreign languages (Chinese of course, but the neighborhood is also home to other Asian cultures). Stroll through the chaos – stopping perhaps, to buy knock-off, cheap souvenirs – and make your way to Little Italy for some authentic Italian goodies – not only pizza and pasta, but fabulous pastries, too. We typically just walk around until we see a menu – or pastry case – that appeals!

Tenement Museum of New York City

Now, I’ll be honest: I enjoyed this glimpse into New York’s immigrant past more than my children did. I think this period of U.S. history is absolutely fascinating, and a tour of renovated (cramped) tenement apartments at 97 Orchard Street, where turn-of-the-century immigrants once lived and worked, was of huge interest to me. Alas, my tweens were not nearly enthralled with the delivery of our tour guide (I think if she’d been more engaging, they might have perked up). Children as young as five might enjoy a new option at the Tenement Museum: visiting a costumed interpreter playing 14-year-old Victoria Confino, who lived in the tenement in 1916. In Victoria’s apartment, children can actually pick up household objects, although our tour had a strict policy of no photo and no touching the antique furniture and accessories.

Broadway shows (my daughter and I loved Wicked), Central Park (look for free concerts in the summer), and simply riding the subway (so foreign to us, as we live in a rural area) are other attractions that we’ve enjoyed on recent trips. We had a very poignant visit to the National 9/11 Memorial – beautifully and respectfully presented, but certainly not appropriate for all children (you know your kids best). I’ve not been to Governor’s Island, but I’m told it’s a great place to rent bikes. Also on my list for our next trip to New York, especially if it occurs in the summertime: walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, exploring the Cloisters, and strolling around High Line public park.

What’s your favorite city to visit with school-age children?