Family Travel Survival Guide: New York City

To the uninitiated, the Big Apple can seem so…well, big. Let our travel expert show you how to successfully tackle the greatest city in the world—without losing your sanity.
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Aerial view of Manhattan
I HEART NY: Take the family on an adventure to the big city that they won’t forget (Corbis)

One look at your child gazing in awe at the flashing neon lights of Times Square or straight up at that art deco wonder, the Empire State Building, and you'll immediately realize why New York City is worth the price of admission. This island of skyscrapers, where every block seems to blaze with energy and excitement, has no equal in the United States. See the stars on stage or in the Planetarium, smell the exotic spices of a mélange of cultures wafting from the storefronts, taste all those New York flavors from hot pretzels to thin-crust pizza to pastrami on rye and chocolate-dipped almond horns, rest your weary legs on picnic-friendly Central Park's Great Lawn, and, yes, hear the horns of all those impatient taxi drivers trying to make their way through the gridlock.

But don't try to consume Manhattan in one giant sitting; take it in bite-sized sections, a slower pace, as the sensory overload and sheer speed of the city can quickly wear you down. Ideally, plan at least four days and three nights to see the sites and sounds, often best appreciated the same way most New Yorkers get around—on foot. Then you'll have time to focus on one neighborhood, say the Upper West Side, where you start the day by grabbing a bagel and lox at the gourmet food store, Zabar's, (and also grab a baguette, cheese, and a sublime chocolate chip strudel for a picnic later), spend the morning with the dinosaurs and planets at the Museum of Natural History, head across the street to Central Park, throw in a nearby playground, and you've had a great day. Other must-see sites include a Broadway play in and around Times Square, a visit to the Temple of Dendur at the Met, a day at the Bronx Zoo, a boat trip to the Statue of Liberty, a tour of the Empire State Building's observation deck, and a walk on Fifth Avenue (especially come winter when the Christmas Tree in Rockefeller Center stands tall above the skating rink, and nearby stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue have elaborate window displays). If time allows, you'll want to shop and gallery hop in SoHo, head to Chinatown for dinner, and bike along the Hudson River in Battery Park City.

Lay of the Land/Getting Around
Manhattan's numbered streets and long avenues create an easy grid. Things get a bit tricky when you dip below Houston Street and the numbers change to names. The heart of the city beats in Midtown, home to Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the southern tip of Central Park. As previously noted, the residential neighborhood of the Upper West Side borders Central Park (all the way up to 110th Street) and contains the Museum of Natural History. Across Central Park is the Museum Mile, a stretch of Fifth Avenue filled with museums and fine art institutions that includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in the Upper East Side. Heading downtown, SoHo gets its name from its location, south of Houston Street. Continue in this direction to the southern tip of the island and you'll pass Chinatown, Ground Zero, and Battery Park, the gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

New York has one of the finest public transportation systems in the world, responsible for getting some 3.5 million people to and from work each day. Subways are fast, reliable, and zip up and down the corridor of the West and East sides of the city, and across town. I lived in Manhattan for more than a decade and never once had anything bad happen to me on a subway. But, if you're worried about taking the train at night, you might feel better with a bus or taxi. Buses are best taken across town or on the outer edges of Manhattan (along First, Second, or Third avenues on the East Side, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth avenues on the West Side). Be wary of taking a bus or taxi during the prime rush hour traffic periods of 8:00 to 10:00 in the morning and 5:00 to 7:00 at night, when it might take ten minutes to travel one short block.

Subway and bus fares are two dollars per entry, and if you purchase a MetroCard, you can transfer from bus to subway for the same fee. There are different versions of the MetroCard, including a daily FunPass, which allows unlimited subway and bus rides for one day for seven dollars, and a seven-day MetroCard for $24. These cards work for individuals only. If you want to take your whole family of four on the same MetroCard, consider purchasing the Pay-Per-Ride, which allows up to $80 of subway and bus fares.

Taxis cost $2.50 upon entry and 40 cents for one-fifth of a mile or 60 seconds of stoppage (which can add up if you're stuck in a traffic jam). I tend to take subways during the day, walk as much as possible, and get into a taxi with the family at night. Don't be afraid to tell your driver to slow down—some of the taxi drivers seem to think they're the next Jeff Gordon.

Try your best to leave the car at home. With so much congestion, driving around town (and especially in and out of Manhattan) can be stressful. Once you're in the city, parking rates are exorbitant, often costing more than the sum total of subways and taxis taken in a day.


Boston-based writer Stephen Jermanok has authored or contributed to 11 books on the outdoors, including Outside Magazine's Adventure Guide to New England , Discovery Channel's Backcountry Treks , Discovery Channel's Paddlesports , Outside Magazine's Guide to Family Vacations and Men's Journal's The Great Life . His latest book is New England Seacoast Adventures . His many adventures appear in National Geographic Adventure , Outside , Men's Journal , Forbes FYI , Travel + Leisure , Hooked on the Outdoors , and Backpacker . He can be reached at farandaway@comcast.net.

Published: 23 Jun 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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