Heading to New York City with children in tow? These tips from a parent in the know will help you work out where to stay, where to eat and where to go
Visiting New York with a baby or toddler may seem like madness, but my husband and I can proudly say we've done it not once but twice, and our son has only just turned four years old. While a lot of people may think NYC isn't the best place to visit with a small child, we've found it to be an exciting, fun location for a holiday - as long as you know where to go, and where to stay.
Choosing your base
I've visited Manhattan many times and it always astounds me when I look in travel brochures and see that the 'family hotels' recommended for New York City are all in the area around Times Square. Why would anyone with a toddler in tow (in a pushchair!) want to step out into that heaving mass of commercialism, which is packed with tourists 24 hours a day, boasts one of the busiest subway stations in the city and has traffic coming at you from all directions? No - if you want to experience Manhattan like a New Yorker with a family, head to the Upper West Side. It's a lovely residential part of the city (though not as posh as the Upper East Side, thank goodness) that boasts great places to eat, quieter streets, with those all-important wider sidewalks (handy when you have a non-walking or barely-stumbling tot), and easy access to Central Park and the museums nearby.
At the bottom of Central Park, on Central Park South and the area near Columbus Circle, there are a few wallet-straining hotels (the newly refurbished Plaza, Mandarin Oriental and Trump Hotel among them), but they are a fair walk away from restaurants, cinemas and shops. Instead, head up the Upper West Side to the streets above 70th, where you'll find some better hotel deals. The Excelsior Hotel is opposite the Museum Of Natural History (a museum must-see if little one has watched Night at the Museum or loves dinosaurs) and is a lovely old-fashioned hotel. Or there is The Lucerne Hotel, a couple of blocks down, which has suites (so you can watch TV in the 'parlour' while baby sleeps, and also use the kitchen area, with sink, fridge and microwave, for baby food and snacks). Our favourite, though – and the cheapest of the three – has to be the MILBURN HOTEL, a part-residential hotel that is mainly suites, each boasting a decent-sized living room with TV, bedroom, tiny bathroom (but who cares) and kitchen area with microwave, fridge, sink and dinnerware. Just pop to the Fairway Supermarket around the corner at 74th and Broadway to stock up on food you need (they have a babyfood section and even a shelf of British items such as Heinz Spaghetti and Bird's Custard). That way, you can have shop-bought breakfast in the room to save a few dollars, and store snacks and lunch as well, then take the family to an early dinner.
The area is packed with child-friendly restaurants because it is so residential. EJ's Luncheonette on 81st Street is a great place for breakfast or burgers, shakes and chicken pieces with fries for picky eaters. There are great Italian restaurants, diners with phone-book-thick menus, and even a cute little teahouse called Alice's Teacup, at 73rd and Columbus, that's perfect for afternoon tea and very kid-friendly, as is the picket-fence-adorned Good Enough To Eat at Amsterdam and 83rd. If you like the look of a place but don't think the kids would be happy there – like Brother Jimmy's BBQ on Amsterdam Ave, which is also a sports bar – don't worry: just pick up the take-out menu, call them up and eat their yummy ribs back at the hotel.
So that's your food and sleep sorted – but what is there to do with young kids in NY? Well, as well as famous museums such as the Museum of Natural History, there is also the lesser-known (to tourists, at least) Children's Museum, which is on the Upper West Side at West 83rd Street. Perfect for the under-10s, it has soft play things to climb on, a wooden fire engine complete with costumes to wear, a Dora The Explorer exhibit and, in the summer, an outside area with water play that my son, when he was three, loved so much we stayed there for three hours. All for $10 each.
There are also some terrific playgrounds on the Upper West Side of Central Park, including the Heckscher Playground at 63rd, and the West 67th playground; there's even one dedicated to Diana Ross at 81st St. Kids will also love the park's Bethesda Fountain, Belvedere Castle and Sheep Meadow (a huge lawn perfect for running around on), plus the lake and Central Park Zoo, which has a children's area. Check out the official park website, www.centralparknyc.org, as it even lists the nearest toilets for each playground.
If you really want to tear yourself away from the Upper West Side, a visit to Serendipity 3 (www.serendipty3.com), the restaurant and coffee shop renowned for cookies and cakes, is a must. It's at East 60th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, so you're just a short walk from Bloomingdale's, should you be able to convince the kids to go in and browse the designer clothes with you.
They are certain to want to go to Toys R Us in Times Square, which has its own working ferris wheel inside the store. Another attraction would be a boat ride around Manhattan island, or the quicker there-and-back trip to the Statue of Liberty. Once you've done that, head to the South Street Seaport, which has lots of chain stores and restaurants, should you feel the need for food or retail therapy.
We've done all this and more, from sitting at the top of the Rockefeller Center, now remodelled and called Top of the Rock (we chose this as we figured our toddler would be scared of the Empire State Building, as he'd only see the view wobbling on our shoulders) to shopping in the Upper West Side kiddie boutiques (make sure you buy a Curious George book, as the stories are set in Manhattan), seeing a movie (the Lincoln Square 13 movie theatre is a treat) and even going to the circus (the Ringling Brothers circus was at Madison Square Garden and we managed to get matinee tickets for the same day – a brilliant spur of the moment choice). It's worth checking the Ticketmaster or Madison Square Garden (www.thegarden.com) websites before you go, as there are often family events (Sesame Street musicals, etc) that are perfect for a rainy day.
And one final, hopefully helpful, note to parents/carers travelling with little ones: many of the private cab firms can provide a taxi with a child car seat; just ask your hotel. If you want to travel by yellow cab, know that most New Yorkers just hold their child in the cab (you never get up much speed in Manhattan!). The only other alternative is to take a car seat with you; airlines allow this for free, unless you are taking a pushchair as well.