Just three days to visit New York City? Impossible? No, says National Parks TravelingMom who spent years living in New York City. Since your family will explore the Statue of Liberty, ride a couple of carousels, hop a tram and grab a pastrami-on-rye, pack your walking shoes. See the best buildings from above and below then head to a show. Don’t forget The Park but stay out of The Ramble. Then take the kids to eat at one of the poshest hotels in NYC, just head for the basement. There’s even time to see some art. After three days, your family will be riding the train, the NYC subway, like a local with her 3 day itinerary for New York City.
Top 10 Places to Get a Taste of New York City
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium
The Plaza Hotel
Museum of Modern Art – MoMA
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
A Broadway Show
3 Day Itinerary for New York City
With some of the best museums in the U.S. along with lots of history hidden among the bright lights, New York City offers families a lifetime of experiences. Though with just a few days to explore, make the most of your time with an itinerary infused with history, nature and the arts. Much of this itinerary will be done using NYC transit systems. Scroll down to the bottom of the post for details and tips for buying tickets and using an NYC MetroCard with kids.
Day One: Downtown Manhattan with Kids
After arriving in NYC, explore the oldest part to catch some of the best views along with its rich history. Since the Statue of Liberty tops the list, start here and walk north. It’s a must for families with school-age kids. As you walk through the day, immigration and nation building are themes.
TravelingMom Tip: Since all the destinations are close together, put on the walking shoes and grab a bottle of water to explore. An umbrella and a rain jacket are great additions to your backpack too.
First, depart your hotel and head south for the tip of Manhattan’s Battery Park, a green space where all the morning’s activities are located. Next board a downtown-bound MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) subway train and get off at the Whitehall St/South Ferry station for the 1 or the R trains.
Statue of Liberty – First Stop
New York City Harbor
How to get there: Take the Statue Cruises ferry, that departs from Battery Park to explore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, an additional stop. First ferry leaves at 9:30 a.m. and last one departs at 3:30 p.m. with extended hours during peak seasons. Ferry tickets required for all passengers. All passengers will go through an airport-style security screening.
As a symbol of freedom and liberty known world-wide, the Statue of Liberty sits on a 12-acre island in the middle of the New York Harbor. As the museum walks visitors through the process, learn how the French and the Americans worked together to build the statue. Then climb over 200 stairs to the pedestal for one of the best views of lower Manhattan (Pedestal Access). Or continue climbing to the crown (Crown Access).
After exploring the Statue of Liberty board a Manhattan-bound Statue Cruises for Ellis Island. From 1892 until 1954, Ellis Island welcomed 12 million immigrants to the United States. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum walks visitors through the facility that processed close to 5,000 people a day.
A Junior Ranger Booklet is available covering both locations. Concessions are available at the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island Museum or grab some to-go before boarding the ferry. I stopped at Inatteso Cafe, 38 West St., for sandwiches and cookies.
TravelingMom Tip: To tour both islands, give yourself the morning. Reservations are a must for the ferry and book months ahead for Pedestal Access or six months in advance for Crown Access. Both tours are separate timed tickets. Tickets are timed for the Statue of Liberty ferry though no special ticket is required for Ellis Island.
Castle Clinton and Battery Park – Second Stop
Open seven days a week from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.
After touring Ellis Island and taking the ferry back to the dock at Battery Park, explore the Castle Clinton National Monument, located steps from the ferry dock. It served many uses over the years, like an immigration station, a beer garden and even an aquarium. For war buffs in the family, it’s also a fort from the War of 1812 with antique cannons.
Junior Ranger booklets are available. Spend 30 minutes or an hour, depending on interest.
SeaGlass Carousel – Third Stop
Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
$5 per person
After a morning of history, head east to the newest carousel in New York City, SeaGlass Carousel, in Battery Park. Built in 2015, instead of horses, riders can hop on a fish to whirl around the pavilion to classical music. I jumped on along with my teen.
Walking tour of Lower Manhattan – Fourth Stop
Charging Bull and Fearless Girl
New York Stock Exchange
Next up, Broadway (the diagonal street that slices through Manhattan from north of the Bronx to Battery Park) and Wall St. are two of New York’s best known streets. Since there are several notable sites in the area, walk the half-mile up Broadway to Wall St. Starting at Broadway’s beginning, far from the stars and lights of the theater district, and head north to Wall St., the financial district of the U.S.
After walking Broadway a block from Battery Park to Morris Street, you will find the iconic Charging Bull Statue and the newer Fearless Girl statue. Both are must-stop selfie spots.
Continue up Broadway and walk by Trinity Church, located at 75 Broadway at Wall Street. The first church was built in 1698 and rebuilt two times. A notable building from the American Revolution and people fleeing the 9/11 attacks found shelter in the church from falling debris.
From Trinity Church, turn down Wall St. (across the street) and walk to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), at 11 Wall St. Unfortunately tours are no longer available so grab another picture. Next head across the street to the next destination.
Federal Hall National Monument – Fifth Stop
Federal Hall National Monument
26 Wall Street
Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
As the first Capitol of the United States, the Supreme Court and the Executive Branch offices, Federal Hall offers another history lesson. George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States at Federal Hall as well.
Federal Hall’s visitor center is at the Pine Street entrance. During the summer, it’s open Saturdays as well. Junior Ranger booklets are available.
After touring Federal Hall, head to the MTA Subway Station at Broad Street for the Brooklyn-bound J Train (it will be headed north) and exit the Essex Street Station.
East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site – Sixth Stop
East Side Tenement Museum National Historic Site
103 Orchard St.
Open daily 10 a.m.- 6:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. on Thursdays)
Admission varies based on tour
How to Get There: From the Essex station walk west three blocks. The visitor center is located at the intersection of Orchard St. and Delancey St.
After learning about the immigrants at the Ellis Island and Castle Clinton, take the opportunity to walk through their homes. A guided tour at East Side Tenement Museum will lead you through an apartment that’s a time capsule and tells the story of one family.
In our case, it was the Moore’s, an Irish family, that moved in 1869. The story of the Moore family reminded me how much domestic life in the U.S. has advanced with indoor plumbing, proper nutrition and electricity. Mrs. Moore did her laundry in the small yard out back next to a pair of outhouses that served the entire building.
The building housed 7,000 working class immigrants from 1863 until 1935. With specialized tours focusing on Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants and sweatshop workers along with neighborhood tours, get an understanding of an immigrant’s life over a hundred years ago.
TravelingMom Tip: Our tour required climbing several flights of stairs and walking through dank and dark apartments with uneven surfaces. The subject matter is best suited for middle school students and older.
After the tour, walk up Orchard Street for dinner, a quick three-tenths of a mile walk, to Houston St.
Dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen – Sixth Stop
205 E. Houston St.
After learning about the Irish immigrants, dine at a couple of restaurants from the other immigrant groups that lived in Downtown Manhattan as well.
Next head to Katz’s Deli to sample is a New York icon. The pastrami-on-rye sandwiches (almost $20 for a sandwich) are pricey but I ordered a half and got a bowl of Matzo ball soup. This location is as original as it gets, with locals dining alongside the travelers.
TravelingMom Tip: Since the sandwiches are so big, split between kids.
After dinner, time for dessert so walk south to Little Italy. Or hail a cab along Houston St.
Dessert in Little Italy – Seventh Stop
Ferrara Italian Bakery
195 Grand St.
How to Get There: From Katz’s Deli, walk south of Orchard St. for two blocks until Grand St. and head west eight blocks (about half a mile).
For dessert Ferrara Italian Bakery offers a cannoli and cappuccino fix with table service. Or grab a gelato on the street and walk around Little Italy. As a bonus, Little Italy sparkles at night with lights on the buildings and hanging over the streets.
Time to head back to the hotel. Grab a subway at one of the three MTA Subways Stations near Canal Street with service on the J, N, Q, R, W, Z and 6 trains.
Day 2 – Enjoy New York City’s Park and Animals
Day two focuses on the animals in the American Museum of Natural History then exploring Central Park, both favorites among kids. Wear comfortable shoes since the day starts on the Upper West Side and ends in Midtown.
After learning some history of New York City and its early residents, it’s time to learn about its famous park and animals.
Natural History Museum and the Hayden Planetarium – First Stop
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th St.
Open from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m.
Admission depending on age
A must for families with kids of all ages, my teen daughter spent hours exploring the American Museum of Natural History. A sprawling museum that could take all day so hit the highlights, like the Hall of Dinosaurs, Lucy the early human, the giant blue whale and the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda along with the Hall of North American Mammals.
Carve out a little time for the Hayden Planetarium to learn more about the world beyond our atmosphere. It’s located on-site and requires an additional timed ticket.
TravelingMom Tip: I recommend eating lunch at the Natural History Museum’s Food Court located on the lower level. During our visit we enjoyed salads though pizza, burgers, sandwiches and a selection of desserts are available. Before arriving, reserve tickets to the Hayden Planetarium to make the best use of your time.
After exploring the museum, walk across the street to Central Park, a top free activity.
TravelingMom Tip: First load a Central Park map on your phone and find your phone’s compass. Even after living in New York City for several years, I still get turned around in the park since all its paths curve and meander.
Walking Tour of Central Park – Second Stop
Enter Central Park across the street from the Natural History Museum. Head for the Swedish Cottage and stay out of the Ramble, a thicket of woods. I’ve had to use my phone’s compass to navigate out.
Continue to Shakespeare’s Garden and tour Belvedere Castle (donations accepted) to grab a NYC skyline photo from the top.
Then head south to Conservatory Water and rent a wind-powered sailboat ($11 for 30 minutes).
If the kids want to paddle a boat, head to Loeb’s Boathouse to rent one. Then grab an ice cream cone at the Loeb Boathouse Cafe Express.
Then stop by the Hans Christian Anderson Statue and the Alice in Wonderland Statue.
Up next, walk to the Bethesda Terrance, Fountain and Arcade. If the kids need a pretzel, find one at Bethesda.
Next walk south along The Mall, a wide tree-shaded sidewalk. Then head to the 1908 Carousel, open April through October from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $3 per person, cash only.
After the Carousel, walk to the Chess and Checker House. Then move on to The Diary, a visitor center for Central Park.
Lastly, walk through the Central Park Zoo to see the sea lion exhibit along a free path through the zoo.
Throughout Central Park I found lots of playgrounds.
The Plaza Hotel Food Hall – Third Stop
The Plaza Hotel Food Hall
1 W. 59th St.
Open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
How to get there: From Central Park exit at its southeast corner, The Plaza Hotel is across 59th Street.
Since the Plaza Hotel features a Food Hall, (think nice food court) it’s perfect for families. I found sandwiches, salads and pasta at family-friendly quick service outlets. Even the city’s best desserts can be found at The Plaza Food Hall, like Lady M Crepe Cakes, Billy’s Bakery and Chef Daniel Boulud’s Epicerie Boulud.
After grabbing dessert, shop downstairs at The Plaza Hotel gift shop. And for girl Moms, the Eloise Shop is a must.
Since you recharged, walk about .5-mile east on 60th St. to the Roosevelt Island Tram for one of the best midtown views.
Roosevelt Island Tram – Fourth Stop
How to get there: From The Plaza Hotel on 59th St. walk five blocks east to Second Ave, about half a mile.
Up next, take the family on a tram ride for free. If you purchased a MTA MetroCard for the subway (or $4 roundtrip). The bright red tram cars climb up and over the East River to get to Roosevelt Island. Get some great views of the city and watch the traffic below. Get off and re-board at Roosevelt Island to return to Midtown.
After a full day, head back to your hotel. The MTA Lexington Ave./59th St. Station offer service on the N, R, 4, 5, and 6 trains, two blocks from the tram station. Another day of exploring awaits in New York City.
Day Three Exploring New York City’s Arts and Stars
After exploring the parks and animals of New York City, it’s time to get fancy by seeing some art, architecture and a show. On the final day in New York City, I’m focusing on Midtown and the Theater District.
Rockefeller Center – First Stop
45 Rockefeller Plaza
Free, tours additional admission
How to Get There: From your hotel, take the MTA subways D or F and exit the 47-50th St./Rockefeller Center Stop. Rockefeller Center takes up an entire block from 5th to 6th Avenue and between 49th and 50th streets.
Top of the Rock
Since Rockefeller Center offers a top building tour along with shopping and dining, start your day here. After reserving tickets online, bypass the ticket line for the Top of The Rock tour. After quick elevator ride, explore three different floors all with incredible views. With the best views of Central Park, this is also the best way to see landmark buildings like the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building.
After Top of the Rock tour, walk around Rockefeller Plaza and stop by the LEGO Store to see NYC landmarks built in LEGOs. During the winter, the Rockefeller Ice Skating Rink and tree are located in the plaza.
Since it’s time to feed the kids, I recommend staying at Rockefeller Center. Between the Plaza and the concourse level, I found close to 30 different places to eat.
Radio City Music Hall
Next, tour the legendary theater and home to the Rockettes. After the Top of the Rock, stay at Rockefeller Center and tour Radio City Music Hall, located at 1260 6th Ave. The Art Deco theater features rich architecture details from a bygone era along with some of Bob Mackie’s Rockettes costumes.
Since you’re headed to the some of best art in New York City, bribe the kids with a chocolate chip cookie from Jacques Torres Chocolate, located in the concourse of Rockefeller Center. Then walk four blocks, about half a mile, to the MoMA.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Second Stop
11 W. 53th St.
Open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Admission for Adults, kids under 16 free
How To Get There: From Rockefeller Center walk four blocks north along 5th or 6th Ave. to 53th St.
New York City’s art museums offer some of the finest collections in the world. If I have to choose one, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is best for families with recognizable art and programs just for kids.
If your kids have short attention spans, head straight for the Fifth Floor. Since that’s where I found Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Dance by Henri Matisse along with works from Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso.
Lastly, remember to walk through the gift shop for unique souvenirs. After art comes architecture so head to a grand Gothic Cathedral located on Fifth Ave.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral – Third Stop
Fifth Ave. between 50th and 51st St.
Open 6:30 a.m.to 8:45 p.m. every day
How to Get There: From the MoMA, walk three blocks down Fifth Ave. to 51st St.
Next up, great architecture that doesn’t require a trip to Europe. In the center of midtown, walk through the neo-Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral. During my last visit, I heard a girls’ choir performing and they sounded like cherubs.
Up next, walk .5-mile to a grand train station and some dinner.
Grand Central Terminal – Fourth Stop
89 E. 42nd St.
Terminal open from 5:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Dining Concourse open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Free to Enter
How to Get There: From the MoMA, walk down 5th Ave for seven blocks to 43rd St. then walk east for two blocks.
As my favorite building in New York City, walk through the Beaux-Arts masterpiece, Grand Central Terminal. Since it’s the largest train terminal in the world, it’s a top destination. With dining and shopping along with commuter trains and subways, locals and travelers flock to this building.
The main concourse features an astronomical ceiling, a four-sided brass clock and Tennessee marble. Not to be outdone the exterior features granite with expanses of divided-light windows and sculptures.
Lots of options for dining, The Oyster Bar is the oldest business in Grand Central and offers a iconic NYC dining spot. With options like Shake Shack, walk to the concourse level for more casual dining. Lastly, the Great Northern Food Hall offers Nordic-inspired menus in the Vanderbilt Hall on the Main Concourse.
After dinner, time to see a show, a Broadway show. So grab a subway train in Grand Central Terminal.
Theater District for a Show – Fifth Stop
The theater district runs from 40th to 54th Streets and from 6th to 8th Avenues.
How to Get There: From Grand Central Terminal take the MTA subway S Train and exit at Times Square Station for the Theater District.
With audiences full of families a Disney on Broadway production is my choice for a kid’s first theater performance. Packed with tunes they know by heart, elaborate sets and glittering costumes, kids stay glued to their seats. During my last visit, we saw Aladdin.
TravelingMom tip: Sure you can hope for last-minute reduced seats though I reserved seats way before my trip to ensure my family sat together.
Times Square – Sixth Stop
Intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue
After a show, celebrate a great trip with the brightest lights in the city. Next walk through Times Square to see the street performers and shopping.
Remember, Times Square is a major MTA subway stop with service on the N, Q, R, S, 1, 2, 3, and 7 trains.
Junior’s Restaurant and Bakery – Seventh Stop
1515 Broadway at 45th St.
Open from 6:30 a.m. to Midnight
Next, it’s time for dessert. After topping the best cheesecake in New York list for years, I recommend heading to Junior’s for cheesecake. I found a dense, not-too-sweet, ever so creamy NY-style cheesecake. I ordered the plain and I didn’t share. And it makes a great midnight snack.
Top of the Rock – Eighth Stop
45 Rockefeller Plaza
Free, tours additional admission
How to Get There: From 47th St. and Seventh Ave. (Times Square) walk north two blocks to 49th St. then head east for one long block to Sixth Ave.
If you purchased the Sun and Stars ticket at Top of the Rock, head back to the Rockefeller Center. Since this ticket is good for two trips to the top. After the sun sets the crowds ease and the lights of New York City start to twinkle.
After three days of family fun, time to head back to your hotel and pack up for the trip home.
Using a NYC MetroCard with Kids
To explore NYC via the subway, head to the nearest subway station to purchase a MTA pay-per-ride subway card. I use the MetroCard vending machines but it can also be purchased at the subway station booths. The vending machines accept credit cards and usually are faster than the booths, which might be closed.
Each fare is $2.75 when using a MetroCard and you get a 5% bonus when you load more than $5.50 on each card. A single ride ticket is $3 via the vending machines or booth.
The MTA unlimited passes come in 7-day and 30-day options. Stick with a pay-per-ride card unless you will ride the subway more than 14 separate times.
A couple of things to keep in mind
- MetroCards can be used on subway trains and local buses.
- Up to three kids 44″ and under can ride for free with a accompanying adult.
- Free kids usually crawl under the turnstile before the paying adult swipes their card or use the nearby accessible gate.
- Get a card for each person to swipe. Kids 12 and older should be able to navigate swiping Metrocards and turnstiles.
- $1 new card fee applies to all new cards.
- Metro cards bend easily so keep your cards in a protected place, like a wallet.
- Free transfers between trains in the same station.
- Know if you are traveling Uptown (Bronx) or Downtown (Brooklyn). Trains and subway platforms will be labeled and maps are in each train car along with multiple spots in the subway station.
- Since there are lots of stairs to navigate, pack your lightest stroller.
- Hold hands if traveling with smaller kids, especially during peak periods.
- Make sure your child knows to go to a NYPD officer or MTA personnel if lost. Give kids a card with contact information in case of emergency.
- If this is your first trip to NYC, stay away from Express trains and buses.
New York City TravelingMom Hotel Reviews:
Finally, if you need help finding a hotel, several TravelingMoms can help.