I go to New York City every year and usually visit alone, but I’m NEVER doing that again. Doing NYC with a pre-teen is actually one of the most fun travel experiences I’ve had. We both really enjoyed our time together and enjoyed the city. For me, this was a brand new take on a place that I typically do not enjoy visiting. New York City with a pre-teen is fun, interesting and it’s a fresh view of one of the most famous tourist cities in the world.
Below you’ll find our podcast episode where Oliver (our oldest) and I chat about all the things we did, what he enjoyed most, how we got in and out of NYC and more. Getting to spend time together, just the two of us, was special, and he offered me a fun and different New York experience. Have you been to New York City with a pre-teen before? Are you going? Check out our tips and suggested itinerary for 4 days in NYC with older kids (and no, we didn’t do Lower Manhattan or the Statue of Liberty on this trip).
As you’re reading and listening, if you have any questions, either about our specific trip or planning your own, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more and help others plan awesome travel!
In this episode:
- Getting into NYC from LaGuardia (LGA) or Newark (EWR) airports
- Times Square with Pre-teens
- Unique Stores in NYC kids love
- Broadway shows for Pre-teens
- Museums and New York sights not to miss with older kids
New York with a Pre-Teen Tips
I’m so thankful our kids love to travel and are interested in lots of different sorts of things. I’ve had a few opportunities to travel with just one kiddo at a time and always love it. Oliver (our oldest) and I had a fun trip to Tempe and Phoenix AZ, and then Elliott (youngest) and I got to explore Glacier Country MT and had a wild moose encounter. Each trip is unique and special, so getting to do NYC with our now pre-teen was awesome. As I put together our trip to New York, I asked Oliver what he was most interested in and really, his thought just went straight to sights he was familiar with from movies.
As a parent planning a trip to NYC with a pre-teen, I wanted to be sure to do things that he would really engage with but also that would push his interests and comfort a little. Planning our daily activities and transportation, I had to keep in mind Oliver’s unique interests and what I knew would be fun for him, as well as what I knew would be stressful. He doesn’t love crowds, but does okay once he’s acclimated, so pacing our baptism into a city trip was key to our success. Once we were in though, we were good as gold. Here’s how it went…
Planning NYC Activities for Older Kids
Pre-teens are a unique age in that they are coming into their own interests and are starting to have a bit more attitude about certain things than they did as little kids. Older kids in New York may not know exactly what there is that will be cool and fun for them, so if you’re planning a trip and are getting blank answers from your kiddo about what they want, you’ll just have to use your intuition in planning. Be prepared to both get some complaints AND to be amazed at how your pre-teen responds.
With each day, I planned our activities to encompass the three tenants of New York City travel:
- historic sites
- showmanship / Broadway
- and shopping.
Starting with that last one, I am NOT a shopper, but my pre-teen is. He doesn’t buy a lot of things, but he loves to browse and see what cool products and souvenirs are available. With that, as I planned our days I was sure to include unique New York City stores that he would enjoy. We visited the Lego store, Nike, the Harry Potter New York shop, the MoMA Design store, the Drama Book Shop and others. As no point was the intent to spend money, but just to browse like you would in a museum.
For historic sites, that was a bit more complicated, as I wanted to be sure that we visited places with familiar history, and not just Lower Manhattan sites (1700s era). We have done the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island before, so what would be interesting to a pre-teen that he would connect with? After reframing my mind about what he would enjoy, I kept it simple and to NYC sites that were familiar to him but still historic. We visited the New York Public Library (free), the Empire State Building (get tickets here in advance), and the JP Morgan Library. These are places that my pre-teen was familiar with and also were an important part of New York history.
And last, but certainly not least: Broadway! While seeing a Broadway show can be pretty costly, if you plan it just right and you see the value in the show/seats you get, it can be very much worth it. When it comes to doing New York City with a pre-teen or older kids, seeing a Broadway show or two really is a key element to fun and engagement. There’s nothing quite like a grand stage performance, and even if you don’t know that your child will be into a certain show or even the experience, I think you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised with how much they enjoy it. We saw both Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Wicked during our trip and both shows were absolute hits with my son.
What to Pack for New York City (winter vs summer)
I have a kid that only likes to wear shorts. Ever. Well, visiting New York City in the winter is NOT shorts weather, especially when you’re from Florida. For NYC in winter, we brought several pairs of pants, t-shirts, two nicer shirts for theater days, and a cardigan sweater to be able to dress up a pre-teen outfit without fuss. Also, we brought both a puffy coat and a nicer wool coat. I always think we’re going to be colder than we are (thanks to visiting NYC at Christmas one year) so I always overpack, but packing too much is never a regret for me. Also, we only packed one pair of shoes because there wasn’t snow in the forecast for our visit.
If you’re visiting NYC with a pre-teen in summer, it’s a bit easier to pack for. It’s hot most of the summer month and into fall, and there aren’t many occasions that would require dressing up. We like to dress up for the theater or when we’re going to a nice museum, but it isn’t necessarily required. In summer, still pack a pair of pants and clothing to be able to look nice, but keeping it cool and mellow is the smart way to go. And for traveling with a pre-teen, it’s the path of least resistance. For shoes, good walking shoes and maybe a pair of sandals should be fine.
Getting into New York from the Airport
We’ve flown in and out of JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports when visiting New York City. They are all equally far it feels like, and all are pretty easy to get into the city. I / We usually stay near Penn Station, so getting a train to within a block or two of our hotel is easy.
From JFK, the air train to the MTA (turns into the subway) is easy. From LaGuardia it’s a short bus ride (free) to the train into the city (a few bucks). And then from Newark, it’s the priciest option at about $18 per adult, but it’s really easy to just get on the New Jersey Transit train and be into the city with minimal confusion. Whichever airport you’re flying into, it’s really not difficult to get into the city and it’s not worth stressing about.
Visiting New York City can seem daunting to non-city folks, but really, once you’re there it’s nothing to worry about. Yes, there are crowds and yes, getting around is different than you may be useful, but millions of people do it and you’ll be okay. There are always staff in the subway stations and at the airport transportation depots to help you.
Suggested NYC Itinerary for Older Kids
Before we get into our itinerary of doing New York City with a pre-teen, remember that your plans need to reflect you travel companion’s interests. You can plan your own dream NYC trip until the cows come home, but if you don’t incorporate activities and sights that will captivate your kiddo you might not have the best trip. Our NYC itinerary is for a kid who’s into lots of different things, but really digs reading and arts and stuff, so that’s where we focus.
Arrival in NYC
When you first arrive in New York City with a pre-teen, you’ll want to be sure you guys are comfortable and settled. If you’re not used to city life, being in NYC can be overwhelming, so ease into it if you need to. We like to check into our hotel and then head out to just walk around and find dinner, usually wandering towards Times Square. Check out the iconic billboards, see what’s new on Broadway, grab a slice of pizza or sit-down dinner and then be ready for tomorrow.
Day 1: NYC Sites and Broadway
Waking up in New York City with a pre-teen means that you MUST begin the day with food. Yes, breakfast is always important, but when you’re in NYC bagels are the best choice. I always love Liberty Bagels and enjoy a visit with every trip to New York. This is the home of the famous rainbow bagel and Liberty Bagel, add to that a birthday cake or Oreo schmear and you’ve started the day right.
Next up, head to the Empire State Building to do the tour and go up to the Observation Deck. You’ll get history, iconic views and you’ll cross the #1 sightseeing stop in New York off your list. From here, head south to the Flat Iron Building for the unique NYC icon before stepping inside the Harry Potter New York store. True, this might not be for everyone, but it’s a pretty cool shop and experience.
To make the Harry Potter Store extra worthwhile or on-theme for your day, next up catch the matinee of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway and you’ll literally be speechless about what you’ve experienced. I won’t give away the secrets, but the story and the effects of this show are awesome and impressive for both adults and pre-teens.
End the day with a visit to Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is one more great moment of showmanship that everyone will love. At Ellen’s Stardust Diner you’ll have servers singing and a fun atmosphere, and it’s the perfect end to a fun day in New York. I know this may not seem like a lot to fit into one day, but because you’ll no doubt find distractions along the way and the show is kind of long, you’ll find that this is plenty for one day.
Day 2: Central Park and Movie Sightseeing
Some trips to New York include visits to Central Park and some don’t. When you’re doing NYC with a pre-teen you will no-doubt be visiting Central Park no matter what time of year you visit, as it’s in every movie any kids has seen that takes place in New York. It’s easy to visit the southern end of the park, but if you keep on walking the paths or you stroll along Park Ave, you’ll find lots of great things to do. Here are the best things to add to a Central Park day:
- Central Park paths and sights from movies (fountain, forest, lake…) (from Elf, Enchanted, Muppets Take Manhattan…)
- Metropolitan Museum of Art – I love the Met and it’s by donation (Ocean’s 8,Thomas Crown Affair…)
- Museum of Natural History on the west side (Night at the Museum, Friends…)
- Central Park Zoo – although it’s not impressive, it’s iconic and in movies (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them…)
There are more sites to see around Central Park, including the Plaza Hotel (Home Alone 2), so depending on your time and energy level, keep on wandering and then just hop on the train when it’s time to head back to your hotel.
Day 3: Culture in NYC for Pre-teens
I love that our kids are into all kinds of stuff, including art and history. Start the day with a good breakfast and then head to the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, the prior day including visiting the Met, but the MoMA is very different and really great with kids, pre-teens or older kids. If you have travel companions that you’re unsure what they’ll be into, visit New York’s MoMa for VanGogh’s Starry Night, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marylin Monroe and so much more.
In the afternoon, visit the cool stores in Times Square and the Fashion District, and enjoy lunch in the city. And before evening rolls around, head to the Morgan Library on Madison Ave. Here you’ll find everything from the Guttenberg Bible to endless first editions and special exhibits, not to mention the most beautiful private library in the United States. It’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen in the USA.
End this really fun, engaging day with one more Broadway show. For us, we went with Wicked and it did not disappoint. The story, the sets, the music were are great for experiencing with a pre-teen. He was so into it, and so was I. Really, I didn’t think we could’ve enjoyed the show more and it was grea for our last night in New York.
Day 4: Overlooked Lower West Side
For one more day of exploring New York with a pre-teen, walk around the Lower West Side a bit. This means walking the Highline from the Vessel at Hudson Yards to Little Island south of Chelsea Piers. This is a great way to get a different view of the city and it’s a nice way to end a trip to Manhattan. We walked the whole length of the Highline, checking out the art and cool apartments the whole way. It’s easy to venture down to street level to get coffee if you like, and then by the time you’ve done the whole thing, it’s most likely time to leave the city.
If you do have a whole other day, walk a few blocks over and hop on the subway to Bowling Green. This is a great spot to start exploring Lower Manhattan. Visit the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, check out Castle Clinton and the Statue of Liberty, and then of course Wall Street. You can visit Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States, and then see Trinity Church and Alexander Hamilton’s grave. If you’re really into this day of history and have another Broadway night, seeing Hamilton on Broadway.
We had the best time in New York. NYC with a pre-teen was more fun than I imagined and I would absolutely bring Oliver back, or Elliott when he’s a bit older. If you have any questions about our trip, our itinerary or need tips for planning your own visit to New York with a pre-teen, please leave a comment or send us a note. We’re always happy to share more!