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New York City in two days with teenage kids: the must-do guide

The perfect weekend itinerary for a family in NYC

new york teen taking photo
Sophie Vokes-Dudgeon
Sophie Vokes-DudgeonHead of Digital
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It’s the city that never sleeps, so the options for what to do in New York with kids or teenagers seem almost endless and can make it feel like an impossible mission to plan. The truth is, taking older kids or teens to the Big Apple is an incredible adventure. Seeing their faces as you lead them to Times Square for the first time, as you hail a yellow cab, or present the Statue of Liberty to them is worth every moment of pre-trip stress and confusion. And the good news is – we’ve done that bit for you, and road-tested the best trans-Atlantic long weekend you and your children will ever experience.

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Here’s our guide to making the most of two days in New York City – and how to make sure the sights you pick enthral any teens in your party as much as the adults.

First evening: Settle into your hotel and grab a mocktail in the roof-top bar

We didn’t want to break the bank with our intercontinental minibreak – though there are certainly plenty of ways to do just that. But with a teen and a tween to entertain, we knew our budget was going to be blown on adventures, and we would be out a lot, so we felt it would be silly to splash out on super-luxury hotel. Little did we realise when we booked a 3 night stay at the Yotel in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district, that this hotel would be right up there in the kids’ list of top NYC experiences.

boys yotel new york

The Yobot!

Check in is done via a smart screen on the ground floor, but once you take the lift into the heart of the hotel, it is instantly clear  that the Yotel is a very cool New York hot spot. All minimalist chic and sharp interiors, this hotel has no budget-feel about it. Our family room was perfect – a double bed and a bunkbed, the views of the New York skyline exactly what we needed to set the scene. 

view new york yotel

The view from our window on night one

But I’ll be honest – it was breakfast in the Green Fig restaurant (think pancakes and bagels all served within the funky purple and lime green interior) and the incredible left luggage situation operated by a real life robot that really had the boys in awe.

Day One: 7am breakfast at Westway Diner, 614 9th Ave

The great thing about jetlag is you’re up early and full of energy, so no better reason than to walk a few blocks to the Westway Diner and sample some true American breakfast treats. Whether it’s waffles and bacon, pancakes with eggs, or porridge and an endless coffee pot, it will set the scene for your first day in NYC.

8.30am - Top of the Rock (20 minutes' walk)

We decided to get ourselves a CityPass which includes entrance to six of the city’s main attractions – and not only is it a good deal financially, it also helps you create an itinerary around the main ‘must do’ sightseeing spots for your family. Top of the Rock is an either/or choice alongside the Guggenheim Museum – and I’m afraid to say art museums are not high on my kids’ wish lists, so the choice was easy. But if your family are more cultured, the option is there!

new york sky scene

We decided Top of the Rock was a better option for us than the Empire State Building (mainly because my husband and I had already done the latter on a previous trip) but both are available with CityPass. The main benefit of the Rock being pictures have the Empire State Building in the background! 8.30am is a great time slot as it’s really quiet.

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10am – Visit FAO Schwarz for a real life Big experience

big fao schwarz

Having a BIG experience

The doors open at 10am and this was a ‘shall we or shan’t we’ stop off point on the way to the 49th St subway station. The answer is you definitely should! My boys had recently watched BIG (now back in vogue thanks to the West End musical) and the jump-on piano floor is there, on the top floor, for anyone to have a go on. There’s also a Zoltar machine for fun photo ops, and just about every toy you’d ever think of wanting. Turns out there’s quite a lot of kid still inside a teenager in the right setting.

10.30am - Ride the Subway

Slightly stressful, I’ll admit, despite a whole lot of pre-planning – underground travel maps in different cities are just so hard to figure out. Thankfully we found a very helpful local who was happy to show us exactly which train we needed to get on head to our next destination. I recommend swallowing your pride and seeking help instantly – even the ticket machines were a bit confusing! But there’s nothing like riding the subway to make you feel like a real New Yorker.

11.00am: 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Access to the memorial is also included in the CityPass, but there is no way around the queues which do pack up here. In the end – aware that a full museum tour would take a good couple of hours – we decided to just visit the memorial. This is a very respectful and humbling monument of two fountains, where the Trade Centre foundations stood, engraved around the edge with the names of those who sadly lost their lives in the attack.

911 memorial

The 9/11 Memorial

It’s powerful and was thought provoking enough for the kids – names of real people, and the thought of the terrible tragedy that happened here. I think the teen in our party would have been able to handle the museum, but I’m not sure the tween would, so it felt like the right option for us.

It's a poignant destination, but there are uplifting elements too, offering hope. The Occulus building and the World Trade Mural Project lift the mood as they were designed to. Both are backdrops to countless Instagram moments.

boys memorial murals

1pm – Grab lunch at Hudson’s Yards before climbing The Vessel

There are plenty of great lunch spots at Hudson’s Yards, and to be honest this itinerary doesn’t allow for any lingering – but it’s worth the speedy meal because The Vessel is a sight to behold. Unusually for a tourist attraction, entrance here is free, though it does require some forward planning. We booked our tickets a week before and had quite a good choice of times, but in peak tourist moments you may need to plan further ahead still. 

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The Vessel is a huge architectural delight – a kind of real life Dali painting where staircases lead into staircases and even the least athletic teen will find themselves unable to resist a race to the top.

the vessel

2pm - Walk the High Line to the Museum of Illusions

Two attractions in one here! The NY High Line is quite fantastic. A disused, raised railway track now offers New Yorkers and tourists alike a traffic-free, art-laiden pathway through Manhattan, and you can jump on at Hudson’s Yards and meander your way for 30 or 40 minutes south towards your next destination. In this case, the journey is most definitely part of the experience, although the High Line can get busy, so if you don’t like crowds it might be best to tweak your timings for an earlier or later journey.

3pm - The Museum of Illusions

This place is a teenager’s dream. Fancy chopping off dad’s head? No problem. Want to turn a room on its side? Shrink the parents? You can do it all here. A bizarre place – sure to thrill the younger members of your party and an Instagrammer’s dream. But it's not just the kids that will have a blast. We found many parents enthralled and refusing to leave until they'd solved the brain-twisting puzzles.

museum illusions new york

Who stole his body?

5pm – Head to Gyu-Kaku for dinner in Times Square (time to hail a yellow cab!)

This Japanese BBQ restaurant is a real gem, right in the heart of theatre town, where good quality, good value meals are certainly hard to come by. Again, this requires a little planning ahead but a 5pm pre-theatre meal reservation comes with Happy Hour prices on food and drink so it's well worth it - and the food is great!

Each table has its own mini grill in the centre and you cook your own food at the table – a huge adventure for kids and teens (and I have to admit even the adults enjoyed creating perfectly-cooked surf and turf dinners). Finish off with a melted marshmallow S’more.

7pm – Watch a Broadway show for a steal, courtesy of Broadway Roulette

Broadway Roulette sounds almost too good to be true – watch a top show in New York City for as little as $50 a ticket. As I did my research before daring to give it a go I found a lot of people asking the questions I was: 1) How does it work? and 2) Do you ever get a decent show?

Well, here’s how it works: You sign up for either a full roulette or a family version depending on how old the teens with you are. Since one of our party was only 11 we felt we’d better go with the guaranteed family-friendly show picks. There are 12 shows in this selection, and you can pay an extra $3 to remove one from the game. We’d seen Aladdin in the West End, so took that one out of our gamble.

boys times square

After that it’s a waiting game – but a fairly exciting one at that. On the afternoon before your show you get an email alerting you to the fact that in the morning, the roulette wheel will be spun. The anticipation builds the following day when they message you again – today’s the day! An hour later, you get your final message – and the show you’re going to is revealed. How did it work out for us? We got incredible seats in the Orchestra (Stalls to you and me) to see Disney's Frozen - a very hot ticket in town. You take your ID to the ticket office during the afternoon (we called by just before dinner) and it’s really as easy as that. If you’re in town longer than a couple of days, or heading back in the future, you can roll again and you will automatically be excluded from a show you’ve already won. If only there was a West End roulette for London!

Day Two: 8am – Take a guided jog around Central Park

No time for breakfast this morning – instead it’s time to make use of the extra hours courtesy of jetlag to really build up an appetite by going for a swift 5k around Central Park. Before you write this off as not being a teenage activity, I’ll explain that both my children are reluctant exercisers. But this is where Go! Running Tours comes in. We’ve experienced a family run with this company before in Copenhagen and found it the best guided tour we’d ever been on, running aside. And meeting Chris at Columbus Circle as the sun rose in New York City, we could tell this was going to be another fabulous adventure. Chris was training for the New York Marathon – this was a bit alarming. But it quickly became clear he was more than happy to take our run at whatever pace the kids wanted, and had so much knowledge about the park and his city, his enthusiasm quickly caught on. From the climbable statues to the John Lennon monument, the stunning lake (where I felt for a moment like one of the Sex and the City ladies taking a jog) to the fountain which has served as backdrop to many a famous movie – oh, and a zoo - this was a whistle-stop tour of one of New York’s most fabulous treasures, with the benefit of one very friendly local.

run central park

12pm – Take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty

After a hearty breakfast in a diner a few blocks from Central Park (and a trip to the Apple Store on 5th Avenue which even as an eye-rolling mum of two tech-nut teens, I had to admit was pretty fun) we headed back to the hotel for a shower and a change of clothes, then jumped in an Uber to Battery Park.

Despite visiting New York fairly frequently I’d never seen the Statue of Liberty up close, and since a visit to the Statue and nearby Ellis Island was included in our CityPass, it seemed a great opportunity. This is a big trip but the boys were surprisingly fascinated all the way through – perhaps courtesy of the audio tours which led us round the fort on which the statue stands, and then onto Ellis Island where you could really imagine what it would have felt like to enter the United States as an immigrant all those years ago.

statue of liberty fog

A moody, foggy boat trip to the Statue

4pm – Sadelle’s - the best bagels in town

Grab an early feast as today's evening entertainment kicks off at 6pm. My youngest is a bagel fiend and a little research plus a local pal’s recommendation resulted in us taking a pit stop to Sadelle’s in SoHo – apparently the only place to go for a bagel experience. We took our pre-booked seat (reservations are important) which was upstairs, overlooking the bagel chef as he loaded the un-cooked dough into huge ovens, and ordered our meal. A mention on the on-line booking form that it was almost my son’s birthday did not go unnoticed. After being served the most spectacular bagel plates (think smoked salmon, cream cheese and tuna salad on gilded afternoon-tea style stacked tower platters) an extra bagel with a candle in it appeared – especially for the bagel-mad birthday boy.

6pm – Take The Ride of your life

A quick hop back to Times Square for a tourist bus trip with a difference. This was an epic end to a weekend in New York and one none of us will forget. Special busses have been created with the seats in four rows facing to the side, allowing all passengers a front-on view out of the floor-to-ceiling windows which cover one side of the bus.

At first view your two tour guides seem like any other, but this is a ride with a difference. As you tour this area of Manhattan (in fairly gridlocked traffic, as you can imagine in central NYC) members of the public (and the tourist sights) outside become the show. As do a few strategically (and quite hilariously) placed extras to The Ride’s amazing spectacle.

I don’t want to ruin it for you, as the surprise is half the fun – but expect audience participation, singing, dancing and a hilarious game of ‘spot the tourist’ which makes you feel like you used to when you spent a car ride peering out of your parent’s back window, trying to get the driver of the car behind you to give you a wave. There's no doubt New York is cazy pace - and The Ride lets you experience this in total style!

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