New York, New York, It’s a Wonderful Town (for Grandparents)
by Anne Doyle, Family Travel, The Parents League
New York City and grandchildren can be a winning combination. There are so many ways to get to know and have fun with your grandchildren besides gathering at restaurants or baby-sitting. Look beyond the usual playgrounds, museums, zoos and aquariums and the city can open up new worlds for everyone, including you. With certain ground rules in place, and a little planning, the experience can be riveting.
Parades and Festivals
Throughout the year, the city is host to a multitude of parades – from the New York Tartan Day Parade to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the Sikh Cultural Society Parade. Many of these parades are tied to festivals, where you may see traditional dancing and sample unusual foods. These parades and festivals provide opportunities to teach your grandchildren about other cultures and world religions.
There are also festivals and other events sponsored by private organizations. For instance, the brasserie Les Halles runs an annual Liberty Festival and Bastille Day celebration. You’ll sample foods, hear spoken French, see the French flag and map, meet Marie Antoinette, watch the Can-Can and revisit the French Revolution. A highlight is the New York Waiters Race, with waiters from all over competing to win the Tray and Glasses race. There are also races and ice cream for children.
Other festivals to keep an eye out for are the bi-annual Dachshund Oktoberfest in Washington Square Park, Brazil Day, and the Deepavali Festival, celebrating Diwali, at the South Street Seaport.
Only in New York
You may have visited New York’s perennial “tourist attractions” so long ago that you have forgotten their appeal. But for your grandchild this may be a first visit. With a child in tow – and with fresh eyes – visit some of these sights and remember just what makes them so attractive.
A trip to the Empire State Building is a rite of passage for every New Yorker. Rent a recorded tour. Eat lunch at nearby historic Keens Chophouse, and finish off with a visit to Tannens Magic Shop on 34th Street.
A ride on the Staten Island Ferry could include a visit to the Bull at the base of Broadway, some time in the playground in Battery Park, and a sampling of the street cart foods at Liberty Plaza. (Expect lines; many of these vendors – such as Sam’s Falafel – are enormously popular.)
Explore Chinatown. Walk down Mott Street on the south side of Canal. Check out the teashops, the Buddhist temple, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory and May-May bakery. Introduce your grandchild to Peking duck and dim sum. Make a trip for the Chinese New Year Parade. Don’t forget Rockefeller Center.
During the winter holidays, visit the Christmas tree and the skating rink; stroll through the Channel Gardens any time of year. Consider a tour of Radio City Music Hall or the NBC Studios, or a trip to the Top of the Rock.
A trip across the Brooklyn Bridge can be tiring, but the New York Water Taxi, which stops at the Fulton Ferry Landing, can minimize your walk – and maximize your fun – if you take it either coming or going. Find the pirate playground, the beach and Brooklyn Bridge Park between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges and enjoy the views. Make your way to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria for what some say is the best pizza in New York. For something sweet, try the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, or seek out the Jacques Torres Chocolate Factory.
Schedule a tour for your grandchildren aged fifteen and up at the
Steinway Piano factory in Queens and learn just why it takes a year to make a Steinway piano.
Other only-in-New-York experiences are annual traditions that you might want to put on your calendar. For instance, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the world’s largest Gothic cathedral) performs the Blessing of the Animals every October on the Feast of St. Francis. Past participants have included conventional pets, camels, elephants, pythons and parrots. For older kids and adults, at Halloween the Cathedral screens the silent movie classic “Nosferatu,” along with live organ music and spooky special effects.
If you can convince the parents of your older grandchildren to let them stay out late, go to the Midtown Tunnel at midnight for the annual Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Animal Walk, and watch the elephants and horses as they walk through the tunnel and on to their springtime engagement at Madison Square Garden.
The works of famous architects are on display for all to see in Manhattan. You might be surprised how easy it is to make the buildings come alive for children. Let the kids pick a building that stands out on the skyline. Repeatedly point it out as you make your way around the City and drop tidbits of information. The history of the Empire State Building, for instance, fascinates kids, who enjoy hearing about the race to create the world’s tallest building; how the framework rose at a rate of four and a half floors per week; and how it was designed to provide docking for Zeppelins.
Frank Lloyd Wright, a brilliant, eccentric man whose very specific views on design are accessible to children, designed the Guggenheim Museum. It costs nothing to step into the Guggenheim, look up and witness the beauty of his design inspired by nature (the interior of a shell), and conceptualized in 1945 when he was 81 years old. Or walk down Fifth Avenue and visit Wright’s open-plan room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wright was a pioneer of open-plan design; he believed that, with less reliance on servants, a “housewife” needed to be able to see what was going on around her house.
There are many other architectural wonders, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Flatiron Building, Lever House and the “Lipstick” Building, to which you might introduce your grandchildren. Or, with the help of Kate Ascher’s enlightening book, The Works: Anatomy of a City, do a little research and share some interesting facts about the City’s steam system and other elements of its infrastructure as you travel about.
New York’s food choices – and dining experiences – are endless. Tackle dim sum with chopsticks in Chinatown, or visit an Ethiopian restaurant, where food is eaten with hands only (and watch your grandson smile). Most restaurants are happy to accommodate a junior palate while you indulge in more sophisticated fare, offering tastes to the brave.
If you consult Google or a similar search engine, you will discover carefully compiled “best” lists (“best puschcart food,” “best ice cream,” “best pizza,” “best chocolate,” etc.) to keep in mind when you make your plans.
There are more and more restaurants and salons that offer afternoon tea – some in very grand settings. Whether you want to introduce the tradition of High Tea in one of the City’s elegant old hotels, or you just want a quiet place to spend time with your grandchild, a little research will bring you to the right venue.
Think about planning activities in a particular neighborhood around its food offerings. Much of one day can be spent in the Flatiron District, in which Madison Square Park is home to the celebrated “Shake Shack.” After a burger and (of course) a shake, spend some time in the park’s playground. Leave the park and you will confront the landmark Flatiron Building, for which the area is named. Walk down Broadway and you will come to the Union Square Greenmarket, where samples of fruits and cheese and lessons on conservation abound four days a week. Wind up your excursion at Books of Wonder, an enduring children’s bookstore. If your young travelers are still in need of a treat, take a seat at its in-house branch of The Cupcake Café.
What about taking a cooking class with your grandchild? Learn about the foods of other cultures or simply enjoy an evening making gingerbread houses at Christmas. Schools such as the Institute of Culinary Education and The Italian Culinary Institute offer courses for kids and teens, some specifically designed for adults and children to enjoy together. Or conduct your own “cooking class,” dabbling in the international cuisines inspired by a visit to a specialty shop like Kalustyan’s on lower Lexington Avenue.
Sports and Activities
Whether as a participant or spectator, it is possible to enjoy almost any sport or activity in New York City.
Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River at 23rd Street offers a range of drop-in sports (ice skating, batting cages, rock climbing and much more), several of which are designed to bring adults and children together. For a fresh-air laden winter outing, try one of the city’s skating rinks, such as Wollman Rink in Central Park.
If your grandchildren are old enough – and you have the stamina – don’t dismiss the New York Road Runners Club’s “Midnight Run” on New Years Eve. Train together, get sponsors and donate to a charity. There’s even a prize for best costume.
Build baseball memories while teaching about the game and its strategies. Not everyone has access to great seats at Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium; it can be even more fun to treat kids to an unforgettable evening of baseball on Staten Island or at Coney Island, watching our beloved Yankees’ and Mets’ minor league affiliates.
Come to Central Park on a Saturday to watch the model sailboats being raced in Conservatory Water. If you want, you can rent a radio-powered boat and participate.
Many stores and museums have drop-in classes that will allow you to spend time with your grandchild and, at the same, develop a creative impulse or feed an intellectual curiosity.
Beads of Paradise, a shop near Union Square, offers half-day jewelry making classes. A subsequent trip to the trade bead stores between 37th and 38th Streets would offer up the makings for future projects.
Several magic shops are friendly to up-and-coming magicians of all ages. They give demonstrations and sell magic tricks, magic books and DVDs.
The Children’s Museum of the Arts in Soho has drop-in painting and art workshops. Children under 4 and adults over 65 participate for free, and you may take home all your artwork. Don’t miss the museum’s collection of paintings by children, sent from all over the world.
Music and Dance
If you love to sing and your grandchildren share that love, check out the many karaoke venues in the City, especially those that offer karaoke during daytime hours for the younger set.
Birdland, the Midtown jazz club, hosts Birdland Big Band very early on Friday evenings. With its low cover charge, this is a great bargain, and a great way to introduce older children to great jazz, Latin and Brazilian music.
Jazz for Young People at Lincoln Center is a series of lectures about jazz designed for children and adults. (Check out the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival held every May.) Similarly, New York City Ballet has created a family fun program, and Carnegie Hall hosts a family concert series.
Often it is a grandparent who sparks a child’s interest in cultural roots and heritage. Research and information sharing demand time that many parents don’t have to spare. And grandparents alone can provide intimate details of their own upbringing and family history.
A trip to Ellis Island might prompt you to work together to flesh out your family tree. Before you go to the island, consult its online Genealogy Learning Center for starter tips. Or go to the Lower East Side to visit the Tenement Museum. Stop at the historic Essex Street Market, the old-fashioned Economy Candy, or Streit’s Matzo bakery, where you can watch Matzo being made.
There are also less ambitious ways to capture kids’ interest in your family’s past. Find a community in the city that reflects their cultural heritage. When you explore that neighborhood, you can sample foods, hear the language and share your family traditions, oral history, customs and beliefs.
For children growing up in an urban area, any concerted effort to enjoy our natural surroundings is appreciated.
Check out the many attractions in Central Park – from Turtle Pond to fishing at Harlem Meer to bird watching. As for bird watching, bring binoculars and follow the lives of Pale Male and Lola, the celebrity hawks who nest on a building on the south side of 74th Street at 927 Fifth Avenue.
Walking or cycling, travel the rim of Manhattan – or part of it – on the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a 32-mile route that circumnavigates the island.
For a complete guide to the many ways families can enjoy nature throughout the City – from kayaking to fishing to gardening – get a copy of Big Apple Safari for Families: The Urban Park Rangers’ Guide to Nature in New York City, by Sharon Seitz, with a forward by Adrian Benepe.
New York City charitable organizations and schools make it easy to teach children about giving and being part of a community. Fundraising walks, runs and cycles allow you to establish a joint goal. Train and fundraise together or separately and compare notes over the phone or by email. Or set up a lemonade stand and donate proceeds to a charity. It’s fun and guarantees success: few can say no to a good cause, baked goods and kids focusing on something positive. Especially when they are with their grandparents.
Anne Doyle is the resource person in charge of family travel ideas for the Parents League. For other suggestions for family-friendly activities and information on many of those listed, refer to The Parents League Guide to New York.