New York City with kids: what to do in Central Park

Central Park is not only an iconic stop in New York City, it’s a welcome respite from the noise, crowds, and outright stimulation of city touring. During our three days in New York, we ducked into this leafy green sanctuary more than a few times, and discovered something new with each trip.


Since it can be hard to get your bearings while in the park, a good place to start (before you leave!) is this Central Park informational site for top attractions and maps. Once in the park, below are our favorite stops with kids:

Heckscher Playground. This play space near the Columbus Circle entrance to the park (8th Avenue) features water play areas, climbing structures, sand, turf, and swings, and is framed by a generous outcropping of the large granite boulders seen throughout the park. Within minutes of setting foot inside, Calvin had joined in impromptu soccer game on the turf circles at the center of the park, Toby had made a friend in the sand box, and Nate was scaling a boulder. Needless to say, it was an hour or more before we left. (Note: this park does close at dusk.)


Tip: For an easy meal before or after leaving Heckscher, a great hot dog stand with sausage dogs, veggie dogs, and beef dogs (with all the toppings) is located near the 8th Ave. entrance).

Captaining sailboats on Conservatory Water. located near the East Side of the middle of the park, the Conservatory Water features a model boat house where kids can captain their own vessels (for $11 per half hour). I was afraid they would be hard to operate, but all three boys (ages 6-12) manned theirs easily, and had a great time adjusting the sails and speed to navigate the pond. A nice cafe is on-site, and there’s plenty of shade and seating. An Alice in Wonderland play space is nearby.


Central Park Zoo. Located on the East Side of the park between 63rd and 65th streets, this zoo is not meant to be an entire day’s activity. Instead, it serves as a nice detour while walking along 5th Avenue or a morning’s distraction while other members of your party may be in the Met or other museums. Toby loved it, and the way the zoo fits into its part surrounds made it a pleasant retreat. Cost: $12 for adults, $7 for ages 3-12. Open from 10 am to 5:30 pm. Find out more at Central Park Zoo.

Museums near the park. On the East Side, you’ve got the Met and the Guggenheim. I’ve never taken my kids to the latter, but the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art, located at 1000 5th Avenue) is a great introduction to the greats (especially the impressionists). It also has a full floor of Egyptian art and artifacts that draw kids’ attention immediately. On the West Side, a stop at the American Museum of Natural History is a must. Located at 79th and Central Park West, it warrants at least a half-day of your time (we did it in the morning and paired it with a full afternoon in the park). Keep in mind that temporary exhibits are extra, but with so much to see, you may not have time for them anyway. (We did watch a planetarium show, and it was excellent…a perk of using our CityPASS tickets for this location.)


Tip: if your kids are fans of Night at the Museum, have them look to find the T-rex fossil skeleton and the naughty monkey from the movie. But note: the army, mountain men, and Native American diaramas do not exist. (This is, as a museum docent told me quite hautily, a NATURAL history museum.)

Food near the park. Worth noting are the delicious food options just a few blocks out of the park. On the West Side, you won’t be disappointed in Cafe Lalo, located four blocks from the park on 201 W. 83rd. A bustling, airy, and fun restaurant featuring brunch (all day) from all over the world, this is a great spot to grab lunch after visiting the Museum of Natural History. It also has a full bakery counter!


Dylan’s Candy Bar is located on the East Side on 1011 3rd, and offers three floors of candy, ice cream, and snacks. We found this place while seeking out Serendipity 3 (located on 225 E. 60th one block away), which is considered the ice cream and dessert hot spot of the city. (And they have a Kidscore of 99. Learn more about Kidscore.) When we went, the wait time was over an hour, and I’m assured it’s worth the wait. We were on a schedule, however, so we detoured to Dylan’s, where we (quite willingly) spent a small fortune on triple-scoop make-your-own sundaes.


Tip: we considered renting bicycles in the park, until we noticed all the signage alerting visitors of their many restrictions. Bikes aren’t allowed on most park paths, and since we weren’t interested in riding on the main thoroughfares, we opted to rent them to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge instead (offered by NYC’s Bike and Roll and NY Water Taxi). Horse-drawn carriage rides are also easily secured in the park, but be advised that these rides cost from $20-50, and almost all carriages accommodate four or fewer people.