The kids will go mad for a bite at the Big Apple

Manhattan is perfect for children. And don't worry: only the dinosaurs are scary, writes Anthony Daly
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The Independent Travel
Children's New York

It may be the city that never sleeps but we were flat out by 10.30 every night. No Studio 54 for us, no CBGB, not even any dining out until the small hours. When you take a three-year-old with you to New York City you have to accept things are going to be different. But that doesn't mean they are going to be bad. Many families are shy or even scared of New York, but with crime at a 30-year low and a mayor devoted to cleaning up the city, it can be a wonderful destination for people with children.

Getting settled

Hotels and young children can be conflicting pleasures, so on our most recent trip to New York we preferred to stay in a self-contained apartment downtown. This gave us a large bedroom, living room (with sofa bed), big kitchen and bathroom. It also gave us privacy and the opportunity to create a real home atmosphere for the week. Conor, our three-year-old, immediately took to the place, spreading his clothes and toys everywhere just as he does at home.

If you do find the energy to break out in the evenings, baby-sitters are easy to hire for about $10 an hour.

Getting around

Take taxis. Cabs are a comfortable, trouble-free way to see the city and Conor came to love them. He quickly learned to hail a cab by sticking his arm out (while reclining in mine) and shouting "Taxi!" at the top of his voice. For a cheaper if slightly more stressful option take the subway, which in central Manhattan is safe until about 10 pm and surprisingly clean.

But, of course, the best way to get about is to use your feet. New York, as Woody Allen never tires of pointing out, is made for walking and with a pushchair you can put in the miles with ease.

Downtown especially is full of wonders for youngsters: street stalls all the way down Houston Street; opera echoing from the restaurants of Little Italy; live crabs and lobsters everywhere on the markets of Chinatown; tiny shops and roadside cafes in the Parisian quarter of SoHo.

All this is contained in an extraordinarily small area. Heritage Trails New York does a booklet of walks and the trails are marked on the pavement: kids love following them. Do not be afraid of Times Square and the Midtown area either: it used to have a reputation for drugs and panhandlers, but it's been cleaned up recently with Disney opening a vast new store on 42nd Street.

The lights of Times Square at night are one of the wonders of the modern world. Conor was entranced, and unfazed by the fact that many of the lights were there to advertise strip joints.

When doing the famous sights, avoid Liberty Island (it's overcrowded and boring) take the Staten Island Ferry instead. Unbelievably you don't have to pay a penny to take a long ride around the bay, close to Liberty Island, with views of Manhattan floating like a lotus flower on the Hudson. Conor loved the ferry, the noise, the views and the people: locals on their way to and from work mixing with tourists and travellers. Very friendly.

It's worth going up the Empire State Building and the World Trade Centre. The latter in particular caters wonderfully for kids, with terrific entertainment to be had while you watch the earth curve around you.

Eating

Every child has a dream, and Conor's is a McDonald's on every street corner. New York comes close. We gave in now and again: chips are food after all. But nowhere else in the world are you confronted with more reasons to be adventurous in your diet. We found restaurants very welcoming to children, especially if we ate early before the waiters got too busy. And another advantage of having an apartment is that you can order in. Almost all restaurants and diners do a take-out service, and the majority deliver. To wander past a glorious-looking Italian restaurant (or French, Chinese, Spanish, Thai, Philippine, Latin American etc etc, although not many British) and know that all you have to do is pick up a menu and phone your order in when you get home is a joy British cities really should learn to emulate. All the big national chain restaurants do special discounts and children's meals, and most have gifts or toys ready for bored children to enjoy.

Museums and galleries

The city has many museums that kids should see, including two dedicated children's museums. One is in Manhattan: here you can visit Winnie the Pooh in the 100 Aker Wood and examine the workings of the human brain in the Brainatarium. The other, in Brooklyn, specialises in musical exhibits, and also has a boneyard full of enormous animal bones. But don't feel limited to these two: many other museums cater for a young clientele.

We made the mistake of going to the Natural History Museum on the first day, and so spent the rest of the week fighting off the D-word. Whenever the question: "What shall we do today?" arose, the reply: "Dinosaurs!" came ringing back. The dinosaur exhibition on the fourth floor was only opened in 1996 but already it has become a must-see in the city. Especially if you're three... The huge T-Rex is satisfyingly terrifying and there are lots of buttons to press and wonderful smaller dinosaurs that are less scary.

Other museums worth a visit are the American Museum of the Moving Image where older children can make their own films and appear on TV; the Sea, Air and Space Museum, which is an actual aircraft carrier where you can climb into fighter planes, tour a missile submarine and use a Navy flight simulator; the Liberty Science Centre with an enormous Imax cinema for older children; and the New York Hall of Science which is all hands-on - more buttons than a gentlemen's tailors.

Even the art galleries, usually a bore for small children, are fun. The Guggenheim is designed like a sloping race circuit, spiralling upwards into the sky. Conor and I played racing cars and came down the slope at great speed and with much screaming of tyres. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers more traditional hiking round its many rooms, but it has the incentive of its lovely roof garden where you can drink a steaming cappuccino and look over the splendour of the park and the Upper East Side; or you can drink coke and climb on statues. It's your choice.

Entertainment

There are several great children's theatre companies in New York, but it is advisable to book well in advance as they are extremely popular. The New York Times lists all the children's films showing in the city at the time (for schoolyard kudos, let your kid be the first to see the new Disney).

Remember, Manhattan is much more traditional than many older European cities because its people actually live in the centre of town. For this reason children are catered for everywhere and are not seen as a nuisance but as a natural part of life. In restaurants, museums, bars and shops we felt welcome and Conor got more smiles in a week than he gets in a year in London. So the rule is forget its big bad reputation, load up the pushchairs, do what you want to do, and take the children with you. They'll love it.

The zoo and the park

If, like me, you have doubts about the ethics of seeing wild animals under lock and key, the Bronx Zoo comes as a relief. The enclosures (not cages) seem genuinely large enough for the animals that live in them and present believable reproductions of a wild existence. Conor adored the children's zoo where domesticated animals could be stroked and bothered to his heart's content.

But the centre of Manhattan, and the centre of any visit with children, must be Central Park. It is a vast and beautiful place. And no, you almost certainly won't get mugged as soon as you step off the road. There is an ice-skating rink, horse rides, a wonderful old-fashioned carousel, a tiny but lovely wildlife centre (get there at 5pm to see the seals being fed) and two great playgrounds. The Dana Discovery Centre in the park has events all through the year for children. And these are just the permanent features.

Visit at any special time (and Americans are usually busy celebrating something) and you will find the park packed with free entertainment. Even just a rain-free Sunday is enough to bring out the mimes, acrobats, jugglers and in-line skate exhibitionists for a magical display for children. The park is also lovely just for walking and there are organised walks if you fancy some company (usually plenty of children) led by the Urban Park Rangers.

Shopping

Something else to leave to the end of your stay if you want peace and quiet is a visit to FAO Schwartz, the US equivalent of Hamleys. A huge toy shop on three floors, it is a magical place: we spent hours in there over two visits (the second won by Conor on the final day through sheer weight of whining). But toys are huge business in America and there are many wonderful toy shops if you have the time. Children's clothes are cheaper in New York than anywhere in the UK. Gap stores are everywhere if you want your child to look like an all-American kid. Otherwise wander through SoHo and Greenwich Village and look for bargains. There are some wonderful bookshops for children: our favourite was Logos. As well as a huge selection of children's books, the shop has a lovely terrace where you can sit in the sun and read on fine days.

new york fact file

Useful reading

The at-a-glance guide to children's New York, "Big Apple Parents", can be ordered from 36 East 12th Street, New York NY 10003 (tel: 1 212 33 2277). It can also be read on-line at bigappleparents.com, or picked up free all over town when you arrive.

Apartments

Bed & Breakfast in Manhattan (tel: 472 2528). Two-bedroom apartments in salubrious downtown areas for $145 a night.

Apartments International (tel: 0171-935 3551).

Urban Ventures Inc (tel: 594 5650).

Babysitters

Avalon Nurse Register and Child Service (tel: 245 0250).

The Best Domestic Services Agency Inc (tel: 685 0351).

Playgrounds

There are two inspired playgrounds in Central Park, one at the Columbus Circle entrance, the other beside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is a lovely one in Washington Square park full of English nannies when we were there, another in Battery Park, and another at Bleeker Street and Sixth Avenue.

The Dana Discovery Centre is in Central Park at 110th Street near Fifth Avenue (tel: 860 1370).

Walks

Heritage Trails New York

Federal Hall National Memorial, 26 Wall Street (tel: 767 0637).

Urban Park Rangers

1234 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street (tel: 360 2774).

Museums

Children's Museum of Manhattan

212 West 83rd Street (tel: 721 1234).

Brooklyn Children's Museum

145 Brooklyn Avenue, at St Mark's Avenue, Brooklyn (tel: 1 718 735 4432).

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue at 88th Street (tel: 423 3500).

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street (tel: 535 7710).

The American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street (tel: 769 5000)

American Museum of the Moving Image

35th Avenue at 36th Street, Astoria, Queens (tel 1 718 784 0077).

Sea, Air & Space Museum

USS Intrepid, Pier 86, West 46th Street & 12th Avenue (tel: 245 2533).

Liberty Science Center

Liberty State Park, 251 Phillip Street, Jersey City, New Jersey (tel: 1 201 200 1000).

New York Hall of Science

47-01 111th Street, Flushing Meadows, Corona Park (tel: 1-718 699 0005).

Zoos and gardens

The Bronx Zoo, Corner Forham Road and Bronx River Parkway, Bronx (tel: 1 718 367 1010).

Central Park Wildlife Conservation Center, Fifth Avenue at 64th Street (tel: 861 6030).

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, 1000 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn (tel: 1 718 622 4544).

New York Botanical Gardens, Southern Boulevard, at 200th Street, Bronx (tel: 1 178 817 8705).

Fun places to eat out

Katz's, 205 East Houston Street at Ludlow Street (tel: 254 2246).

The Jekyll and Hyde Club, 1409 Sixth Avenue at 57th Street (tel: 541 9595).

The Rainforest Cafe, (tel: 1 516 227 6000).

Planet Hollywood, 140 West 57th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue (tel: 333 7827).

Gyms

In America the gym is now more popular than the bar for meeting and socialising, and why should children be any different?

Gymboree has centres all over town (tel: 308-6353 for details).

Jodi's Gym, 244 East 84th Street (tel: 772 7633).

Children's hairdressers

Get their hair cut at Cozy's Cuts for Kids, at 1125 Madison Avenue at 84th Street (tel: 744 1716), whose motto is "who says a haircut can't be fun!" And it's true: the salon is packed with toys, videos and fun stuff, and the staff are born children's entertainers.

Or try the Tortoise and the Hare, which gives free gifts to children when they get their hair cut, plus a first haircut certificate, and has live entertainment in the salon on Saturdays.

Toy Shops

FAO Schwartz, 767 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street (tel: 644 9400).

Penny Whistle, 1283 Madison Avenue by East 91st Street (tel: 369 3868).

Toys 'R' Us, A & S Plaza, 1293 Broadway at 16th Street (tel: 594 8697).

Children's clothes shops

OshKosh B'Gosh, at 2293 Broadway, between 82nd and 83rd Streets; Kidding Around, 68 Bleeker St (tel: 598 0228) and 69 West 15th Street (tel: 645 6337).

Me-ki Kids, 149 Avenue A, between 9th and 10th Streets (tel: 995 2884).

Shoofly, 465 Amsterdam Avenue, near West 83rd Street (tel: 580 4390).

Children's Emporium 291-293 Court Street, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (tel: 1 718 875 8508).

San Francisco Clothing, 975 Lexington Avenue, between 70th and 71st Streets (tel: 472 8740).

Or check out Sue Robinson's "The Smart Shopper's Guide to the Best Buys for Kids" (Macmillan) for bargains and sample sales.

Bookshops

The Bankstreet Bookstore, Corner of 112th Street and Broadway.

Logos, 1575 York Avenue by 84th Street.

Children's Theatre

Thirteenth Street Repertory Company, 50 West 13th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue (tel: 675 6677)

Miss Majesty's Lollipop Playhouse, Grove Street, Playhouse, 39 Grove Street, near Seventh Avenue South (tel: 741 6436).

Tada! Youth Ensemble, 120 West 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues (tel: 627 1732).

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