Family-Friendly Lower Manhattan
by Joanna Weinstein and nycgo.com staff, 06/18/2014
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For visitors to New York City with children in tow, seeing the Statue of Liberty is often at the top of the priority list. A trip out to Liberty Island aboard a Statue Cruises vessel, followed by a stop at Ellis Island, is certainly a fun day out—alternatively, if you want to cut down on the commitment, you could opt to see the statue via a spin on a New York Water Taxi or the Staten Island Ferry (which is free, to boot), both of which leave from the Lower Manhattan waterfront and take in glorious views of the harbor.
But that’s not the only compelling reason to visit this area if you’re with the whole family—there are so many kid-friendly activities nearby that you can easily make a full day of exploring the area. Downtown’s charming, winding streets—narrow canyons lined by stately towers and other architectural gems—are bracketed by inviting green spaces and accessible waterfront, with spectacular attendant views. There are great places to eat, shop, play and soak in some of the history of New York City's first neighborhood. The stops below will certainly keep the younger ones engaged and—shhh—maybe even help them learn a little something along the way. For further ideas on things to do in Lower Manhattan, see our guides to shopping, dining and historical highlights. To check out area events, free and otherwise, visit the Downtown Alliance’s calendar.
Parks and Playgrounds
A fine place to start your explorations is Robert F. Wagner Park, which offers a superb lookout on Lady Liberty. After taking in the scenery here, head to Manhattan’s southern tip, Battery Park. A 25-acre green space facing New York Harbor, it offers more gorgeous views of the Statue of Liberty, the harbor boats and ferries and the Lower Manhattan skyline. Among its treasures is the Bosque Fountain, a water feature in the middle of lush gardens where the kids can cool off. More outdoor recreation awaits at the hidden treasure of Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, a beautiful place with a playground for frolicking and some sculptures to admire—just head north on West Street toward the River Terrace or, better yet, stroll along the Esplanade, which runs the length of Battery Park City. And while we’re talking playgrounds, the David Rockwell–designed Imagination Playground offers another prime spot to have the kids use their creativity and blow off some steam. It’s right by the South Street Seaport, a pedestrian-friendly zone for shopping, dining and additional great views.
Walking the streets and running around the parks will certainly provide plenty of exercise, but you’ll find enough car-free green space along the Hudson to make biking a consideration. Bike and Roll has a location just north of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal; baby seats are available. Don’t fret if it’s wintertime—just trade in your shoes (or wheels) for blades. The Rink at Brookfield Place offers a place for the family to ice-skate while the cool breezes off the Hudson whip around. The rink is open from November to mid-March.
Balance your time outdoors with some culture and entertainment on a circuit of Financial District museums. A fine place to start is the Skyscraper Museum on Battery Place, where you’ll uncover behind-the-scenes history of the world's first vertical metropolis. From there, it's a short walk to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian at the George Gustav Heye Center, which houses more than 700 works of native art and artifacts, including handmade dolls and an array of headdresses and Indian clothing from North, Central and South America. A quick swing up to Wall Street leads to the temporary location of the New York City Police Museum; the uniforms and Harley police chopper on display should be a hit with little ones. To see even more impressive transport vehicles, head over to the South Street Seaport Museum, where you can climb aboard the Ambrose and Peking ships, both more than 100 years old, and view exhibits about the vessels.
Consider sprinkling in some history lessons with your museum going. The one-time fortification of Castle Clinton, now the place to start your journey to the Statue of Liberty, used to also serve as an opera house and aquarium. Narrow Wall Street, the Financial District's most storied thoroughfare, is also steeped in the past. Stop to pose with George Washington's statue in front of the Federal Hall National Memorial, and discover the site where he was sworn into office as the nation's first president. Afterward, move north to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument, which is near City Hall. Discovered during construction for a new federal building in the early 1990s, the grounds are the final resting place of more than 400 free and enslaved Africans who were buried there between the 1690s and 1794. With an outdoor memorial and, inside, numerous artworks, a timeline and a 40-seat theater that screens a film, Our Time at Last, throughout the day, the site offers an emotional, educational experience.
Lunching or refueling on the waterfront proves an easy task. There’s plenty of outdoor seating at P.J. Clarke’s on the Hudson, along with a menu full of kid-size mini cheeseburgers and comfort food like chicken potpie. You could also hit up the nearby Shake Shack on Murray Street for burgers, fries and creamy shakes, and take your meal to a bench overlooking the river. If burgers and pub fare seem too limiting, check out the new Hudson Eats food court on the terrace level of Brookfield Place, just above PJ Clarke’s. There you’ll find stalls from some of the top slow-food quick-bite places in town, including Black Seed Bagels, Num Pang and Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque, and some less familiar outlets like Skinny Pizza. Farther down, tucked in the middle of Battery Park, Table Green doles out sandwiches and snacks, while the related Table Green Café is more of a coffee and ice cream pit stop. Of course, you may find yourself inland, in which case Zaitzeff makes for a good destination—they’ve got an array of wholesome burgers and sandwiches, in a much calmer setting than always-busy Shake Shack.
Come dinnertime, those in the mood for seafood and Southern favorites served up among cheeky, kitschy decor would do well with a visit to Cowgirl Sea-Horse, where the menu ranges from shrimp and grits to Tex-Mex specialties, all at affordable prices. But just because you’re en famille doesn’t mean fine dining is out of the question (though probably best to get to these places very early). There’s City Hall Restaurant, situated in a carefully restored 1863 cast-iron building right near the real City Hall. Its large size is a plus, as are the New York strip steaks and classic NYC cheesecake, and a kids' menu is always available. On a slightly smaller scale, Les Halles is an agreeable bistro, also with a kids’ menu—as well as six ways of serving up vats of mussels, which come with crisp french fries. And numerous places line historic Stone Street, many with outdoor seating, which can make it a bit carnivalesque; the popular Harry's Cafe and Steak anchors the block.
If, somehow, you still have room after dinner and desire something sweet (or the young ones do), stroll down South William Street to Crêpes du Nord. Parents can enjoy wine from an extensive list while helping kids dig into a variety of sweet crepe selections, including blueberries and ice cream, Nutella and banana, and dulce de leche.