Our top five must-see sights on a trip to New York with teens.
Who went, where and when: Nancy and her sons, Nick 18 and Ed 16 flew from London Heathrow to JFK in July 2015 and spent six days in New York City
This post may contain affiliate links, this means that I may receive a commission – at no cost to you – if you click a link and make a purchase.
5. Empire State Building
The second tallest skyscraper in NYC was built in 1930 at the rate of one floor per day. The view from the top is unmissable and the history bit on the way up is pretty riveting too (ahem).
We booked our tickets the night before our visit on a multi-buy pass (see below). It gave us a discount but didn’t speed the entry process. However at 10.30 on a Sunday morning in July there wasn’t much of a queue.
We’d imagined a visit to the Empire State Building would be 100% about the view – but there’s a lot to see in the lead up to the Big Reveal.
The atmosphere builds as you’re ushered to the elevators between chainlink drapes and displays of facts and figures.
The first set of elevators whisk you to the 80th floor where the windows are concealed with photos from the 1930s giving tantalizing hints of the views to come. But it’s worth spending a little time browsing the displays that tell the story of the construction – an insight into life at that time and the incredible achievement of the building.
Don’t miss the modestly worded letter from the builders noting that since they seem to be making rather good time they will be finishing a month in advance of their target!
We took the option of walking up the final six floors – which gave us time to imagine the annual ‘run up’ race from the lobby to the 86th floor – it takes the runners around 10 minutes.
Once out on the Observation deck the views are breathtaking.
Looking seawards is like being on the deck of a ship: the Financial district and its high rises are ahead and the Hudson and East rivers flow past on either side. For the first time I got a real sense of Manhattan as an island.
We stayed up there for nearly an hour, happily absorbed in spotting landmarks: Manhattan, Brooklyn and 59th street bridges; a forest of skyscrapers including the spectacular Chrysler building
and the Flatiron; the High Line, Central Park and our destination for that afternoon, the Yankee Stadium, shimmering in a heat haze north in the Bronx. Empire State Building, 350 5th Avenue
4. National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The 9/11 Memorial is a tribute to the thousands who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks. Now it has been joined by a museum which documents the tragedy.
Two large reflecting pools with waterfalls, set in the footprints of the former World Trade Center’s twin towers, are a moving memorial to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Even on a busy hot summer’s day there was an air of quiet around them.
Conversely there were long queues for the museum alongside. Even though we had reservations with a timed entry slot it still took a while to get in. Once the trees in the plaza have grown taller the queues may be more shady, at the moment they aren’t and we wished we’d had hats and suncream.
The museum itself is a sombre, immersive experience. Visitors descend into a cavernous underground hall past fragments from the fallen towers: girders, a crumbling stairway.
One exhibition commemorates the lives of those who died; another is a forensically detailed re-telling of the unfolding tragedy of September 11, 2001. There’s a mangled fire truck down there, personal items salvaged from the ruins, a sniffer dog’s harness, and many stories of individual heroism and sacrifice told in multi-media displays. It can be upsetting and I was uncomfortable about some elements – in particular the video loops of the planes striking the towers and victims falling from the windows. And the gift shop.
We spent over two hours in the museum – it’s a vast space. The boys, who remember the day of 9/11 but not the details, thought it poignant and a necessary visit. The official website advises that the historical exhibition may not be appropriate for children under 10 – I might set the bar a little higher than that. You can find out more at www.911memorial.org 180 Greenwich Street
3. The American Museum of Natural History
Exploring the whole world – and space – under one roof
We’ve seen Night at the Museum and we guessed this would be a venerable and much-loved NY institution – but the comedy film gives no hint of the size or the riches of the collections inside. There is no way you can see everything you want to in one visit. We got immersed in the traditional halls and so missed out on the cutting-edge Rose Center for Earth and Space. But we were very happy to wander the permanent exhibitions and get a feel for the history of the museum as well as the natural history it’s portraying.
The dioramas – once you get beyond the fact that there are an awful lot of very large actual stuffed animals in these halls you can acknowledge the artistry of the arrangements and the beauty of the painted backdrops.
Even though we’ve all watched David Attenborough and seen the animals in zoos or on safaris we were still gripped. Which was lucky as there is room after room of them illustrating different habitats and parts of the world.
The same goes for the cultural halls which investigate the lives of indigenous people around the world. The past generations’ pre-occupation with cataloguing anything that moved lives on in the display cases full of New York State rodent pelts and sea-birds.
The fossils – Full-size skeletons of dinosaurs – lots and lots of them. What more could you want? As an aside we finally learnt the difference between a crocodile and an alligator – its all about the shape of the snout.
This definitely requires a second visit. Central Park West at 79th Street
2. Times Square at night
Lights, cameras, action in the tourist hub of NYC
Times Square was grittier and grimier before its 1990s clean-up, now it’s a technicolour neon tourist playground, home of major food and fashion chains and perhaps still not somewhere you’ll really want to linger. But it’s definitely worth a look – and especially at night. By day souvenir shops and jostling crowds with selfie sticks are distracting. By night the neon billboards and video screens rule.
We strolled around taking in the lights then headed down Avenue of the Americas (spotting a surreal reflection of the illuminated Empire State Building) and came across Bryant Park.
It was 9.30pm and the air was still hot: families, couples, singles were lying on the grass, dozing, reading or socializing as if it was the middle of the day. The park, an eerily lit patch of green surrounded by skyscrapers, has a huge and cooling fountain as well as outdoor cafes, tables and chairs and even free charging stations. 42nd Street, Times Square, Midtown
Where to see Manhattanhenge
Quite unwittingly we also witnessed Manhattanhenge on our July visit. Twice a year for two days, in May and July the Manhattan sunset aligns with the east-west grid of streets creating a glorious glow along the cross streets. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist of the Rose Center of Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, first coined the phrase Manhattanhenge. Bearing in mind that streets run east-west and avenues go north-south in Manhattan, the best places to see the sunset are along the cross streets that give you a clear view west across the Hudson River towards New Jersey. The expert advice is to stand in the eastern blocks of streets: 34th and 42nd streets are favourites to include iconic sights like the Empire State building or the Chrysler building in your view.
1. Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center
Must-see views of New York City from 70 floors up – take a selfie with the Empire State Building
The Rockefeller experience is a bit more ‘red carpet’ than the Empire State building – literally – the attendants in the glamorous Art Deco halls send you along the red carpet to the elevators. We were whisked up to the 67th and 69th floors where the outdoor terraces are protected by tall transparent panels of glass. They shelter you from the wind but were a bit smudgy and smeary so we carried on up to floor 70. Here there is nothing between you and thin air – and an awe-inspiring, uninterrupted view of the very best of NYC.
Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock
We all agreed that Top of the Rock has the edge on the slightly taller Empire State Building Observation deck for the simple reason that you can see the Empire State Building from it. And take selfies with it. At 7pm on a July evening the light was golden and lovely.
We’d have loved to stay until sunset (but we were too hungry) or gone up again at night to see the lights of the city. This is the one sight that we’d all like to visit again. 30 Rockefeller Plaza, entry on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue
They might not have made our Top 10 but we’d still recommend that you visit:
Metropolitan Museum of Art aka ‘The Met’
We used CityPASS for discounted admissions, click here for more info. If you’d rather book ahead for just one or two sights here’s a selection of tours from Get Your Guide:
We would’ve liked to have seen:
Grand Central Terminal – for the vast spaces, the architecture, the whispering gallery – and the food.
Museum of Modern Art – for what it says on the tin or…
Guggenheim Museum – modern art masters plus a stunning facade.
Intrepid Sea Air Space Museum – an aircraft carrier that’s now a museum alongside a submarine and the space shuttle Enterprise.
Harlem – for its rich history and soul food.
Bronx Zoo – for its replica habitats and endangered species like the snow leopard.
The ‘What Went Wrong’ Bits:
To be honest, not a lot. The weather was sweltering – but then it was July. The heat made us less willing to walk long distances – but we also rather dreaded the subway stations: the trains are air-conditioned, the platforms are not. So although July worked for us I’m inclined to think Spring or Autumn might be a better time to visit.
We packed a lot into our time in New York and we were keen to see as much as possible. But we did also pace ourselves and we left space for downtime, wi-fi time and occasionally going our separate ways – important when you’re together 24/7.
Thanks to a tip from a friend of a friend we found a hotel, click here, that was perfect for us in a lively, accessible part of town. See Part 3 for where we stayed, how we got around and the discount pass we used.
New York with Teens: Top 10 Sights
For Part 1 of our Top 10 Must-see Sights in New York City click here
For Part 3: Eating, Sleeping and Getting About click here
Photos by Nancy and family, all rights reserved. Photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent.
Pin This to keep a note of our tips for a family trip to NYC with teens