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New York, like most major cities, has tourist attractions you really do have to the first time you come. But once you’ve completed that to-do list it’s nice to get away from tourist central and see a city the way the locals do. Here are some of our favorite NYC things to do. Try a few on your return visit to the city—or if you just need a break from the madness on a first visit.
This little island sitting in the water between Manhattan and Brooklyn has a military history dating back to the revolution. For most of my lifetime it sat largely unused and decaying. Over the last five years the city has been gradually turning it into a funky and fun weekend destination.
Visitors can bring or rent bikes, admire the views of the skyline and harbor (above), explore the large-scale art on the parade ground, play (or just laugh at) the quirky Figment mini-golf.
Romp in the wood-based playground, slide down giant slides, climb hills, relax in hammock grove, explore the two existing forts (which are NPS sites and have rangers on hand) or do art with an outpost of CMA.
Bring your own picnic or eat from a variety of food trucks.
The Practical Stuff: Governors Island is open to visitors from late May 23 to late September. Ferries run from Lower Manhattan daily and Brooklyn Bridge Park on weekends and holidays. Fares range from free to $2.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
This string of piers stretching mostly to the south of the Brooklyn Bridge is a miracle of urban redevelopment.
Look for a glass-enclosed carousel, several playgrounds (Pier 6 with its busy waterpark and climbing garden is the best), a pop-up pool in the summer, several food stalls and cafes, a sports pier with rolling skating, and summer movies.
There are several places to sprawl on grass, wander wooded paths and interact with public art. It’s hard to choose between creative Ample Hills for ooey gooey butter cake and traditional Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory for summer peach when we crave a cone. Tiny Traveler would happily just have one of each.
The Practical Stuff: On summer weekends take the ferry from Manhattan to Governor’s Island and then to Brooklyn’s pier 6 (or the other way around) for a very full day. Otherwise, take the 2/3, A/C or F to their first stops in Brooklyn.
This place takes some getting to, but is worth the trek. Explore three floors of saunas (7 kinds), indoor and outdoor whirlpools and relaxation zones. They serve beer, cocktails and soft drinks, and have a few dining options; some healthier than others. We go for the Korean food on the 4th floor.
It’s open-year round but winter visits require a cold dash to the heated outdoor pools (teens could handle it). With younger kids go in summer when there is a kids’ fountain and the outdoor deck is full of families. It’s more a small waterpark then a Zen spa experience on these days, but you’ll come out refreshed.
The Practical Stuff: A day pass is $40-$50 for anyone 3 and older. Do a one-day car rental or take the 7 train to the last stop and then a shuttle, bus or taxi. Bring bathing suits and towels and if your kids are not strong swimmers I’d suggest a swim vest.
The Bronx Zoo/Arthur Avenue
The Bronz Zoo is huge and a really great zoo. With small kids, you can easily spend most of the day between the children’s zoo, the funky bug carousel and the butterfly garden. Olders kids will go for the Wild Asia monorail, the Madagascar animals, the Penguins, and the 4D theater.
When you’re good and hungry, walk or take a cab less than a mile to Arthur Avenue, between 183rd and 187th Streets. Peruse the Italian food stores, eat raw clams and have a red-sauce Italian dinner—save room for cannoli and espresso at a nearby bakery. Or support the revitalizing Bronx with a stop at the Bronx Beer Hall inside the Market Building.
The Practical Stuff: Take the subway or Metro North to the zoo and Arthur Avenue.The zoo has a paid parking lot and street parking is doable around Arthur Avenue. Zoo tickets, $24-$34, are cheaper if you buy them ahead online.
Queens Museums/Jackson Heights
Flushing Meadow Park is the site of the US Open and two World’s Fairs, but your kids will recognize it from Men In Black. The sprawling park offers an indoor public pool, the New York Hall of Science, the wonderful Playground for All Children (with a cool water feature in summer) and the Queens Museum, known for its incredibly precise panorama of NYC and rotating art exhibits.
On the way back to Manhattan in Jackson Heights, where you’ll find cheap and tempting Latin American and Indian food in restaurants and from street vendors. The popular Jackson Diner is a safe bet for Indian. If you like your sweets achingly sweet, stop in one of the bakeries for some dessert to eat while you window shop for saris and Bollywood musicals.
The Practical Stuff: Take the 7 train (local) to 111th Street for the park and 74thStreet/Broadway for Indian food.
NYC’s Small Museums
Once you’ve dodge the crowds at the Met try the smaller gems of NYC. These include the Museum of the City of New York (my favorite), walking tours at the Tenement Museum, the unique Children’s Museum of the Arts (an excellent rainy day option), The funky Barrio Museum in Harlem, historical Federal Hall, where George Washington was president, and the Museum of Math.
The Transit Museum is inside an old Brooklyn subway station, has vintage trains and offers easily the best souvenir shop in the city. Google “small museums, NYC” to find several others.
Read more: 9 NYC Museums Your Whole Family Will Love