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9 NYC Museums Your Whole Family Will Love

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One of the challenges to visiting a New York City is finding fun, authentic, kid-friendly things to do, that every other tourist isn’t also doing.  Here’s one good tip to help you avoid the crowds:

NYC has more than 100 museums, many of them far less crowded and just as much worth a visit at the marquee ones like the Met and the Museum of Natural History. Many of these are smaller and easier to explore with kids, too.

Here are nine lesser-known museums that are ideal for families visiting New York. They are some of my family’s favorite city excursions.

They offer unique educational and local experiences. And their activities and exhibits will engage and educate adults and kids alike.

The Best NYC Museums For Kids…
That Aren’t Children’s Museums

In This Post

1. Natioanal Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey
2. NY Historical Society
3. Federal Hall
4. NY Public Library
5. The Met Cloisters
6. The Morgan Libary & Museum
7. The Queens Museum
8. The Museum of the Moving Image
9. The NYC Transit Museum

Manhattan Museums

1. National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey

playing with seals at the National Geographic EncounterI asked Tween Traveler if she would consider this interactive Nat Geo adventureto be a museum. She said, “Yes, it’s just a fun museum.” What else do you need to know?

The exhibit takes you across the bottom of the Pacific Ocean from Australia to the Americas and up to the Arctic.

You’ll walk along the ocean floor and see what it looks and sounds like by day and night. You’ll see giant squids battle, find your way through a kelp forest, play with a seal and get swallowed up by a 3D whale.

The final room has interactive stations that build on what you’ve learned on your journey, and the opportunity to take pledges to protect the environment.

The attention to detail and visual quality are as fantastic as you would expect from National Geographic.

taking a quizz at the National Geographic Ocean Encounter

We’ve all seen pieces of the interactive technology in other museums and theme parks. But I’ve never seen so many different kinds pulled together in quite the same way. 

What Age:

The two 11 YOs I took seemed the ideal age. In general I think it’s best suited to kids ages 7 and up who will have learned some the relevant science and geography.

Teens might not get as excited about some of the interactive goodies but some of the special effects will impress them. I’m not sure preschoolers will get enough out of to justify the ticket price for them.

Where is it?

On 44th street in Times Square, midtown Manhattan.

Our Best Tip:

Look for discounted tickets on Travelzoo and Groupon.

2. NY Historical Society

This is a museum we’ve only recently discovered but have visited a handful of times in the last two years.

Sketches from a Mo Willems ExhibitThe lower level has a small children’s museum that is packed with video screens, games and exhibits that focus on the aspects of New York City history that are pertinent to kids.

Learn about a day in the life of a “Newsy” and read letters from city kids sent to live on the prairies. The cozy reading room is an excellent place to take a time out from the noisy city, especially with very young kids.

The two upstairs floors have changing exhibits that are often family friendly. We’ve seen an exhibit all about the quirky children’s author Mo Willems and another that looked at the history of the “real” magic referenced in the Harry Potter books. At Christmas they have a great little train show.

historical society christmas trainsYour admission ticket includes New York Story, an 18-minute moview that traces the city’s rise from a colonial outpost at the tip of Manhattan to a sprawling and diverse urban powerhouse.

It also recently added We Rise, which looks at the role women have played in the city’s history.

What Age:

The children’s museum is fine for any age, but interest will start to fade by ages 11 or 12. Appropriate ages will vary for the rotating exhibits. But kids and tweens interested in American history can probably find something of interest almost any time.

Where is it:

One block south the Natural History Museum at 77thstreet and Central Park West.

Our Best Tip:

The large wooden Diane Ross playground is just inside Central Park at 81ststreet. And Beatles fans will want to visit Strawberry near 72ndstreet.

3. Federal Hall

George Washington was sworn in and sat his terms in office at this National Historic site. As did the first Supreme Court and Congress.

The building had a few subsequent uses as a customs house and U.S. Treasury building.

Ideally you’ll find a Park Ranger on hand to give you a tour. We visited on a national holiday and there wasn’t a ranger free for tours.

But the staff gave Junior Park Ranger workbooks to the two 9 YOs and one 10YO I brought with me. And they spent more than an hour running around the museum looking at the exhibits and filling it in. I was frankly surprised as how much time we wound up spending there.

Federal Hall from Broad Street

What Age:

You can bring anyone old enough to read the ranger workbook and know who George Washington was. It’s a small museum, so good for younger kids’ attention spans.

Where is it:

The Corner of Wall and Broad streets in the financial district.

Our Best Tip:

Admission is free. There are four 30-minute guided tours on normal days. If you catch the museum on an off day like we did there will still be at least one ranger around to ask questions.

4. The NY Public Library

Visit Winnie the Pooh and friends at the New York Public Library

Visit The library’s 5thAvenue branchto say hello the lions, Patience and Fortitude. Head upstairs to the main reading room, which has a beautiful ceiling.Then head to the basement, where the children’s reading room is home to the original Winnie the Pooh and other stuffed friends belong to A.A. Milne’s son.

The library has free exhibits that draw on its extensive archives of books, photographs and more.

They’re rarely kid friendly but teens might occasionally be interested in what’s on.

For example, we once saw an exhibit on the history of food in NYC. It included vintage restaurant menus, recipes for school lunches from 100 years ago, and old PSAs about nutrition.

The upstairs reading room at the NY Public Library

What Age:

Bring your youngest tourists and your oldest to visit Pooh-Bear. Other exhibits are probably best with teens but it depends what’s on.

Where is it:

The Corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street

Our Best Tip:

The comfortable children’s reading rom is the ideal place to get in out of the summer heat, winter cold or pouring rain when your sightseeing in midtown, especially with young children.

5. The Met Cloisters

The best time to visit this outpost of the Met is in the spring, and the best reason to go then is its lovely medieval garden. Learn about quince and medicinal plants herbs and admire all kinds of beautiful flowers.

Teen-age me loved the famous unicorn tapestries and the building itself, which has been built from pieces of five European cloisters.

The garden at the Met Cloisters

The museum offers free family tours for kids 12 and under on periodic Saturdays, which is probably the best way to see it with kids.

What Age:

Any age will enjoy the gardens. Kids old enough to have had some European history will best appreciate the art.

Where is it:

Inwood, on the west side of Upper Manhattan.

Our Best Tip:

Make sure to wind your way through woodsy Fort Tryon Park before or after your visit and admire the great Hudson River views.

6. The Morgan Library & Museum

There are two reasons to visit what was once JP Morgan’s private library:  The first is the gorgeous Italian-Renassaince-style east room in Morgan’s original libary.

Christmas family day at the Morgan LibraryThe second is the unique family programs the museum offers on weekends several times a month.

You might get a close-up look at items from the collection, make paint from bugs and flowers, or move words around a board to make poems as a team.

The first Sunday in December is usually a holiday fete with Dickensian players, music, special crafts and more.

What Age:

The family activities will skew toward preschool and school-age kids. the exhibits are always literary in nature and some, say illustrations from Lewis Carroll books, will be somewhat kid-friendly.

The library is not big, so if younger kids get bored you can go through quickly.

Where is it:

A few blocks south of Grand Central Station on Madison Avenue in mid-town.

Our Best Tip:

Grab a family guide at the admission desk to draw in school-age visitors.

Queens

7. Queens Museum

This highlight of this museumis a 3-D scaled replica of New York City that includes every building in the city. It was made for the 1964 Worlds Fair and has been periodically updated to reflect new building.

Bring binoculars to help you find individual homes, hotels or other buildings.

the scale model of NYC at the queens museumThe museum also houses a collection of memorabilia from the two world’s fairs the city hosted, much of it from private donors’ collections.

Beyond that the museum has an eclectic roster of rotating exhibits. On different visits we’ve seen an extensive collection of Tiffany glass and a retrospective on the punk band the Ramones, who grew up a stone’s throw from the museum.

When you’re finished with the museum, head out the back door into Flushing Meadow Park.

Take a picture in front of the giant Unisphere, then take a break while your kids play hide and seek among the manicured paths, lawns and trees. If the weather is suitable, bring a picnic.

What Age:

It depends on what’s on at the moment, but generally this is another 7 and up zone.

Where is it:

Corona, Queens. Take the local 7 train to Willets Point and follow signs for the Tennis stadium and Flushing Meadow Park.

Our Best Tip:

This museum and Natural History play key roles in the book and movie Wonderstuck. It’s well worth a read for 8 to 12 year olds—and well worth watching with kids of any age, especially if you plan to visit either museum.

8. Museum of the Moving Image

We loved this museum dedicated to movies and television even before it opened its fantastic Jim Henson Exhibit.

a model muppet the museum of the moving image a made-up muppet at the museum of the moving image

Make your own muppet, see big bird, Statler & Waldorf and Kermit among other muppet favorites and watch the very funny pitch reel for the muppet show.  This is one of those exhibits kids and adults both love but for different reasons.

The third floor delves into film making, with hands-on early motion-picture technology and opportunities for kids to make their own stop-motion videos.  Down one floor, you can play vintage arcade games.

early sesame street sketchesCheck before you visit to see what movies are showing.  They usually screen kid-friendly films during school breaks and often on weekends. Tickets do sell out for these. 

What Age:

Anyone from a toddler to a Gen-Xer will find something to like in the Henson exhibit. We started going around age 8, but it depends on your kids’ interest in movie making and pop culture. Some of the movies and exhibits will be better suited to teens.

Where is it:

Astoria Queens, near the still working Kauffman-Astoria film studios. Close to the R, N, W, E and M subway lines.

Tip:

This is an evolving neighborhood. While there is a Pizzeria Uno right next door, a little digging will also turn up good Thai, French and Latino and Mexican food within walking distance.

Brooklyn

9. The NYC Transit Museum

How often do you get to visit a museum in a subway station?

When you get to the museum’s entrance, go down the stairs into a 1936 Brooklyn station and go through the old-fashioned turnstiles.

The best part of visiting is going to the lower level to see Vintage subway cars from the past 100 years or so. It’s fun to see the old ads and how details like the seats have changed over time.

Did you know that the windows on the subways used to open?

an early wooden NYC subway car

 

Other rotating and permanent exhibits look at the history, engineering and culture surrounding mass transit in New York City.

Kids aged 10 and up can join adults who are museum members on periodic tours of old City Hall station in Manhattan with its vaulted ceilings and fun history.  Tours sell out fast, so plan ahead.

What age:

When Tween Traveler was a toddler we used to come here in on rainy or cold days to let her wander in and out of the vintage trains. So any age is fine, but if kids are fascinated with trains it helps.

subway T-shirts are a great NYC souvenirWhere is it:

Downtown Brooklyn, not far from the current Borough Hall Transit Hub.

Our Best Tip:

This museum has an especially fun souvenir shop, so be sure to stop in. T-shirts that  feature a subway line matching a person’s first initials make great gifts.

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