We asked my oldest daughter (17-year-old Rachel) where she wanted to go on this, possibly our last family vacation before she goes off to college. She chose New York City, so in spite of my trepidation, we went.
Here’s the thing. I’m from a small Iowa town. A town so small that when we visit Grandma, I tell my kids, “In the extremely unlikely event that you get lost, ask literally anyone where Mary W- lives.” To me, Iowa City is a big city. New York City? The most populous city in the United States? Scary. Also, I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. New York City in the 1970s was not always a happy place. So when my impressionable young brain was forming opinions, that’s what it saw.
Now, whether it’s thanks to the controversial “broken windows” policing, or the removal of lead from gasoline, or the Disneyfication of Times Square, New York is much more family friendly. But it’s hard to shake preconceived notions, much like a veteran of the Viet Nam war probably would have a hard time imaging it as a tourist destination.
I don’t claim to be a travel expert, but I will tell you a few things that I learned about New York City. One, it’s useful to get a CityPass. You save some money, and you also get to jump ahead of lines. We used our CityPasses to see the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial, and the Museum of Natural History. Of those, my favorite was the Statue of Liberty, although we did not get to go up in the crown. (Crown tickets sell out months in advance.)
Smartphone with Maps
It is an absolute must to have a cell phone with decent service in New York City so you can look at Apple Maps or Google maps or whichever map you fancy to find where you need to go. The 17-year-old was right there on her phone, navigating us all. “Okay so we get off at Penn Station and transfer to an uptown train to 53rd.” I have no idea how people without phones navigate this stuff; I didn’t see maps or posted routes anywhere. Once you got on the train you could sometimes see a board lighting up with which stop was next, but that didn’t really help you get around.
We used two Metro cards for the five of us; one could only be swiped four times in a row. You can buy these and refill them at electronic kiosks in every subway station. Also, once you’re on the subway route, you only have to pay once—you can board as many subways as you want, and you don’t pay again until you exit a subway station.
Finding the Rainbow Bagel
It turns out that Rachel’s main goal on our trip to New York City was to get a rainbow bagel, the “Bagel that Broke the Internet,” at the Bagel Store. She helped us find our way to this hole-in-the-wall bagel place in Brooklyn. This is apparently a common pilgrimage for teenage girls, who all seem to have heard of this Rainbow Bagel, in the same way that teenage girls intuitively know all the dance moves and slang.
One regret of the trip is that I wish we had spent more time in Central Park. It was a lovely oasis in the middle of the big city—green and lush and separate, even though you could totally hear cars honking and sirens blaring in the distance. We walked for far too long trying to find Strawberry Fields and the “Imagine” mosaic. But if I had it to do over again, I would take the Pedicab driver up on his offer of expensive transportation.
Make no mistake: New York City is expensive. Everything seems to cost twice as much as it does in Iowa. The deodorant that costs $3.50 in Iowa was $7 at a New York City Walgreen’s. Every time we ate, I winced a little as I handed over my Hawkeye-themed credit card. (Notably, one person thought for a minute that the Tiger Hawk was Batman.) Fortunately, we did save some money on accommodations by staying at an Air BnB in the Bronx. Sure, it was an hour and a half to the city and it took us a bus and at least two subways, but the price was really reasonable and we were able to park our car right in front of the house.
Give it a shot!
We saw zero dance fights, and everyone on the subway either read their book or, more likely, looked at their phone, and ignored us. A few people even offered to help us when we looked lost. And we definitely looked like tourists, from my middle kid’s Hawkeye sweatshirt to my youngest’s Statue of Liberty hat.
I am certain that we did less than 10% of the cool awesome things there are to do in New York City. It is an amazing, bustling place, with people on the go at all hours. It really is a family friendly tourist destination now, and although you should always practice safe travel tips, it’s OK to let go of fears that you will return from a trip to New York City with fewer children than you started with. Odds are pretty good that, like us, you won’t die. And you’ll have a good time.