NEW YORK • New York City is one of the most exciting places on earth. But its frenetic buzz can be daunting to family travel planners (i.e. Mom).
With a smart itinerary, Manhattan is one of the most entertaining and educational American pilgrimages a family can make. Sure, it's expensive. But it's cheaper than Disney.
A little orientation. Manhattan is a small island — 13½ miles long, 2¼ miles wide. Avenues run north and south, and the streets run east to west. The subway roughly follows this layout, too. Public transportation is almost always your best bet: traffic, especially around tourist areas, is brutal. Prepare to walk, as New Yorkers do, or take the train or bus.
Here's an action plan to get you started.
STEP ONE: LODGING
This will be your biggest challenge. Lodging is expensive; space is precious. If you don't like my recommendations, I've had good luck on priceline.com bidding on 3-stars or above (just make sure everyone has space to sleep comfortably).
Budget • Best Western Plus Hospitality House in Midtown is just steps from Rockefeller Center, Broadway theaters and Fifth Avenue shopping. More than 30 oversize suites include free hot breakfast, kitchenettes, separate bedrooms and living rooms, all for $269-$412. Outstanding value. hospitalityhouseny.com
Midprice • I spent a few nights at the Carlton, a renovated 1904 gem in the NoMad area, close to Mario Batali's Eataly, the Flatiron Building and Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles. Spacious rooms and nicely located with a New York Yesterday and Today travel package for $599 for a family of four in addition to room rate (starts at $259). Includes many NYC attractions and guided tours. Carltonhotelny.com.
High end • If you've got a big budget, take a look (subscribe to email alerts for deals) at the Peninsula New York. Breathtaking views from their rooftop bar, a classy spa with an unheard-of Manhattan hotel pool, chauffeured Mini Cooper with some rooms, and within a block of FAO Schwartz, Central Park and Fifth Avenue shopping. No classier repose in the city, with impeccable service. Doubles from $795 to $1,195; connecting suites from $995 to $9,500; peninsula.com.
STEP TWO: BOOK AN ORIENTATION TOUR
Get to know the city on Day One.
I like double-decker bus tours such as Gray Line New York, with several route options. When the kids get antsy, just hop off and walk a bit, then hop back on later. (From $44; graylinenewyork.com).
Though they don't provide as much street orientation, cruises offer a break from claustrophobic Manhattan streets. Circle Line's 75-minute cruise gives a great up-close look at the Statue of Liberty, too ($19-$27; circleline42.com). Circle Line's got a great location next to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum (intrepidmuseum.org), which just received the space shuttle Enterprise as one of its ship and aircraft exhibits.
STEP THREE: BOOK A SPECIALTY TOUR
To cut down on aimless wandering, book a tour covering your greatest area of interest. Some ideas:
Foodies • Famous Fat Dave's Eating Tours are expensive but worth it if you're a chowhound. Famous Fat Dave picks you up in his classic checker cab at your hotel, then shuttles you to food stops themed around your interests, as he's done for folks like Anthony Bourdain. ($200 for the first eater, and $100 per additional, for a two-hour tour, everything included; kids free; Famousfatdave.com)
Ethnic • The three-hour ExploreChinatown Food and Culture Walking Tour is among the city's best and suitable for families. ($65; foodsofny.com)
Shopping • Self-guided ShopNYC Tours design itineraries with fun themes like Fashionista Faves and Recessionista. ($14.95. Guided tours available; shop-nyctours.com)
History • An actor portraying a 13-year-old immigrant leads visitors through a restored tenement on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum "Meet Victoria" tours. Kids love it. (Adults $22, kids $17; tenement.org).
STEP FOUR: BOOK A SHOW
Any solid NYC itinerary includes a theater production. My recommendations:
• "Traces." A family-oriented option for fans of Blue Man Group and Cirque de Soleil.
• "Newsies." This musical inspired by the 1899 newsboys strike is a big family hit.
STEP FIVE: ROUND OUT YOUR ITINERARY
Now fill in your itinerary with other attractions. Consider simplifying with a CityPass, which offers six attractions (Empire State Building, American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum or Top of the Rock, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Circle Line Cruise) for $89 at citypass.com/new-york.
Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building • Empire (esbnyc.org, arrive early) is the classic. Rockefeller (rockefellercenter.com) can be paired with an NBC studio tour.
9/11 Site and National September 11 Memorial Museum • It's worth it. Free, but book online 24 hours in advance. 911memorial.org
Ellis Island Immigration Museum • Visitors are treated like a "new arrival" in the 45-minute audio tour; several tours available. (FYI: the Statue of Liberty is closed for renovations until the end of the year). Free, but the ferry costs. ellisisland.org.
Grand Central Terminal • Stroll this magnificent main concourse, voted best building by New York magazine, with its marble floor, chandeliers, Whispering Gallery and the astronomical ceiling mural (25,000 stars!). Audio tours at grandcentralterminal.com/info/AudioTour.cfm.
Chelsea Market • Home of the Food Network, with vintage shops, fantastic lunch spots and bakeries. Chelseamarket.com
City dining • It's all about your preference, but when visiting the city with family, I recommend classic street food — hot dogs, halal, pizza slices. Shaves the budget and adds adventure to the ride.