Bagels! Ballet! Dinosaurs! Central Park! New York City has it all; here’s how to make the most of it with your kids
The recent “Bomb Cyclone” notwithstanding, there is something quite magical about winter in New York City, particularly when you visit with kids – and especially with kids used to Singapore’s year-round balminess.
Even my super jet-lagged 3-year-old, fresh off a flight from Singapore, couldn’t help but twirl around in the snow while she tried to catch snowflakes on her tongue. Over four days in December, we packed in what felt like a month’s worth of activities – from the ballet, to sipping hot chocolate, to scrambling up snow-covered rocks in our little-used winter boots. And here’s the good news, mamas: winter in NYC will last for another three months at least, should you want a break from sweltering Singers (and of course it’s never too early to start planning for next Christmas). Here’s where to stay, what to do, and, crucially for New York, what to eat!
Where we stayed
New York City was the last place I lived before my husband and I moved abroad nine years ago, so I know its neighborhoods fairly well. On repeat visits in subsequent years we’ve stayed in hotels all over Manhattan, as well as with friends in Brooklyn, and while each neighborhood has its charms and merits, our recent stay at Mandarin Oriental, New York blew everything else away. I’m not sure any hotel comes close in terms of convenience, service, and amenities – particularly if you’re visiting with kids. This was our first trip as a family of four, and while I had my concerns about all staying in a single hotel room, we were extremely comfortable (and grateful to have daily housekeeping!).
First and foremost, Central Park, perhaps New York’s most appealing and popular attraction, is right at your doorstep. One of the most iconic spots in America, it spans more than 800 acres in the heart of the city. I could honestly spend a week just walking around the park – it’s the perfect place to wear out energetic kiddos, particularly with its plethora of playgrounds, its winter ice skating, and the famous Central Park Zoo (calling all Madagascar fans!).
Not only does the Mandarin Oriental abut the park’s bustling Southwest corner (you could actually flag down a horse-drawn carriage if you so wished!), but many of its rooms overlook the gorgeous park, providing some of the most stunning views you’re likely to find in this concrete jungle.
We actually stayed in a 39sqm Premier Central Park View Room. Each morning at dawn, jetlagged Maggie loved watching the city come to life below, counting the horse-drawn carriages in the park, watching helicopters on the horizon, and excitedly pointing out yellow taxis and flashing police cars. We had plenty of space for a King-size bed, a rollaway for Maggie, and a complimentary crib for Baby Tad (to say nothing of all our luggage and accumulated shopping bags!).
We selected the hotel in part based on its Young Fans program, which seeks to inspire a sense of exploration in kiddos and make their visit magical. Maggie and Tad each received a plush and cuddly MO Panda toy; older kids also receive a “Pocket Panda” activity book that helps them check off NYC’s top sights and activities.
The hotel also provided us with all sorts of kid-friendly in-room amenities, from fun bath toys and child-size robes and slippers, to a diaper genie and bottle warmer for the baby. Although we didn’t make use of it, the hotel can even arrange stroller rental if need be. And kiddos will also love that there’s an indoor swimming pool!
Of course, as great as Mandarin Oriental was for the kids, it’s a luxury hotel with massive appeal for grownups, too. Its newly-opened bar, The Aviary, offers small plates and designer cocktails to go along with killer views. It’s one of the hottest spots in the city at the moment, and hotel guests get first crack at reservations. Two of New York’s top fine dining restaurants – Perse from celebrity chef Thomas Keller, and Japanese emporium Masa – are next door in the Shops at Columbus Circle. And of course the hotel also has a world-class spa that’s ideal for banishing jet lag!
Speaking of, my husband and I were too tired to go out much at night, so perhaps our favorite feature of the stay was the proximity of Whole Foods, the legendary American grocery store. Located in the basement of the Shops at Columbus Circle (a 1-minute walk from the hotel entrance), Whole Foods offers a gorgeous array of fresh fruits and yummy organic goodness unlike anything you’ll see in Singapore, to say nothing of its massive prepared foods section (with everything from pizza, to gourmet sandwiches, to soups and make-your-own salads). We grabbed more than one meal from Whole Foods, and also picked up lots of kid-friendly snacks.
Things to do with kids
Besides Central Park, there were heaps of other kid-friendly activities a short walk or subway ride away (The Mandarin Oriental is right on top of 59th Street/Columbus Circle, home to six different subway lines, with 57th Street Station and four more lines just two blocks away).
Maggie is fairly obsessed with The Nutcracker, so as a special treat we caught a showing at the New York City Ballet. Both it and the American Ballet Theatre are based at Lincoln Center, the city’s cultural hub that’s also home to the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. All of this is just four short blocks north of the hotel at West 64th and Broadway; two blocks south you’ll find legendary concert space Carnegie Hall, and two subway stops away are the bright lights of Broadway.
While I caught a Broadway show with a friend, my husband took the kids to the American Museum of Natural History, just two subway stops north of the hotel at West 81st Street. Maggie LOVED looking at the giant dinosaur fossils, and also enjoyed a current exhibition on Humpback Whales. The museum is one of America’s cultural marvels; you could visit a dozen times and not exhaust its immense resources. It’s such a treat for kids (or grownups!) of any age.
With our fill of culture, we of course had to balance our trip out with some of New York’s legendary shopping. Two of the city’s most famous luxury department stores – Barney’s New York and Bergdorf Goodman – are within walking distance of the Mandarin Oriental, with Saks Fifth Avenue just one stop away on the B/D train. With relatively warm temps, we strolled from Saks to Bloomingdales, where the kids had their photo taken with Santa Claus (free of charge with no wait at all, such a change from Singapore!).
New York’s sample sales are one of the things I miss most about living in the city, but in general you’re always likely to find some sort of sale going on, even at the department stores. A particular highlight for this mama was the shoe sale at Bergdorf Goodman, where racks and racks of Jimmy Choos, Christian Louboutins, Manolo Blahniks and more were on sale for up to 60% off. Merry Christmas to me!
Besides the department stores, you’ll find wonderful independent boutiques and chains all over the city. Head to Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, or SoHo downtown, for lots of fab boutique shopping.
Where (and What) to Eat
I’m not sure any city on earth compares to New York for its range of awesome dining options, from a $1 bagel or $2 slice of pizza, to 12-course tasting menus from America’s top chefs (FYI the Zagat guide and Infatuation are my two go-tos for restaurant reviews!). One thing is for certain: kid-friendly dining options abound!
A must-visit for me (and now Maggie) on any trip to NYC is Ess-a-Bagel, located at East 50th Street and 3rd Avenue. You won’t find a doughier, chewier bagel anywhere in NYC, and the dizzying array of yummy cream cheese flavors (blueberry! Chocolate chip! Jalapeno!) and sandwich options is unparalleled. I was a bit dismayed to discover on this trip that lines to get in now stretch out the door, but here are two important hacks, mama: 1) If you only want a bagel and coffee (not a sandwich), head straight inside to the “Bagel Express” line. 2) You can now place orders online, then swing by the shop to pick them up. So much better than standing outside in the cold for an hour. (And yet, I love their bagels enough that it’s still kind of worth the wait!)
Brunch is another New York City institution. On this trip we had a particularly delicious one at Shuka in the Village. Their Instagram-famous Chocolate Babka French Toast is no joke!
Another place my husband and I return to on every trip is Balthazar, a stylish French brasserie in SoHo that’s popular with everyone from tourists to fashionistas. We particularly love going at breakfast time – the pastries and hot dishes are to die for – and if you arrive early (which you will be doing if you have jetlagged kids!), there’s plenty of seating available. I also love that they have a comfortable seating area downstairs near the restrooms, which is perfect if you’re feeding a baby (New York definitely lags way behind Singapore in terms of convenient nursing rooms. In fact they’re basically non-existent).
Pizza in New York is very much a matter of personal preference, but a few stalwarts that are universally popular include Grimaldi’s (especially the original location by the Brooklyn Bridge), Patsy’s, Di Fara, and John’s of Bleecker Street. For the quintessential takeaway New York slice, I love Joe’s Pizza downtown at Carmine Street, as there’s a nice park right there where you can sit and just watch the city go by as you munch.
You can seriously find every kind of cuisine at every price point in NYC, but a few other family-friendly spots I’d recommend include Rosa Mexicano (there’s one location just around the corner from the Mandarin Oriental, with a great kids’ menu), Bubby’s (handily adjacent to the super-cool High Line park), Chelsea Market (ditto), Carmine’s on the Upper West Side (the Times Square location in a tourist trap), and Jackson Hole diner on the East Side.
Jetlagged, bleary-eyed parents can find coffee just about anywhere, from Dunkin Donuts (my personal fave) or Starbucks on seemingly every corner, to those ubiquitous Greek-style coffee cups that you can grab from street cart vendors for around $1 (just like you see on Law & Order!). If you’re a coffee snob and/or not American and prefer a headier cup of joe, try Australian-style spots like Two Hands, Little Collins, Café Grumpy or even Toby’s Estate. For a truly delicious hot chocolate (such a treat when you’re walking around outside on a cold winter’s day), make a beeline for Jacques Torres.
Getting Around & Other Fast Facts
Chances are you’ll fly into JFK International Airport if you travel to NYC from Singapore. Consider yourself warned: Changi it is not. To get into the city, taxis charge a flat fare of US$52 plus tolls and a $4.50 rush hour surcharge (payable by cash or credit card). You can also get into the city by subway via the AirTrain, although with young kids and lots of suitcases I would not recommend the hassle and 90-minute+ trip. Uber Car Seat is also available in New York (yay!).
Once in the city, the subway will take you just about everywhere. Again, this is not exactly our sparkling SMRT (check out this recent, damning report on how decrepit the system is overall), but when trains are running on time it is fast, convenient, and very cheap ($3 will get you anywhere in the city; if you’re there for a few days I’d recommend getting a 7-day unlimited ride card for $32). Up to three children 44 inches (112cm) tall and under can ride free on subways and local buses when accompanied by a fare paying adult.
Consider yourself warned: If you’re planning to ride the subway, ditch the stroller and opt for a baby carrier. Few stations have elevators or escalators, and you don’t want to be schlepping carriages up and down narrow stairways all day.
New York’s yellow taxis are ubiquitous and easy to flag down – you can hail one from just about anywhere (don’t look for taxi stands like we have here), but if you’re in a pinch I’d suggest walking to a hotel and having a doorman get one for you.
As aforementioned, nursing rooms are sadly few and far between in New York (and in America in general). On more than one occasion, kindly store clerks directed me to their fitting rooms; if you’re in a restaurant and feel uncomfortable nursing publicly, chances are your only other option will be the bathroom.
Ubiquitous Duane Reade and CVS drugstores are handy for just about anything, whether you need diapers, or snacks, or an ATM machine. You’ll see them pretty much everywhere in Manhattan.
On this trip New York truly lived up to its reputation as the City That Never Sleeps – because my kids were waking up with jet lag, I witnessed firsthand how the city’s twinkling lights and streaking traffic are going 24/7. I also loved meandering around Rockefeller Center as late as 11pm (my husband was back in the room with the kids), mingling with the throngs who’d come to see the nation’s biggest Christmas tree or go ice skating on the iconic rink. Bundle yourself up in a fabulous coat, mama, pack your favorite pair of boots, and start planning your winter escape!
Rooms at the Mandarin Oriental, New York start from US$695 per night, plus tax. Click here for current room offers!