Recently I took my teenage stepdaughter to New York to celebrate her birthday. I love to travel with my stepkids and knew this would be a weekend trip she would remember forever.
I’ve been there many times over the years, but this was her first trip to New York. It made me smile to watch her take in the energy of the crowded sidewalks and buildings reaching into the sky.
Teens are a different breed. They feel old for some activities, like zoos, and too young for others, like bars and museums. I wanted to give my stepdaughter a good overview of the city, but since this was going to be a trip for her birthday, I wanted to include things she would be interested in. So I gave her a hand in planning the trip, both in advance and once we were there.
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If you’re looking for good guide books for your teens before you go, there are a ton of guide books that provide lots of fun options for sightseeing in this great city. I always like Lonely Planet’s guidebooks – I find them easy to digest. Lonely Planet also has great travel books for kids, but those seem geared at kids younger than a teen.
We decided to stay at The Quin Central Park in the Central Park South area because of the proximity to so many sights. Side note here: We loved this hotel. It was reasonably priced enough (at least by New York standards). The rooms were well-appointed, the bathrooms super modern, and the service impeccable. It’s part of the Hilton network but has a more upscale, boutique feel. I discovered after we had stayed there that Travel + Leisure has named it a Top 5 hotel in New York City. TIP: If you’re a member of Rakuten’s Ebates program, you can get cashback on your reservation with Hilton.
My stepdaughter and I both like to walk, and New York is one of the best cities around to explore on foot. From our great location, we were able to walk to almost everything we wanted to do.
After our trip, she helped me think through what she enjoyed the most and we compiled a list of the most fun things to do with your teen in New York City. There are a million resources out there on New York City, so this is in no way a comprehensive city guide. But I hope it will help you as you plan your trip!
1. City Tour
Times Square lights up the city from the hop on hop off bus tour.
We chose to do a hop on, hop off bus tour. It’s a great way to see the city. When you board the bus for the first time, the tour guide will give you a map of the city so you can track the journey. You can stay on the bus the whole time for a more traditional tour, or you can get off and on again at your leisure at various spots around town.
I wanted to have the tour booked before we arrived in New York and when I looked online, there were a million options. I chose to book our tour through Viator, which is owned by Trip Advisor and has tons of options for experiences and tours in almost every major city. The tour that we bought included admission to One World Observatory, which I’ll discuss more below. TIP: If you reserve through Viator, you should make sure you are a member of the Ebates program and you’ll get 4% back in cash.
2. Broadway Play
Before the weekend, my stepdaughter told me she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to a play. It was actually something along the lines of, “eh, plays are just boring.” So I decided to take matters into my own hands and get a couple of tickets to see Mean Girls. No way she would be bored seeing that!
And I was right. She loved it and definitely wants to see more plays. If Mean Girls is not up your teen’s alley, there are a huge number of other options for plays in New York that will appeal to every interest. And if you’re okay with deciding on the fly, the TKTS booths around town sell same-day tickets. Oftentimes you can get great deals to shows that you might not have been able to get advance tickets for.
3. One World, 9/11 Museum
Before our trip, my stepdaughter had wanted to go to the top of the Empire State Building. But once we arrived in New York and she saw how tall One World Trade Center was, she decided she would rather go there. [sidenote: I absolutely think the Empire State Building is worth visiting, but we only had time for one of the two on this trip. If you decide to do the hop on hop off bus tour, there is an Empire State Building stop for you to check out the iconic landmark.]
One World Trade Center rising high.
If you’re going to spend time at the World Trade Center, you should start with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. The Memorial pools fill the footprints of the original Twin Towers and feature the names of every person who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001.
The 9/11 Museum has thoroughly documented 9/11 through interactive technology and exhibits. It’s a sobering experience, particularly for those of us who lived through that day in either New York or DC.
We have talked with our kids quite a bit about 9/11. They know I was working on Capitol Hill that day, so they’ve asked me a lot of questions. Not only are the memorial and museum the right places to start your trip to the World Trade Center, but they are also moving and somber tributes that should spur some good discussion with your teen.
Once you’ve taken in the memorial and museum, One World Observatory is exactly what you think it will be: an amazing 360-degree view of New York and its surroundings from the top of the tallest building in the western hemisphere. Soaring to 1776 feet, it is a reminder of the optimism and hope in America that rose from tragedy after 9/11.
4. Statue of Liberty
The One World Observatory provides a great view of the Statue of Liberty, but if you want to get more up close and personal, you have a couple of options depending on the amount of time you have. You can go out to Lady Liberty herself and explore. There are a number of operators that run boat tours out there, and a number of them include stops at Ellis Island.
Going out to the statue and exploring will take several hours, so if you have time constraints, another option is to take a boat tour of Manhatten. The boat tours provide great photo ops of the city skyline and fantastic, up-close views of Lady Liberty from the water.
I would recommend checking out Viator for a number of options to see the Statue of Liberty – there are a lot!
5. Central Park
There is so much to do in Central Park, no matter what time of year you’re there. Tavern on the Green is an iconic restaurant located in the park and a fun place to stop in for a hot chocolate for your teen (or a hot toddy for you) on a cold day. Wollman Rink has offered ice skating since 1949. There’s nothing like ice skating in Central Park to bring out the kid in all of us.
The Bethesda Fountain is one of the most well-known in the world, and the Bandshell has been hosting outdoor concerts, speeches, and plays since 1862. And Strawberry Fields is a quiet space in the park to relax.
If you’re going to be in the park on a weekend morning, I highly recommend breakfast at The Loeb Boathouse, which I also mention below.
If you’ve seen a movie set in New York City, chances are you’ve seen a scene set in Central Park. So if your teen is a movie-lover, you could explore some of the sites in the park that have been popular for filming.
Even if all you decide to do in the park is to take a long walk, it’s a nice respite from the city streets, especially on a crisp spring morning.
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I’m going to admit something to y’all here that makes me a little ashamed. Of all the amazing galleries and museums in New York, I did not take my stepdaughter to a single one on this trip. Not one. I intended to, I really did. But we got caught up in sightseeing and shopping and eating and, well, it just didn’t happen.
Then why did I include museums on this list? Because New York has some of the world’s best and you should not do what we did! MoMA, the Met, the American Museum of Natural History, the Whitney. You could plan a trip to New York just around museums.
I told my stepdaughter that we would definitely plan another trip to New York and that when we did, we would be visiting a museum (or two. or three.).
There are endless options for shopping in New York. Normally when I travel, I like to shop in stores that we don’t have in my city. But I make an exception in New York because even the stores we have here in the DC area are on a whole other level in New York. I swear the flagship Lululemon on 5th Avenue is ten times bigger than the one closest to us here in Northern Virginia.
My stepdaughter received some birthday money from grandparents and others, so I took her to Bloomingdale’s, where she decided to buy a Longchamp purse she had been wanting for a while. She loved the idea of coming home with something in “the big brown bag” from Bloomingdale’s as a birthday gift/souvenir from a fun weekend.
Even if you are only window shopping, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman are worth it for their elaborately intricate windows. Macy’s, home of the famous Thanksgiving parade, also has great windows and almost always has some sort of sale going on.
The weekend we were there, New York’s first Neiman Marcus opened at the new Hudson Yards development. It goes without saying that the Neiman’s was built in true New York style and is larger than life. But Hudson Yards itself has a lot to explore, including shops, restaurants, and the Vessel, a new landmark meant to be climbed and explored. With 154 interconnected flights of stairs, it has great views of the city – and plenty of Snap-worthy photo ops for your teen.
View of “the vessel” from inside New York’s first Neiman Marcus.
There is enough information about the many neighborhoods in New York to fill any number of posts, so here I’ll just say that each area of New York has its own distinctive personality, which is reflected in its shopping and makes each area fun to visit.
New York is a city where you can still find an amazing used book store next to a cool vintage clothing store, all down the street from a local coffee joint. I always enjoy wandering around Soho and finding some of those non-big-box stores.
But it’s just as fun to walk the streets of the Upper West Side, or Greenwich Village, or the Meatpacking District, among others, to see what you might stumble upon.
And each neighborhood can make for fun discussions with your teen. I talked with my stepdaughter about how each neighborhood in New York City has a different feel and energy, so every time we ventured into a new one, we talked about similarities and differences we noticed.
New York has an endless number of markets on the weekends. Whether you’re looking for antiques, flea market treasures, handmade candles, food, or clothes, there’s a market for you. My stepdaughter loves looking at vintage and thrift clothes, so we wandered through a couple and she came home with some great finds.
If you’re interested in checking out one of the many markets around town, I would recommend doing some online research to figure out what areas of town you might want to explore and then take a look at the markets are there. And chances are, if you’re wandering around the city on a weekend, you’ll stumble upon one or two while you’re walking around!
8. Mani-Pedi or Blowout
I’m a big fan of fitting in a little pampering when you’re on a trip. New York is known for its nail salons, so if you’re there with your teen daughter, why not fit in a little quality bonding time while relaxing? For nails, I like New York Nails & Spa in the Central Park South area. And Drybar is always a great choice if you want a pick-me-up for your hair before a fun dinner.
9. Experience New York Food
There are simply too many amazing restaurants in New York than I can include in this little list. So I’ll just mention a few categories and restaurants that we loved:
Delicious Belgian waffles and fruit at the Loeb Boathouse
Although brunch did not begin in New York, New Yorkers have definitely made it an art form. I love lingering over a long brunch when I’m in the city and there are so many spots to choose from. My stepdaughter and I enjoyed brunch at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park – her waffles were to die for. I also love the omelets at Sarabeth’s Central Park South location (59th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues).
In my humble opinion, New York pizza is best enjoyed on the go, folding your slice over and savoring its dripping cheese over a thin paper plate. Ray’s Pizza is the most ubiquitous of the chains you’ll see around the city. But once you start looking for pizza, you’ll notice small pizza shops on almost every block. There really are more options than you can imagine. There are even a number of “best of” lists that focus on pizza establishments. You really can’t go wrong wherever you decide to try a slice.
Like pizza, New York bagels are a must to try. There has been much debate over the years about why the bagels in New York are so much better than they are anywhere else. Whatever it is, you can’t leave the city without trying one and almost any deli you stop in will suffice. We got our first bagels of the weekend in the form of breakfast sandwiches at Metro Cafe on West 56th. With egg, bacon, and cheese enveloped inside a delightfully doughy bagel, they were pure perfection. Ess-a-bagel on 3rd Avenue is also known for its chewy masterpieces.
New York is truly a great city to explore with a teen. They are old enough to retain and cherish the memories you’ll make, and are young enough to still be awed by all the city has to offer.
There are loads of other things to do that we didn’t get to list here. If you’ve been to New York with your teen, what are some of your favorite things to do? Comment below!!