Whether you’re just visiting New York City with your kids or trying to raise them here, you’re bound to find you have a few hours to kill and not a clue about how to do it. What’s worse is that New York has a cottage industry of expensive touristy diversions that prey on your desperation. Don’t let that pressure drive you. Instead, when your child invokes the inevitable “Now what are we doing?” question, try one of these last-minute ideas that, not incidentally, won’t break the bank.
The park less traveled
Before you write off the Upper East Side as a wasteland of restaurants, galleries and nail salons, head over to Carl Schurz Park, adored by neighborhood residents but in the context of out-of-towner awareness, a hidden gem. You’ll love walking the breezy promenade along the East River amid sunbathers, bike-riders, and stroller-pushers, and your kids will particularly enjoy watching locals exercise their canines in two popular, enclosed dog runs. At the 84th Street end of the park there’s a playground with climbing equipment, swings, and other diversions.
Do the time warp
New York City is perpetually under construction, so our history can be difficult to see without the aid of a time warp. Lucky for you we have one. The little fleet down at the South Street Seaport Historic District will help take you and your kids back to the days when the city was a nautical town and pirates roamed the cobblestone streets. The square-riggers with looming masts, weekend concerts, and storyteller performances lend a decidedly loose structure to a low-key family stroll. This jaunt is about as simple and inexpensive as it gets, but if the salty air somehow gives you a hankering for national chain retailers, the multi-level mall Pier 17 is nearby. Getting here is cheap and easy. Hop a city bus — our favorite is the southbound M15 on 2nd Avenue. It’s more scenic than speedy. If you’re pressed for time, hop the 4/5 train on the East Side or the 2/3 across town and disembark at the Fulton Street/Broadway Nassau station.
Yeah, that’s the TKT
If you’re a multi-tasker and want to take a bit of the spontaneity out of your last-minute experiences, bear in mind that South Street Seaport has a TKTS Discount Booth where you can score same-day evening theater tickets at 25%–50% off the usual price. The Seaport outpost carries matinee tickets as well, but only for the following day; the midtown Duffy Square location sells same-day matinee seats, among other offerings. If you’re in doubt about which musicals or plays are family friendly, avail yourself beforehand of the TDF Show Search, whose drop-down menu includes an “age guidance” option that sorts shows by age appropriateness.
That thing’s still alive
A smelly bucket of tiny live crabs may not get you in the mood for lunch, but the sight of one of those little suckers trying to escape across the sidewalk is an image your kids won’t soon forget. This cuisine in action is part of the allure of the markets on the blocks above Canal Street in Chinatown, which draws tourists in search of kitschy trinkets and they-work-for-now gadgets. But there’s more to Chinatown than that. The neighborhood’s main drag, Mott Street, is thick with restaurants, bakeries, and interesting shops. And if you have picky eaters among you, randomly sampling savory dumplings at a dim sum place can increase your chances of hitting on a plate of something acceptable without spending a lot to find it. A good bet for dim sum is Ping’s Seafood, and one of the best meal deals in all of Chinatown is Dumpling House (118A Eldridge St.), where pork dumplings are five for a dollar.
Dogs in the Village
For New Yorkers, a pushcart hot dog is the classic six-bite, last-minute lunch, and for visitors it’s almost a rite of passage. But if you’re looking for a frank with some snap, head over to the Greenwich Village outpost of Gray’s Papaya. Without a doubt it’s one of the most inexpensive and pleasurable ways to people watch in the West Village. This Gray’s is our favorite, but there are also branches at 539 Eighth Ave. (37th St.) and 2090 Broadway (72nd St.) A single frank is $1.25, but spring for the “Recession Special” (two dogs and a drink for $3.50) so you can introduce your kids to the heavenly nectar that is Gray’s ice-cold papaya juice.
Do your kids have the patience or desire to properly scour MoMA? Do you? Before you decide how honestly you’d answer that, consider that a walk-through of the airy and undeniably interesting MoMA Design Store is an undemanding and quick way for the family to ogle pieces of modern art and design. Sure, the Frank Lloyd Wright furniture reproductions are fun to look at, but what will really grab the kids’ attention are the fiendishly clever little trinkets, especially the funky office supplies that don’t always look like office supplies. This spot combines the appeal of a cool museum and a toy store without automatically triggering your child’s “please, I want this so badly” response. But be forewarned: you can easily spend a fortune knocking off your New York-centric-gift shopping here.
The house that Ruth built
If the Yankees are facing either the Mets or the Red Sox, chances are you’re not going to saunter up to the Yankee Stadium box office on game day and snag seats. But if you’re in town during baseball season (April-September), don’t underestimate how accessible a Yankee game can be at the last minute. You can often show up at game time or a few innings in and get tickets, especially for the beloved bleacher seats (on game day, $12 apiece). And Mets and Sox fans as well as skeptics of the supernatural may deny it, but there will be a moment — it might come when you first emerge from the interior corridor into the open stadium, or when the Yankees get their first run — when you’ll feel a little bit of magic. Trust us, you just have to be there to know.
Paul Eisenberg, a Fodor’s editorial director, father of three, and native New Yorker, has field tested all of these last-minute excursions. He previously wrote about mistakes to avoid on family road trips and while dining out with kids.