New York City Family Guide: Midtown East and West

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Midtown is a bustling part of town with lots of shops, offices, landmarks and tourist attractions.  The boundaries are 34th street to 59th Street from the East River to 5th Avenue on the East side and Central Park West to the Hudson River on the West.  It’s not the part of town where I take pleasant and contemplative strolls. It is busy. Especially during the work day when people are walking with fury and purpose to lunch dates, meetings, appointments or to hop on hop off tourist bus loading stops. The Empire State Building, Macy’s Herald Square, The United Nations, Bryant Park, and Grand Central Station plus countless shops and restaurants all rest in Midtown. There are many great places to visit with the kids but it is not, as I said, an area to quietly and freely explore like you would want to in West Village for example. A neighborhood where you can wander up, down, through and around cobble stone streets discovering somewhere new every time you go. Oh, I love the west village.

But, back to midtown. There are places you should know about. Let’s start on the East side.

One of my favorite combo activities as of this trip is riding the Roosevelt Island Tram and getting frogurt at Bloomingdales.  I have not ridden the tram in years, like since I was a kid.  I had a fear of heights and panic attack issues in my twenties so the tram was not my go-to hang out.  Now that I can experience joy and excitement though my childrens’ eyes it’s much easier to dangle in a box 250ft over the East river.   The newly built Four Freedoms park at the tip of the island has become a venue for out-door yoga classes, social gatherings and major events like Hilary Clinton’s Rally this past June. In contrast to the new park grounds the ruins, yes ruins, of Renwick hospital, a building dedicated to treating smallpox patients in the mid 1800’s rest here and were declared a NYC landmark in 1975. Read more about the history here.

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Depending on how much time you have,  you could either ride the tram, disembark then pay the return fare and immediately head back to Manhattan or you could pack a snack, check out the cute souvenir shop, and take a stroll along the promenade to the edge of the island before returning to Manhattan. You’ll get unique views of the city and it’s quiet and calm.  A good place for a pleasant, contemplative stroll me thinks. The park and ruins are worth a visit if you have the time. Did I mention that you can do this with two swipes of your Metrocard? That’s right. Since the tram is part of the city transit system you can use your Metrocard. Awesome. Anything that is cool and cheap makes my list.

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Frogurt!

When you get off the tram on the Manhattan side you are 2 blocks from Bloomingdales. Forty Carrots, the 7th floor cafe that serves their exclusive frozen yogurt aptly called Frogurt is Da bomb as the kids say. People either love (like me) or hate (like my husband) this stuff. Turns out the kids like it so we indulge. Majority rules!  We get the plain flavor which is so perfectly tart and unlike any other frozen yogurt I’ve had.  Actually, I don’t eat frozen yogurt other than frogurt but I assert because of its cult following that it’s special. We are able to get in and out of Bloomingdales quickly because I don’t even attempt to shop in a department store when with the family.  You may not be as lucky if it’s during sale season.

If you’re so inclined on the way out, Magnolia Bakery, made famous from the HBO series Sex and The City, opened an outpost on the ground floor of Bloomies that is always packed.  Personally, I don’t get the hype. The cupcakes are fine but I just don’t get what the fuss is about. To me it’s a tourist trap.  If you want really great cupcakes head to the Cupcake Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. but more about that later.

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Views from the promenade at Roosevelt Island.

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Renwick Hospital ruins.

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Dedication wall at Four Freedoms Park.

Let’s move south and west to Grand Central Station.  Grand Central is one of my favorite buildings in the city. It is simply put, gorgeous. I used to take a Metro North train from the city up to White Plains when I was working there after college.  The 125th street stop was closer to my apartment but the experience of taking the train from Grand Central was not lost on me.  So I took the longer way. I’m still fascinated by how people rush through everyday to get to work or to catch their train home and wonder if they have ever stopped to just look up.  When you are a New Yorker you don’t give as much thought to the things and places that attract people from all over the world. Grand Central is my exception. The light fixtures, the floors, the constellation on the ceiling, the shops, the people, the trains, the energy. It is a place to behold. In recent years they have tried to made it more of a destination outside of its practical purpose as a transportation hub by adding an extensive “food court” downstairs for neighborhood workers, an amazing market where the most discerning cooks shop for provisions and some cool and unique retail shops.  Kidding Around is a great toy shop and Cursive is my favorite for unique gifts. There is also an Apple store rather discreetly tucked into the upper mezzanine on the east side if you need to stop in for the lastest tech gadget.The NYC transit store is the perfect spot for souvenirs and around the holidays they set up their amazing model train set which all kids love to watch. Seeing the actual trains chug in and out of the station is pretty mesmerizing for the children as well. The conductors and ticket collectors on the platform are happy to take pictures with enthusiastic kids despite their often surly looking faces. In fact in our experience it makes them light up with pride and purpose. Don’t forget to check out the whispering wall outside of the Oyster bar. Talk into one corner and your kids can hear your whisper in the opposite corner.

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My favorite light fixtures at Grand Central and the whispering wall.

The New York City Public Library Flagship branch is an exemplary Beaux Arts style building adjacent to Bryant Park. The Library is the perfect place to take shelter from the elements no matter the time of year.  There is a great children’s area to explore, story time and events year round. Bryant Park is pretty amazing too. The website is comprehensive, up to date and has a detailed schedule of activities and events throughout the year. It’s the perfect destination to combine with a trip to the library. There is a carousel, arts and crafts and drawing classes for children 9 and up through Art Cart, putting greens, and an ice skating rink during the winter months. They also show movies in the park. I’ll leave you to determine age and time appropriateness. It can get hot and crowded in the Summer when everybody wants to dine al fresco. Pack a lunch or grab something at Shack Shack and head to a quieter park on 43rd Street between 8th-9th Avenues. There is a playground, picnic tables and a sprinkler so the kidlets can eat and burn off some steam. While we’re on the subject of sprinklers I usually carry kids swimsuits a hand towel and change of clothes. You never know when you’re going to happen upon a park with a sprinkler and when it’s 90 degrees and humid it’s hard for the kids to pass up.

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Bryant Park behind the NY Public Library.

Between 34th-59th streets on Fifth Ave you will encounter a plethora of stores. From tourist trinket and souvenirs shops to the iconic Saks Fifth Avenue and everything in between. Seriously. H&M, Zara, Abercrombie and Fitch, Prada, Bendels, Gucci, Sephora,The NBA store, Uniqlo, and many other retailers have flagship locations along this stretch. Across from Saks is Rockerfeller Center. I have never taken a tour here or gone to the Top Of The Rock but you can if you want to.  The ice skating rink is actually pretty cool to visit in the winter months and I’m a sucker for going to see the tree once it’s set up during the holidays.  Oh, and Lego has an insane store there which most kids go nuts over.

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Last day at the Bjork Retrospective at MOMA. She may be gone but Starry Night and Water Lilies aren’t going anywhere.

You’ll be happy to know that The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is just a hop skip and jump from many of the aforementioned shops. I don’t know about you but taking my kids to museums in about 1000 times easier and more enjoyable than dragging them into stores. If you’re able, tag team with another adult in your group. Take the kids to MOMA and see some incredible world renown art, wander the sculpture garden, check out the gift shop for souvenirs then split up and take turns shopping while the other take the kids for a snack or to the amazing play space for children at the museum. I encourage you to check out the family resources on their website (see link below). There are so many activities and opportunities for children of all ages to explore. A Play area, workshops, tours geared towards children, films and more.

In a nutshell. These are my picks.

Thankful for: Libraries and Museums for the countless hours of enjoyment they can provide.

Wanting: Time to freely explore more dining options in this area.

I’ve learned: No matter what you already know and love there is always more to know and love.

 

 

 

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