Skip to content

How to do 2 fun days in New York with teens

New York Skyline, New York with teens

What to do in New York with teens?

Two full days is not a very long time to spend in the Big Apple when you look at the size of the New York guidebooks, or enter “things to do in New York” into Google. We had been before but were still like children in an enormous candy store. The plan was to book one main thing for each day and have a sprinkling of extra top up ideas in case there was any energy left in the bank. Narrowing the options down to 2 was going to be hard! A variety of different transport options would spice things up along the way.

Fortunately, a boat trip to The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were top of everyone’s list for day one. Factoring in teen animal  interests, for day 2 it was a toss-up between the live variety at zoo and the stuffed ones at the museum. The added bonus of the American history/ culture angle meant the museum won. Also we do get zoo-based lions at home.  The fact that we were big fans of the Night at the Museum films meant it would be like meeting the stars and touring the set.  

These 2 activities just about used up the time/money allocation. Throwing in an opportunity to wander around downtown and Times Square, meant the bones of an itinerary were in place. It would have been great to have added in a horse drawn carriage around Central Park and the Friends experience but we’ll just have to go back for those.

Food-wise, we knew diners, bagels and pizza had to feature (ideally the $1/slice variety).

New York arrival

The USA opened for international travel about 2 months before we set of, and was still open on our travel day (unlike the previous 2 years when departure dates had come and gone, the borders remaining firmly closed for business).

Very handily for the novice out-of-towner, there is a fixed fare for taxis from JFK airport to downtown, so no need to worry about being ripped off or being too scared to look at the spinning meter. Also, the costs of public transport x 4 adults can rarely beat a taxi airport transfer anyway. Budget and time were both pointing to a take-it-easy option here.

Bleary eyed, we watched the incredible New York night skyline emerge out of the darkness, before enveloping us its twinkly lights.

New York accommodation for teens?– Hilton Millennium United Nations

Hilton New York
This is not a mirror image - it was this big

Booking with teens, a double room will suffice in the US, as they usually come with 2 double beds. New York is however known for the premium it puts on space. Last time we were here with just the 2 of us we could hardly open the door to get out of the room.

With all 4 of us cooped up for 3 nights, and a birthday treat thrown in for good measure, surely it made sense to check out 2-bedroom options?

We had spent several years building up Hilton rewards waiting for the trip to start, so part paying with points, we struck gold, finding a suite with indisputably the best view in town, for a remarkable $100pn. This was quite simply the best room we had ever stayed in, with sweeping vistas across the city from every floor-to-ceiling window: like a post card or a closing film credit.

Rather than our usual wall/car park view, we could gaze out over the East River from the living room and then watch the Chrysler and Empire state buildings light up at night from the bedroom. Oh, and the actual United Nations was across the road from the lobby. We felt like movie stars.

New York teen Activities

AccommodationMillennium Hilton New York One UN Plaza
Day 1Ellen’s Stardust singing diner (from approx. $25 pp)
Central Park
American Museum of Natural History ($23pp)
Times Square
Day 2Ferry to downtown
Wall Street skyscrapers
Statue of liberty (pedestal ticket - $23.40pp)

Day 1 - Diners, Parks, Museums and Time

Ellen’s Stardust singing diner - New York with teens activity 1

Wanting to kick off the holiday in true American style we decided on a breakfast diner. The novelty idea of a singing diner (mainlining my organisational alter ego Monica from Friends) had a certain comedy-value appeal.

The singers are essentially waiting to be snapped up as talent for the local Broadway shows. Each shift is an audition, sung at full volume and amplified by a microphone. Background music this is not. Ladies spun their ponytails as they frolicked along the catwalk which backed our table.

The teenage boys, not being big time show fans, and a bit sleepy to boot, were not looking their most impressed. And you did have to stop talking for the duration of each number. But there was a certain excitement when it was your waiter’s turn to take the spotlight. For the Lion King, zebra masks were whipped out. At one point ticker tape even cascaded from the ceiling.

Whilst it is a bit like seeing a show for “free”, a bucket (and card reader) are passed round for donations to support the wannabe stars’ training. This being our first trip out of the hotel, and being a tad jetlagged, we managed to tip on top of the tip-inclusive bill, almost doubling the cost of the meal to about £100 for breakfast. You live and learn (to read the bill next time).

It was a breakfast like none I had experienced before nor one to be forgotten in a hurry, so was an overall winner as a first New York holiday activity..

Central Park - New York with teens activity 2

Our Natural History Museum booking was at 1pm, so there was time to stroll through Central Park on the way. With its seemingly never-ending leafy greenness and old stone bridges, it was weirdly reminiscent of London’s Hyde Park which we had just left on the other side of the world. For a longer stay, an afternoon’s mooching around the lakes, fountains and open air theatre would be an ideal sunny day occupation. But we had a date with history.

American Natural History Museum - New York with teens activity 3

American flag, American museum of natural history New York
Literally American history

Despite timed ticketed entry, the queues were long. We were directed by a very assertive official to another entrance “just around the corner”, where the queue was equally long. Feel free to ignore this woman in if you come across her.

Wikipedia informs me that the museum comprises 20 interconnected buildings and displays 35 million exhibits ranging from plants, animals, fungi, fossils, minerals, rocks and meteorites to human remains.

We had no plan other than to spot exhibits featured in Night at the Museum. To that end, we found the Hall of African Mammals where a ready-to-stampede elephant herd is surrounded by 28 dioramas depicting African ecosystems.

We were sure this was where we would find the cute but vicious Capuchin monkey, but no luck. Instead, we were pleased to encounter an alternative selection of weird and wonderful creatures and scary bear/dinosaur skeletons.

There was some quality monkeying around.

The human history was equally culturally exotic, from the Hall of African peoples to ancient star-spangled banners.

Top New York with teens museum tip– pre-select the room you would most like to visit as your legs are unlikely to want to cover the whole Museum in one day. Google the most famous exhibits and track them down to give you a bit of an Indiana Jones artefact treasure hunt. We didn’t even get to the immersive rainforest experiences of the hall of gems and minerals with its 9 fluorescent samples, which would usually sit right near the top of our list.

Subway to Grand Central - New York with teens activity 4

Saving what was left of our legs we opted for a New York Subway activity. The station was graffiti-art gritty, and required us to pass through a caged barrier on to the platform. A number of indecipherable mutterings were being announced by way a scratchy tannoy system. As the human help desk was unhelpfully back on the other side of the metal grille, we were reliant on a man sweeping the floors to inform us that due to station closures, in order to go south, we had to “go north and change at 125”. We inadvertently boarded an “express” which skipped past 125 and whisked us off towards Harlem. Alighting at the next stop at which the train was prepared to open its doors, we managed to navigate our way back to town to another movie star, the fabulous Grand Central station. Not as intuitive a system as I’d expected, but another Big Apple experience to tick off.

Times Square - New York with teens activity 5

The last item on the teen agenda for the day was to see Times Square by night. It was both as bright and hectic as expected. We fought our way through the general hullabaloo, holding on to each other’s back packs, and emerged out of the crowd’s shoulders into a side street. Magically a dollar pizza slice shop was hiding here, stemming the day’s food budget deficit.

Day 2- Boats, bulls and liberty

Ferry under Brooklyn Bridge - New York with teens activity 6

New York Ferry
Cost$4 one way trip bought via the app
TimesNYC ferry East 34 to Wall street – every 20 minutes or so

We’d seen that our Millennium hotel was handily close to what looked like a ferry stop. Google told us that the journey to down town as a very reasonable $4 pp – so a boat trip plan was formed, taking us under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Bonus! The whole city skyline can be seen reflected in the water as you come in to dock.

Downtown - New York with teens activity 7

Downtown New York skyline, New York with teens

Whist waiting for our Liberty island trip we had an hour to wander amongst sky-scraping mirrors that blend seamlessly with blue skies downtown, white clouds skating across their glossy walls. 

Oculus - New York with teens activity 8

We’d visited New York in 2004, and a lot of post 9/11 rebuilding had taken place in the intervening 18 years. A new Oculus forms part of the reconstructed World Trade Centre complex. What seem like a  thousand white metal arms reach skywards, and bear more than a passing resemblance to the inside of a whale.

Wall Street - New York with teens activity 9

We met Wall Street’s celebrity and surprisingly enormous golden bull, which draws a bit of a crowd (the queue for a bull selfie is not insubstantial), before wandering down high-sided streets straight out of Gotham city.

Statue of Liberty - New York with teens activity 10

Lady Liberty

A copper-clad gift from France, the statue is an international emblem of freedom, designed to be witnessed by arrivals in the new world, before being processed at Ellis Island. Not wanting to represent the more feisty/revolutionary form of liberty embodied by the semi-clad French lady liberty, the artist went for a more Romanesque, fully toga-covered approach. Full of symbolism, she stands on broken chains, the USA having recently outlawed slavery. They are a bit tricky to spot, hiding under her skirts, and it is speculated that this is another attempt to down-play general lawbreaking and active revolution. She holds a tablet inscribed with the date of the Declaration of independence and holds a torch lighting the way to liberty.  The 7- pronged crown multi tasks in representing rays of light and the 7 seas and continents.

Although inspired by the Roman Goddess, there is a rumour that the artist based the features on his mum. This is officially denied but there is a picture of her in the museum and to my mind the likeness is uncanny.

Statue of Liberty Tickets

When we first booked our tickets, we had gone for a crown upgrade for a 15th birthday treat. It was now a 17th and the world had changed. The crown was still post-Covid out of bounds. Instead, we were allowed to book a pedestal ticket, which I was determined not to be a moany teenager about (bit gutted though). 

Visiting Liberty Island

The Statue of Liberty ticket includes your ferry to Liberty (home of the statue) and Ellis islands. Your trip starts with a boat queue downtown, where the presence of massive hornets zooming about in the pretty flowers lining the harbour, makes time go a little slower than you’d like. The usual running away from them option is not really open to you in a queuing scenario.

The view of the statue from the boat is just brilliant. Sit on the top deck, if the weather is your friend, ideally on the same side as the statue as everyone will stand up in front of you for a picture.

Arriving at the island, you are shown to the locker area. No bags are allowed inside the lady statue so you need to select how many precautionary layers you are prepared to wear and pack the rest into your locker.

Inside the statue, the queue for the 2 small elevators to the top is long! But the thought of climbing the whole lady is an incentive to stay in it.  Finally getting to the front of the queue we were told the pedestal was now closed due to lightning. We could not quite believe our liberty dream was being stolen from us by the fates again! And 50% of all the waterproofs were back in the lockers (those belonging to the lazier/risk taking half depending on who you ask).

During the storm we were allowed to dance with death at ground level, around the base of the statue. Was this safer? Maybe a bit less lightning conductor-like but still not risk-free. With the magic of perspective, we included the statue as a green family member in our selfies, the steely-sky backdrop matching her stern expression. We even caught one of the lightning strikes over the sky scrapers across the water. This was our first inkling that the sun does not always shine in American summers.

New York skyline
So much lightning we actually caught some

The storm passed and to our excitement, they reopened the pedestal. With the backlog of ticketed guests, the lift queue was doubly insane, so the stairs won. We entered the small concrete-y room at the top of the tower and stepped out on to the pedestal platform for some pretty cool views, trying to twist our necks up to see spiky bits of crown above.

After a long as we could decently spend soaking in the surrounding skyline, our turn was over (you can feel the stares of the people waiting to take their turn boring into the back of your head). Jelly-legging it back down the stairs to the museum, we learned about the input and inspiration from Mr Eiffel, the Greeks, Romans and the rest. There are stories for fans of engineering and of people. Direct your teen accordingly. 

To recuperate from the big climbs, up and down, refreshments are in order. The café at the foot of the statue sells a very cool liberty lemonade in a plastic flaming torch (at $7 x 4 this took a quarter of the daily food budget but the novelty factor won us over). As a souvenir, they look good but are a bit flimsy and unlikely to survive in a suitcase.

Visiting Ellis Island

Legs rested, it was time to catch the next boat for Ellis Island where we would learn about the trials and tribulations of the folk arriving here to start their new lives. There is a audio guide which is generally easier than reading all the plaques. Wandering through the processing rooms, you will see photos and hear stories of the wanna be Americans. Anyone too sick or with criminal tendencies was taken aside, for the rest it was the dawn of a new era.

New York teen heaven - Italian pizza evening - activity 11

Back in town, we did ask a helicopter tour tout how much a fly by over the statue would be, but at $200pp it was way out of our league. One for the bucket list though.

Instead it was time for some Italian American pizza. At $23 a pop we went for 2 between 4 before successfully navigating the Subway like professionals, back to the hotel for our real closing credit views.

Day 3 - Time to fly

After a breakfast of take-out New York bagels (tick) we were ready for out next American adventure, a stop over in San Francisco then a USA road trip . Which nearly didn’t happen, when the room safe containing our passports jammed and refused to open for not only me but the first hotel safe guy and then a second security manager. I started to panic when their special key codes drew a blank and they asked if I was checking out today (we were due to leave for airport in 2 hours which I calculated was not enough time to get the safe company involved).

After the application of some panicked physical wrenching, our worldly goods were released (hugs all round) and we set off as planned.

2 days in New York with teens summary

So, not surprisingly 2 days is not enough for all New York has to offer! Next time we would love to visit the 14 immersive rooms at the colour factory, walk the highline (an elevated rail line transformed into a park) and look out over the city from the top of the Empire State.

Not over committing was key to our teen visit  From trips to London, we were aware of the leg lag effect and that having too many events lined up can be a little daunting. Have optional extras in your back pocket just in case, but don’t buy too many advance tickets. Sitting down stops are as important as the walk-y bits for your family holiday happiness levels. Throw in a New York pizza and all will be well with the world.

What would your top 2 New York with teen activities be?

For an exclusive downloadable pdf summary of things to do in New York with teens – click to subscribe to Holiday from Hels here!

Pin this New York with teens post:

New York with teens
New York with teens
New York with teens

5 thoughts on “How to do 2 fun days in New York with teens”

  1. NYC is fabulous isn’t it. We’ve been twice, once as a couple and a second time with a 5-year old and loved it. I read that the oculus is supposed to be a dove.

  2. Wow, your New York adventure with your teens sounds incredible! 🗽🌆 You’ve really packed in some fantastic activities and made the most of your time in the Big Apple. The singing diner and breakfast show sounded like a blast, and exploring Central Park must’ve been a lovely way to soak in some greenery.

    I can’t help but smile at your subway misadventures—it’s all part of the New York experience, right? 😄 And seeing the Statue of Liberty up close must’ve been breathtaking, even if the crown was off-limits.

    Your itinerary is so well-rounded and filled with iconic NYC experiences. Your teens must’ve had an unforgettable trip! Thanks for sharing your adventure with us. 🚕🎭🍕

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *