A tight budget needn't mean zero fun in NYC – on our recent short break, tiny detours off the main tourist trails rewarded us with unexpected sights and an insider view of the city as well as letting us sidestep admission prices and queues. These are our top recommendations:
Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram
The Empire State Building or the Rockefeller Center for your Spider-Man skyscraper views? It'll cost around $90 for a family of 4 to snap those 86th-floor selfies at either building. We'd choose Top of the Rock over the ESB – there's more to do at the former, including the iconic ice-rink and lots of eateries and shops, not to mention views of the ESB itself. But instead we opted to shell out a princely $2.50 with a Metrocard swipe for our skyline sightseeing – and in a cable-car to boot. Hop on at the 59th Street and Second Avenue terminus for the 4-minute aerial tram ride to Roosevelt Island offering stunning midtown Manhattan and East River views.
Don't just ride the tram straight back to Midtown – it's well worth exploring this narrow East River island. A safe and pleasant riverside promenade (start under the Queensboro Bridge, via the interesting converted streetcar-kiosk visitor centre) takes in fantastic Upper East Side and river views, and leads to the peaceful Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the island's tip. Along the way you'll pass the remains of the 1930s Goldwater Hospital, sadly scheduled for demolition, the Strecker Laboratory, and the Smallpox Hospital, an atmospheric gothic ruin where 19th-century diseased patients were quarantined. It all feels and looks like a spooky episode of 'Scooby Doo' – kids love it!
Parks and Playgrounds
A visit to Central Park is a must. Manhattan's 843-acre man-made wonder is a joy to explore, glorious (if crowded) in summer and magical when snowy. It abounds with playgrounds (there are 21!), landscaped paths, monuments (don't miss the Alice in Wonderland statue), fountains, lakes and picturesque bridges, all overlooked by skycrapers. Go armed with a map!
If you're heading to the Upper West Side by foot, consider swapping the subway for a walk through the pretty boulevards of Riverside Park. Fronting the Hudson River and stretching from 72nd to 158th Streets, this is a lovely walk to the American Museum of Natural History (79th Street and Central Park West).
Of the five New York City parks (the others are Bronx, Queens, Prospect Park and NY Aquarium), Central Park's zoo is small but probably the most accessible (on the East Side between 63rd and 66th Streets), and the general admission fee is an affordable additional treat. Animals include penguins, red pandas and beautiful snow leopards, plus there's a terrific walk-through indoor rainforest with free-flying tropical birds and the Tisch Children's Zoo for younger kids.
A short hop on the A or C subway to High Street station takes you Cadman Plaza East and the Brooklyn Bridge Walkway. It's about a half-hour's stroll from here to City Hall Park across the East River, and while at present the views of Brooklyn Heights below are of cranes and craters while the piers undergo construction, on completion the promenade will boast playgrounds, gardens, sports and picnic areas. The pedestrian walkway is elevated over traffic below, and with Manhattan Bridge to your right, the views of Downtown Manhattan are jaw-dropping. Look up and you could imagine Spider-Man webslinging from the massive cables and pylons. Take care if you've young children as the narrow path can get crowded and cyclists sometimes stray onto the pedestrian section.
The High Line
A great use of reclaimed public space, the High Line is on a 1930s freight railway line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side and runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. Wheelchair- and buggy-accessible, it makes for a lovely verdant stroll right through the surrounding blocks (there's even a 'sky lawn') and offers some great views and photo opportunities. Constantly changing art projects (some are hands-on for kids) and installations and loads of areas to lounge/picnic/people watch allow you to break up the walk. There are also food vendors along the way.
Staten Island Ferry
If you're not bothered about the climb into the Statue of Liberty's crown (book in advance as tickets are limited each day) or walking around Liberty Island, take the Staten Island Ferry instead of a sightseeing cruise. The views will be from a distance but it's completely free and there are great views of New York Harbour. Catch this commuter ferry from the Whitehall Terminal (South Street and Whitehall Street).
National Museum of the American Indian
Going to or returning from Battery Park and the Statue of Liberty, don't miss this New York branch of the Smithsonian museum along the way (1 Bowling Green). It's free and a very interesting way to spend a few hours – the exhibits on the indigenous people of the New World are beautifully displayed and the building itself (the old Customs House) is impressive. If you can, book in advance for their children's activities and programs, which include wigwam-building, storytelling, and inter-tribal dances and drum groups.
New York Public Library
The location of many a movie beloved by kids ('Ghostbusters', 'Spider-Man', 'Jumper', 'The Day After Tomorrow'), this landmark institution offers one of the best free tours (twice daily) of NYC. Its beautiful architecture, serene surroundings and historic exhibits make it fantastic for rainy days and bookish kids. There's a children's section and free screenings in the Schwarzman Building.
Right next to lovely Bryant Park outside (1073 6th Avenue) is Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore great for manga comics and quirky stationery, with a cafe on the second floor that does delicious onigiri and bento.
One World Trade Center
America's tallest building, the 1,776ft Freedom Tower stands on the site of the former World Trade Center – you'll catch glimpses of it above other buildings from most areas in Manhattan and it's worth a look, close up. Admission to visit the memorial to the 2,986 people who died as a result of the terrorist attacks in 1993 and 2001 is free but entry is strictly by pass only. Same-day visit passes are available on a first-come, first-served basis in person at 20 Vesey Street, or online (911memorial.org). The 911 Museum, displaying artefacts related to the events of 9/11, has also opened since we visited.