In some cities, when the weather outside is frightful, you can head to the mall. But Manhattan doesn’t really have a mall. Instead we have Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station and the World Financial Center.
You can spend the whole day in Rockefeller Center, coat free. Of course, you have to get there, but we once decided to have our kids make a run for it, wearing only light jackets, to the subway. The F, M, D and B lines take you right into Rockefeller Center and you can amuse yourself there all day long.
I think it’s best to spend a work day here because some of the passages are shut on weekends. You can head west from the subway complex and make it to 51st and Broadway without ever stepping outside, or over to 5th Avenue and 50th Street, through a Banana Republic store. You can go down to 47th Street, too.
Cucina & Co., on the concourse level has great breakfast pastries and special value priced breakfast on Mondays. For lunch, there is a children’s menu. You take your food and sit at tables overlooking the ice-skating rink. A great, albeit pricey, sit-down place for lunch, The Sea Grill, has a children’s menu with shrimp cocktail, seafood chowder and pasta with butter. Or they can order sushi from the regular lunch menu.
Tour NBC Studios
Your first activity should be the 70 minute NBC Studio Tour. The tours must be booked at least 24 hours in advance and kids under 6 years old are not allowed. You see a couple of studios, which might include the ones used for NBC Nightly News, Dateline, NBC Sports, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon or Saturday Night Live. (Consider buying a SmartDestinations pass to save money on admission fees to several of these attractions.)
We can while away time in Pylones, which has colorful takes on everyday products, like an alligator shaped tape dispenser. Teens can shop at Anthropologie.
The FDNY Fire Zone, a fire-safety learning center, has interactive exhibits where you can learn about how to be safe in a fire. There are Fire-Simulation Presentations every hour, for anyone ages 5 and up, for a fee.
Nintendo World, near 48th Street, lets you try out Nintendo DS and Wii games.
Although much of the shopping and eating at Rock Center is below ground, Top of the Rock brings you to the top of the complex, via a glass-topped elevator. You can go to an outside observation deck, but since you are supposed to be staying in, just enjoy the views from inside. You can also take an Art & Observation Tour, which includes Top of the Rock and a tour of the buildings that make up Rock Center.
Grand Central Terminal
Most people think of Grand Central as a place to pass through, but it is actually a destination in and of itself. You can even stay in the Grand Central Hyatt and never go outdoors at all.
Tour the architectural highlights of the Beaux Arts terminal with an audio tour that you can download to an iPhone or iPod. Or rent headset for $5 for adults, $1 for kids under 12. The self-guided tour takes 30-60 minutes.
Be sure to stop at The Whispering Gallery, at the end of both Oyster Bar Ramps when heading down to the Lower Level. Position one person at each end and whisper to each other - you really can hear the other person.
Galleries in Grand Central hold special events like a holiday crafts fair. In February this year, you could take a picture with a real Oscar statuette.
Where to Eat at Grand Central
Grand Central has excellent food, from the renowned Oyster Bar to the Grand Central Market, where stalls sell fresh fish, baked goods and prepared foods. These are all to-go, but you can sample artisanal cheese from Murray’s Cheese or pick up a treat at Li-Lac Chocolates.
My kids love the food court on the lower level, which has a huge range of choices. This is also where the public bathrooms are and lines are usually long; best to anticipate your kids’ needs and get on line before they really need a toilet.
But back to the food. You don’t have to choose just one kind of food here - there is Kosher deli, paninis, pizza, Chinese, Jamaican beef patties, a soup restaurant. And after it all, gelato. You can pick up food from different kiosks and eat at the centrally located tables.
There are also five sit-down restaurants, some on the balcony where you can watch the hub of commuter activity. Charlie Palmer’s Metrazur, on the balcony, has $25 lunches with a great choice of seasonal food. The Oyster Bar, on the lower level, has an astonishing raw bar and delicious chowders. But your kids have to like seafood - there is not much else here.
The New York Transit Museum has a Gallery Annex & Store in Grand Central, with changing exhibits that include a model train at Christmas time. This is the place to get MTA memorabilia, like a subway umbrella or a Brio train of your favorite subway line. There is a bookstore, a huge newsstand and a Pylones. If you have teens, take your teen boy to Art of Shaving, where he can learn how to care for his skin. Teen girls can head to Origins, Aveda or M.A.C. and both sexes can shop for hip clothes at Brooklyn Industries. Younger girls like LittleMissMatched, where socks and gloves come in threes.
World Financial Center
One down side: You can’t get there without going outside and it can be so windy here, that once my daughter’s hat blew off and headed to the Hudson River while we were yanking open the massive doors.
The grand marble staircase is where my kids learned to climb stairs. For urban apartment dwellers, the staircase is a rare attraction, and while it leads to the street (and that wind) you will probably want to save the stairs for the trip back down.
World Financial Center has free music, theater and dance year round. There is holiday music and a Nutcracker at Christmas time, and Irish step dancers at St. Patrick’s Day.
Eating at World Financial Center
Among the many food choices, Ed's Lobster Bar stands out. You can eat in, or take your food into the Winter Garden. Order lobster roll and congratulate yourself for going to the less crowded outpost (the main Ed’s is in Soho).
There is a toy store, a kids’ clothing store, a Gap. If you have artistic kids, bring a sketch pad and crayons and let kids draw the changing scenery.