Taking kids to the American Museum of Natural History

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When we were going home from our dessert-as-dinner feast at Dylan’s Candy Bar, Matt said to me “Just for the record, I’m yet to have a meal this weekend that I’ve enjoyed.” He made a fair point. Although our lunch at Grand Central was tasty, our other food choices were adequate at best. I take full responsibility for this, as it’s generally my job to figure out where we’ll eat. Normally I come prepared with a detailed list, but I had mostly left our dining options up to chance figuring that in New York there would always be something great nearby. And there often was – but it wasn’t usually an appropriate place to bring the kids. We ended up eating several meals that were adequate at best and had the added bonus of being fairly pricey.

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I’m happy to report that thanks to Twitter and in particular Sam Chapnick, aka @nyc_mom, who blogs about everything New York and families at KidCity I did a much better job of planning for brunch on our last morning. I had posted a request for restaurant recommendations in the neighborhood of the American Museum of Natural History, and she suggested Café Lalo. I loved everything about this charming restaurant, from the breezy, bright dining room with its windows wide open to the leafy street to the coffee, which was served in large bowl-like cups with a side of steamed milk. They serve brunch all day every day and have a really fun menu with choices from around the world such as the Caribbean Breakfast of tropical fruit with a pastry and mango butter or the fabulous Moroccan Delight which is eggs mixed with fresh tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, and jalapenos and served with pita bread.

This is definitely a kid-friendly place with a big enough menu to satisfy even the pickiest eater. I discovered at the end of the meal that they only accept only cash as payment, and while Matt took the boys to the nearest ATM, I stood at the sidewalk and watched as the staff cheerfully helped families with children stow their strollers in a basement room. It would make a fabulous place to stop for an afternoon treat if you were exploring the Upper West Side – the pastries and cakes looked absolutely dreamy. And if you need a pick-me-up with your brunch, there is an entire menu of champagne cocktails.

Travel-With-Kids Tip: Even in a big city like New York it’s best not to leave your dining options to chance if you can help it. Doing a little research beforehand and giving yourself several places to choose from for each meal will guarantee that you eat the way you and your kids like and is also likely to save you money in the process. If you’re not sure what your exact location will be at mealtime, scout out places that surround attractions you know you’ll visit or that are an easy walk from your hotel.

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After brunch we headed over to the American Museum of Natural History. The boys were very excited to visit the museum from the movie A Night at the Museum and we had to take lots of pictures of the entrance with its statue of Theodore Roosevelt who figures prominently as a character in the film.

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Our friends Tom and Karen met us there with their two little ones and after a quick look at the dioramas of stuffed North American mammals, we headed for the Hall of Biodiversity. I was surprised at how interested Tommy was in the various charts and graphs, most of them distressing testaments to the sad state of our environment and the contributions we make to it. We read about how many resources the average Indian uses versus the average North American, how many people go hungry on a daily basis around the world, and how many species are disappearing. This was sobering stuff, but Tommy was fascinated – and optimistic. As I read him grim statistic after grim statistic, his response was almost always “well, it could be worse” or “that’s why we shouldn’t throw stuff away or waste food.”

We spent a good amount of time hanging out under the giant blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life watching the underwater video and listening to the sounds of the sea. Teddy loved the dioramas showing a variety of marine scenes, especially one in a dark corner where a sperm whale devours a giant squid.

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Then it was on to the Fossil Halls, practically a museum unto themselves, which we made our way through much more quickly than I would have expected, given Teddy’s love of all preshistoric life. But you never know what’s going to seize your children’s imagination on a particular day. Tom and Karen’s son desperately wanted to see the large figure from The Night at The Museum who says “Dum-Dum, give me some gum-gum” and so we ended up in a back corner of the third floor where there is a fascinating exhibit about Margaret Mead and her study of the people of the South Pacific islands. The kids loved seeing “Dum-Dum” but were also intrigued by the Javanese puppets and other artifacts to be found there. Our visit ended with a quick stroll through the Hall of Planet Earth and a speedy turn around the outside of the Hayden Planetarium theatre where we got to see how much we would weight on the Moon.

Travel-With-Kids Tip: Grabbing a guide and making a rough game plan with your kids when you first arrive at a museum is a great idea, especially if it’s a larger museum. But be sure to be flexible and let their interest and enthusiasm guide how long you spend in each area. Most importantly: treat every museum like you’ll be back. Nothing can kill the joy like tromping through exhibits once you and your kids are “done.” I usually plan to stay two to three hours even in the most engaging museums. If you leave when there’s still stuff to see, everyone is excited for a return visit.

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The museum is huge and we definitely left plenty for next time – we didn’t get to see a show in the planetarium, the meteorites, the Hall of Human Origins, the collection of spectacular opals, or the giant canoe in the Grand Gallery or the galleries dedicated to Native American life. But we were all ready to get a quick snack in the cafeteria and head out.

Travel-With-Kids Tip: Give the kids a camera to use. Mine have my old digital one that I don’t use anymore, but a disposable camera works just fine too. They love taking their own pictures, and you’ll always learn something about what captures their imagination by watching them do so. And there’s lots you can do with the photos when you get home: print them off and paste them into a journal for your children to decorate with stickers or write in; help them make a poster to decorate their room or playroom; or make photo books at one of the websites that offer this service.

We had driven up the museum and parked in its garage on 81st Street and so were able to hop right into our car, zip on down to the Lincoln Tunnel and make our way home to Delaware by dinnertime. All in all, it was a great getaway weekend, very easy to pull off with a minimum of planning, even if I clearly needed to do a little more on the dining front. And you know what? We didn’t purchase any souvenirs (unless you count candy as a kind of edible souvenir). But we did leave with tons of photos, enthusiasm for the wide selection of playgrounds available in Manhattan, and a definite desire to return soon.

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If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll visit the first and second posts I wrote about our 2009 Labor Day weekend trip to New York City.

New York City Family Travel Tips

Reader Responses

9 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. We had the same problem with food on our last trip to NYC (though it didn’t help that we all became sick and fevered). We hadn’t planned much out foodwise and ended up spending too much on terrible food. Will definitely do more pre-planning next time around.

  2. WHAT fun! i love that we can find such great food recs, thanks to twitter. thanks for sharing your great day!
    .-= jessiev´s last blog ..What Makes Chefs Gods? =-.

  3. Great post – you were in our old ‘hood – we miss having the AMNH in our backyard and trips to Cafe Lalo. The Children’s Museum is worth a stop, too. Next time! I wish we still lived there so we could have met up!

  4. It was great to hang out with you and your family and really fun to read about our/your adventures too! Come back anytime and we’ll explore the great variety of food options in Queens.

  5. Love this series since I’m dreaming of taking my kids to NYC soon. It will become handy for us. :) Glad you finally got to enjoy a great meal in NYC.
    .-= Amy @ The Q Family´s last blog ..5 Fun Things to Do with Kids on Family Camping Trip =-.

  6. I don’t know if this works for New York or other capitals but the cafes in the museums in Central London such as the V & A, Science Museum and Natural History museum are great for kids with lots of interesting and healthy options and special kid’s meals. Of course it helps that these museums are free to enter,so ypou can use them even if you’re not planning on staying long.

  7. This is a great tip Heather – the AMNH does have a nice cafeteria, and I although I really liked Cafe Lalo, we probably would eat at the museum the next time we went so as to maximize our time there. I’m sure that some of the other museums in NYC have nice places to eat as well.

    I love the restaurant at the V&A – one of the nicest museum restaurants I’ve been to.

  8. I just love finding moms like you, online! Hi! My name is Rosemary and I live in Nashville, married for 18 years and the proud mother of two girls, five and ten years old. I am planning a family trip to NYC and feel excited but overwhelmed with all the varying neighborhoods, hotels and activities that NYC has to offer. Finding your comments and then seeing the photos of your precious children, made me feel a little bit better knowing that someone else has perhaps “blazed the trail” and hopefully will make my efforts to plan a safe and exciting trip with my precious family a little easier. Thank you so much for the time and effort you took to pass along some helpful information! God bless.

  9. Great post – thank you! We are headed to the Museum of Natural History tomorrow with our two kids ages 8 and 5. Thanks for the great tips – we’re excited for a super fun day.

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