The first time I visited New York I was 16 and excited about everything. It was so magical - the places I had seen on TV and in the movies came to life before my eyes. Instantly I understood why the city captivated the hearts of so many people.
This summer I returned as an adult and found even more reasons to fall in love with the Big Apple. Here's a guide to family fun in New York City.
In the neighborhood
I stepped off the subway and a medley of smells overwhelmed my senses - ginger, sesame, maybe a little garlic ... I had officially arrived in Chinatown (explorechinatown.com). Shops of all kinds lined the streets. In most of them you could see the typical New York tourist items: key chains, T-shirts, bags, postcards, as well as dragons, miniature fountains and even a few swords. My favorite part about shopping in Chinatown is the haggling. You can get a hoodie for $10 or a nice bag for $12 if you know what you're doing - the prices on the tourist items are hard to beat anywhere else in the city. I quickly managed to get all my souvenirs on one street and spent only about $30 on souvenirs for everyone back home. As I continued walking, the tourist shops turned into markets. There were exotic fruits and fresh vegetables, fresh fish markets with eels. Walking through Chinatown, I truly felt like I was visiting China.
Just a street over from Chinatown, I stumbled into Little Italy (little italynyc.com) by accident. The transformation from Chinatown to Little Italy was so drastic that I couldn't believe I was still in the same city. Italian restaurants lined the streets, and tables were set up on the sidewalks so customers could enjoy a true Italian-style dining experience. There were bakeries on every corner, selling gelato and delicious looking pastries. The food looked so good that we decided to eat at one of the little tables outside. Each plate could have fed two people easily, and the food looked picture perfect. The chefs and the owners were proud of their restaurants and would come and talk to every customer. The only thing I regret is not getting dessert.
Take a tour
I love taking the subways in New York, but when I didn't have my family to show me around, I decided to take a Gray Line bus tour (gray linenewyork.com) from Uptown to Wall Street. The tour guide not only provided information of the iconic places in New York, but also an insider's knowledge - such as favorite places to shop and dine - hard to come by unless you live in the city. Because the tours are held on a double-decker bus, kids in particular will love sitting on the top level, where they'll get a bird's eye view of the streets, buildings and the crowds. The tours cover everything from Central Park to the Empire State Building, Brooklyn to New York nightlife.
Each loop takes about two hours, but you can hop on and off as much as you'd like. We saw a lot of things that we wouldn't have noticed had we not been on the bus. My favorite spot was in the West Village, where we saw Tiles for America, a Sept. 11 memorial fence that has more than 6,000 tiles and covers a whole city block.
Located in the heart of Brooklyn is a legendary place: Coney Island. Arriving there, I felt like I was transported away from New York to a surf town on the West Coast. It was sunny and warm and there were so many people wearing all manner of clothing. The beach was beautiful, a nice reprieve from the muddy waters of the Gulf. Our main goal, however, was Luna Park (lunaparknyc.com),
Luna Park is broken into several theme park zones and includes a solid selection of carnival rides, games, food and the legendary Cyclone, which loomed above, reminding me why I am terrified of wooden roller coasters. We went on several rides, but my favorite was the Soarin' Eagle, which took us to a new level of excitement by having us lie on our stomachs for the whole ride. It actually felt like we were flying. The only thing that put a damper on this day was that my phone was stolen while I was on one of the rides; be sure to keep all valuables and money in a safe place.
Rock the rockettes
Radio City Music Hall is an iconic New York theater that hosts everything from the MTV Music Awards to an annual Christmas show featuring The Rockettes. We went on the Stage Door Tour, where we learned about everything from the history of Radio City and the Rockettes to the meaning of the art and architecture of the theater. Did you know the doors going into the theater depict entertainment throughout history? Or that the ladies restroom showcases the history of makeup? The most impressive part of the tour was the hydraulic elevator system for the stage, which was so technologically advanced that the U.S. Navy borrowed the design to use on its aircraft carriers in World War II. Kids will love meeting a real Rockette and seeing all the beautiful costumes that they wear for the Christmas Spectacular. The tour even includes a visit to the living quarters of Samuel Lionel "Roxy" Rothafel, who designed the theater, complete with all of the original furniture.
Brightly colored dream
The first time I saw Times Square, I couldn't believe my eyes. I felt like I was in a colorful dream. The lights on the billboards shone with neon colors, posters for the famous Broadway shows were everywhere, there were vendors on every corner selling everything from hotdogs to T-shirts and people dressed up as superheroes, robots and cowboys trying to earn a few bucks by taking pictures with the tourists. Something about Times Square just sticks with you. There are so many people, it makes you feel both small and inspired. There is so much going on it's hard to take it in all at once. When I saw Times Square, that's when it really hit me that I was finally in New York City.
Times Square is the ultimate tourist hot spot in the city. It's such an iconic, well-known place that people come from all over the world to see it. Kids will really enjoy M&M's World, where they can find the candy in all the colors of the rainbow, and Toys "R" Us, where they can ride a 60-foot Ferris wheel and play in a life-size Barbie Dollhouse. Families should keep in mind that although Times Square is a great place for family fun, it can also get really crowded. If you want to avoid huge crowds try going on a weekday, about midday. Crowds will always be a part of Times Square though, so don't get frustrated if you can't avoid all the people. The energy that they bring is part of the charm.
Jennifer Samudio is a freelance writer living in Houston.