New York City may be frozen right now, but that hasn't kept the visitors away. To cram the most into one day while exposing your family to as little frostbite as possible, start out at the American Museum of Natural History; then scoot across Central Park on the 79th Street crosstown bus (just as quick as a taxi) and dive into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Or do it the other way around, depending on which you think your child will want more time for. Both have good on-site cafes, so you won't have to venture outside to eat. And both museums hold secrets and experiences that are perfect for families of all ages.

American Museum of Natural History

This is the city's one real don't-miss if you're with kids. The excitement begins even in the subway station below (B and C trains to W. 81st St.), where the walls feature wonderful ceramic bas-reliefs of dinosaurs, insects, birds, and mammals. When you enter the rotunda at the top of the Central Park West steps, a rearing skeleton of a mommy dinosaur protecting her baby from a small, fierce predator clues you in that the dazzling fourth-floor dinosaur halls are the perennial star attraction; they feature interactive consoles, glass-floored walkways that bring you up to the dino's eye level, and please-touch displays illustrating key points of evolution. But our favorite sights are the superb dioramas in the North American Mammals section (first floor) -- the grizzly bear raking open a freshly caught salmon, majestic elks lifting their massive antlers, wolves loping through eerie nighttime snow -- or, on the floor above, the bi-level African Mammals Hall, where you can circle around a lumbering herd of perfectly preserved elephants or check out the giraffes browsing by their water hole.

A circuit of the first floor alone could take a whole day. The PC-but-never-preachy Hall of Biodiversity features an immense multimedia re-creation of an African rainforest and a display of Earth's entire family tree, with more than 1,500 specimens and models spread out along a 100-foot wall. We love the dimly lit Ocean Life room, where a gargantuan model of a blue whale swims overhead; it has informally become known as the place where toddlers can stretch their legs, racing and twirling around the vast open space. Around the corner, the less-well-visited North American Forest dioramas are our family secret -- a peaceful part of the museum where you can hunt for blue jays in oak trees and rattlesnakes behind the cactus. Most people hurry through here to get to the interactive Human Biology and Evolution exhibits, which seem always full of busy grade-schoolers. Past that lies the Mineral and Gem room, where little kids can thrust their hands into a huge geode while older kids gape in awe at the jewels on display.

The museum is not all animals, by any means (remember that Margaret Mead was only one of many brilliant anthropologists whose research was supported by this museum over the years). Studying Native Americans? On the first floor, by the 77th Street entrance, is the astounding collection of Northwest Coast Indian totem poles immortalized by J. D. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye. The haunting soundtracks in the African and Asian peoples sections (on the second floor) lull you into studying the precisely detailed displays there, too. The stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space, a 95-foot-high glass cube, includes an interactive exhibit on the nature of the universe, where you can step on a scale that shows your weight on Saturn, see an eerie phosphorescent model of the expanding universe, and touch cosmic debris.

The Discovery Room, on the first floor by the 77th Street entrance (near the immense outrigger canoe), is a special spot where kids 5 and older can touch and feel and fiddle with items related to the displays; it's open weekday afternoons from 1:30 to 5:10, Saturday and Sunday 10:30am to 1:30pm and 2:15 to 5:15pm. Â?Meet the ScientistÂ? events are held on occasional Saturdays throughout the school year. Squirreled away in a back corner of the second floor is the Natural Science Center, a delightful hands-on workshop where kids 4 and older can explore the natural life of New York City (Tues-Fri 2-4:30pm, Sat-Sun 1-4:30pm).

Here comes my only quibble with the museum: On top of the already significant admission price, there are substantial extra fees, even for members, for special exhibits, and even for regular features such as the space show at the Hayden Planetarium and the various films shown in the IMAX theater (see below for prices). These can add up awfully fast to make a visit here quite expensive. Believe me, there's enough to do here that you don't need to go for the extras (I personally find the space shows a letdown). Shops at every turn lure you to spend more money, though there are always at least a few inexpensive items.

Where to Eat: The excellent Museum Food Court (open 11am-4:45pm) offers a wide range of sophisticated sandwiches, salads, fruit, and snacks as well as hot food, including hamburgers and french fries. On weekends, you can also grab a light meal at the Dinersaurus Cafe (on the 4th floor by the 77th St. elevators) and Cafe 77 (by the 77th St. entrance on the first floor). Since you can reenter the museum with your admission tag, consider popping out into the neighborhood to Rain, Pizzeria Uno, Monsoon, or T & R Pizzeria (see chapter 5), only a block or two away.

Address: Central Park W. (at 79th St.). tel. 212/769-5100; for reserved tickets to Space Show and other special exhibits, tel. 212/769-5200. Suggested admission for nonmembers: $14 adults, $11 students and seniors, $8 children 2-12.; nonmember admission plus IMAX ticket $21 adults, $16 students and seniors, $12 children 2-12; nonmember admission plus Space Show $22 adults, $17 students and seniors, $13 children; nonmember admission plus Space Show plus IMAX $30 adults, $23 students and seniors, $19 children. Admission for members free; added fee for Space Show $11 adults, $7 children; added fee for IMAX $10 adults, $6 children; added fee for both IMAX and Space Show $15 adults, $10 children. Children under 2 admitted free. Daily 10am-5:45pm (Rose Center open till 8:45pm first Fri each month). Closed Thanksgiving and Dec 25. Limited parking available on-site (enter on W. 81st St. btwn Central Park W. and Columbus Ave.). Subway: B, C to 81st St./Museum of Natural History; 1 to 79th St.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Even though this is the city's number-one tourist attraction, many families we know never take their young kids here. Big mistake. You can have a great time at the Metropolitan, even with toddlers, so long as you remember two rules: Go at their pace, not yours (forget about standing transfixed for 10 min. in front of that wonderfully serene Vermeer), and don't let the gruff museum guards intimidate you. They're the city's most fervent believers that children should be seen and not heard -- they'll level stern, disapproving glares if your child so much as skips for joy or exclaims above a whisper. Naturally, don't let youngsters touch the precious works of art or press their fingers against glass cases, but otherwise, let your own common sense prevail.

Granted, the $20 admission price can be off-putting, but remember that children under 12 get in free. And it's only a suggested donation -- if you think your kids' attention spans are too short for a lengthy visit, don't be shy about paying less. A better strategy to get your money's worth, however, is to inquire at the information desk about what children's programs may be available that day -- these are free with admission, and they're a brilliant way to get the kids immersed in the collection.

The echoing marble-clad Great Hall tells you as you enter that this is a Serious Art Museum. If there's a long ticket line at the booths in front of the entrance, go to the right, past the cloakroom -- the booth at the north end is generally quicker. My kids love to climb the awesome central stairway up to the European painting galleries, the museum's prize jewel, but we generally veer off and skip those galleries -- they go on forever, boring the pants off most kids.

Here are the galleries kids are more likely to enjoy: the arms and armor (first floor), the extensive Egyptian rooms (also on the first floor -- make a beeline for the glorious mummies), musical instruments (second floor, off the American Wing's courtyard), the Costume Institute (ground floor -- rotating installations will be of varying interest to kids), and the European and American period rooms (all over the place). On the first floor of the American Wing, a side gallery displays vintage baseball cards, and a whole gallery of grandfather clocks ticks away on the second floor. Older kids who are beginning to appreciate art may go for the Impressionist gallery (second floor) or the Lehman Pavilion, set up like the townhouse of a wealthy collector -- it's art in small enough doses that it doesn't overwhelm.

Our favorite corner, hands down, is the courtyard of the American Wing, a light-filled open space with plantings, benches, and statues kids can actually relate to (a mountain lion and her cubs, a pensive Indian brave). Bring lots of small change for them to throw into the pool here and in the pool in front of the Egyptian Wing's momentous Temple of Dendur (but not in the Chinese scholars' court goldfish pool in the second-floor Asian art galleries!). In the Japanese galleries, find the room overlooking the Temple of Dendur; off the musical instruments gallery, find the balcony overlooking the mounted knights in armor. Get the idea? Wander around this immense museum, keep your eyes open, and be willing to walk away from anything that doesn't interest your children.

Where to Eat: The museum cafe beneath the Lehman Pavilion is set up with an array of food stations (hot food, deli, salad bar, and the like), which makes it easy to beeline for what your kids will like; we've never run into a seriously long line. Child meals come packaged in cute yellow cardboard taxis. Or, since your museum badge allows re-entry, go outside and sit on the splendid Fifth Avenue steps (one of the city's best impromptu grandstands) to eat a hot dog bought at a nearby pushcart.

Address: 1000 Fifth Ave. (at 82nd St.). tel. 212/535-7710. For daily tours and programs call tel. 212/570-3930. Suggested donation (includes same-day admission to the Cloisters) $20 adults, $10 students and seniors, free for children 12 and under. Tues-Thurs and Sun 9:30am-5:30pm; Fri-Sat 9:30am-9pm. Closed Jan 1, Thanksgiving, and Dec 25; open some school holiday Mondays (check website). Strollers not permitted Sun (back carriers available at 81st St. entrance). Subway: 4, 5, 6 to 86th St.

Bonus: Natural History Museum Treasure Hunt

The American Museum of Natural History is so vast, kids can easily tire if you trudge from hall to hall with no organizing purpose. Here, then, is a treasure hunt designed by my sons, Hugh and Tom, to keep your kids busy exploring. Younger kids may get through only one floor in an afternoon, but persist -- I swear, it's all here.

First Floor

  • 1. North American Mammals -- Where is the rabbit hiding from the lynx?
  • 2. Ocean Life -- Who's talking back to the orca? (Hint: Orca is another name for a killer whale.)
  • 3. New York State Environment -- How many baby chipmunks are sleeping in the spring burrow?
  • 4. Human Biology and Evolution -- Find the cave of mammoth bones.
  • 5. Minerals and Gems -- Where are the rocks that glow in the dark?

Second Floor

  • 6. African Peoples -- Find the xylophone.
  • 7. Birds of the World -- How many stuffed penguins are there?
  • 8. Asian Peoples -- Who's getting married?
  • 9. Rose Center -- How soon after the Big Bang did our solar system start to form?

Third Floor

  • 10. African Mammals -- Who's watching the ostriches fight the wart hogs?
  • 11. Reptiles and Amphibians -- Which is the crocodile, and which is the alligator?

Fourth Floor

  • 12. Saurischian Dinosaurs -- Find the fossil dinosaur teeth.
  • 13. Ornithischian Dinosaurs -- Touch the triceratops horn.

ANSWERS: 1. Behind the bush. 2. The leopard seal. 3. Four. 4. Toward the end of the exhibit, in the Earliest Architecture display. 5. In the first gem room, the southeast corner. 6. Midway through the hall, on the west wall, across from the guys in straw skirts who look like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family. 7. Twenty in all -- 16 adults, 4 babies. 8. In the Chinese section, a bride in her ornate ceremonial sedan chair. 9. Eight billion years. 10. The mouselike elephant shrew, behind a dead log. 11. Facing each other by the entrance at the north end of the hall -- the gator (on your right) has the snub snout; the croc (on your left) has the pointy snout. 12. On the south wall. 13. On the east wall.

This article is an excerpt from New York City With Kids, 10th Edition, available in our online bookstore now.

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