Welcome to three of America's most exciting, sophisticated, and expensive destinations. But don't let that last point put you off a family trip. You can live it up on the cheap—just follow these insider reports and get to know the town as the locals do. Here, the best low-cost hotels, restaurants, snacks, attractions, souvenirs, and ways to get around—on a budget that won't blow anyone's allowance. Plus: dollar-by-dollar breakdowns of a perfect day in each town. Save in our cities!
FUN FOR FREE Board the Staten Island Ferry at the southern end of Manhattan (Whitehall Terminal, Whitehall and South Sts.; 718/390-5253) for a thrilling, engine-churning, hair-whipping half-hour ride that offers a view of the downtown skyline—still stunning, even after the loss of the Twin Towers. Ride over, stay on, and zoom back into the thick of things. • Program a robot and compose a symphony using car horns at the Sony Wonder Technology Lab (550 Madison Ave. at 56th St.; 212/833-8100; www.sonywondertechlab.com). Good luck getting your kids to leave. • Take one of the up-for-grabs kayaks out for a spin on the Hudson (Downtown Boathouse, 646/613-0375; www.downtownboathouse.org); to avoid a wait, go to the uncrowded Pier 66A launch (at 26th St.). • Visit a museum on its no-charge evening: that's Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Ave. at 75th St.; 212/570-3676; www.whitney.org) and the Guggenheim (1071 Fifth Ave. at 89th St.; 212/423-3500; www.guggenheim.org). Note that at many of the city's museums, such as the Metropolitan (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St.; 212/535-7710; www.metmuseum.org), visitors can pay whatever they wish.
DO AS THE LOCALS DO Browse the Sunday morning flea markets on Sixth Avenue at 26th Street (212/243-5343) and Columbus Avenue at 77th Street (212/721-0900). • Fortify yourself at the fabulous Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Ave. at 16th St.; 212/243-6005), where bakers make baguettes in full view. Then check out Chelsea's contemporary-art galleries. • Sample hand-twisted hard pretzels and just-picked strawberries at the Union Square Greenmarket Farmers' Market (212/477-3220; www.cenyc.org).
GETTING AROUND Go on foot—it's the best way to see the sights and get your exercise (that's 20 north-south blocks per mile; let the kids keep count). Or hop on the subway (718/330-1234; www.mta.info; $2 per ride, seven-day unlimited pass $21); 714 miles of track will take you near and far—fast. Pick up MetroCards and free subway maps at all stations. Can't walk another step?Taxis can be hailed when the rooftop number is lit and the off-duty sign is not.
LUNCH AND SNACKS The sandwiches, salads, and muffins are divine at City Bakery (3 W. 18th St.; 212/366-1414)—and at around 3 p.m., all baked goods go on sale. • The hand-cut tubers at Pommes Frites (123 Second Ave. at E. 7th St.; 212/674-1234) are served Belgian-style, in a paper cone, with 30 choices of sauce, from curry to ketchup. • The cupcakes everyone devours while strolling the narrow streets of the West Village come from Magnolia Bakery (401 Bleecker St.; 212/462-2572).
DINNER'S READY After a walk to Brooklyn over the famous bridge (the entry ramp is just east of City Hall), reward yourself with pizza at the passionately loved Grimaldi's (19 Old Fulton St.; 718/858-4300; dinner for four $35). Dessert—and great New York City views—are down the block at the Fulton Ferry Landing's Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (718/246-3963). • In Manhattan, get your tacos and burritos at Gabriela's (685 Amsterdam Ave. at 93rd St., 212/961-0574, and 315 Amsterdam Ave. at 75th St., 212/875-8532; dinner for four $40). • The Chat n' Chew (10 E. 16th St.; 212/243-1616; dinner for four $40) is all about meat loaf and macaroni and cheese. • Sure, the View (Marriott Marquis Hotel, 535 Broadway at 45th St.; 212/704-8900; dinner for four $150) is touristy and expensive, but consider the special effects: you shoot up to the 47th floor in a glass elevator, where, as you eat your steak, the restaurant makes a full revolution every 70 minutes.
CURTAIN CALL At the New Victory Theater (209 W. 42nd St.; 646/223-3020; www.newvictory.org), a joyful restored 1900 landmark, tickets start at $10 for the smartest, most innovative children's shows from around the world. For discount Broadway tickets, get in line at TKTS (Times Square at 47th St. or South Street Seaport at Front and John Sts.; 212/768-1818), or try www.theatermania.com or www.playbill.com.
WHERE TO STAY Cool off in the rooftop pool of the Holiday Inn Midtown (440 W. 57th St.; 800/465-4329 or 212/581-8100; doubles from $149 with 21-day advance purchase), a few blocks from Central Park. Request one of the renovated corner rooms. • Just north of Times Square, the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel (851 Eighth Ave. at 51st St.; 800/426-4656 or 212/581-4100; doubles from $119) puts you a block from Ninth Avenue's Afghan kebab houses, Greek cafés, and Thai restaurants. • The rooms in the stately Excelsior Hotel (45 W. 81st St.; 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com; doubles from $129) are impeccable (if small). And the Upper West Side location can't be beat: it's just opposite the Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th St.; 212/769-5100; www.amnh.org) and a block from Central Park.
BEST GUIDES The Cool Parents Guide to All of New York (Universe), by Alfred Gingold and Helen Rogan, details excursions that the whole family—yes, even you—will enjoy. Grab the latest Time Out New York (and its new TONY Kids) or New York magazine for current listings of performances, street fairs, and art openings.