Introduce the gang to America's first inhabitants with a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (1 Bowling Green; 212-514-3700, nmai.si.edu), housed in the 1907 Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. Its focus on present-day Native cultures lends the institution a vibrancy kids can tap into with rotating exhibits, music and dance performances, and family workshops. The gift shop is overflowing with treasures like handcrafted jewelry and such Indian-made toys as Peruvian gourd drums.
Another not-to-miss historic spot is the national landmark Federal Hall (26 Wall St at Broad St; 212-825-6990, nps.gov/feha)—just look for the lone statue of George Washington out front. The country's first President took oath of office in the Greek Revival building in 1789. Park ranger--led tours bring the city's history to life with cool artifacts and exhibits around the building's gorgeous skylit rotunda.
When the mini historians are dragging their feet, reward them with Belgian chocolates from Leonidas--Manon Cafe (3 Hanover Sq between Hanover and William Sts; 212-422-9600, manoncafe.com), which also serves cappuccinos and hot-chocolate drinks, making it a perfect pick-me-up spot for everyone.
A hidden haven from the hustle and bustle, the Elevated Acre (55 Water St between Broad St and Old Slip, elevatedacre.com) is an open-air park more than 30 feet above street level that's accessed by an escalator within an office complex. Kids can let off steam on the Astroturf field and get a bird's-eye view of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge, while parents recharge on park benches amid the space's well-tended gardens.
Just south of Wall Street is charming Stone Street, a historic cobblestone block lined with excellent restaurants. As the area is closed to traffic, most eateries offer outdoor seating in the middle of the street in the warmer months. Adrienne's Pizzabar (54 Stone St between Broad and William Sts; 212-248-3838, adriennespizzabar.com) would be a find anywhere in the city, but the picturesque setting makes it a destination. The brick-oven pizzas, antipasti and fresh pastas—not to mention family-friendly service and cozy atmosphere—are consistently excellent.
Though always known as the country's financial hub, this part of lower Manhattan will forever be tied to September 11, 2001. The National September 11 Memorial (1 Liberty Plaza, enter at Albany St and Greenwich St, 911memorial.org) is the perfect place to teach kids about that awful day's events and pay homage to those who died, but you have to go online in advance and reserve passes for timed entry. Two square waterfall-sided reflecting pools, each built within the footprints of the fallen towers, are the memorial's centerpiece. Around them, bronze panels inscribed with the names of the victims invite reflection, while a grove of swamp white oaks embodies the rebirth of the neighborhood.
Just west, alongside Battery Park City's gorgeous riverside promenade, are several terrific playgrounds. One is the partially hidden Teardrop Park (River Terr between Murray and Warren Sts, bpcparks.org), whose giant slide, rocky landscape and mazelike paths are ideal for a game of hide-and-seek. The complex is also home to the Skyscraper Museum (39 Battery Pl at 1st Pl; 212-968-1961, skyscraper.org), which spotlights New York's—and the world's—soaring towers, and offers regular family workshops. Recharge with a gelato from Ciao Bella (225 Liberty St at North Cove; 212-786-4707, ciaobellagelato.com) while taking in the yachts and sailboats moored right out front in North Cove.
The interactive Junior Officers Discovery Zone has turned the New York City Police Museum (100 Old Slip between South and Water Sts; 212-480-3100, nycpolicemuseum.org) into a kid magnet. Younger children can man police cars while the older set learns crime-scene investigation techniques and undergoes physical challenges akin to actual NYPD tests.
Leafy Battery Park (Hudson River at Battery Pl, thebattery.org), home to the Staten Island Ferry terminal, is a destination in its own right with several noteworthy memorials, including a labyrinth made of overgrown brush intended as a place for reflection. Kids (and grown-ups) can cool off in the summer at the granite Spiral Fountain in the Bosque, one of the park's many new projects. Fatty Snack and Fatty 'Cue, two seasonal kiosks (open Apr--Oct; fatty-snack.com) from Fatty Crab chef Zak Pelaccio, provide all the provisions you'll need for a harborside picnic.