Visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City
Most families think of the American Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art when they think about taking kids to museums in New York City. What many people don’t realize is that the Lower East Side Tenement Museum provides an engaging and interactive museum that is perfect for kids and families.
What is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum?
The Tenement Museum tells the stories of the people that lived at 97 Orchard Street in 1916. Build on the Lower East Side in Manhattan in 1863, this tenement apartment building was home to nearly 7,000 working class immigrants. The Tenement Museum offers guided tours that help visitors imagine what life was like in 1916. Eleven tours are available on a daily basis, each with a different focus, from the lives of sweatshop workers to meeting residents like Victoria Confino, a Greek Sephardic teenager living with nine of her family members.
Take the Victoria Confino tour with kids
While many of the tours are appropriate for children, the best first tour of the Tenement Museum with kids is the Victoria Confino tour, which is only offered on weekends. You can find it listed on the Tenement Museum tour calendar.
What I loved about the Victoria Confino tour is that it covered the basics, like the fact that 100 families lived in 97 Orchard street, sharing four bathrooms until the law was added that mandated landlords to construct bathrooms on each floor. (There were then two per floor at 97 Orchard.) However, the tour also included an element of role playing to bring the experience to life. The tour group was able to decide which role it would play during the tour, either that of an Italian family of farmers or a Russian family. The guide played the role of settlement house worker, assisting “greenhorn” families, who were those right “off the boat.”
Once inside 14-year old Victoria Confino’s apartment, the interpreter described the reality of living with nine other family members in the three-room apartment, including a parlor, kitchen and bedroom for the adults, as well as the responsibility of working four days a week in her father’s factory. Everyone in the tour group was invited to ask questions, which Victoria answered, and children got involved by trying on aprons. Victoria also took the girls in our group aside and gave them tips about going out on a date at the movies which my 10-year old daughter thought was hysterical. The tour ended with a debriefing where the guide led a reflection about the experience and helped visitors connect what they learned to the present.
Tips for a visit to the Tenement Museum with kids:
- Eat breakfast or lunch before or after your tour. The well known Katz’s Delicatessen, of When Harry Met Sally fame, is a few blocks away, as is our favorite, Russ and Daughter’s Cafe.
- The museum can only be seen by guided tour. Book your tour well in advance. Tickets often sell out, especially for the Victoria Confino tour.
- Arrive at the visitor’s center at least 30 minutes early so that you can watch an introduction video for context.
- Take time to walk around the Lower East Side to learn even more about the lives of working class immigrants.
- The Tenement Museum is easily accessible by subway from either Millenium Hilton or Hilton Times Square.
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Know Before You Go
- Opt for walking tours instead of bus tours if you want to eliminate the issue of traffic – just make sure to pack comfortable shoes!
- If you bring your own ice skates, Bryant Park allows you to ice skate for free in the winter.
- The Bronx Zoo is pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays.
- Utilize the New York Subway to travel like a local – it’s also a great way to avoid traffic!