It’s the city that never sleeps. But just a half mile from the crowded sidewalks, bright lights, and 24-hour Starbucks in Times Square, Central Park is a piece of Eden in the Big Apple.
Running parallel to Fifth Avenue for 2.5 miles, New York’s Central Park spreads across the heart of Manhattan like an 843-acre picnic blanket. And within minutes of stepping into this oasis, you’ll find that the bumper-to-bumper traffic, honking horns, and other perpetual city noises melt away.
One of the country’s first major landscaped parks, Central Park’s tree-lined paths, lush meadows, and landscaped flower beds were designed by the dynamic duo of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux. Often called the founders of American landscape architecture, the team developed the arched stone bridges and sunken pathways that allow strollers, runners, skaters, and cyclists to coexist in this urban escape. If visiting New York’s Central Park gives you a strange sense of deja vu, you might be recognizing Olmsted’s style in other notable gardens, including those at the U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., Washington Park in Albany, and the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.
It’s easy to underestimate the size of Central Park. After all, at 843 acres, it’s larger than the countries of Monaco and Vatican City! I’ve organized these recommendations in a counterclockwise route so that you don’t miss any of these fantastic experiences in New York’s Central Park.
Fun Fact: While Central Park is certainly the biggest park in Manhattan, there are several larger parks in New York City, including Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which is nearly three times the size of Central Park.
1. Go On An Interactive Scavenger Hunt
Peppered with fun facts and interesting tidbits, interactive scavenger hunts are one of my favorite ways to explore a new destination. And this scavenger hunt in Central Park did not disappoint! In about 2 hours, you’ll stroll through Strawberry Fields, storm the Belvedere Castle, and catch the rabbit that eluded Alice in Wonderland. The scavenger hunt through the public park is an easy 2.5 miles and can be completed at your own pace.
2. Stroll Through Strawberry Fields
Just across the street from Central Park, the high gables and accented arched doors of The Dakota apartment building stand out along Central Park West. It’s been home to many notable residents over the years, from actress Lauren Bacall to U2 lead singer Bono. And on December 8, 1980, an obsessed fan shot John Lennon here, outside his home.
Built around an understated sun-shaped mosaic with the word “Imagine” at the center, Strawberry Fields is a 2.5-acre section of Central Park dedicated to the slain Beatle. Although Strawberry Fields is a designated quiet zone meant to be a peaceful place of reflection, a variety of street artists regularly perform John Lennon’s songs for the crowds.
As a nod to John Lennon’s role as a peace activist, Strawberry Fields is also recognized as a Garden of Peace by more than 120 nations.
3. Enjoy A Beer At The Tavern On The Green
Still known as the Sheep Meadow, the lush 15-acre pasture in the southern part of Central Park was once home to hundreds of fluffy sheep who brought a touch of the English countryside to the heart of New York City (and earned their keep as the grounds crew). Although there have been no grazers on this ground since 1934, the lawn is still known as the Sheep Meadow. And the beautiful Victorian barn that once sheltered the flock was converted into the Tavern on the Green.
Enjoy a brew outside in the beer garden or sip a nightcap under the twinkle lights after the sun goes down. Or step inside for a delicious brunch, lunch, or dinner in the historic building. The Tavern offers a wide variety of menu items sure to accommodate all the unique tastes and cravings in your party (including a caramelized rack of lamb with seasonal vegetables and a honey glaze).
4. Take A Spin On The Carousel
Embrace your inner child by treating your grandchildren to a spin on the Central Park Carousel. The 57 painted ponies on an endless loop in the southern part of the park were handcarved more than 100 years ago, making this one of the largest (and oldest) carousels in the country.
5. Trade Your Wooden Horse For A Real One
If you’re a Seinfeld fan, the first horse-drawn carriage to trot past you in Central Park may bring back memories of the fragrant ride Susan’s parents enjoyed after Kramer fed Rusty the horse a can of Beef-A-Reeno. But you can see the sights of Central Park without the flatulence on a private 30-, 60-, or 90-minute carriage ride.
6. Change Gears Completely
If you prefer handlebars to reins, you can easily spin through Central Park on a bicycle. The folks at BikeRent.NYC offer a variety of rental options, including children’s bikes, tandem bicycles, and electric bikes. (And if you haven’t ridden an electric bike yet, I highly recommend it!) Just be sure you brush up on these important bike safety rules before you hit the road, because you’ll be sharing it with runners, rollerbladers, and horse-drawn carriages.
7. Hit The Ice
Just south of the Central Park Carousel, the Wollman Skating Rink is a fantastic winter experience in New York’s Central Park. In the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers and ringed by evergreens, the rink is one of the most scenic skating spots in the city.
8. Take In The Views From The Bethesda Terrace
Heading north from the Central Park Zoo toward the heart of the park, you’ll discover the Bethesda Terrace. On the southern tip of the lake and surrounded by trees, the tiled arcade and grand staircase are surrounded by natural beauty. As you approach the Bethesda Terrace, stroll through the mall, where old-growth elm trees line the wide path, providing shade in the summer and a gorgeous burst of color in the fall.
After making a wish at the Bethesda Fountain, head counterclockwise around the lake to the boathouse.
9. Enjoy The Lake
At The Loeb Boathouse, you can rent a rowboat or glide on a gondola. Or, if you’d rather sit back and just watch the boats float by, grab a casual bite at the boathouse bar or sit down to a more refined meal at the Lakeside Restaurant. You can also grab a quick bite from the Express Cafe and keep going!
10. Admire The Art At The Met
While several museums along Museum Mile border Central Park -- like the Cooper Hewitt, the Guggenheim, and The Jewish Museum -- the Metropolitan Museum of Art is actually located in the park. But since the Met covers 2.2 million square feet and features more than two million works of art, you’ll likely want to dedicate several hours (or even several days) to fully explore the largest art museum in the United States.
11. Stop To Smell The Roses
At this point in your trip to New York’s Central Park, you’ve likely discovered hundreds of varieties of trees, bushes, and flowers. From the bright blossoms of flowering dogwoods in spring to the broad branches of American beech providing shade in the summer, and from the burnt orange leaves of the sugar maples in the fall to the perpetually green boughs of Scotch pine in winter, it’s hard to miss the beauty of the thousands of trees that fill Central Park.
While you’ll see plenty of flowering bushes and colorful flower beds throughout Central Park, one of the most spectacular spots is the Conservatory Garden. Located in the northeast corner of the park, this 6-acre botanical space showcases English, French, and Italian gardening styles.
Pro Tip: In the spring (usually late March or early April), hundreds of pink cherry blossoms surround the reservoir. So if you’re unable to attend the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., know that this corner of the Big Apple is just as pretty in pink!
12. Float Like A Butterfly (While Watching For Bees)
Filled with hearty perennials like coneflowers, milkweed, and sage, a section of the north meadow just west of the conservatory is intended to attract and support butterflies, bees, and other precious pollinators. It’s in bloom from the spring through the first frost, but the best time to spot butterflies in their adult (rather than caterpillar) stage is in the late spring, summer, and early fall.
13. Enjoy A Picnic
To enjoy Central Park like a real New Yorker, spread a blanket in a sunny spot and simply relax! Take a catnap in the sun, leisurely enjoy a picnic lunch, or read a book while the stress of the city melts away. Some of the most popular spots to claim some temporary space are on the Great Lawn between the reservoir and Turtle Pond, on the grass around the Cherry Hill stone water fountain, and in the Sheep Meadow.
No matter what the season, you’re sure to find fantastic experiences in New York’s Central Park.
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