Two of the biggest attractions in Upper Manhattan are the stunning riverside Fort Washington and Fort Tryon Parks. Together, they boast 250 acres filled with lush lawns and gardens, winding tree-lined paths, multiple ball fields and playgrounds, and three iconic NYC sights: the famed Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, and the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's branch dedicated to medieval art and architecture. Because of their waterfront location at the highest points in Manhattan, the two green spaces were important strategic points in the Revolutionary War and today offer spectacular views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.
We continue our month-long focus on Washington Heights and Inwood with a look at what these two lovely green spaces have to offer kids and families. So take the A train uptown and discover all the wonderful things to do in Fort Washington Park and Fort Tryon Park.
Fort Tryon Park
Riverside Drive to Broadway between 192nd and Dyckman Streets
Built on land owned by John D. Rockefeller that was given to the city in 1931, Fort Tryon Park was designed and built by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (the son of the famous architect behind Central Park). Although it fell on hard times by the '80s, the park has been revitalized in recent years thanks to hard work by nonprofits like the Fort Tryon Park Trust, the New York Restoration Project and the Parks Department.
Romp in a playground There are two playgrounds in Fort Tryon Park: The Jacob Javits Playground at Cabrini Boulevard and Cobrin Circle, which has play equipment and basketball courts; and the Anne Loftus Playground near Broadway and Dyckman Street. An original part of the park that was restored in the mid-'90s, Anne Loftus has climbing equipment, animal sculptures and playhouses, two sets of swings, benches, shady trees and an awesome spray shower my son just loved.
Marvel at the views There's a reason we highlighted Fort Tryon Park as offering one of the top 10 views in all of NYC. A great vantage point is Linden Terrace, which features trees and shady benches, and near the Cloisters you'll find an amazing Hudson River overlook with unobstructed views of the Palisades.
Wander through the gardens There are two distinct gardens in Fort Tryon Park: The Heather Garden, which hosts the Shearing of the Heather every spring; and the hilly Alpine Garden, featuring plants indigenous to rocky environments. With more than 250 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees, each makes you feel as if you've been transported to another country and time, and there are guided tours of both year-round. A frequently updated bloom guide on the Fort Tryon Park Trust website lets you know what's in season throughout the 67-acre park.
Attend a free family festival While Fort Tryon Park regularly hosts free family fun for locals like yoga, martial arts and dance classes, there are a few big annual festivals that are worth the trek, like the Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington in November, which honors the park's important place in Revolutionary War history, and the Medieval Festival in the fall, one of our favorite family fests of the year.
Spend an afternoon at the Cloisters Museum and Gardens The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch devoted to medieval art and architecture is arguably the crown jewel of Fort Tryon Park and a must-see for kids obsessed with knights, unicorns or princesses. The building itself resembles a castle and was constructed from pieces that date from the 12th through 15th centuries, and it is lots of fun to explore. While the series of Unicorn Tapestries, which chronicle the hunt of the mythical creature, may be the most famous works at the Cloisters, there are more than 2,000 pieces in its collection, plus stunning gardens. For added fun, visit when the Cloisters hosts one of its family workshops. Suggested admission is $25 for adults, free for children under age 12.
Grab brunch and help the park All that exploring make you hungry? Grab an outdoor table at New Leaf Restaurant, located in the park a short walk from the Cloisters. As of 2015, New Leaf is closed for renovations but is set to reopen under the management of Coffeed in the spring.
Fort Washington Park
Riverside Drive to the Hudson River between 155 and 179th Streets
At 183 acres, Fort Washington Park is almost three times the size of Fort Tryon Park and yet it's not as well known, though two of its residents certainly are: the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (a.k.a. the underbelly of the George Washington Bridge) of kid-lit fame. Named in honor of a long gone Revolutionary War fort, the green space may not be as landscaped as its neighbor to the north, but it also offers gorgeous Hudson River views and lots of recreational activities. Be warned: You can't walk from one end of Fort Washington Park to the other without encountering impediments, and some sections are difficult to access. Keep that in mind when exploring.
Get your game on Fort Washington Park features two modest playgrounds, at 162nd and 165th Streets, plus handball, basketball and tennis courts, and baseball fields.
Gawk at the views You can get right up to the edge of the Hudson River in Fort Washington Park, which is a pretty incredible experience. Beyond are the lovely Palisades Cliffs in New Jersey. There are lots of great photo ops here!
Visit the Little Red Lighthouse Tucked under the Manhattan side of the hulking George Washington Bridge, the officially named Jeffrey's Hook Lighthouse was originally moved here from New Jersey in 1921 and is the only lighthouse left in Manhattan. In 1942, Hildegarde H. Swift wrote the classic picture book The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge which delivers the message that size doesn't equal importance. My son and I read the book before our visit and it made the trip a lot more fun. While you can enjoy the lighthouse from the outside anytime, tours of the interior are held on the second Saturday of the month from June to October, and during the annual Little Red Lighthouse Festival every fall, which includes hayrides, live music and a reading of the eponymous book. Getting here can be a challenge: Walk west on 181st Street, cross the footbridge and take a left down the path under the overpass. Cross over the railroad tracks and follow the path to the left and you'll find the lighthouse.
Learn a little history Always a fan of random facts, my son was impressed to learn that when it first opened in 1931, the 4,760-foot-long George Washington Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Also, during the Revolutionary War, General Washington held a fortified spot in Fort Washington Park while trying to fight off British occupation. There is a stone monument to the Battle of Fort Washington just northeast of the lighthouse, and other historic treasures.
Read all of our posts about things to do with kids in Washington Heights and Inwood.