Hidden NY: 19 Fun Things to Do in Central Park Beyond the Zoo

Visit Central Park with Kids

Central Park was created to be a respite for the teaming masses packed in what we now consider to be downtown Manhattan. The 800 + acre jewel in the crown of New York City is home to woodlands, meadows, lakes, wildlife and still offers that same respite to all New Yorkers.  Today though, over 25 million people visit the lush expanses of the countries first public park and of course with 21 playgrounds it is a destination for families from all over the city and the world.

Central Park isn’t one of those places that you would tire of easily, so if you find yourself in a rut, you might need to freshen up your park itinerary.  How about next time you visit the park, skip the zoo and the playgrounds and try checking out one of these fun finds:

1. Hear the melodies from the Delacorte Musical Clock, situated halfway between the Central Park Zoo and the Tisch Children’s Zoo, the fanciful timepiece sits on a tower with two brass monkeys, a hippo, bear, elephant, goat and kangaroo circling and spinning underneath.  Listen for Three Blind Mice and changing seasonal favorites, every 30 minutes.

2. Commune with nature in Belvedere Castle as it stands guarding the park from its rocky hill.  Inside you will find the Henry Luce Nature Center, displaying bat skeletons, stuffed birds and nature photography. Step out onto the large outdoor patios for birding and great views of the park and the city surrounding it.  Check out a Discovery Kit with binoculars, a field guide and a notebook for observing nature in the park, start right down the hill at Turtle Pond.

3. Catch (and release) fish in the Harlem Meer for free, right outside The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center families can borrow a rod, bait and get instructions. While you are there, check out the nature displays in the Discovery Center. The fishing center hours are: mid April through mid October. Tues. - Sat. 10am-4pm and Sundays 10am-2pm.

4. Hang out on the Great Hill, the third highest point in the park, originally built as a carriage road, it is now a gentle sloping lawn surrounded by American Elm trees, the perfect place for a picnic or a snooze in the grass.  It is also, home to the Peter J. Sharp Children’s Glade, a natural area in the park made just for kids.  Try a visit to this area on the weekends for the Clearing in the Forest program for some eco-friendly family fun.

5. Get your game on at the Chess & Checkers House, sit outside underneath the pergola and play chess, checkers, dominos or backgammon.  The staff will give you the pieces and even find you a partner.  If you would like to learn how to play chess, check out their summer chess skills program.  The Central Park Conservancy also schedules free craft programs throghout the year.

6. For more than 50 years the Hans Christian Andersen statue has been the place to be on Saturday mornings and this year will be no different.  Hear a fairy tale or folk story by The HC Andersen Storytellers at 11:00 am, rain or shine at the foot of the statue, Saturdays, June through September.

7. Go for a hike in the North Woods past man made streams, waterfalls, ponds and famous Central Park arches. The northwest corner of the park is rural and rugged considered to be the Adirondacks of Manhattan; kids will love the hidden gem waterfalls.  You can also take a tour of this area with the Central Park Conservancy.

8. Take a stroll and appreciate the beauty of spring in Central Park.  Beyond the immense wrought iron gate on upper Fifth Avenue is the beautiful and formal Conservatory Garden of Central Park. The lush 6 acre garden is designed in the styles of the famous gardens of England, France and Italy complete with fountains and arbors.

9. Take in a classic puppet show at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater.

10. Borrow a field day kit at the North Meadow Recreation Center and play Frisbee, baseball, catch or jump rope in the open grassy areas or the sports fields.

11. Go for a dip in Central Park’s ice-skating rink-cum-pool, Lasker Rink and Pool. In the winter it is used for skating and in the summer it is a huge public swimming pool.

12. Scramble up Umpire Rock, not a rock climbing wall, but one of the many huge rocks that kids love to play on in the park.

13. Sing as you go under the arches and bridges. Yes, you may look crazy but it is a great way to teach your kids about echoes and mine just loves it.

14. Visit Victorian Gardens, a miniature amusement with rides for pint sized patrons.  Wollman Rink is transformed into a fun and family friendly amusement park complete with carnival games, lots of rides and a tiny Manhattan sized roller coaster.  

15. Take a tour of the lake from a rented rowboat or on a manned gondola at the Loeb Boathouse. Boat rentals available April through November. While there stop for a bite to eat at either the carry out café or the scenic restaurant.

16. Kids who have read EB White’s, Stuart Little will fondly remember the race that took place in the Conservatory Water and want to motor their own boat here. You can rent a radio controlled sailboat at the concession stand behind the pool.

17. The Arsenal building, right outside The Central Park Zoo, actually predates the park and is home to some of the zoo’s staff but some of the space in the building has been converted into a gallery and on exhibit right now is the colorful and family friendly, Outside In.  If you are at the zoo, you walk right by the building, so stop in and check it out.

18. Shakespeare throughout the park, spend some time following the fine actors of the New York Classical Theater around the park as they move from place to place performing the best of the bard in Central Park this summer. You don’t need to wait in line for the tickets - just show up – and it is free.

19. Don’t get lost, most of the lamp posts are embossed with numbers and can help you get where you are going.  The first two numbers in the series correlate to the street number you would be on if the street went through the park – so you will always know how far north or south you have traveled, for example:  #9202 means you would be on 92nd Street.  Streets north of 100th street will start with 01, 02, and so on.  

This post is part of our Hidden NY Series:

Hidden NY: 5 Fun Finds at the American Museum of Natural History

Hidden New York: Fun for Kids in Chelsea Market

This article, originally published in April 2010, was updated in 2012.