Central Park, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park—even if you only just arrived in NYC, we probably don't need to tell you that these are all must-see green spaces. Yet, according to the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation, 14 percent of the city is parkland—that's more than 30,000 acres!
So if you're looking for a new-to-you outdoor destination to explore, we've got 10 off-the-beaten-path parks worth putting on your NYC family bucket list. Some are massive and boast a wide array of attractions for all seasons; others are small but picturesque and host popular annual events for families. Don't worry if you can't make it to all of these before school starts—we have at least a few more months of fair weather ahead!
Be sure to check each park's calendar on the NYC Parks website to see if any family activities coincide with your visit.
Cool off in the sprinklers after a walk or ride along the Battery's esplanade. Photo by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo via Flickr.
The Battery — Financial District
For years, this was the ratty green space you passed while rushing to make your ferry to Staten Island or Governors Island. But Battery Park—recently rebranded as simply the Battery—has a lot of new attractions to go along with its new name. For kids, the one-of-a-kind SeaGlass Carousel is the hands-down favorite, but there's also a refreshing Spiral Fountain for cooling off, manicured gardens, an urban farm that hosts a seasonal storytime, and the awesome looking Castle Clinton, which is also the starting spot for New York Classical Theatre's FREE summer Shakespeare productions. Of course the Battery's transformation into a family destination is still in progress. Its broken-down playground across from the merry-go-round is currently being transformed into a so-called PlaySpace, and judging from the plans (which include a puppet theater, a jungle-gym-style playhouse, and the climbable Adventure Bluffs), it's going to be jaw-dropping. Downside: it's going to take a while. As of now the completion date is 2020.
A visit to Inwood Hill Park feels like a true escape from the city. Photo by Teri Tynes via Flickr.
Inwood Hill Park — Inwood
We love this upper Manhattan park so much, we've written two posts about all there is to do here. It's home to three romping spots, including the recently renovated Indian Road Playground, which has an exceptional and clean sand pit. For more intrepid visitors, you can try DIY bouldering, go bird-watching at the salt marsh, or see what kind of outdoor program is happening. Although Inwood Hill Park's Nature Center has been closed for years due to Hurricane Sandy damage, the Urban Park Rangers still host overnight camping, canoeing, eagle watching, and other exploratory sessions in season. There are also frequent family art and exercise offerings including yoga, drumming, and running. Every June, Inwood Hill Park honors its Native American history with Drums Along the Hudson, an annual multicultural celebration with ethnic entertainment and eats. And in summer, you can enjoy FREE outdoor productions of the Bard courtesy of the Inwood Shakespeare Festival.
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The kid-designed carousel is a highlight of Riverbank State Park, but so are the views of the Hudson and other amenities like sports programming. Photo by author.
Riverbank State Park — Harlem
NYC's only elevated waterfront park really has it all: tennis, basketball, and handball courts; an Olympic-size indoor pool and a smaller seasonal outdoor pool; a covered rink for ice-skating in winter and roller-skating in summer; a pair of modest playgrounds; a fitness center; an amphitheater; lots of picnic tables; and a funky kid-designed carousel. Since Riverbank is built on a sewage treatment plant, as you approach you'll see some pretty ugly industrial-looking structures. But once you arrive you'll forget all about them thanks to the gorgeous views of the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. The one downside to the park? No one ever answers the phone. So if you want to register for any of its inexpensive classes or camps, find out about its arts and culture programming, or buy a membership to the fitness center, you're best off visiting in person. The indoor pool, rink, and other facilities have minimal fees. In warm weather, you can easily spend the entire day here.
Pelham Bay Park — the Bronx
Sure, you've heard of NYC's largest public park, but when's the last time you visited (if ever)? Time to fix that! Though this huge Bronx green space has plenty of playgrounds and sports fields, it makes a wonderful staycation destination because of its many non-urban attractions. It's home to Orchard Beach, aka the "Bronx Riviera," which offers sand, surf, a small concession stand, a seaside playground, and even seal watching (all in season of course). There are also some bucolic hiking trails and fairly easy bike paths, too. Extra special activities include going for a horseback ride with the Bronx Equestrian Center, playing mini golf at the Turtle Cover Golf Center, getting up close with critters at the modest but free nature center, and visiting the historic Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, which hosts frequent family events like its monthly First Friday! Music & Trolley fetes, Easter egg hunt, and more. You can definitely spend many weekends exploring all that Pelham Bay Park has to offer.
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From wooded walks and horseback riding to an outdoor pool, Van Cortlandt is a great place for all ages to play. Photo by Steven Pisano via Flickr.
Van Cortlandt Park — Riverdale
Why rent a car to travel to the country when you can get to this bucolic Bronx park by subway? Journey down one of its multiple hiking trails and you'll be so immersed in nature you won't believe you're still in NYC! While less than half the size of Pelham Bay, Van Cortlandt boasts many similar special attractions, including horseback riding at Riverdale Stables, a nature center for hands-on learning, and the historic Van Cortlandt House Museum, which always gets decked out for the holidays and hosts a popular Santa Claus Pajama Storytime. Of course you'll find the typical playgrounds and athletic courts here, too, plus something Pelham doesn't have: a seasonal outdoor pool. Our only complaint is that its ice-skating rink has been permanently shuttered, but with a calendar jam-packed with family programming year-round, including alfresco flicks, birding, and a track club, you'll never be at a loss for something to do.
East River Park is small but offers great views, a sandy beach, and green space for picnicking with some of Williamsburg's great eats. Photo by Harold Navarro via Flickr.
East River State Park — Williamsburg
When in Williamsburg, most everyone goes to the amenity-filled McCarren Park. But if that green space gets too crazy, head a few blocks west to this waterfront park. While you can see the wear and tear on this concrete-heavy spot (c'mon New York State, let's make with some renovations!), it still boasts lots of open space, fantastic views of Manhattan, picnic tables, a sandy beach (for lounging, no swimming allowed), and a rustic playground. In summer, the eclectic food market Smorgasburg sets up here on Saturdays and there are movie nights that stretch into September. Not worth a special trip but a good bet if you're in the area.
RELATED: 50 Things to Do with Kids in Williamsburg
Tall trees line the walkways of of Msgr. McGolrick Park, adding to the charm of this quiet Brooklyn spot. Photo by Erin via Flickr.
Msgr. McGolrick Park — Greenpoint
Nearby Msgr. McGolrick offers another alternative to McCarren. This quaint but lovely green space possesses a charming neighborhood vibe. In addition to the playground there's a year-round bathroom (yay!), grassy lawns, and no crowds. There's even a dog run, so you can bring Fido along on your family outing. This community hot spot also plays host to an annual Easter Egg Hunt sponsored by local family org Town Square Inc. (Be sure to buy advance tickets.)
Owl's Head offers wide open green spaces, plus two playgrounds and a skate park. Photo courtesy NYC Parks.
Owl's Head Park — Bay Ridge
Home of Bay Ridge's big annual Halloween Haunted Walk & Fairytale Forest, this green space is well-loved by the community year-round. This waterfront favorite features two playgrounds, scenic walking trails, epic sledding hills, ball courts, and a popular skate park. There's also ample space for picnicking, an impressive variety of trees (pines, locusts, oaks, maples, corks, beeches), and breathtaking views of lower Manhattan.
Alley Pond Park — Douglaston
Once you tell your tweens this park's got a zip line, you probably won't need to sell them on it. At its Alley Pond Park Adventure Course, a trained professional leads athletes ages 8 and up through a series of team-building challenges, including a low- and high-ropes course, a climbing wall, a trust-fall station, swings, nets, balance platforms, and, oh yes, that zip line. Best of all, the course is FREE and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis on Sundays May through November (though you need to enter an online lottery in July and August). Too intense for you? There are lots of mellower attractions, including face time with cool creatures at the Alley Pond Environmental Center, rural hiking trails, a trio of playgrounds, athletic fields, and some special events, mostly in summer like puppet shows and birding. Note: Even though this park is sprawling it's nowhere near the subway or even a bus. So be prepared to drive.
Sit under the willows and enjoy the view from Gantry Plaza State Park. Photo by Shira Kronzon.
Gantry Plaza State Park — Long Island City
What Brooklyn Bridge Park is to Kings County, Gantry Plaza State Park is to Queens. Home to the iconic Pepsi sign and its namesake gantries, this stunning waterfront park offers breathtaking views of Midtown Manhattan (and Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks!) from its four piers, along with landscaped gardens, a mist fountain, and some fun romping spots, including one of our favorite water playgrounds in all of NYC which requires bathing suits to enter. This is a great place to fish (assuming you have a license) or to throw an outdoor party (you can rent picnic tables or sit on one of the lawns). While there aren't a ton of special events, the Hunters Point Park Conservancy hosts occasional activities like yoga at Gantry and the adjacent Hunters Point South Park, which adds 10 more acres of green space to check out. Make your outing even more memorable by traveling to and from the parks via the East River Ferry, which has a terminal in the southern park.
Top image: Alley Pond Park. Photo courtesy of NYC Parks.