Two of the biggest attractions in Upper Manhattan boast a combined 250 acres of lush lawns and gardens, winding tree-lined paths, multiple ball fields and playgrounds, and three iconic NYC sights: the famed Little Red Lighthouse, the George Washington Bridge (or for fans of the beloved picture book by Hildegarde H. Swift, the Great Gray Bridge), and the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch dedicated to medieval art and architecture. Because of the waterfront location at the highest points in Manhattan, the two green spaces—Fort Washington and Fort Tryon Parks—were important strategic points in the Revolutionary War. Today the parks offer visitors spectacular views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.
So take the A train up to Washington Heights and Inwood and discover all the wonderful things to do in Fort Washington Park and Fort Tryon Park, with a little bit of help from our guide below.
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, has play equipment and basketball courts. The Anne Loftus Playground near Broadway and Dyckman Street is an original part of the park that was restored in the mid-nineties and has climbing equipment, animal sculptures and playhouses, two sets of swings, benches, shady trees, and an awesome spray shower my son adores.
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. Near the Cloisters, you'll find an amazing Hudson River overlook with unobstructed views of the Palisades.
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Peruse the gardens and hilly grounds of the park. Photo courtesy of Fort Tryon Park
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. Guided tours of both gardens are offered 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.
The annual Medieval Festival draws families to Fort Tryon for a bit of exciting history. Photo courtesy of Fort Tryon 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. 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 NYC adults (non-residents must pay per a new Met rule), and FREE for children under age 12.
In nice weather, you can eat outdoors at the New Leaf Restaurant. Photo courtesy of the restaurant
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, and sit within nature as you nosh on delicious salads and entrees.
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, yet it's not as well known, though two of its residents certainly are: the Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge (aka 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.
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The Nature Discovery Playground is a nice shady spot to play. Photo by Mommy Poppins
Discover a mega playground
Located around 165th Street in Fort Washington Park, the Nature Discovery Playground is surrounded by trees in this beautiful but remote area. Kids will enjoy spending the day in this expansive, nature-themed playground, with larger-than-life sculptures of leaves, mushrooms, and logs that are fun to jump on, as well as sprinklers in summer.
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!
See the Little Red Lighthouse that inspired a book. Photo by Mommy Poppins
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.
Additional reporting and update by Maureen Dempsey.
A version of this article first ran in 2013.