Central Park was created as a respite for the teeming masses of Manhattan. The 843-acre jewel is home to woodlands, meadows, lakes, and wildlife, and years later still offers a reprieve to all New Yorkers. Today, more than 40 million people annually visit the lush expanses of one of the country's earliest public parks. Its 21 playgrounds make it a destination for families from all over the city and world.
Central Park isn’t a place to tire of easily. My family's daily commute to school takes us back and forth across the park—for that, I thank my lucky stars. But it's easy to lose perspective and forget how much this massive green space has to offer locals and visitors alike. With that in mind, we've rounded up 23 fun sites and scenes worth exploring in New York City's big backyard, from the obvious playgrounds and sledding hills to more obscure destinations. Enjoy!
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Central Park is certainly unique, but you can find more top NYC green spaces in our Parks and Playgrounds Guide.
1. See a show. Central Park is home to a number of annual performance series including SummerStage; the New York Philharmonic's FREE Concerts in the Parks; and The Metropolitan Opera's Summer Recital Series. You also can follow the actors of the New York Classical Theatre as they move from place to place in Central Park. Year-round puppet shows can be found at the park's Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre. All are great ways to introduce children to the arts in more relaxed settings than a theater.
The Delacorte Musical Clock will sing you a tune every 30 minutes. Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy.
2. Hear the melodies of 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.
3. Commune with nature in Belvedere Castle. 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. Check out a Discovery Kit, with binoculars, a field guide, and notebook, for observing nature in the park and begin your nature walk right down the hill at Turtle Pond. The castle reopened to the public in June 2019, after an extensive year-long renovation.
4. Catch (and release) fish in the Harlem Meer for FREE. The meer is located outside The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, where families can borrow a rod for FREE and receive bait and instructions. The Discovery Center will serve as a stand-in for Belvedere Castle, checking out Discovery Kits while renovations happen further south. You can also take in the nature displays in the Discovery Center. More seasonal fun at this spot includes a popular holiday tree lighting and a pumpkin flotilla at Halloween.
5. 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 and an ideal place for a picnic or a snooze on the grass. It's also home to the Peter J. Sharp Children’s Glade, a natural area just for kids. The nearby West 110th Street Playground offers even more ways to entertain the kids.
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Check out an art installation and the sunset on the Met rooftop. Photo by Alan Strakey via Flickr.
6. Visit The Met. After tossing pennies in the fountains outside and pulling your crew from the Arms and Armor hall, head up to the rooftop garden (accessible via the elevator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts galleries) for a unique view of the park. When the kids have had enough of the art, let them run wild at the nearby Ancient Playground.
7. For another unique view of the park, consider entering the lottery for an Urban Park Rangers family camping trip where your family can pitch a tent in the park to enjoy an all-night adventure complete with s'mores and nighttime nature walks to spy on nocturnal creatures.
Enjoy storytime and more at the Hans Christian Andersen statue. Photo by Barry Solow via Flickr.
8. For more than 60 years the Hans Christian Andersen statue has been the place to be Saturday mornings. Hear a fairy tale or folk story by The HC Andersen Storytellers on Saturdays from June through September, at 11am at the foot of the statue.
9. Let the lamp posts guide your way (or if you're prone to getting lost, take note): Most of the lamp posts are embossed with numbers that can help you get where you are going. The first two numbers in the series represent 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 are. For example: No. 9202 means you would be on 92nd Street. Streets north of 100th street start with 01, 02, and so on.
10. Go for a hike in the North Woods past man-made streams, waterfalls, ponds and famous Central Park arches. The rural and rugged northwest corner of the park is considered the Adirondacks of Manhattan. You can tour this area with the Central Park Conservancy, which offers several different tours each day and many are FREE.
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The lush, European-style Conservatory Garden is filled with pretty blooms and the playful "Three Dancing Maidens" sculpture and fountain. Photo by Alan Strakey via Flickr.
11. Take a stroll in the formal Conservatory Garden to appreciate the beauty of spring in Central Park. Beyond the immense wrought-iron gate on upper Fifth Avenue is the beautiful bicycle- and runner-free, six-acre garden designed in the styles of the famous gardens of England, France, and Italy, complete with fountains and arbors.
12. Think Central Park is just a summer spot? Think again. Its popular sledding hills and skating rinks are packed on snowy days, and its annual Winter Jam celebrates a variety of cold-weather sports.
13. Borrow a field day kit at the North Meadow Recreation Center to play Frisbee, baseball, catch, or jump rope in the open grassy areas or the sports fields.
14. Go for a dip in Central Park’s Lasker Pool. In the winter it is used for skating, while in summer it is a public swimming pool.
15. Scramble up Umpire Rock, one of the many huge rocks on which kids (and adults) love to play. Visit the nearby Heckscher Playground to frolic in the spray, climb the stairs to the top of the giant slide, or dig in the plentiful sand.
16. Who knew Central Park was home to a nature preserve? The semi-secret Hallett Nature Preserve was off-limits to the public for decades but reopened in 2016. Visitors can see this natural gem (near The Pond at the park's southeastern corner) on an official tour or visit daily from 10am to half an hour before dusk. Beware: Strollers and dogs are not allowed inside.
17. Take a tour of the lake from a rented rowboat or on a manned gondola at the Loeb Boathouse. Boat rentals are available April through November. While there, stop for a bite at the carry-out café or dine alfresco at the scenic restaurant.
Rent a boat to sail across the Conservatory Water. Photo by Stig Nygaard via Flickr.
18. Kids who have read EB White’s Stuart Little will fondly remember the race that took place in the Conservatory Water and they'll likely want to motor their own boat there. You can rent one at the concession stand behind the pool.
19. The Arsenal is one of two buildings that predate the park. It houses offices for the Parks Department and Central Park Zoo staffers in addition to a gallery space and the original park plans, which are viewable by appointment. A notable upcoming exhibition set to open later this month will feature photos shot by New York Times photographers in the summer of 1978.
20. When all else fails, pack a picnic blanket and set out to find your favorite nook to laze away a summer afternoon. My family flocks to the lawn above The Pool to relax on the grassy hill at 103rd Street. Other popular spots include Sheep Meadow and the green spaces near the Children's Corner on the southern edge. If you prefer your picnic off the beaten path, head to the shady Arthur Ross Pinetum, which has a few picnic tables and some good old-fashioned swing sets.
21. It may seem obvious, but the Central Park Zoo is a must-do year-round. It's not NYC's largest zoo, but it offers plenty of options for all ages, from penguins and an indoor exotic aviary to a petting zoo and even grizzly bears.
22. Hit the rides at the Victorian Gardens amusement park during the summer months. It's located not far from the zoo and the enclosed, intimate space lets little kids enjoy plenty of turns on their favorites!
23. While several destination playgrounds have been mentioned, Central Park is home to 21 in total, and the Central Park Conservancy has been busy refurbishing them in the last few years. The remodeled East 72nd Street Playground reopened in 2015. The East 110th Street Playground is a family favorite, and no true New Yorker can grow up without knowing the joys of flying down the slide at the Billy Johnson Playground on East 67th Street, which is currently undergoing renovations but should be open by summer (we'll keep you posted). Don't worry, the iconic slide won't be touched and a second—and more tot-friendly—option will be added.
A version of this article first published in April 2010.