How to make the most of Central Park

Secrets for exploring Manhattan’s iconic 843-acre oasis.

Photograph by Scott Dunn, Getty Images
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Fall foliage frames Belvedere Castle and Turtle Pond, while the skyline of Central Park West towers in the background.

Photograph by Scott Dunn, Getty Images

Fast facts

Location: New York City
Established: 1858
Size: 843 acres
Annual visitors: 42 million
Visitor centers: The Dairy, Belvedere Castle, Dana Discovery Center, Chess & Checkers House, Columbus Circle Kiosk
Entrance fees: None

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Prominent landmarks on Central Park West include the American Museum of Natural History, the Dakota Apartments, and the New-York Historical Society.

Why go and what to know

As much a part of the city’s image as the Statue of Liberty and Times Square, leafy Central Park is the green heart of the Big Apple. A template for hundreds of urban parks around the world, the huge green space stretches 51 blocks through the middle of helter-skelter Manhattan.

By the early 1800s, New York’s elite felt their city needed a large recreational parkland similar to those in London and Paris. The most obvious site was an area of villages and farms mostly inhabited by recent Irish immigrants and free African Americans. Wielding eminent domain, the city fathers evicted the residents and announced a design competition for the proposed park.

Prominent American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and British-American architect Calvert Vaux won. But in a stinging rebuke to the elites who envisioned the park as a highbrow playground, Olmstead announced their creation would be “a democratic development of the highest significance,” intended for all New Yorkers—not just the privileged.

From past to present, from south to north, here’s how to explore all Central Park has to offer.


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To the south

The park’s most spectacular entrance is Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, where a gold equestrian statue of General Sherman looms over the square. Across the street, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel is a masterpiece of 1920s urban architecture from its gargoyles and Gothic spire to the lobby’s meticulously restored neo-Renaissance ceiling.

Head into the park to enjoy the outdoor Wollman Rink (ice-skating in winter, roller skating the rest of the year) and explore the small but diverse exhibits at the family-friendly Central Park Zoo, which includes the Tisch Children’s Zoo. Just beyond, the Dairy Visitor Center provides Central Park information, maps, and souvenirs in a building that once dispensed fresh milk to urban families.

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Rowboats glide across the Lake near the Loeb Boathouse.

Flanked by venerable American elm trees and statues of celebrated writers, the Mall leads north to the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, one of the park’s earliest structures and a popular selfie spot. Loeb Boathouse—also a restaurant and bar—helps visitors explore the Lake by rowboat or a guided Venetian gondola tour. The Lake’s north shore is edged by a heavily wooded area with rock outcrops called the Ramble, Olmstead’s ode to raw nature.

Midpark

Two world-class institutions—the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)—bracket the park’s midsection. The Met’s two million works span nearly every part of the globe and all historical eras, and visitors can enjoy commanding views of the park from the rooftop sculpture garden and the airy gallery housing the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur. The AMNH is one of the world’s largest museums of any kind. Dedicated to nature, science, and human culture, the collection embraces more than 33 million specimens and artifacts.

Stretching the breadth of the park between the two museums, the Great Lawn is a combination sports complex and concert venue which has hosted crowds of half a million people drawn to acts like Elton John, Plácido Domingo, and the New York Philharmonic. A former reservoir turned Depression-era Hooverville, the open space adopted its current form in the 1950s. The open-air Delacorte Theater presents free Shakespeare in the Park during the summer, and the adjacent Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre puts on popular family puppet shows.

Just to the north, a reservoir renamed in honor of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis offers a mile-and-a-half jogging track, equestrian trail, pink-blossomed cherry trees, and the chance to see the dozens of water bird species that frequent the park’s largest lake.

The north end

Nestled in Harlem, the park’s north end honors the neighborhood’s heritage with features like the Duke Ellington Memorial at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street—the first monument to an African-American artist in New York City (dedicated in 1997). Dana Discovery Center on Harlem Meer offers a year-round slate of exhibits, education programs, and holiday events.

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Crab apples bloom in the Conservatory Garden.

One of the few parts of Central Park that doesn’t adhere to Olmsted’s rustic vision, the six-acre Conservatory Garden includes manicured French, English, and Italian beds, plus a magnificent Gilded Age gateway that once fronted the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue.

The north end’s rich military history—it served as a British encampment during the Revolutionary War and an American base in the War of 1812—remains evident in the 1814 Blockhouse, the park’s oldest surviving structure, and the site of Fort Clinton, a 1776 British bastion.

In the neighborhood

Stroll Museum Mile, the stretch of Fifth Avenue between 82nd and 110th Streets that includes the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Guggenheim Museum, the small but superb Frick Collection, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of New York City, and El Museo del Barrio. At the top corner of the park, the Africa Center is slowly evolving from a policy and special events center into a museum of African arts and culture.

Head to Central Park West to see the iconic 19th-century Dakota Apartments, once home to celebrities from football star Joe Namath and dancer Rudolph Nureyev to actress Lauren Bacall, composer Leonard Bernstein, and John Lennon. Across the street in Central Park, the Strawberry Fields memorial honors Lennon, who was murdered in front of the Dakota in 1980. A few blocks north, the New-York Historical Society museum and archives give fascinating glimpses of history from its 1804 founding through to the present day.

To truly see it all, check out Central Park Conservancy’s guided tours, which highlight everything from children’s sculptures and beginning birding to fall foliage and art in the park—even a Hounds Hike dog walk.

Where to eat

Loeb Boathouse: This two-in-one eatery—the casual Express Cafe and the more formal Lakeside Restaurant—also offers an outdoor bar.

Tavern on the Green: A New York eating institution since 1934, the gourmet tavern serves lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch.

Cantor Roof Garden Bar: Cocktails and light snacks are the forte of this alfresco hangout on the roof of the Met. (The museum also offers six other bars and restaurants.)

Kerbs Boathouse Café: A snack bar is tucked into a restored copper-roofed structure overlooking the Conservatory Water.

Harlem Meer Snack Bar: Next to the Dana Discovery Center, this vegetarian outlet is the only place to grab a bite or drink in the north end. Try the falafels.

What to do

GMA Summer Concert Series: Between May and September, Good Morning America hosts weekly performances by the biggest acts in popular music on Rumsey Playfield.

Central Park Conservancy Film Festival: A full week of free open-air movies in the park at the end of August draws crowds with blankets, drinks, and picnic dinners.

Oktoberfest in Central Park: Raise a beer-filled glass, munch on a bratwurst, and chomp on a pretzel at this Bavarian-style celebration held every September in the park’s Rumsey Playfield.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: The iconic event always starts at 77th Street and Central Park West. The night before, watch the giant balloons being inflated behind the American Museum of Natural History.

Columbus Circle Holiday Market: More than a hundred vendors offer Yuletide foods, crafts, clothing, and decorations at this outdoor bazaar held from Thanksgiving weekend to Christmas Eve.

This article was adapted from the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.