My first tryst with Central Park was in college. I was dating a UMass Landscape Architecture professor (don’t worry, I was at Rutgers…he was not “my” professor) who looked like a cuter Donny Osmond. One of our earlier dates was a day at Central Park. We walked the rambles as he showed me NYC’s birds and taught me about the park’s history. Needless to say, me and the prof didn’t work out, but my love affair with Central Park grows stronger day by day. As a daily visitor, I’ve put together a few tips for your visit to New York City’s Central Park.
Central Park Tips
Central Park Pro Tip: If you get lost, look for a lamppost. Look for 4 numbers. The first two will tell you the nearest street. If the last two numbers are even, you’re on the East side; if they are odd, you’re on the West Side. For example: 9806 means you’re near 98th Street on the East Side.
When you come to NYC, I hope that you spend more than just a week here. Honestly, it would take you way more than just a week to get to know Central Park. It is huge, it is gorgeous, and it is the heart of our city. NYC would not function without it. It is where we go to unwind, meet with friends, to stay in shape, and to refresh our spirit. I hope that when you come to NYC, you do more than visit Strawberry Fields and take a carriage ride (skip the carriage ride, it’s a horrible industry – the horses work 9 hours a day, inhale exhaust all day, trot on super hard surfaces, and the rest of their day is spent in the saddest homes). Instead, wear a comfy pair of shoes and get ready to experience what Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux dreamed up in 1958 when they won the commission to design the park.
Central Park begins at “Central Park South” or 59th Street, and stretches all the way to 100th Street. The park measures 853 acres and 6 miles if you walk its perimeter. Needless to say, it may be a little difficult for you to decide where to go. I’ll give you a few of my favorite spots, why I love them, and what you can do when you are there:
CENTRAL PARK’S WEST SIDE
Maine Monument: (West 59th Street at Columbus Circle – Merchant’s Gate entrance) This will probably be the easiest spot for you to find. It is at the southernmost tip of the park, and across from the Time Warner Center (if you love to eat, Time Warner Center houses Per Se, Masa, and A Voce – three of my favorite restaurants in the city). The Maine Monument was designed by (Jersey Born) Harold Van Buren Magonigle and honors American sailors who died in Cuba when the battleship USS Maine exploded. The reason for the explosion is still unknown, but there’s speculation that it was Spain (who soon after declared war on the U.S.). At the end of the war, Spain gave up Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the USA. This spot is always bustling with the energy of the city. The sculptures at the base are by Attilio Piccirilli. The gilded sculpture at the top depicts Columbia in victory on a seashell charriot being drawn by hippocampi (a sort of mer-horse). The monument is gorgeous in composition and is even enhanced by running water. Love, love, love!
- Merchants Gate Plaza cafe – If you’re in the mood for an inexpensive and quick bite, this is your spot. The kiosks are super cute (Victorian in style) and serve Gelato, smoothies, and pastries.
- Shopping – During the holiday season (Christmas & Hanukkah) pop up stores with arts and crafts appear here. Great spot for that one-of-a-kind gift.
Sheep Meadow – (66th- 69th Street) This is where New Yorkers go to stock up on Vitamin D (also the Great Lawn). From 1864 to 1934 there really were sheep there. Where did they sleep? None other than the building that is now Tavern on the Green. What to do in this lovely quiet space? You can picnic, sunbathe, fly a kite, paint….I’ll leave this to your imagination. And if you happen to need internet, step over to Mineral Springs Pavilion at Le Pain Quotidien.
- Ball Player’s House – If you forgot to bring food to Sheep Meadow, you can pick up light fare and refreshments here.
- Le Pain Quotidien – If you go here early in the am, you’ll see NYC’s doggy parents all over the place. Nice spot to grab a croissant, some pastries, and a coffee should you need a caffeine kick.
Strawberry Fields – (Entrance at 72nd Street across from the Dakota – runs along 71st – 74th Street) I’m certain that I don’t need to tell you too much about this spot. I would avoid this spot mid day. If you want to check it out, head over there early in the morning. It gets quite crowded and has plenty of people who are trying to sell you things. Not a favorite spot of mine during certain hours of the day. Just too many damned people taking pictures and blocking my way. If you get there at the right hour, it is absolutely lovely.
- Picnic – there are some nice spots to sit down and enjoy a sandwich around Strawberry fields. You can also check out the gorgeous rhododendrons all throughout the area.
- Imagine Mosaic – The mosaic was a gift from Naples, Italy and alludes to Lennon’s beloved message.
Swedish Cottage – (79th Street) The cottage was a model for pre-fabricated schoolhouses. It was shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philly where Frederick Law Olmsted saw it and decided it must have a home in Central Park. It is now the home to a marionette company that puts on fairy tales for kids. It is easy to imagine yourself as a fairy tale character in an unimaginable adventure as you walk past this gorgeous spot.
Delacorte Theater – (80th Street at the Great Lawn) Sadly, I’ve never seen a play at the Delacorte. I just don’t have the time to wait on line. But, if you’re on vacay, and you want to catch free Shakespeare, get up early, bring a lawn chair & sandwich, and make the pilgrimage that every Shakespeare lover should make at least once in a lifetime.
- Shakespeare Garden – (79th-80th Streets) Adjacent to the Swedish Cottage and the Delacorte Theater is this gorgeous garden named after one of my favorite writers. Your imagination will blossom as you spot plants from all of the Bard’s plays. It’s also not a bad spot to hit up if you don’t make the cut for free tickets at the Delacorte.
- Public Fare – Cute little cafe to grab a quick breakfast or lunch when you’re waiting on line at the Delacorte or catching some rays at the Great Lawn
- Romeo & Juliette and Tempest sculptures – The Delacorte pays homage to two of the bards best plays (and two of my faves). Hebald’s romantic couple is almost reduced to basic structure. It has a feeling of innocence and purity. The Tempest’s Prospero is depicted as powerful and rigid but surrounded by chaos. Miranda, much smaller in the composition seems to be led by Prospero, embroiled in the tempest because of his choices. I say, if you can’t get free tickets, bring your copy of Shakespeare’s Compleat Works, grab a spot nearby, and let your imagination run wild.
Arthur Ross Pinetum – (84th – 86th Street) There are 17 different types of pines in this ultimate picnic spot. Get here early, and you’ll be able to claim a few picnic tables as you watch some pretty buff men battle to see who can do more pull-ups.
Jackie Kennedy Reservoir – (85th – 96th Street) Runner’s paradise. This 1 1/2 mile track can put even the most stubborn runner in the zone. The views are incredible. If you come by in Spring, you can enjoy the Cherry blossoms and Rhododendron Mile. This is also a great spot for bird watching, so bring your binoculars.
CENTRAL PARK’S EAST SIDE
The Pond: (Central Park South – around 6th Avenue) Talk about a great spot for photographs. On a sunny day when the pond is still, NYC’s skyscrapers reflect on the pond as egrets create ripples on its surface. If you visit here, you will see locals sitting down with their pastels sketching the landscape early in the mornings. This is your spot if you want to get a little quiet time, but you don’t want to head too far uptown. If you go over the stone bridge on the north part of the pond, you will cross over to Hallett Nature Sanctuary, it was designed to mirror nature, and you will see quite a diverse amount of flora and fauna.
Central Park Zoo: (Walk North from the Pond, it will be between 63rd & 66th Streets) O.K., I admit it. I am a hypocrite. I am not a fan of animals in captivity, but damn it I love my zoo. I haven’t been there since high school (which was a long time ago) because I just can’t support zoos, but I love walking through in the mornings when I walk my dog. If you decide to go, I won’t give you a nasty look. They created a very nice environment for their animals, and when Gus (RIP) started showing signs of distress, they did all they could to make his life a little better. Tickets will cost you around $18 for an adult, and $13 for kids, but you don’t have to pay to enjoy the zoo.
- The Dancing Goat Fountain – He will gaily welcome you to the Zoo with his dance as ducklings play with water at his feet. The dancing goat was “born” in Brooklyn at Frederick George Richard Roth’s workshop in the 1930’s.
- Dancing Crane Cafe – If you happen to get hungry, this is your spot. Nothing outstanding, but it will do the trick.
- Sea Lion Pool – Even if you don’t pay to go into the Central Park Zoo, you can catch a glimpse of the Sea Lions. They are super cute and super playful. They are fed each day at 11:30 am, 2:00 pm, and 4:00 pm, so if you’re looking for a show, this is the time to go.
- Delacorte Musical Clock – If you love Legend (with Tom Cruise before he went crazy, Mia Sara, and Tim Curry) as much as I do, then you will find this spot magical. The clock features sculptures from Frederick G. R. Roth’s, and from 8 am-5pm every half hour, the clock plays songs as a band of animals (a bear, hippo, goat, kangaroo, monkeys and penguin) keep play along with it.
- The Dancing Bear Fountain – Frederick George Richard Roth’s Dancing Bear will see you off as he dances with his friends the frogs.
- Tisch Children’s Zoo – A little boy (who I assume is Pan) welcomes little ones as he dances with goats and plays the pipes. Here, the little ones can play with alpacas, pot bellied pigs, and more.
Metropolitan Museum of Art – (5th Avenue between 80th & 84th Street) Yeah, not really a part of the museum, but it’s right there….so you should see it. Besides, it is my favorite museum in NYC and one I gladly support (if you live in NYC, membership is totally worth it – tax deductible, you get invites to lectures and special events, you get a discount on purchases, and you can go there & to the Cloisters as many times as you want). That being said, YOU DON’T HAVE TO PAY TO GET INTO THE MUSEUM. That’s right. The museum asks for a voluntary donation. When I was in college and I lived on ramen, I would give a dollar, but if you don’t have a dollar, just give 10 cents, it’s cool. Now that I’m a big girl, I support the museum with my membership (and all my purchases) and urge those who are able to to do so. The Met does not have its art stolen as so often happens at other museums and they have some really cool programs. As with Central Park, the museum requires it’s own time. It is huge, lovely, and has an amazing collection. If you don’t go in, head to the back of the museum and check out two super cool sculptures:
- Cleopatra’s Needle – This obelisk actually came from Egypt and is the oldest man made piece in Central Park. It was was commissioned for Heliopolis in 1450 BC by pharaoh in celebration of his 30 years reign. It is not in the best of shape, but it is simply breath taking.
- King Jagiello (Poland) – We got this equestrian statue by pure chance. The sculpture was brought to the World’s Fair in 1939. It was a replica of one that was turned into bullets for the war by the Germans. Since the Nazis invaded Poland, the Polish Government had it placed in Central Park as a symbol of the courage of their people. The composition is great. Stanisław K. Ostrowski placed King Jagiello atop his horse as he defiantly crosses the Grunwald Swords defiantly over his head.
Conservatory Garden: (Entrance at 5th Ave between 104th-106th Streets) This is a magical spot. The Conservatory garden is divided into three micro gardens: English, French, and Italian. The entrance is marked by the Vanderlbilt Gate which was crafted in France and once welcomed visitors to the Vanderbilt Mansion. If you need a place to ponder and relax, this is one of the best spots in the city. Stop by and enjoy the flowers and sculptures in the park which include Bessie Potter Vonnah’s tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett (who wrote The Secret Garden), and Three Dancing Maidens by Walter Schott.
Petey Playing with his friend Claude near the Bow Bridge by the Lake
MID CENTRAL PARK
Cherry Hill – (at 72nd Street) – This is a lovely secret spot for relaxation. The spot with the Cherry Hill fountain was once used by carriages to turn around. Now it is a lovely walking path with a view of The Lake. East of the fountain is Cherry Hill where you can set up camp, read a book, and forget that you are in one of the busiest cities in the world.
Bethesda Terrace – (at 72nd Street) – This is one of the loveliest spots in the park. It is amazing that at one point it was a cesspool of crime. Today you’ll find a few homeless people sleeping in Bethesda’s gorgeous arcade (yeah, the homeless are slowly becoming an issue in NYC) but for the most part they tend to leave you alone. Spend a good amount of time here.
- Bethesda Arcade – If you’re coming from The Mall, start by going down the center stairs. This will take you to the arcade where you can delight at the Minton Tiles. This arcade looks like it belongs in a mansion in Newport and not in a park. The encaustic tiles by England’s Minton Tile Company are colorful and luxurious. This is the only place where Milton tiles are used on a ceiling, a true jewel indeed. As you look to the sides, you will notice lovely frescoes as well.
- Bethesda Fountain – Upon exiting the arcade, the view will be dominated by the Bethesda fountain by Emma Stebbin. Bethesda, the angel of the waters holds a Lilly (the flower represents the purity of water and the fountain represents the Croton Water System – super important to NYC at the time). If you’re in Central Park in the Summer, you may also see water lilies in the fountain (a 19th century practice). The four cherubs represent temperance, purity, health, and peace
- The Lake – Ahead of you will be the lake with a view of the Central Park Boat House.
- The Side Stairs – Turn around and head back up the side stairs. Jacob Wrey Mould designed these gorgeous high reliefs of birds and foliage that bring you back to summer even in the coldest New York winter.
The Loeb Boathouse – (74th & 75th Street – easier to get to from the East Side) If you’re near the rambles or Bethesda Terrace, you need to make a pit stop at the boathouse. It is, after all, one of its greatest landmarks.
- Bike Rental – Bike rental will cost you anywhere from $9 per hour to $50 per day. Totally worth it. This will help you cover more ground.
- Boat Rental – You know you want to. Heck, I want to. Boat rentals are available from April to November. They take cash only and cost around $13 per hour. Now we’ve even got gondolas, so no need to suffer through Venice.
- Lakeside Restaurant – It ain’t cheap, and you probably won’t get in without reservations, but this is one of the loveliest spots to dine out in NYC. There’s also an outside bar AND a take out cafe that has very affordable (although sub par) options. The takeout cafe is a good place for a quick and easy breakfast sandwich.
The Rambles – (73rd-79th Street) To the left of the Boathouse takeout cafe is the entrance to the Rambles. You will get lost here, and you will love it. I’ve taken people to the Rambles who say they hate New York City and that they could find nothing beautiful about it, and they’ve thanked me. Once in the Ramble, you will suddenly realize that you see no buildings and hear no noise except for the chirping of robins and scuttle of squirrels. You may panic, as you realize that you have no idea how to get out, but just at that moment, you’ll run into a group of birders who will gladly show you the way. So take a breath, relax, and enjoy the Rambles.
- Azalea Pond – The Azalea that grows in this area of the park is over 100 years old. If you’ve been to the Adirondacks, don’t be surprised if you are suddenly reminded of them. This was exactly the idea. If you’re into birding, this is the best spot.
- The Gill – Once you run into a bubbling brook, you’re at the Gill. Also a great spot to check out some of the 275 species of birds that like to spend time in NYC.
- Iphigene’s Walk – Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger is one of the reasons that Central Park has retained its splendor. She used her money and influence to make sure that commercial forces did not interfere with the vision of Olmsted and Vaux. We can thank her for keeping our park alive and saving it from a fate like Penn Station’s (you can check out pics of the original building here).
- Still Hunt: This Edward Kemey’s panther has been known to scare joggers at night. He’s quite lifelike and threatening as he skulks his prey.
Belvedere Castle – (79th Street) Belvedere Castle has one of the most beautiful views in the city. It overlooks the Turtle Pond, the Great Lawn, and The Delacorte Theater. It also makes me feel like a 6 year old girl dreaming of princesses, knights, and unicorns.
The Great Lawn – (79th-85th Street) This is the ultimate NYC spot. In the mornings, you’ll see dogs walking around the path leash free as their “parents” sip on coffee from Public Fare at the Delacorte. Mid-day, you’ll see people sunbathing, playing frisbee, and picnicking.