Must-See Central Park

Heather Liang

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One of New York City's most breathtaking and celebrated attractions, Central Park is a must-see for anyone visiting the five boroughs. Whether experienced during a fresh snowfall in the winter, the spectacular floral blossoms in spring, the steamy days of summer or the gorgeous, leaf-turning months of fall, Central Park is a sight to behold. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux between 1858 and 1873 and currently maintained by the Central Park Conservancy, the 843-acre park is an urban oasis of trees, gardens, rolling meadows, arches, sculptures, statues and vistas. The range of outdoor activities you can enjoy there is seemingly endless, from hiking, biking and ice-skating to simply lounging on a picnic blanket and listening to a live concert. To help you narrow down your choices, we've gathered together some of the most popular attractions. For more information, visit the Central Park Conservancy's website.

Entering Central Park
Central Park is accessible via specified entrances and exits located along its perimeter. On the south end of the park, there are four Midtown entrances along 59th Street (or Central Park South): Columbus Circle (where Broadway and Eighth Avenue meet), Seventh Avenue, Sixth Avenue and Grand Army Plaza (just west of Fifth Avenue). Along the Upper East Side, the Fifth Avenue side of the park has more than 20 entrances between 60th and 110th Streets. You'll find 23 entrances spanning the Upper West Side along Central Park West between 63rd and 110th Streets. There are four additional entrances at the north end of the park along 110th Street, in the neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Harlem on the west side and East Harlem on the east side.

Snow Leopard at the Central Park Zoo. Snow Leopard at the Central Park Zoo. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher

Central Park Zoo 
The Central Park Zoo is a microcosm of the world's wildlife population, offering a glimpse into the jungles beyond the City. The zoo is maintained by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which also oversees the Bronx Zoo, Queens Zoo, New York Aquarium and Prospect Park Zoo. The Central Park Zoo was not part of the original vision for the park, but after it began receiving informal gifts of wild animals, plans to build a menagerie to house them were approved in 1864. Over the next century, the zoo continued to grow and expand, and in 1980, the WCS took over. In 1988, the organization opened the renovated facility that we know today, located between 63rd and 66th Streets on the Fifth Avenue side of the park. The zoo houses more than 130 species of animals, all kept in environments that mimic their natural habitats—from tropical to temperate to polar zones. The  list includes grizzly bears, penguins, red pandas, snow leopards, birds and frogs. A particular favorite of zoo-goers is the sea lion feeding, which takes place three times daily at the Sea Lion Pool. The Tisch Children's Zoo, added in 1997, offers a petting zoo, the Enchanted Forest and educational programs for children led by the WCS Educational Department.

Friedsam Memorial Carousel
Don't leave Central Park without making a stop at its famous carousel, located at 64th Street in the middle of the park. Though it may seem like an attraction for children, taking a ride on one of the 58 glorious, hand-carved horses is a fun experience at any age. The carousel has an interesting history—from 1871 to 1924, it was powered by a blind mule and a horse that walked on a treadmill in an underground pit. The subsequent, steam-powered version was destroyed by fire in 1924, and the rebuilt ride suffered the same fate in 1950. Today's carousel, designed in 1908 by Brooklyn's Stein & Goldstein, was erected in 1951; the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation discovered the apparatus in storage at an old Coney Island trolley terminal. It is still among the largest carousels in the country. One of the park's more popular attractions, it is open, weather permitting, seven days a week from April to October and usually on weekends from November to March (call ahead), and draws in nearly 250,000 riders annually. Expect to stand in line on warm summer days, when you can take advantage of the food and balloon vendors who set up nearby.

Victorian Gardens Victorian Gardens. Photo: Will Steacy

Wollman Rink and Victorian Gardens 
Ice-skating in New York City is at the top of many to-do lists, and this happens to be one of the more spectacular venues to take a spin, since it offers stunning views of the park and the Midtown skyline. The rink is operated by the Trump Organization, which led a major renovation of the facility in 1986. In the summer, the arena is transformed into the Victorian Gardens amusement park, which houses rides and other entertainment for families. Located about halfway between the east and west sides of the park at 63rd Street, Wollman Rink is open for ice-skating between October and April; Victorian Gardens is open from Memorial Day weekend through the last week in August.

The Mall at Central Park. The Mall at Central Park. Photo: Christopher Postlewaite

The Mall and Literary Walk 
If you're looking for a picturesque location within Central Park to take a stroll, head to the Mall. Covered by an awning of beautiful American elm trees, this pathway (from 66th to 72nd Streets) is the only straight line in the park and was designed as a grand promenade. While the Mall is still the place to see and be seen, the real draw is the magnificence of the trees. More than just visually appealing, these elms are also essential to the City's overall environmental health, improving air and water quality, reducing flooding and erosion, and keeping temperatures lower in the summer months. They are also some of the largest, and last, remaining American elms in North America, so they are truly priceless, and the Central Park Conservancy takes painstaking efforts to care for them. The southern end of the Mall is the Literary Walk, so called because it is lined with statues of writers William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Fitz-Greene Halleck (a well-known American poet in his day)—and Christopher Columbus, who is often referred to as “the odd man out.”

Rumsey Playfield Rumsey Playfield. Photo: Will Steacy

Rumsey Playfield 
Rumsey Playfield serves two very different purposes: it's both a ball field and a concert venue. Every summer, the space serves as the primary venue for SummerStage, a celebrated series of outdoor events that the City Parks Foundation hosts. This surplus of free music has been around since 1986, and for its first 24 years it took place solely in Central Park—specifically, since 1990, Rumsey Playfield. Over the years, it's expanded to include dance, film and spoken word; in 2010, it branched out to all five boroughs. The playfield is also the location of choice for Good Morning America's Summer Concert Series, which features the hottest pop acts performing every Friday morning from May through the week before Labor Day. During the remainder of the year, the area is much less crowded and serves as a ball field for school sporting events. Rumsey Playfield is located closer to the Fifth Avenue side of the park at 69th Street.

Strawberry Fields/Imagine Mosaic 
This meditative and peaceful memorial was dedicated on October 9, 1985—what would have been the 45th birthday of John Lennon. Created by Yoko Ono, landscape architect Bruce Kelly and the Central Park Conservancy to honor the late singer-songwriter, the space was named after the famous Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Located at Central Park West and West 72nd Street, Strawberry Fields is situated across from the Dakota—where Lennon lived from 1973 until his death outside that very building in 1980. Inside the memorial is a large, black-and-white mosaic with the word “Imagine” in the center—a reminder of one of Lennon's most famous songs as a solo artist and his message to cultivate peace and lovingkindness. During the spring and summer, flowers bloom throughout the area, and visitors can be found at any time during the year leaving their own dedications and floral tributes in honor of the late peace activist.

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Bethesda Terrace/Fountain. Bethesda Terrace/Fountain. Photo: Christopher Postlewaite

Bethesda Terrace/Fountain 
One of the most filmed and recognizable locations in all of New York City, Bethesda Terrace is often referred to as the heart of Central Park. Located at the north end of the Mall, Bethesda Terrace was intended to be a grand space at the end of the walk where people could gather and socialize. The two-story terrace, which overlooks the Lake and southern sections of the Ramble, features intricate carvings that represent both the times of day and the four seasons. Two stone staircases connect the upper level to the lower one, at the center of which is the Bethesda Fountain—also known as the Angel of the Waters—a biblical allusion and also a celebration of the water system that first brought water to New York City in 1842. The terrace and fountain are located at 72nd Street, halfway between the east and west sides of the park. In the warmer months, crowds gather to soak up the sun and people-watch at this popular attraction.

Conservatory Water 
Made famous by Stuart Little (both the E. B. White book and the movie), Conservatory Water is probably best known as the place to sail model boats from April to October. The original plans for Central Park included a flower garden and tropical-plant conservatory that were never built. Designers Olmsted and Vaux were forced to come up with another plan for the surrounding reflecting pool, located between 72nd and 75th Streets off Fifth Avenue, and decided to create formal ponds suitable for model boat. Sailing and racing boats has become a favorite pastime here, and it's an enjoyable experience for participants and spectators alike. Take a seat on one of the surrounding benches to enjoy the action while you marvel at some of the park's most beautiful trees, including Lebanon cedars, willows and pine, beech and cherry trees. In the colder months, Conservatory Water is sometimes frozen into a small-scale public ice-skating rink. On the eastern side of Conservatory Water sits the Kerbs Boathouse, which houses boats as well as a café that sells light snacks and beverages. Also nearby are statues of Hans Christian Andersen—site for a much-loved children's storytelling series—and Alice of Alice in Wonderland.

Loeb Boathouse. Loeb Boathouse. Photo: Christopher Postlewaite

Loeb Boathouse 
The Loeb Boathouse boasts a setting that few other venues can match, and for this reason it's the site of many weddings and private parties. Nestled up against the Lake at 75th Street toward the eastern side of the park, the Boathouse provides indoor and outdoor dining in one of the most romantic locales in New York City. After your meal, take a ride on the lake in a gondola (during the summer months) or rented boat (available April to November), or join the many bird-watchers who count this spot as a great place to record their sightings. Another way to enjoy this area of the park is to rent a bike and pedal your way through—just be sure to keep an eye out for the swans and ducks that roam nearby.

Belvedere Castle Belvedere Castle. Photo: Will Steacy

Belvedere Castle 
Belvedere Castle, designed by Calvert Vaux in the 1860s as a lookout point for the Great Lawn to the north and the Ramble to the south, initially served only as a charming and decorative addition to the park. The castle (located near the middle of the park at 79th Street) sits atop Vista Rock—one of the highest natural elevations inside the park—and provides unparalleled views of the aforementioned locations as well as the Delacorte Theater and Turtle Pond. Since 1919, the castle has taken on an additional role: it's the site from which the National Weather Service records temperatures and other weather-related data via scientific instruments installed at the tower (be sure to check out the interactive weather exploration station on the building's top floor). Over the years, the castle became rundown, and the Central Park Conservancy restored and renovated it in 1983. The castle, open daily, hosts a variety of free family and community events throughout the year. Discovery Kits—which include binoculars, a hand lens, flora and fauna identification guides, colored pencils and paper—are available to borrow, with a picture ID (and deposit for large groups), on behalf of budding naturalists.

Delacorte Theater Delacorte Theater. Photo: Joseph Moran

Delacorte Theater 
The Delacorte Theater is home to the Public Theater's most anticipated summertime theater program, Shakespeare in the Park. Public Theater founder Joseph Papp began a series of traveling Shakespeare productions in 1957; in 1962, the open-air Delacorte Theater was completed to house these productions, thanks to a generous donation from philanthropist George T. Delacorte Jr., who wanted to replace the production's portable stage and folding chairs with a real amphitheater. The very first production at the theater was The Merchant of Venice, starring George C. Scott and James Earl Jones. The theater has presented performances of many other classic works and has featured numerous other A-list stars, including Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Natalie Portman and Al Pacino. The Delacorte Theater sits at the southwest corner of the Great Lawn near West 80th Street and seats 1,800 people, with the beautiful Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle as its backdrop. Tickets for Shakespeare in the Park productions (generally late May through August each year) are free and offered on a first-come, first-served basis at several ticket giveaway locations.

The Great Lawn at Central Park The Great Lawn. Photo: Marley White

Great Lawn 
At the very center of Central Park sits one of the world's most famous green spaces, the Great Lawn—55 acres of grass and baseball diamonds that were once the City's main reservoir. In addition to being one of the best places to lay out a blanket and sunbathe, take a nap, read a book or have a picnic, the Great Lawn is also renowned for its many musical performances. Simon & Garfunkel gave a concert here (1981), as did Bon Jovi (2008), and the site regularly plays host to performances by the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. As with most of the beautiful features in Central Park, the credit for the Great Lawn's upkeep goes to the Central Park Conservancy, which in 1995, began an extensive two-year restoration after it had become rundown following overuse during previous decades. Open from the first Saturday in April to Thanksgiving weekend, the Great Lawn is at the center of the park between 79th and 86th Streets.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir 
The 1.58-mile track surrounding the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is the best-known jogging trail in all of New York City. Some of the more famous runners who have jogged this path include Madonna, Bill Clinton and, of course, Jackie Onassis (for whom the reservoir was renamed in 1994 in honor of her contributions to the City). The 40-foot-deep reservoir, between 86th and 96th Streets, holds more than 1 billion gallons of water. It was originally built as a backup to the City's main water supply but now serves as an ecological sanctuary that houses more than 20 species, including herons, egrets, loons, coots and wood ducks. The main entrance to the reservoir is at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street.

Conservatory Garden 
Step off busy Fifth Avenue at 105th Street through the stately Vanderbilt Gate (the original entryway of the Vanderbilt Mansion at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street—now the home of Bergdorf Goodman) and into the six-acre Conservatory Garden, a stunning display of foliage and a feast for all five senses. The garden opened in 1898 as an E-shaped greenhouse; it was torn down in the mid-1930s after severe deterioration and replaced by the current garden. In 1983, the Central Park Conservancy stepped in and performed further restoration on the garden, which is divided into three sections. The north garden, done in classic French style, features a fountain called Three Dancing Maidens along with boxwoods, pansies, tulips and chrysanthemums. The central garden has a distinct Italian style, with a large lawn at the center surrounded by hedges of yews and pink-and-white crab apple trees. There is also a large fountain and a wisteria pergola, a beautiful setting that makes it a popular spot for wedding photography. The south garden is English in style and is the least formal of the three, with a bronze sculpture—the Burnett Memorial fountain—at the center that depicts the young boy and girl characters from the book The Secret Garden (written by Frances Hodgson Burnett), along with various perennial trees and shrubs. The conservancy offers tours of the Conservatory Garden each Saturday morning and one Wednesday afternoon per month from April through October.

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Huddlestone Arch Huddlestone Arch. Photo: Will Steacy

Huddlestone Arch 
Central Park is home to 21 arches, and while each one is spectacular in its own right, the Huddlestone Arch has a special story to tell. It's built from enormous uncut boulders—one of which is said to weigh 100 tons—and is supported not by mortar, concrete or metal but by gravity and friction alone. The arch also supports traffic that passes above and has done so since it was constructed in 1866 without ever needing a repair. This miracle of physics is thought by many to be the most picturesque of all the arches, and though it's man-made, it gives the appearance of a natural phenomenon. In the spring, beautiful yellow forsythias bloom and hang over the entrance of the arch. Nestled in the serene setting of the Ravine, Huddlestone Arch sits at the center of the park near 105th Street and feels worlds away from the big city.

Harlem Meer. Harlem Meer. Photo: Alex Lopez

Charles A. Dana Discovery Center/Harlem Meer 
The northernmost attraction in Central Park is the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, adjacent to a lake known as the Harlem Meer—one of the largest bodies of water in the park, and one of the prettiest since its renovation in 1993. Meer is a Dutch word meaning “lake” or “small sea,” and this one is an homage by Olmsted and Vaux to the 17th-century European settlers who first inhabited Harlem. Enter the park at the northeast corner, Fifth Avenue and 110th Street, and you can't miss it. The Dana Discovery Center, built as an addition to the Meer in 1993, is the park's newest building. It was designed as a visitor center as well as an environmental-education center, offering free community programs and hosting exhibitions. The aforementioned Discovery Kits, geared toward children, are available to borrow here as well. There is also catch-and-release fishing daily from April to October of each year. The center's many celebrated community programs include the annual Harlem Meer Performance Festival, the Halloween Pumpkin Flotilla of candlelit jack-o'-lanterns and the Winter Holiday Lighting in December.


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