There’s a Park for That: A Guide to Fun Activities in NYC Parks

Kemi Ibeh

NYC has so many parks with their own identity that you will be spoiled for choice on where to visit. These parks have a plethora of activities, from bird-watching to visiting zoos and everything in between for people of all ages and interests, and they are either free or very affordable to experience. This summer and beyond, spend easy weekends at any of the borough parks and engage in these fun activities while there.

Photo: Brett Beyer

For Artifact Aficionados

Location: Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan

What not to miss: The Met Cloisters for artifacts, art and tapestries of early Christendom and European Middle Ages; the Cloisters store for unique gifts and souvenirs inspired by medieval Europe and art; Judy Black Garden, with its arched passageways, open-air courtyard and flower beds.

Insider knowledge: View the scenic Hudson River from the Cloisters’ upper balcony; hike Fort Tryon Park for Manhattan schist and rock formations popular with geology aficionados; enjoy fall’s Medieval Festival in the park (check out the scene from a few years ago).

Transportation: Get here with the A to 207th Street.

NPS Photo/Jason Wickerty

For Bird-Watchers

Location: Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens

What not to miss: Year-round species like peregrine falcons; Big John’s Pond for Carolina Wrens; and East Pond in summer for shorebird migration. Partake in guided bird walks with NYC Audubon and gaze at the NYC metropolis in the noonday sun.

Insider knowledge: Wear waterproof boots and cover limbs to ward off ticks; know the tides for shorebird sighting and high tide avoidance. Travel in pairs for safety, and for the adventurous, get wet in the Raunt, the best place for shorebird activity.

Transportation: Get here via car.

Photo: Marley White

For Sporty Citizens

Location: Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx

What not to miss: Play a round at the oldest public golf course in the US (the rates are affordable); watch cricketers on the Parade Ground or join the New York Metropolitan Cricket League if you know what a leg before wicket is.

Insider knowledge: Engage in shinrin-yoku—Japanese art of forest bathing—in the oak forests or hike the easy John Kieran Nature Trail by Van Cortlandt Lake. Watch out for garter snakes basking on warm rocks! Don’t miss Van Cortlandt House Museum, once the abode of the eponymous colonial Dutch family and enslaved Africans.

Transportation: Get here via the 1 train to 242nd Street.

Photo: Julienne Schaer

For All Ages

Location: Brooklyn Bridge Parks (Piers 1–6)

What not to miss: Wall Street views, Brooklyn Heights, Squibb Park Bridge, Granite Prospect and wetlands accessed from Pier 1; Pier 2 for sporty activities like pickleball, roller-skating and table tennis; Pier 6 for urban beach and picnic tables.

Insider knowledge: Indulge your inner child on a $2 Jane’s Carousel ride in Dumbo; kayak in the East River or scale The Cliffs; enjoy public art installations and watch films on the lawn; sit serenely near the tidal marsh of John Street under the Manhattan Bridge; and take in epic sunset views from the Rooftop at Empire Stores.

Transportation: Get here via NYC ferry, A or C train to High Street.

Photo: Brittany Petronella

For Accessible Activities

Location: Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem, Manhattan

What not to miss: Pelham Fritz Recreation Center features ball courts as well as dance and art studios. It reopened in May 2022 with enhanced accessibility features and programming, including classes suitable for those who use wheelchairs and walkers; classes that allow for caretakers to attend; and discounts on select programming for those with disabilities. View landmarks like the Fire Watchtower and Mount Morris Park Historic District for beautiful brownstones.

Insider knowledge: Indulge in seasonal arts and culture on display, like public art in the park and the El Barrio Latin Jazz Festival in the Amphitheater.

Transportation: Get here via the 4,5,6 to 125th Street.

Photo: Ryan Razon

For Skateboarders

Location: Owl’s Head Park, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

What not to miss: Millennium Skate Park at Owl’s Head Park features a 6-foot-deep combi bowl and street course for skateboarding. There are also basketball courts, playground area and bleachers for non-skaters and park goers, respectively.

Insider knowledge: Hike the park’s easy 1.3-mile loop trail to view trees and native plants; enjoy its quiet ambience for picnicking or lounging and view sunsets on the waterfront. Explore this historic area, once an estate of Henry Murphy, a former mayor of Brooklyn.

Transportation: Get here via the N, R to 59th Street or car.

Photo: Jordana Bermúdez

For a Multicultural Neighborhood

Location: Sunset Park (both the name of the park and its surrounding neighborhood), Brooklyn

What not to miss: A diverse neighborhood encapsulated in the dim sum and taquito eateries in the area; sunsets gleaming on the Manhattan horizon; green fields and an outdoor Olympic swimming pool in summer. Spend hours at Industry City for art, murals, activities and artisanal everything.

Insider knowledge: Green-Wood Cemetery with its Gothic architecture and statuary is historic and doubles as a serene park with events and tours; Brooklyn Army Terminal for local manufacturing; and remnants of Finnish history on a block of 40th Street named Finlandia Street.

Transportation: Get here via D, N, R to 36th Street.

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Photo: Annabel Ruddle

For Military History

Location: Fort Wadsworth Gateway National Recreation Area, Staten Island

What not to miss: Harbor views of downtown Manhattan from the top of the Overlook; Fort Wadsworth Lighthouse, erected in 1903 and made obsolete by the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Pack light eats and sit on benches, or hike or bike the forest trails.

Insider knowledge: Got a thing for the paranormal? The fort is allegedly haunted by ghostly apparitions from previous battles. Indeed, walk the grove of trees and get the eerie feel of an enchanted forest with dim light and silence.

Transportation: Get here via car.

Photo: Victor Llorente

For World’s Fair Remnants

Location: Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens

What not to miss: Iconic Unisphere and New York State Pavilion created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair; geodesic dome (a leftover from the fair) converted to the Queens Zoo aviary; tennis center where the US Open is held; and New York Hall of Science with over 450 exhibits.

Insider knowledge: Playground for All Children—designed with accessible activities and remnant of the World’s Fair; a carousel that is on the Historic Places Register; and Queens Night Market, an open-air, family-friendly market with over 100 vendors selling art, merchandise and global cuisine right in front of the New York Hall of Science.

Transportation: Get here via 7 train to 111th Street.

Photo: Yael Malka

For Nature and Seasonal Activities

Location: Prospect Park, Brooklyn

What not to miss: Bird-watching with the Audubon Center; catch-and-release fishing at designated areas of the lake (you need a fishing license), along with boat or kayak rentals; the lake’s turtles and ducks. Eat Smorgasburg through October then hike, walk or bike after. In winter, ice-skate at the rink.

Insider knowledge: Gaga for ghosts? Go by Litchfield Villa on Prospect Park West, known for paranormal sightings since 1864; Lefferts Manor for settler Dutch history (though the house is currently under renovation); Celebrate Brooklyn for free summer events; and book an urban foraging tour.

Transportation: Get here with B or Q to Prospect Park or Parkside Avenue.

Photo: Jen Davis

For Ruins and Mausoleums

Location: High Rock Park, Staten Island

What not to miss: Remnants of a grape orchard and foundation from the 19th-century Heyerdahl estate, located on one of the highest points on the East Coast. Nearby the ruins is Historic Richmond Town—a colonial living museum with reenactments—with buildings from Dutch and English settlers. Visitors can also hike the deep woods.

Insider knowledge: Ghostly stories of the Heyerdahl family are local lore; see the private Vanderbilt Mausoleum, with grounds designed by Frederic Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park; walk the park, once said to be the most remote spot in NYC.

Transportation: Get here via car.

Photo: Christopher Postlewaite

For a Classic NYC Park Experience

Location: Central Park, Manhattan

What not to miss: Bethesda Terrace and Fountain for acoustics and history; boating and bird-watching; hiking the Ramble—the most well-known of the park’s three woodland landscapes; classic views of Bow and Gapstow Bridges; Museum Mile comprising nine famed art institutions and reservoir views; American Museum of Natural History; and SummerStage Festival. In winter, go skating and sledding in the park.

Insider knowledge: Swing by Strawberry Fields and The Dakota for John Lennon history; the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre for families with young children; the free film festival at 72nd Street; and Conservatory Garden, a 6-acre formal garden, one of the largest in the City.

Transportation: Get here via A, B, C, D, N, R, 2, 3 lines.


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