One of NYC's most beautiful and intriguing public spaces, 585-acre Prospect Park is sandwiched between five Brooklyn neighborhoods—Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Prospect Park South and Windsor Terrace. Though it may seem dauntingly large, Prospect Park is actually very easy to get to and navigate. (View a map of the park at prospectpark.org.) Bounded by Grand Army Plaza on the north end, Parkside Avenue on the south (the Parade Ground extends to Caton Avenue), Prospect Park West/Southwest on one flank and Flatbush and Ocean Avenues on the other, the park is accessible via the 2, 3, B, F, G, Q and S subway lines. If you choose to drive, look for street parking along the perimeter. Some of these spots are metered, so be sure to have quarters on hand. Like all New York City parks, Prospect Park is closed from 1am to 5am.
Prospect Park was constructed between 1865 and 1895 by Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In addition to the ball fields, running paths and playgrounds typical of most parks, Prospect Park is known for its luxuriously vast green spaces, including wetlands, forest areas and a great number of trees. Some of its more popular attractions include the bandshell, Audubon Center, the zoo and Grand Army Plaza, to name a few. View the following slides to learn more about some of the park's best features and how you can enjoy them.
A Grand Entrance
At the intersection of Flatbush and Vanderbilt Avenues, Prospect Park West and Eastern Parkway sits Grand Army Plaza, the main entrance to Prospect Park. Though there are many ways to enter the park (nearly 20, all told), this oval-shaped plaza—designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975—is the grandest one of all. It was constructed in 1867 as a way to circumvent the intricacies of the intersection, and at the time, it was intended to be a space for public gatherings and contained only a simple fountain and a monument to Abraham Lincoln (which was later moved inside the park to the Concert Grove). In 1892 the park's most recognizable feature—the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch—was added. The arch resembles the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris and was created as a tribute to those who died defending the Union in the Civil War. The bronze sculptures that adorn the Beaux Arts arch were dedicated by 1901: the Quadriga (Lady Columbia in a chariot flanked by winged goddesses of victory) and depictions of the Union Army and Navy. Following the addition of the arch, monuments to several Civil War generals were added to the plaza, and in time a bust of President John F. Kennedy was installed. At the very center of Grand Army Plaza is a group of fountains; the most famous, Bailey Fountain, was completed in 1932 and underwent a million-dollar renovation from 2002 to 2004. In addition to its many attractions, Grand Army Plaza is also the site of an ongoing Greenmarket and the annual New Year's Eve Fireworks. Read more about these and other events in a later slide.
If there's one thing Prospect Park is famous for, it's the abundance of nature that can be found there. If you're feeling adventurous, try out one of the park's nature trails. View the park's wetland and woodland habitats via the Lullwater Trail, which journeys along the park's watercourse; the Midwood Trail, venturing through the historic forest that was part of the park's original design; the Peninsula Trail, exploring the peninsula's restored natural regions; or the Waterfall Trail, traversing the woodland areas. All trails are considered easy in terms of difficulty level, and they leave from the Audubon Center at the Boathouse—the country's first urban Audubon Center, located at the Lincoln Road–Ocean Avenue entrance to the park. The first Boathouse was a rustic structure, built in 1876; the current Beaux Arts building replaced it in 1905. In 2002, the state-of-the-art Audubon Center was added to promote wildlife preservation and nature education. It still holds a few exhibitions, though a lot of its programs happen through the Audubon's “pop-up” program, which moves around the park. If trekking across flat land isn't challenging enough for you, take a trip to the mountains, right in Brooklyn: a steep, narrow gorge lined by trees forms the Ravine District. It features the park's most rugged terrain and high altitudes, and it was designed to be the center of an Adirondack Mountains–like arrangement, with a watercourse running through the middle. Often referred to as the heart of Prospect Park, the Ravine was restored in the late 1990s and early 2000s after years of erosion and overuse; like most of the park’s woodlands, it still requires regular maintenance.
Where the Wild Things Are
As you might expect, Prospect Park offers ample ball fields and playgrounds for kids to burn off some of their boundless energy. But what makes the park different is that it's also home to a terrific zoo, a carousel and the newly constructed Lakeside. The Prospect Park Zoo is one of the five venues that make up the Wildlife Conservation Society—along with the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo, the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium—and is home to roughly 400 animals of more than 80 species, all living in environments that imitate their natural habitats in order to promote their conservation. Residents to look out for include the hamadryas baboon, the red panda and the cotton-top tamarin. Kids can also enjoy a ride on a different kind of animal at the nearby carousel, which features 53 carved horses, a giraffe, a lion, a deer and two dragon-pulled chariots. The Prospect Park Carousel is one of the few in the country that is wheelchair accessible. New to the park this year is Lakeside, in the space that formerly housed the Kate Wollman Rink. A year-round destination for recreation and fun, Lakeside will feature two new skating rinks—one an open-air version that will have roller-skating in the warmer months, the other which will be a children’s waterplay area in summer. It debuts with ice-skating this December.
Those looking for more than just your average basketball courts, running paths and baseball fields will be pleased to learn that Prospect Park has many other options for the sports enthusiast. The Prospect Park Tennis Center is a place for all skill levels—from beginner to expert—and affords tennis buffs the ability to rent a court, take tennis lessons and attend classes for groups or individuals, children and adults. The Tennis Center is located at the Parade Ground, a 40-acre site that comprises sports fields servicing local schools, leagues and clubs. The Parade Ground holds a lot of history, created first as a place for military drills and exercises and later becoming an integral part of the careers of such Major League Baseball legends as Sandy Koufax, Joe Torre and Joe Pepitone. Something you'd probably never expect to find in New York City is a place to ride horses, but Prospect Park gives that option, too. Kensington Stables, just outside the park across from the Parade Ground, offers lessons and trail rides within the park boundaries. Again, all skill levels are welcome. The stables are also popular for pony rides and kids' parties. In addition to all of these specialized features, the park has basketball courts, running paths, bicycling paths, soccer fields, picnic areas, places for fishing and much more.
Get Your Groove On
As we continue to uncover all the secrets of Prospect Park, one of the most exciting discoveries is the number of places one can hear live music. The most famous of these is, of course, the Prospect Park Bandshell, an outdoor entertainment venue that hosts Celebrate Brooklyn! each summer. It features a three-story-high acoustic shell designed for optimal audio output, a raised stage and a large circular plaza. The first-come, first-served seating consists of 2,000 spots in the plaza and another 5,000 on the lawn. The Bandshell hosts many musical performances, but it's also a great place for film screenings and has food and beverage concession stands along with public restrooms. There are also smaller, lesser-known musical venues within the park (some functional; some just for show) that are worth noting. The Concert Grove, once a place to hear music in an open-air setting—concerts were moved to a different section of the park in 1887 due to acoustical problems—makes a beautiful place to visit for some peace and quiet. Within the Concert Grove, find the Oriental Pavilion (formerly a teahouse), radial walkways and flowerbeds, and sculptures of historical figures and classical composers, like Abraham Lincoln, Washington Irving and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Following the sound issues in the Concert Grove, performances were moved to the Music Pagoda—an octagonal structure that sits in a shady section near the center of the park. Musical and theatrical performances have been taking place here since the 1880s and, in recent yeras, community-organized events as well. An informal but always happening place for music is Drummer's Grove. For more than 40 years, musicians have gathered here to play, beginning with the Congo Square Drummers in 1968 and expanding to include a variety of instrumentalists, along with dancers and vendors. Stop by any Sunday afternoon from April through October and join in the jam session with your own skins, or just sit back and enjoy the show.
A Bit of History
Like many parks, Prospect Park is home to some historical buildings and sites that date far back into our country's history. Litchfield Villa, which houses borough headquarters for the City of New York/Parks & Recreation and other official offices, was built in 1857 as a home for the family of Edwin Litchfield, a railroad magnate and real estate developer. Because the design of the forthcoming Prospect Park included the land on which Litchfield's home sat, he was forced to sell it in 1869 to the Brooklyn Parks Commission. The Italian-style villa was expanded in 1911, and in 1966 it was designated a New York City Landmark. Adjacent to the carousel and zoo sits Lefferts Historic House, a fun place for families to learn about some New York City history. A Dutch family built the home in the 18th century, and visitors can imagine precolonial times while viewing its working garden, period rooms and exhibitions—and taking part in old-timey activities. Lefferts Historic House hosts many events for families year-round and can also be rented for children's birthday parties.
Fun in the Sun
One of the greatest draws of New York City's parks is the ability to lie out on a big lawn, stare up at the sky and pretend you're miles away from the world's largest metropolis. There is no better place to do this than in the Long Meadow, a nearly one-mile-long span of open space that runs most of the length of Prospect Park West, from Grand Army Plaza to the start of Prospect Park Southwest. The Long Meadow was once home to grazing sheep and games of lawn tennis and croquet; today it serves as a place for relaxing, having a picnic, sunbathing and playing sports. In the summer, the Long Meadow hosts a free concert by the New York Philharmonic. Another open space designed for relaxing is the Nethermead—located at the center of the park and attracting dog walkers, Frisbee players and others with its green hills. Visitors often stumble upon the Nethermead while visiting nearby attractions, like the Ravine and Audubon Center, giving it the feeling of being an undiscovered rolling meadow deep in the forest. If sitting around isn't for you, spend your day relaxing at Prospect Park Lake, one of the more popular places to fish in NYC. The 55-acre lake features a variety of fish, including carp, golden shiner, pumpkinseed and a great concentration of largemouth bass. The fishing here is catch-and-release only and requires a permit for those 16 and older. See more of nature's beauty at the peninsula, which juts out onto the lake and attracts geese, mallards and cormorants that feed along the shoreline. Dog owners should check out Dog Beach (between the pools just east of Long Meadow, rougly parallel to 8th street), a stretch of water in the park where Fido can hop around off-leash and cool down during the warmer months.
Tours and Exploration
Prospect Park offers a number of free tours for visitors: animal encounters, bird watching, nature identification, scavenger hunts and rotating “Discovery” adventures that explore park features and habitats. They take place on weekends from April through December and are run through the “Pop-Up Audubon” program; visit prospectpark.org for more information. There are also private companies that offer their own tours of the park, including Big Onion Walking Tours, highlighting the architecture and history of the park.
What to Do
In addition to all the things there are to see in Prospect Park, there are also a ton of things to do. The park hosts a number of annual events that are big draws, and because many of them are free, they get very crowded very quickly. Every Saturday, Grand Army Plaza is home to the second-largest Greenmarket in the City, with more than 600 varieties of fruits, vegetables, baked goods, flowers, fish and other local products. Enjoy more yummy food options at the Food Truck Rally, where the best of NYC's food trucks park on the first and third Sundays of the month from April through October. The warmer months bring Celebrate Brooklyn!, a favorite among Brooklyn's summertime concert series, for which concertgoers spread out blankets by the band shell to eat, drink and enjoy free music. Also on the music front, Prospect Park is a venue for the New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks—an opportunity to hear classical music under a starry sky for free. In the fall, kids can embrace all the fun and spookiness surrounding Halloween at Prospect Park Zoo's Boo at the Zoo, where creepy, crawly animals are on display and costumed kiddies can get their faces painted and make seasonal crafts. The Halloween Haunted Walk & Houlihan Lokey Carnival invites those who are a little braver to venture through a park filled with zombies, werewolves and witches. Finally, on New Year's Eve, check out the dazzling fireworks display at Grand Army Plaza.