New York City is truly the city that never sleeps, offering a constant stream of round-the-clock activities for every interest. (Feel like eating dinner, buying an iPad or pumping iron at 3am? We've got you covered.) The frenetic pace is admittedly a source of local pride, but—less admittedly—it can occasionally be a source of exhaustion. Sometimes you need a place to slow down, reflect and recharge, particularly during the holiday season—and finding one is easier than you might think. Within this urban jungle of splendid skyscrapers and endless sidewalks, pockets of greenery and waterworks delight the eyes and ears while relaxing our weary bodies. Discovery and learning often go hand in hand with quiet, thoughtful time. Read on to find out more about these urban oases—many of which are free or low cost—throughout the five boroughs.
Reading Room in Japanese Gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave. (at 82nd St.), 212-535-7710, Upper East Side, Manhattan
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of more than 2 million pieces spanning 5,000 years offers a dizzying array of sights including mummies, an Egyptian temple, a Chinese court, a Roman villa's bedroom and rooms full of royal furniture. While seemingly every nook and cranny is packed with visual overload, there are a few "secret" places to duck into to collect your thoughts. Abutting the Japanese wing sits an often-empty reading room appointed with furniture by George Nakashima, the Japanese-American woodworker and architect renowned for his contributions to the American craft movement. Nakashima's American black walnut chair is sculpted perfectly to fit the human form, with hand-shaved hickory spindles that cradle the back and give ever slightly when leaned on, while the table's natural grain gives the illusion of three-dimensional ripples across the surface, a much treasured quality among woodworkers. (Fun fact: The museum asked Nakashima to raise the height of the chairs for the room by 3 inches to better accommodate Americans' long legs. That later became the standard height for the chairs.) Take a seat, but bring your own reading material—or simply sit for a spell in this spare but glorious setting.
51st Street, between Second and Third Avenues (north side), Midtown East, Manhattan
Tucked between two buildings on an ordinary Midtown block sits Greenacre Park, a pocket of serenity and urban solitude. Privately financed in the 1970s when the major parks struggled with safety and maintenance, Greenacre offers a visual and auditory escape from Midtown's bustle. Enter under a wooden trellis and toward an impressive 25-foot waterfall nestled among greenery. Along the entire east side, starting at the entranceway, is a multifaceted stone wall with water glistening down and feeding a petite water pool at the entrance. While the park is popular with local office workers, the space somehow never feels crowded thanks to a tiered design that offers a variety of experiences: tables closest to the waterfall feel like a private island, while the upper-level seating has heat lamps in the winter and more-subdued water sound effects.
Ford Foundation Atrium
320 E. 43rd St., Midtown East, Manhattan
Built in 1967 when architects of office buildings were just starting to consider public spaces, the Ford Foundation Atrium remains a model for most, which is fitting for a private foundation focused on social change. With a tropical garden planted in a 12-story glass atrium, the building offers a chance to recharge after shopping or before catching the train at nearby Grand Central Terminal. The garden's multitiered space leads down to a meditative pond with an arboricola tree in the center, creating a sensory experience of a greenhouse in the big city. It took awhile to perfect, however; the landmarked building originally used temperate plants including magnolia and redwood trees that perished in the warm interior (think: sun and glass). Today a variety of subtropical plants thrive, while the building's workers benefit from having a generous amount of natural light (and nature) in their offices. The atrium is free and open to the public during business hours.
David Rubenstein Pavilion at Lincoln Center
Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Streets, 212-875-5350, Upper West Side, Manhattan
It's hard to believe that before this space was renovated and redesigned, it was called Harmony and featured a climbing wall with a "love night" dedicated to single climbers. Now, it's officially Lincoln Center's Public Space and Visitor Center, with a ticket booth, performance videos, a 97-foot permanent textile art installation made of 114 felt panels, and free performances that take place every Thursday. Despite the artistic hustle and bustle, the soaring ceiling and vertical gardens designed in 2009 by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien offer harmony of a different kind. Just a short walk from Central Park or Columbus Circle, the atrium offers public restrooms (too rare in New York City), free WiFi and a tasty food bar—everything you may need to relax, regroup and then forge ahead to the next event.
The Noguchi Museum
9-01 33rd Rd. (at Vernon Blvd.), 718-204-7088, Long Island City, Queens
Despite sitting across from a bustling Costco center, the Noguchi Museum offers visitors an immediate sense of serenity and calm. The former factory building was converted into a museum and interior garden in 1985 by artist Isamu Noguchi, whose studio was based across the street since the 1960s to be close to Long Island City's stone works and metal fabricators—the ingredients for many of his pieces. The 27,000-square-foot design offers generously spaced art from the artist's personal collection of his own work. Noguchi's career touched on every possible aspect of creative expression, from sculpture and Martha Graham sets to designing an early version of a baby monitor called Night Nurse in 1937. The experience is a delightful and soothing balance of light, metal, stone, wood, air and most of all, beauty. His work spans the globe from Philadelphia to Hiroshima, Japan. Here you only have to take a subway ride (or walk) to be able to contemplate the artist's unique and thought-provoking designs.
Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
338 Lighthouse Ave., 718-987-3500, Staten Island
Established in 1945, this Tibetan art museum is designed as a Himalayan mountain monastery and fittingly sits on one of the highest points on the Eastern Seaboard. Jacques Marchais, who supported her mother as a child elocutionist at the turn of the last century, grew up to be a leading Indian and Tibetan art dealer in the 1930s, when museums were just starting their collections. She kept the best for herself and created this "jewel of the hillside" out of the home she shared with her husband. A terraced garden complete with a fish and lotus pond surround the buildings, which include a library, meditation rooms and a chanting hall. New York City may have been founded 400 years ago, but at this oasis, the surroundings feel thousands of years older and filled with culture and tranquility. And if you're traveling there via the Staten Island Ferry, you can establish the proper Zen state in advance by sitting on the lower level; the views are just as spectacular, minus the crowds.
Orchard Beach for Seal Watching
Bruckner Boulevard and Westchester Avenue, 718-885-2275, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx
For some people, the cold-weather months are the ideal time to go to the beach—you'll see fewer people and more wildlife. Orchard Beach, the only public beach in the Bronx, was considered the "Riviera of New York City" when it was first developed in the 1930s as a man-made 1.1 mile strip on Long Island Sound using sand from Queens and New Jersey. From November until May, you can spot harbor seals in the water; the sight of their heads bobbing on the water's surface is more common than you think. If you need some help spotting them, attend a free organized watch from the Urban Park Rangers. When searching for the seals, check out Hart Island in the distance (past the smaller islands); since its purchase from Native Americans in 1654, it has served as a game reserve, boxing site, Civil War training post and a still active potter's field, with more than 500,000 people interred.
Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum
895 Shore Rd., 718-885-1461, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx
Believe it or not, the Bronx was once considered the country, and you get that sense almost immediately when entering the grounds of the Bartow-Pell Mansion. The Pell family bought the land from the Native Americans in 1654. Eventually the Bartow family purchased a small chunk of that parcel after the Revolutionary War and finished building this three-story Greek Revival home in 1842. In 1888, the last relative left the house and the family sold it to the NYC Parks Department. Today you can soak in that country feeling by exploring the formal garden, admiring the Long Island Sound views and wandering through the small family cemetery. Tours of the home are also available for a small fee, and the ongoing renovation of the grounds is scheduled to be completed in 2014.
Newtown Creek Nature Walk
Located at the end of Paidge Ave., 718-595-5140, Greenpoint, Queens
Newtown Creek is the oldest continuous industrial site in the United States. Used for agriculture and industrial production since 1614, the area had the first kerosene refinery and the first modern oil refinery in the country. For more than 100 years, most of the flora and fauna were gone from the creek, but recent environmental efforts have encouraged the return of blue crabs, fish and birds. For the first time in decades, public access to the waterfront is available through a surprising nature walk that uses sculpture—hand rails in the shape of water molecules, Native American names for places carved in stone, a 170-foot vessel that's a walkway designed with viewing portholes—to help visitors experience the area. Designed by environmental sculptor George Trakas, two-time recipient of National Endowment of the Arts grants, with exhibits at the Guggenheim Museum and Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the path is a journey through history of the creek from the days of Native Americans to the time of rapid industrial growth. Using indigenous plants and native trees along with the water, sculpture and the background of the eight 145-foot-tall digester "eggs" that naturally separate the solids from the liquid at the wastewater treatment plant, Trakas designed the path to create a thought-provoking experience with the immediate environment. Rarely crowded, the experience allows for many places to pause and gather thoughts about the creek and life in general.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Tropical Pavilion
990 Washington Ave., 718-623-7200, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Built on a former ash dump in 1910, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden covers 52 acres and includes one of the oldest Japanese gardens in the United States. But to skip the crowds and stay warm in the winter, head to the Tropical Pavilion to wander through a tropical forest complete with waterfalls and streams. Built in 1988, the 6,000-square-foot glass building displays flora ranging from banana and tamarind trees to giant ferns. The greenhouse organizes plants by economic categories–ones that can be eaten, made into medicine or apparel or sold for commerce. Despite having more than 750,000 visitors a year, the pavilion feels like a sacred space. Thanks partly to the continuous misting system, there's white noise that dominates the 65-foot-high glass building. During the winter (November–February), weekday admission is free. If you needed another reason to head to this patch of serenity in Brooklyn: the C.V. Starr Bonsai Museum, where training of the miniature trees is ongoing, has more than 350 varieties, 30 of which are on display at a time.