Central Park's creators had a simple goal: design a place where city dwellers can go to forget the city. Even though New York eventually grew far taller than the trees planted to hide it, this goal never falters. A combination escape hatch and exercise yard, Central Park is an urbanized Eden that gives residents and visitors alike a bite of the apple. Indeed, without the Central Park's 843 acres of meandering paths, tranquil lakes, ponds, and open meadows, New Yorkers (especially Manhattanites) might be a lot less sane.
The busy southern section of Central Park, from 59th to 72nd Street, is where most visitors get their first impression. But no matter how many people congregate around here, you can always find a spot to picnic, ponder, or just take in the greenery, especially on a sunny day. Playgrounds, lawns, jogging and biking paths, and striking buildings populate the midsection of the park, from 72nd Street to the Reservoir. You can soak up the sun, have a picnic, have your
photo taken at Bethesda Fountain, visit the penguins at the Central Park Zoo, or join the runners huffing counterclockwise on the dirt track that surrounds the reservoir. North of the reservoir and up to 110th Street, Central Park is less crowded and feels more rugged. Not many people know that there's a swimming pool in the northeast corner of the park, which becomes a skating rink in winter—and it's much less crowded than Volker Rink in the southern part of the park. To find out about park events and a variety of walking tours, visit the website of the Central Park Conservancy (below).
If you're taking the subway to the park's southernmost parts, then the stops at either Columbus Circle (at the west side) or 5th Ave./59th St. are handy. If headed for points north, the B, D, A, and C subway lines travel along Central Park West, while the 4,5, and 6 lines travel along Lexington Avenue, three blocks east of 5th Avenue and the park.
There are many paved pedestrian entrances into the park, from 5th Avenue, Central Park North (110th St.), Central Park West, and Central Park South (59th St.) Four roads, or transverses, cut through the park from east to west—66th, 79th, 86th, and 96th streets. The East and West drives are both along the north–south axis; Center Drive enters the south edge of the park at 6th Avenue and connects with East Drive around 66th Street. Along the main loop, lampposts are marked with location codes of a letter-always "E" (for east) or "W" (for west) followed by numbers, the first two of which tell you the nearest cross street. For example, E7803 means you're near 78th Street; above 99, the initial "1" is omitted, so W0401 is near West 104th Street. Download the park's free app in advance of your visit for a GPS-enabled map to help you navigate the park. The app—Central Park App—also includes an audio guide, self-guided tours, and current events in the park. If you haven't packed a picnic, and you're finding yourself in need of a snack, you can usually find one of those rather tired-looking food carts selling pretzels and ice cream sandwiches, but these days there are often more interesting, specialty food carts around, too—mostly in the southern half of the park—so keep your eyes and tastebuds on the lookout. Other reliable options include the café next to the Boathouse Restaurant (midpark at 74th Street), or the park's branch of Le Pain Quotidien (mid-park at 69th Street). Both serve sandwiches, soup, pastries, and other satisfying on-the-go grub (and Le Pain also has free Wi-Fi). If you're looking for something a little more iconic, you can stop for brunch, lunch, or dinner at the Tavern on the Green, which reopened in summer 2014.
As part of a park-wide restoration project, named Central Play, all 21 playgrounds will receive an update over the next few years. A playground at East 110th Street, in the park’s northeast corner, has already undergone renovation and features interconnected, circular spaces that have swings, play structures, and water features. The Wild West playground at West 93rd Street and the East 79th Street playground reopened in spring 2015 after a full renovation, and work continues throughout the park.
Central Park Visitor Centers. Five Visitor Centers—the Dairy (mid-park at65th Street), Belvedere Castle (mid-park at 79th Street), the Chess & Checkers House (mid-park at64th St.), the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (at the top northeast corner of the park on the shore of Harlem Meer), and the North Meadow Recreation Center (mid-park, near 96th St.)—have directions, park maps, event calendars, and volunteers who can give you guidance. Central Park, 10022. 212/310–6600 Central Park Conservancy; 212/794–6564 Dairy Visitor Center. www.centralparknyc.org.
Strawberry Fields. This memorial to John Lennon, who penned the classic 1967 song "Strawberry Fields Forever," is sometimes called the "international garden of peace." The curving paths, shrubs, trees, and flower beds create a deliberately informal landscape reminiscent of English parks. Every year on December 8, Beatles fans mark the anniversary of Lennon's death by gathering around the star-shape, black-and-white "Imagine" mosaic set into the pavement. Lennon's 1980 murder took place across the street at the Dakota apartment building, where he lived. just off W. 72nd St., Central Park. Subway: B, C to 72nd St.
Great Lawn. This 14-acre oval has endured millions of footsteps, thousands of ball games, hundreds of downpours, dozens of concerts, and even the crush of one papal Mass. Yet it's the stuff of a suburbanite's dream—perfectly tended turf (a mix of rye and Kentucky bluegrass), state-of-the-art drainage systems, automatic sprinklers, and careful horticultural monitoring. The area hums with action on weekends and most summer evenings, when its softball fields and picnicking grounds provide a much-needed outlet for city folk (and city dogs) of all ages. Mid-park between 81st and 85th Sts., Central Park.
Central Park Zoo. Even a leisurely visit to this small but delightful menagerie of more than 130 species takes only about an hour (unless, of course, you fall under the spell of the zoo's adorable snow-leopard cub, Malala, born here in mid 2014). There's no space for animals like zebras and giraffes to roam, and the biggest specimens here are Betty and Veronica—two lovable grizzly bears who joined the zoo in late 2014, but don't miss the sea lion feedings, possibly the zoo's most popular attractions, daily at 11:30, 2, and 4. Clustered around the central Sea Lion Pool are separate exhibits for each of the Earth's major environments: penguins and polar bears live at Polar Circle; the highlights of the open-air Temperate Territory are the chattering monkeys; and the Rain Forest contains the flora and fauna of the tropics. The Tisch Children's Zoo (no additional ticket required) gives kids the opportunity to feed sheep, goats, cows, and pigs. The 4-D theater ($7) shows15-minute-long family-friendly films like "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, the 4-D Experience" that feature sensory effects like wind, mist, bubbles, and scents. Entrance at 5th Ave. and E. 64th St., Central Park, 10021. 212/439–6500. www.centralparkzoo.org. $12; $18 Total Experience (includes 4-D show). Apr.–early Nov., weekdays 10–5, weekends 10–5:30; early Nov.–Mar., daily 10–4:30. Subway: 6 to 68th St./Hunter College; N, Q, R, to 5th Ave./59th St.; F to Lexington Ave./63rd St. Children under 12 not admitted without adult.
Bethesda Fountain. Few New York views are more romantic than the one from the top of the magnificent stone staircase that leads down to the ornate, three-tiered Bethesda Fountain. The fountain was built to celebrate the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which brought clean drinking water to New York City. The name Bethesda was taken from the biblical pool in Jerusalem that was supposedly given healing powers by an angel, which explains the statue The Angel of the Waters rising from the center. (The statue was designed by Emma Stebbins, the first woman to be commissioned for a major work of art in New York City, in 1868.) The four figures around the fountain's base symbolize Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace. Beyond the terrace stretches the lake, filled with swans, gondolas, and amateur rowboat captains. At its western end is the Boathouse, home of an outdoor café for on-the-go snacks, and a pricier restaurant for more leisurely meals. Mid-park at 72nd St. transverse, Central Park. Subway: B, C to 72nd St.