Where to Go in New York City's Central Park

Central Park is a stunning break from New York City's urban landscape. Photo by IM_photo
Central Park serves as New York City's backyard, its outdoor gym, its daytime pick-up bar, its concert hall, and, in summer, when dozens don bathing suits to soak up the rays, its green beach. The marvel of the park, beside its size (843 acres, a full 6% of Manhattan’s total area), is the fact that none of it is “natural” in the usual sense. This park was created in the 1850s by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux out of swampland, farms, and suburban towns. Every tree, every shrub, every lake, and most of the rolling hills were designed, planted, and blasted into existence by these two geniuses. 
 
And it may seem familiar, even the first time you visit it, because so many other cities around the United States used the innovations and conventions established by Olmsted and Vaux as templates for their own parks. What follows are just some of Central Park’s loveliest areas and sights.   
 
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The gorgeous lake beautifully reflects the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center. Photo by K M / Flickr
This 11-acre meer (the Dutch word for lake) wasn’t part of the original Central Park. Added in 1863, it has a natural, rugged shoreline and a community of swans. The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center on the northern shore contains a year-round visitor center and hosts Central Park Conservancy seasonal exhibitions.

Fifth Ave. from 106th–110th Sts.
 
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In the spring and summer, the flowers of the garden are friendly and beautiful. Photo by Alan Strakey / Flickr
Commissioned by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in 1936, this formal garden has many showpieces: an elegant Italian garden with a classical fountain, a mazelike English garden, a bronze statue of the children from the novel The Secret Garden in a reflecting water-lily pool. To reach the Reservoir from here, walk south through the park or, to save a mile of walking, take a bus down

Fifth Avenue to 86th Street. Fifth Ave. & 105th St.
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The sun sets over the reservoir in Central Park, New York City Photo by Sakeeb Sabaka/Flickr
Created in 1862 as part of the Croton Water System, the Reservoir was in use until 1994. Occupying 106 acres, it is surrounded by bridle and running paths. Many a celebrity and civilian have jogged along the 1.6-mile (2.6km) upper track, which overlooks the water and affords great skyline views. The reservoir holds a billion gallons of water and is 40 feet (12m) at its greatest depth, but these days it is only used as an emergency backup water supply.

Midpark from 85th–96th sts.
 
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The Obelisk Photo by Magnus / Flickr
This 71-foot (21m) artifact from Ancient Egypt was an 1881 gift to the U.S. from the khedive of Egypt. 
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The Great Lawn is a great place to lounge and relax on a sunny day. Photo by Michael Lehenbauer / Flickr
Expansive enough for simultaneous games of softball, volleyball, and soccer, the Great Lawn is also a plum spot for a picnic—especially on those warm summer nights when the New York Philharmonic or Metropolitan Opera performs for free. Bring along picnic fare from nearby gourmet grocery Zabar’s. At the southern end, Belvedere Castle and its surrounding duck pond are particularly picturesque.

Midpark from 79th–85th sts.
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The Ramble Arch is an iconic feature of this "wild garden". Photo by Tristan Reville / Flickr
Designed to mirror untamed nature, this 38-acre stretch was dubbed a “wild garden” by Olmsted. The Ramble can get a bit “adult” after dark, but during the day it’s wonderful to explore. The inviting paths that curve through the wooded area offer some of the best scouting ground for bird watchers in the city—some 230 species have been spotted here. A statue of a crouching cougar overlooks the East Drive between 76th and 77th streets.

Midpark from 73rd–79th Sts.
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The Lake is the perfect setting for a relaxing ride in a rowboat. Photo by Samuel Borges Photography
By far the most beautiful body of water in the park, this idyllic lake was once a swamp. Rent a rowboat at the Loeb Boathouse and take your sweetie for a turn around the lake—the views from the water are superb. (At certain times of year, a singing gondolier also plies the lake, but the hourly rate is so expensive, we're not sure it's worth the outlay).

Midpark from 71st–78th Sts.
 
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The Loeb Boathouse overlooks Central Park's stunning lake. Photo by Marla Eklind / Flickr
 At the eastern end of the Lake is the Loeb Boathouse, where you can rent boats and bikes as well as dine—and dine well. The upscale Lakeside Restaurant (lunch/brunch year-round; dinner Apr–Nov) is a lovely fine-dining space with alfresco lakeside seating under a white canopy. The menu is contemporary American. The casual Express Café serves breakfast, burgers, salads, and sandwiches (year-round 8am–5pm daily).

Fifth Ave. (btw. 74th & 75th Sts.).  
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Bethesda Terrace looks out to the beautiful plaza and Angel Bethesda. Photo by John Cunnliff / Flickr
The architectural heart of the park, this extraordinarily lovely area is filled with art. If you approach it from the Mall, you’ll come to a ravishing carved gate, with symbols representing “day” and “night” (the witches on brooms). The fountain celebrates the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which finally solved NYC’s water problems in 1842. The Angel Bethesda was sculpted by Emma Stebbins, the first woman ever to receive this sort of commission from the city.

Midpark at 72nd Street
 
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Take a stroll down the scenic trail. Photo by Costas Tavernarakis / Flickr
This beguiling promenade is shaded by a curving canopy of American elms—a favorite tree of the park’s designers. At the south end of the Mall is the Literary Walk, flanked by statues of Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and other historic and literary figures.

Midpark from 66th–72nd Sts.
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The friendly horses on the carousel are a perfect break from a day of sightseeing. Photo by lucianafujii / Flickr
The original carousel was built in 1871; fires destroyed it and a successor. Park officials searched high and low for a replacement, only to discover this treasure abandoned in an old trolley building on Coney Island. Its 58 colorful steeds—among the largest carousel ponies in the world—were hand-carved by Russian immigrants Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein in 1908.

Midpark at 64th St.
 
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In the winter, go for a skate on the magnificent rink. Photo by Tomás Fano / Flickr
Remember the movie Love Story? This is where he skated right before she died. In summer, the spot is home to the immaculate Victorian Gardens Amusement Park, geared toward young children.

Fifth Ave. btw. 62nd & 63rd Sts.
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The brick arsenal building is now home to many NYC government offices and a gallery. Photo by joevare / Flickr
Predating the park, this Gothic Revival building looks like a fortress—which it briefly was, when it lodged troops in the Civil War. It was later the original site of the American Museum of Natural History and even home to some of P. T. Barnum’s circus animals, from a black bear to white swans. Today, it holds the park headquarters and a third-floor art gallery.

Fifth Ave. & 64th St. 
 
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The snow monkeys are a favorite at the zoo. Photo by kowarski/flickr
The Central Park Zoo was built in 1988 to replace a 1934 WPA-built structure that had become cramped and outdated. Today the zoo’s 5.5 acres house more than 400 animals. Watch sea lions cavorting in the Central Garden pool, polar bears splashing around their watery den, or penguins being fed in the chilly Polar Circle. A favorite of all ages: the Delacorte Clock, a timepiece with six clockwork bronze animals twirling to music on the hour and half-hour. In the small Tisch Children’s Zoo, kids can feed and pet tame farm animals.

Fifth Ave. btw. 63rd & 66th Sts.
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