Beyond the Great Lawn: Our Tips for an Amazing Day in Central Park

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Let’s not beat around the well-manicured bush: Central Park is the country’s superlative urban park, making all other city parks look like dinky backyards by comparison. Within its 843 acres you’ll find thrills for kids (and adults) of all ages, including a centuries-old fort, an Olympic-sized pool, and a menagerie of wild animals–and that’s not even counting the tourists!

When to go: The easy answer is anytime–most of the park’s attractions are in full swing year-round–but you can narrow it down by season based on what tops your must-do list. Want to skate under the stars at Wollman Rink? Hit the park in late fall or winter. Jonesing to take a spin on one of 57 hand-carved horses at the famous carousel, or to take a rowboat out on Central Park Lake? Book your trip for spring or summer.

Approximate travel time: While it’s smack dab in the center of Manhattan, the park is 2 ½ miles long and half a mile wide, with multiple points of entry. Consult or Google Maps to determine where you should enter the park, but it shouldn’t take you more than an hour–and in many cases much quicker!–to reach it by subway regardless of where you start out (within city limits, of course…)

What to do: This is a trick question. You could literally spend days in the park and not see absolutely everything, so you’ll have to prioritize based on what you and the kids most want to see and do. Herewith, a basic guide:

For the easily bored: The Central Park Zoo (East Side, 63rd-66th Streets) is full of somersaulting seals, pooping penguins, and many other animals showcasing their alliterative behaviors, not to mention lots of interactive, educational activities for kids. The aforementioned Carousel (64th Street, mid-park) provides a colorful, quick-moving fix for the hyper or attention-span-challenged. 21 separate playgrounds scattered throughout the park provide innovative play spaces for children of all ages. In the summer, Wollman Rink becomes the Victorian Gardens amusement park, complete with concession booths, live shows, and 12 rides. And in the winter months, if you’re not up for ice-skating, Central Park Conservancy Visitor Centers offer free indoors arts and crafts programs (call 212-794-4064 before you go to find out precise locations and hours of operation).

For nature lover: The Harlem Meer (East Side, 106th-100th Streets) is a gorgeous spot for kids to  watch ducks and turtles or to do learn some gentle catch-and-release fishing. Afterwards, take a tour of the regal Conservatory Garden (East Side, 104th-106th Streets); you’ll feel like you stepped out of Manhattan and into Versailles! Or take an amble through The Ramble, a maze of woodsy pathways that wind under picturesque bridges and over tumbling streams (73rd-78th Streets, mid-park), and end up at The Henry Luce Nature Observatory in historic Belvedere Castle (79th Street, mid-park), where kids can take in the view through telescopes.

For unrepentant nerds: Explore the Blockhouse (109th Street and Central Park West), a fort originally constructed during the War of 1812, which makes it the oldest structure standing in the park and one of only two that predate the park itself. The other–also worth a visit–is the Arsenal (64th Street and 5th Avenue), which served as a munitions supply depot for the National Guard in the 19th century. Multiple war memorials will mollify history buffs, including a WWI statue of the 107th Infantry (67th Street and 5th Avenue), and if you really want to nerd out, invest in a guided tour to unlock the secrets of the park’s past (call 212-360-2726 or e-mail for details).

Where to eat: The park has three official eateries: The Loeb Boathouse (East Side, 74th-75th Streets), which offers both upscale American dining overlooking the lake as well as an express cafe; Ballplayer’s House (north of the Heckscher Ballfields at 65th Street, mid-park), which serves burgers, fries, and other concession stand fare; and Le Pain Quotidien (69th Street, mid-park), the international French chain known for its freshly-baked bread, communal tables, and creative sandwiches, which recently took up residence in the Mineral Springs Pavilion near Sheep Meadow. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned New York hot dog from one of the ubiquitous vendors, and though Tavern on the Green has closed, food carts such as Rickshaw Dumpling Truck and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream can often be found outside its terrace (West Side, 66th-67th Streets).

How to dress: Since the park is outside, that all depends on the weather. But err on the side of casual, and good walking shoes are a must.

Bonus: If you make your trip in the summertime and the playground sprinklers just don’t cut it, take a midday dip in the Lasker Pool (106th-108th Streets, mid-park), overlooking the scenic Harlem Meer.

Cost of trip: General admission to the Central Park Zoo is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 3-12. Rides on the carousel are $2 each. Skating at Wollman Rink starts at $10.75 for adults and $5.75 for children (skate rentals are an additional $6.75), while admission to Victorian Gardens starts at $6.50, with an additional $3 per ride. Dining at the park can run as cheap as $2 for a hot dog from a cart to $100+ for a multi-person, full-course meal at the Boathouse. Playgrounds and other public spaces like the Conservatory Garden, the Ramble, and Belvedere Castle are free.

— Una LaMarche