RECOMMENDED: Full guide to outdoor activities for kids in NYC
Central Park is by far the most iconic of New York City's green spaces—it's home to scenes from iconic films like Stuart Little and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York...plus it's totally massive. To make navigating a bit easier, we've rounded up the best things to do in Central Park, from visits to the Victorian Gardens to watching mini boats zip around in the Conservatory Water. Don't forget to visit our other favorite NYC parks and public gardens as well!
Things to do in Central Park
More than a million visitors a year flock here for quality time with some 130 species that inhabit this 6.5-acre corner of Central Park. Don't miss the Allison Maher Stern snow leopard exhibit, where tots can look for the critically endangered cats in a rocky evergreen landscape meant to replicate the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Visit the frigid penguin house to see the gentoo and chinstrap penguins waddle, and try to spot king penguins. At the Amphibian Crisis Center, children can observe jungle frogs, poison-dart frogs, Surinam toads and tons of other little critters. Your fam can also gape at a giant indoor ant farm complete with interactive "I Spy…" challenges or explore the outdoor Tisch Children's Zoo: It houses more than 30 species, including goats and cows that enjoy being petted.
This serene garden is a quiet zone, so if you bring your kids, be sure they abstain from biking, running, playing sports and making noise. Generally that’s pretty hard, but give it your best shot or prepare to get a few dirty looks. At the center of the garden, you’ll find Frances Hodgeson Burnett Memorial Fountain, a tribute to the author of The Secret Garden, with two figures said to depict Mary and Dickon at one end of a small lily pool. Visitors flock to the garden in the spring to see gorgeous tulip displays, and in autumn to see chrysanthemums—believe us, it’s worth the trip.
Also known as the "model boat pond," this contained body of water hosts miniature radio and wind-powered vessels from April through October. Originally, the ornamental pond was created as a reflecting pool for a glass conservatory, but that particular project was abandoned. E.B. White also famously set the boat scene in Stuart Little here! Visitors can rent a boat or purchase snacks at the Kerbs Memorial Boathouse, just east of the pond. Nearby, you’ll find the Hans Christian Anderson statue, so be sure to check it out.
Don't fret if the kiddies climb all over this bronze statue of Alice and company—that's what it's there for. Dedicated to the children of NYC and commissioned by George Delacorte after the passing of his wife, who enjoyed reading Alice to their children, the larger-than-life figures have been explored by children since 1959. Relive your youth and join them on the mushroom, or if you can't let go, read the engraved verses of the poem "Jabberwocky," by Alice scribe Lewis Carroll, portions of which line the sculpture.
Take in a sweeping view of the Great Lawn, the Ramble and Turtle Pond from Belvedere Castle, a folly built on one of the highest points in the park. Inside they'll find the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, where they can peer into microscopes and telescopes, look at skeletons and papier mâché birds, or borrow a free discovery kit (requires two forms of ID, one of which is kept as a deposit) from inside the castle, which includes binoculars, a map, sketch paper and a field guide for exploring the Ramble's woods.
As you walk along Playmates Arch in the Children’s Zone section of Central Park, you’ll hear the organ music before you see the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, which features 57 nearly life-size steeds. A merry-go-round was first installed at the site in 1871; it and two or possibly three successors, according to park lore, caught fire and had to be replaced. In 1950, the Parks Department found the current carousel—crafted in 1908 by Brooklyn manufacturer Stein and Goldstein—in an old trolley terminal in Coney Island, had it restored and moved it to its current location. Expect a long line for the ride, though the balloon, hot dog and popcorn vendors may distract your little ones from the wait.
Central Park’s oldest and largest playground is also one of its best, thanks a top-to-bottom renovation (it reopened in 2006) that cleverly connected it to Umpire Rock, the Manhattan schist outcropping behind it: Kids not only get to a scale stone pyramid but, after crossing a small bridge, an actual cliff, too. (Consider packing a lunch for a picnic on top). Colorful, rubber-topped humps change up the usual flat landscape and divide the area for smaller kids, complete with a dedicated tot water area and an enormous sandbox with a climbing net, from the main complex of tunnels, moats and bridges, and the bigger kids’ spray fountains. An old-school spot with a single metal slide and two popular tire swings on the far western edge is a sweet nod to the Central Park playgrounds of yore.
Inspired by the Egyptian Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this lavishly redone playground just north of the great institution is also the perfect postmuseum destination. Originally designed as a European-style “adventure playground” (think pretend play over athletic feats), it reopened in 2009 sporting an all-new network of stone pyramids and tunnels and treehouse-like wooden forts—ideal for somewhat older kids—plus two user-activated water features, a sandbox with a mini obelisk in the center and nine slides. Be sure to tote along sunglasses and sunscreen, as trees are in Sahara-like short supply.
Grab rods for catch-and-release fishing fun at Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, then head to the Meer (Dutch for “lake”) to gently reel in some finned critters. The Meer is home to many species of turtles, fish and birds and an interesting array of trees like oak, beech and gingko. You’ll also find the Halloween Pumpkin Sail and winter Holiday Lighting on the Meer as well, depending when you visit.
If you decide to check out this famed rink, be prepared for slow-moving skaters (it’s perfect for newbies and there’s even a skating program for first timers). There won’t be room for speed skating or fancy tricks, but braving the crowds is worth it for the priceless Central Park scenery. The rink also hosts birthday parties, youth and adult figure skating programs, hockey games and more.