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The best things to do in Central Park

The best things to do in Central Park, including Heckscher Playground, Belvedere Castle and the Central Park Zoo

Photograph: Shutterstock

Central Park is the collective backyard New Yorkers retreat to when we need to duck out of the hectic city life. It’s served as the iconic setting to a slew of kids’ films like Stuart Little and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and at 843 acres, this massive chunk of green space hosts a long list of fun things to do all year round. To help you make the most of this urban oasis, we’ve rounded up the best things to do in Central Park for kids.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to outdoor activities for kids in NYC

With serene corners to duck into, playgrounds for different age groups, theater and nature trails, Central Park activities can provide families with something new to experience every visit. After you’ve ticked these off your bucket list, check out the best parks for kidspublic gardens for families and outdoor art for kids in NYC.

 

Things to do in Central Park

Central Park Zoo

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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.

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Conservatory Garden

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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.

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Conservatory Water

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.

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Hans Christian Andersen Statue at Conservatory Water

Take the little ones to see the statue of the beloved author just west of Conservatory Water. You’ll find the man behind such children’s classics, including The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, sitting on a bench with an open book reading to a little duckling at his feet. During the summer months, head here with your little flock for storytelling programs. And don’t worry if they feel so inclined to climb on the statues lap—all the other kids will be, too!

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Alice in Wonderland statue

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 Lewis Carroll, portions of which line the sculpture.

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Belvedere Castle

Climb the spiral staircase to the top of this miniature castle and you’ll be treated with beautiful views of the Great Lawn, the Ramble, Turtle Pond and the city skyline surrounding Central Park. In fact, Belvedere translates to “beautiful view” in Italian. Built on the highest point in the park, the castle’s tower has provided the National Weather Service with its info on NYC weather since 1919. Be sure to spend time at the Henry Luce Nature Observatory located within the castle—kids can look into microscopes and telescopes, check out papier mâché birds, or borrow a free field pack, which includes binoculars, a map, paper and a field guide to explore the nearby woods.

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Friedsam Memorial Carousel

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 and was operated by a trained horse and mule hidden under the carousel. It was later replaced by a new design that ran on steam power, but that one as well as a subsequent replacement both burned down. 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.

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Heckscher Playground

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.

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Ancient Playground

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.

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Harlem Meer

Head to the northern part of the park for catch-and-release fishing at the Harlem Meer (Dutch for “lake”). Families can borrow fishing rods at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center before trying their luck on the lake. It’s also a great place to play “I Spy” with the kids as the area is home to various species of turtles, fish and birds as well as blooms throughout the year. Come fall, families can catch the Halloween Pumpkin Flotilla make its way across the meer and in the winter, enjoy the festive Holiday Lighting.

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