Get ready to explore the city's playground in a way you never have before with our list of the best things to do in Central Park. Central Park is one of the top New York attractions that locals love too, and it is the heart and soul of the city. Sure, it’s one of the best NYC parks, but it’s not just lawns, trees and picnic spots (as grateful as we city folk are for those). Check these 11 must-do things in Central Park off your bucket list. Many of them are some of the best things to do in spring and summer!
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to Central Park in New York
The best things to do in Central Park
Take a romantic paddle around the Lake (one-hour $15, each additional 15 minutes $4, plus a $20 deposit)—or let someone else do the work during a Venetian gondola ride (half hour $45, up to six people) at Loeb Boathouse (available April through November). While you're there, absorb the picturesque view of the Lake at the Central Park Boathouse Restaurant, for fine—if pricey—fare like fish, crab cakes, salads and an assortment of wines.
Animal lovers will dig the cute critters at the Tisch Children's Zoo, adjacent to the main zoo, where you can also get up close and personal with pot-bellied pigs and goats. In the Central Park Zoo itself, coo over the daily feeding of the sea lions and penguins, and watch snow monkeys leap playfully between rocks.
Thirty-six acres of winding trails, rocks and streams remain here, seemingly waiting to be discovered. It's also the city's primo bird-watching spot, where you can view many of the park's 230 species. Fun fact: Everything you see is man-made, dating back to 1859—even the waterfalls can be turned on and off.
On warm days, we're hard pressed to think of a better spot in Manhattan to ogle hotties than Sheep Meadow, the bucolic 15-acre field located along the southwestern edge of the park. Expect thousands of scantily-clad locals to take over the area on weekends, alongside frisbee-throwing bros, guitar sing-alongs and many handstand attempts. To secure a shaded spot, we suggest arriving at 11am, when the field opens.
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 the story to their children, the larger-than-life figures have been explored by kiddies since 1959. Make sure to meander over to the nearby Conservatory Water, where you can grab a bench and watch motorized miniature sailboats whiz by as you contemplate life’s meaning.
One of the perks of living in NYC is that you don’t ever have to wait for the carnival to come to town. When the weather is warm, head to the Victorian Gardens for an all-American day of cart rides, funnel cake and performances by magicians, jugglers and more. (Daily 10am–3pm, weekends 10am–8pm. $8–$9.) Once winter descends, you can hit the ice for some romantic skating and even catch a hockey game.
Under the shade of one of the largest stands of American Elm trees in North America, without a skyscraper in sight, you can truly feel like you’ve left the city behind for a minute. Once a place to stroll in your Sunday best, it’s now an area where many artists and performers set up shop—but not in an obnoxious way. It’s a great spot to grab a bench and watch the fabulous eccentricities of the strangers around you unfold over an afternoon.
Experience the charms of a European garden without having to, y’know, fly to Europe. This six-acre garden offers three styles (French, Italian and English) and a plethora of flowers, fountains, neatly trimmed hedges and walkways. Just be prepared for the throng of wedding photo shoots—and, by that, we mean be prepared for photo-bombing.
Experience the retro charm of bobbing along to organ music atop one of the Friedsam Memorial Carousel's 52 saddles. The carousel is in its third incarnation since 1871 (the original was horse-powered, and the next two were supposedly destroyed by fires), and the current version dates back to 1950, when it was discovered in a Coney Island trolley terminal. Expect long waits, popcorn, hot dogs and a few crabby kids.
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. 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 and a guide for bird-watching in the Ramble's woods.
Every summer, the Public Theater produces a beloved NYC democratic tradition and one of the best free things to do in NYC: Shakespeare in the Park, presented at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. There’s nothing quite like hearing the Bard’s immortal words performed outside in New York, with a backdrop of natural splendor and the Belvedere Castle looming in the background like the world’s most impressive set decoration.