New York City is home to one of the most iconic parks in the world—Central Park. Spanning 843 acres, it is a beloved destination for locals and tourists alike. This sprawling green oasis offers numerous activities and attractions. It’s an ideal spot for anyone looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Here’s our guide to touring Central Park, whether visiting on your own or joining a group tour.
Overview of Central Park and its History
Central Park was first opened to the public on October 28th, 1857. Frederick Law Olmsted designed it. This landscape architect wanted to provide New Yorkers with an escape from urban living.
The park has gone through a number of changes over the years and is one of New York City’s most visited tourist destinations. Soon after opening, construction began on the Central Park Zoo and two artificial lakes (the Pool and The Pond). In 1876, the first carriage roads were built, allowing visitors to explore more of the park by horse-drawn carriages. During the 1980s and 1990s, restoration projects were initiated to preserve Central Park’s green space and elevate its original and natural beauty.
Today, Central Park is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest urban parks. It provides New Yorkers with an escape from city life. Tourists from all around the world come to marvel at its beauty and experience all it has to offer.
Popular Activities in the Park
USS Maine National Monument in Central Park
Near the Merchants’ Gate entrance, the USS Maine National Monument is an imposing structure with layers upon layers of history and art. This monument, dedicated in 1913, is a tribute to the 261 sailors and ship personnel who died aboard the USS Maine when the ship exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898. The sinking of the USS Maine incited United States’ passion against Spain. Eventually, these events led to a naval blockade of Cuba and a declaration of war. This monument is of great interest to history buffs or anyone interested in the military history surrounding the Spanish-American War.
The Pond and Wollman Rink
The Pond is one of the most popular spots in Central Park. Participate in some ice skating during the winter months or to relax and watch the skaters in the rink. Historically, the rink area of The Pond has been open for ice skating from October to April and then transformed in the warmer months for other uses.
The Wollman Rink is a world-famous ice-skating rink located in Central Park. Alicia and Philip Wollman generously funded the construction of the rink in 1949. Over the years, it has become a beloved destination for locals and tourists alike, especially during the winter months.
In 1980, a renovation project was initiated to restore the rink to its former glory. It reopened after two years of extensive work with modern amenities such as better safety measures and improved ice quality. Since then, it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Central Park, offering public skating sessions and lessons for all ages.
The Wollman Rink was central to the popular romantic comedy “Serendipity.” The movie, released in 2001, stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as star-crossed lovers. After meeting in New York City they choose to let fate determine their destiny. They move through multiple cities and find each other again in New York City. At the end of the movie, they skate around the ice, and their love story begins. To this day, fans of the movie flock to the rink in order to recreate their favorite scenes from the film.
The Sheep Meadow
The Sheep Meadow is a grassy expanse located near the Wollman Rink. It covers an area of approximately 15 acres, bordered by trees and a walking path. Originally designed as a pasture for sheep, it was eventually converted into a recreational area for visitors to enjoy. It is one of several designated Quiet Zones in Central Park. Naturally, it has become a popular spot for picnics, sunbathing, and people-watching.
Visitors to the Sheep Meadow enjoy stunning skyline views while enjoying a game of Frisbee, flying a kite, or simply lounging on a blanket. The area is sometimes used for concerts and other entertainment events.
Tavern on the Green Restaurant
For a unique dining experience, head over to Tavern on the Green. Lunch is served from 11 am-4 pm every day. The menu includes classic American dishes with an upscale twist.
Diners can choose from salads such as the Beet and Burrata Salad, made with roasted beets, watercress, and endive; sandwiches like the Shaved Prime Rib Sandwich; or the Seafood Raw Bar Tower. This building was originally intended to house the sheep in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. Look for the carved sheep heads in the architecture.
The Mall and Literary Walk
Embark on a delightful stroll along The Mall, situated in the southern section of Central Park in New York City. In 1858, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux envisioned this grand formal area as part of their Greensward Plan for Central Park. This splendid expanse, known as the Mall or the Promenade, was thoughtfully designed to offer park visitors a space to immerse themselves in the world of literature.
Historically, horse carriages would transport affluent passengers to the southern end of Central Park. Guests would leisurely traverse The Mall’s pathways before being collected near the Bethesda Fountain area. The lower section of the Mall, affectionately called Literary Walk or Poets’ Walk, recognizes renowned literary figures. Here, visitors are surrounded by exquisite bronze statues dedicated to notable contributors, each capturing a significant date in the lives of literary luminaries.
Among the distinguished statues adorning this path, you’ll find representations of William Shakespeare (1870), Robert Burns (circa 1880), Sir Walter Scott (1871), Fitz-Greene Halleck (1876), and the intrepid explorer Christopher Columbus (1892).
The Mall and Literary Walk of Central Park hold immense historical significance. While most paths in the 843-acre park are meandering trails with twists and turns, the mall is a broad and long path. The American Elm trees create a shade of cover and give a sense of privacy, even when surrounded by hundreds of other visitors.
You’ve seen it in movies; it’s just as lovely in real life.
Spanning over 1,500 feet, The Mall ends at the renowned Bethesda Terrace, inviting more exploration within the park’s sprawling beauty.
Bethesda Terrace and Fountain
Our next stop is the magnificent Bethesda Terrace and Fountain. This iconic landmark nestled in the heart of Central Park in New York City. This space serves as the very soul of the park, captivating visitors with a timeless allure from every vantage point.
Ascending from the lower level, you’ll be greeted by a breathtaking view of the serene lake. The upper-level bridge is a vantage point that unveils the stunning fountain that sets the stage for awe-inspiring photos. Throughout the year, this area plays host to concerts and entertainment events, infusing the space with vibrant energy and cultural experiences.
The Bethesda Fountain beckons guests with its open expanse and harmonious blend of nature and design. As an anchor to the circular plaza, the fountain commands attention, standing an impressive twenty-six feet tall and ninety-six feet wide.
The sculpture, “Angel of the Waters” was crafted by Emma Stebbins, a pioneering female sculptor who received the honor of creating a major public work in New York City. The angel’s outstretched hand bestows a blessing upon the water below, commemorating the inauguration of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, a milestone in providing fresh water to the city.
Clasping a lily flower, the angel signifies the purity of the water. The angel invites contemplation on the enduring significance of clean, fresh water—both in the past and present.
The base is adorned with four cherubim symbolizing health, purity, temperance, and peace.
Immerse yourself in the intricate carvings, cascading stairs, and picturesque charm of the Bethesda Terrace. This idyllic haven provides a serene backdrop to savor breathtaking views of the iconic Manhattan skyline.
It’s an ideal spot to pause, rejuvenate, and absorb the essence of Central Park.
Boating on the Lake
Nestled within the enchanting oasis of Central Park, the Loeb Boathouse and The Lake beckon visitors to relax. The Loeb Boathouse, an iconic landmark, exudes a timeless charm. The Lake itself, with its sprawling beauty, provides a respite from the bustling cityscape.
Spanning more than 20 acres, this serene body of water is a sanctuary for those seeking solace in nature’s embrace. Whether you choose to paddle along the tranquil waters, admire the picturesque views, or simply bask in the natural surroundings, the Loeb Boathouse and The Lake offer a diversion from the vibrant energy of New York City.
Central Park Zoo in New York City
The Central Park Zoo is a historic seven-acre zoo managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was initially formed in the 1860s after a black bear cub was dropped off with a park messenger boy.
Other donations soon arrived. General George Armstrong Custer gave the zoo a rattlesnake. General William Tecumseh Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo that had been captured during the American Civil War. Circuses discovered Central Park to be a suitable place to store their animals.
Today, visitors view exhibits featuring animals from around the world, including snow leopards, penguins, and sea lions.
Strawberry Fields is a two-and-a-half-acre landscaped section in Central Park in New York City that memorializes John Lennon, the legendary musician from The Beatles. Situated directly across from the Dakota apartment building where he lived with his wife, Yoko Ono, this tranquil spot pays homage to Lennon’s memory and musical legacy.
The center of attention at Strawberry Fields is the Imagine mosaic, which draws thousands of visitors each year who want to pay tribute to one of the most influential musicians of all time. The mosaic has more than 2,000 individual pieces of marble stone imported from Italy and features the word “imagine,” the title of Lennon’s most famous song.
The area surrounding the mosaic is filled with beautiful plantings, trees, and flowers that are meant to symbolize peace and love, which were the common themes in John Lennon’s music. In addition to the memorial, Strawberry Fields features benches for visitors who want to take in the relaxed atmosphere of this serene spot.
Recommended Tours and Walking Paths for Central Park in New York City
Central Park is large enough that it can be overwhelming to explore on your own. Here are some suggested tours and transportation options that you can take to make the most of your visit:
Tips on Best Photogenic Sites in Central Park
Central Park is a photographer’s dream, with endless photo opportunities. Here are some tips for capturing the best photogenic sites in Central Park and the best time to visit each.
Bethesda Terrace and Fountain
The Bethesda Terrace and Fountain are some of the most photogenic sites in Central Park. Visit during the early morning hours to capture the terrace bathed in soft sunlight. In the evening, watch for a colorful sunset to capture in the fountain’s water reflections. Watch how the sunlight plays upon the lovely angel statue. Then capture beautiful photos of the angel statue at any time of the day.
The Mall and Literary Walk in Central Park
The Mall and Literary Walk are perfect for capturing beautiful, tree-lined paths and stunning background scenery. The best time to visit is during the early morning hours when the rising sun casts soft, warm light onto the elm trees and the path. You can also capture stunning photos during the golden hour before sunset when the trees are bathed in a warm, golden light that flutters onto the walkway.
The Bow Bridge
Bow Bridge is one of the most photogenic bridges in Central Park, offering stunning views of the skyline and the lake. The stunning Bow Bridge is located at the Wollman Rink. For the best experience, it’s recommended to visit the bridge early in the morning. Additionally, you can take breathtaking photographs during the blue hour, which occurs just after sunset when the sky is a deep shade of blue.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is a popular spot for capturing New York City skyline views. Consider photography excursions in the early morning dawn hours. You can also capture stunning photos during the blue hour when the city lights are twinkling in the distance. This photo shot location is a running path at 86th to 95th Streets.
The Conservatory Gardens
Immerse yourself in the captivating beauty of the Conservatory Gardens, a six-acre sanctuary renowned for its stunning floral displays and enchanting ambiance. This treasure within Central Park beckons visitors with vibrant tulips, fragrant lilacs, graceful crabapple trees, and summer perennials.
The roots of the Conservatory Gardens trace back to 1899, when a glass conservatory was constructed to showcase seasonal plant displays to the public. The area’s horticultural legacy predates even this, with a greenhouse designed by Calvert Vaux to nurture plants for the park’s landscapes.
The Conservatory Garden enchants visitors with three distinct sections, each featuring a unique design. The North Garden exudes a refined French style, while the Center Garden mesmerizes with an Italianate charm. Further exploration leads to the South Garden, hosting an English-style ambiance. Pause at the main entrance to view the ornate Vanderbilt Gate, a magnificent gateway once gracing the Fifth Avenue mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and now serving as a fitting entrance to this exquisite garden setting.
With its immaculate landscapes and meticulously manicured flora, the Conservatory Garden stands as one of Central Park’s most breathtaking attractions. For unforgettable photos and cherished memories, plan your visit during the spring and summer months when the garden bursts into vibrant colors and scents. The garden’s allure extends beyond its botanical wonders, as it has become a sought-after destination for small, intimate weddings, thanks to its picturesque setting.
Final Thoughts on Photography
Central Park offers endless photo opportunities for both professional and amateur photographers. The best time to visit each photogenic site varies depending on the lighting and time of day, so plan your photography outings accordingly. With these tips, you’ll be sure to capture stunning photos that will make you fall in love with Central Park all over again.
Hotels Near Central Park in New York City
Central Park isn’t just about the sights within its boundaries. There are plenty of attractions and activities to enjoy nearby as well. For visitors staying overnight, there are numerous hotels located close by:
Central Park is one of the best places to explore in New York City. Whether you’re a local or visitor, there’s something for everyone here—from peaceful strolls and birdwatching to boat rides and lunch at Tavern on the Green.
We hope this guide has given you some helpful tips on planning your next visit to Central Park!