New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Central Park is where people go to relax. The huge space, stretching 51 blocks through the heart of Manhattan, is surprisingly peaceful and never dull. Many visitors, however, miss the best spots when they are wandering around aimlessly in a tourist daze.
No matter how short your trip, a day out in the city’s “green lung” is essential. The park is divided into quadrants: South End, North End, the Great Lawn and the Reservoir. Entering from any of the gates, you will be welcomed by a buzz of activity along the 10 kilometres of pathways and 20 fields. This is where locals come to walk, jog, cycle, skate, play baseball, basketball, tennis and volleyball.
Quirky attractions include a puppet theatre, a petting zoo and a roller-skating rink. Conservatory Water, near 72nd Street, is reserved for sailing model boats; and a nearby lake is used for rowing and gondola rides.
There are eight designated quiet zones, such as Sheep Meadow and the Conservatory Garden. The Pond, only a few metres from Fifth Avenue, is man-made but home to ducks and turtles.
Another serene section is the well-known Strawberry Fields, a memorial to singer John Lennon. Located between 71st and 74th streets, the popular site is adjacent to the Dakota Apartments where Lennon lived with his wife Yoko Ono and where he was shot dead in 1980. Nearby, buskers are often found playing Beatles hits.
For guaranteed smiles, head toward to Skaters Circle in the centre of the park. Every weekend (mid-April to October) from 2.30pm, colourfully dressed roller-skaters and inline skaters dance around to music mixed by a DJ. It’s a joy to watch.
Also in summer, free concerts are held (search the program at Central Park SummerStage) with three months worth of performances in various styles of music, dance, comedy and spoken word. The Metropolitan Opera presents operas; the New York Classical Theater produces plays; and the Public Theater’s outdoor presentations of Shakespeare often star Hollywood actors.
One of the least known features is the swimming pool, between 106th and 108th streets, because most visitors don’t walk that far. Admission is free (July to September) and in winter it converts into an ice-skating rink. The more famous ice-skating area, Wollman Rink, is further south, much busier and more expensive.
Central Park even allows catch-and-release fishing, permitted in the Harlem Meer, also up the north end. Rods and bait can be borrowed from the Charles Dana Discovery Center.
Particularly for couples, the most iconic activity is to hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage. A walk-up 45-minute ride costs around US$110. The modern and cheaper version is the pedicab (US$50 for two people, US$60 for three). Both of these tours can be found year-round along Central Park South between 5th and 6th Avenues.
Solo travellers should grab a bar stool at Loeb Boathouse, near 72nd Avenue, which is a lively place to socialise, especially on a sunny New York afternoon.
Wandering aimlessly is always a good option, too. Stroll along the Mall, lined with American elm trees, and end up at the Bethesda Fountain. To cover more ground, hire a bike at 1710 Broadway – from US$15 an hour.
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