Rosheda Stephenson calls NYC and the Caribbean home. Her travel articles are meant to inspire passion, adventure, and curiosity.
Central Park: A Break From Stress and Crowds
Look at a map of New York City and immediately a rectangular area of greenery sitting smack in the middle of the city stands out. This green space is the celebrated Central Park, which was designed to provide an oasis of respite for a stressed and overcrowded city back in the 1800s.
True to its original mission, Central Park continues to provide a much-needed break to residents and visitors looking to temporarily escape the cacophony of New York City. The 800 acres of colorful flowers, green lawns, serene ponds, lakes, and wildlife still beckons like an oasis in a desert. Here are 17 things to do in Central Park that will relax and soothe even the most frazzled nerves.
1. Go Fishing on Harlem Meer
Occupying the northeastern corner of Central Park is one of its most beautiful bodies of water. The Harlem Meer’s charm comes from a combination of the Meer's peaceful ripples and the beautiful topography of the area. The U-shaped Meer lays between gray, rocky hill like structures on one side and grand old trees lining its banks on the other. The Meer itself flows around an islet of tangled trees, while colorful hydrangea and rose bushes offer shade to those sitting on benches strategically placed around the water. It is this natural beauty that lures fishing enthusiasts to pass Central Park’s other waterbodies and cast their rods in Harlem Meer.
Visitors who like to fish will enjoy practicing their hobby while surrounded by relaxing views of ducks swimming by. If you do plan to fish, there are a few things to bear in mind:
- Fishing is one of the generously offered free activities in Central Park so the program is strictly catch and release.
- One may not catch turtles or any of the other water creatures in the other areas of the park not designated for fishing.
- Rods and bait are available free of cost at the visitor center and can be used without a fishing permit. If one carries personal fishing equipment, a fishing license is required.
- The kind of bait allowed is regulated: only corn kernels (also available free of cost at the park) is allowed.
Those who don’t want to fish can sit on any of the numerous benches and just drink in the peace and beauty of the area. More active visitors may want to join local New Yorkers who frequent the path around Harlem Meer in the evenings for their daily walks. Harlem Meer is located at 110 Street and Central Park North, and is best reached by the 1 train to the 110th street stop.
2. Admire the Water Fountains in Conservatory Garden
In the northern end of the park, just past Harlem Meer sits one of the best spots in Central Park. In this area, gorgeous flowers, perfectly groomed hedges, water fountains, sculptures and camouflaged secret paths charm visitors into spending hours on end being soothed by nature. This, often considered the most gorgeous place in all of Central Park, is none other than the famous Conservatory Gardens.
The first time I beheld these gardens, I had to blink twice to remind myself that this a garden in the middle of New York City and not a well-tended garden in the English Countryside. So enthralling was the design of the many distinct gardens that make up Conservatory Garden that I could not believe I was in the middle of a city sometimes called a concrete jungle.
Conservatory Garden is really a series of connected gardens, each with its own personality. Entering from the northern most gate unveils a garden that is perfectly symmetrical and groomed to match with coordinated low-lying grass and flower beds and an oval shaped water fountain in the center. Benches around the fountain provides the perfect spot from which to be soothed by the sound of the flowing water. Sitting atop the fountain is a sculpture of three women with intertwined hands and facial expressions that begs one to contemplate upon the meaning behind the sculpture.
Attached to this garden is a rectangular one with neat elevated hedges that follow a pattern reminiscent of a maze. This garden is perfect for those who prefer to relax in greenery and nothing else. Absent are the flowers and colorful plants of the other gardens. Instead this garden is a monochromatic collection of green hedges with clean lines, precise corners, and a simple water fountain. Those who find peace in simplicity and order will find this part of Conservatory Garden perfectly relaxing.
The third distinct space in Conservatory Garden has, to me, the most delightful personality of all the gardens that make up Conservatory Gardens. Its crowning glory is the tiny lotus populated koi pond that sits in the center. Surrounding the pond are flower hedges that lead to secret pathways where benches pop up in hidden places for those who want private contemplation. It is this garden that is the one place I must stop at every time I visit Central Park. If you are a lover of beauty, water fountains or flowers, this part of the Conservatory Gardens is the one thing you must do in Central Park if you visit in the warmer months.
Speaking of fountains, one must not visit Central Park and not see the beautiful multi-terraced Bethesda Fountain with its world famous sculpture of angels and cascading waters. For lovers of water and fountains Bethesda is another of those things to do in Central Park that shouldn’t be missed.
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3. Play a Chess Game in the Chess and Checkers House
Chess lovers looking for free things to in Central Park will be delighted with the small, cottage-like Chess and Checkers House. Located in a leafy spot overlooking green hills and old trees sits the small building dedicated to the game. Inside, chess tables invite lovers of chess to challenge each other. But it is outside that you will find all the action. Just outside the building, under leafy trees and a wooden canopy sits many other chess tables carved from stone. Here, those who find the game relaxing bring their own pieces or borrow from Chess and Checkers House for a game with friends or with another player travelling solo.
If chess isn't quite appealing, Chess and Checkers House also stocks other games like dominoes and backgammon. As the building also operates as one of Central Park's visitor centers, other things like maps and treasure hunt sets for kids are also available free of cost.
4. See Central Park From a Horse-Drawn Carriage
There are countless free things to do in Central Park. In fact, most of the activities on this list are free. With that in mind, one won’t feel guilty for splurging on one of the most relaxing and romantic things to do in Central Park.
Hop on a regally decorated horse for a relaxing ride through the beautiful sights of the park. Bring the special someone in your life or give the kids a treat on a ride that will take you past glistening water bodies, colorful plants, interesting people and sounds and other horses clomping noisily by. Many visitors even arrange for a ride that includes a stop for a proposal of marriage. A ride costs between $120 and $250 for a maximum of four people depending on the season and how the ride is booked. Check centralpark.com for more info, or walk to Central Park South and 5th Avenue to arrange an impromptu ride.
5. See a Free Shakespeare Play in Delacorte Theater
Central Park is home to a beloved summer tradition that theater lovers flock to each summer. The tradition called Shakespeare in the Park is an annual presentation of Shakespeare plays in Central Park’s popular outdoor theater, the Delacorte. The plays are free, but with one catch- to get a ticket one must be prepared to join long lines that start sometimes earlier than 6am.
As the most sought after free activity in Central park, getting a ticket isn't easy. To get one, people start congregating in front of the theater with gear like chairs, blankets, food and tablets for entertainment for a long wait until midday when the tickets are distributed. It sounds like a lot, but seeing one of the superb plays in the unique outdoor venue is something that lots of New Yorkers try to do at least once in their lifetime.
While the process to get tickets is far from relaxing, actually enjoying a play surrounded by Central Park’s beauty and a slight breeze is, for the theater lover, one of the most sublime things to do in Central Park.
6. Watch Turtles Swim Around in the Turtle Pond
Not far from the Delacorte Theater is one of Central Park’s smaller bodies of water called the Turtle Pond. The pond partially surrounds Belvedere Castle, then flows onward to grassy banks from which one can observe the many turtles that surface to get oxygen or to rest on land. Just the view from any direction in this part of the park is enough to put one at ease. Immediately south there is the stunning Belvedere Castle that immediately conjures images of grandeur and fancy balls. To the west there is the gorgeous trees that surround Delacorte Theater. And if one ventures to the southwest tip of the pond there is a rustic wooden cottage style building that’s home to a marionette theater.
Then there is the pond itself. The immaculate grass lawns on its banks make the perfect place to spread a blanket and try to spot the many turtles that the pond has become habitat for. Regular visitors look for the telltale bubbles that are evidence that there is a turtle swimming close by. Others just look to the muddy places where the water meets land hoping to spot a resting turtle. All in all, no matter what part of Turtle Pond one visits, there is bound to be relaxation in the air.
7. See a NYC Sunset From the Jackie Onassis Kennedy Reservoir
One may walk or jog around Central Park’s largest body of water at any time in the day. In fact, it is one of the most popular and best spots in Central Park for New Yorkers to run early morning and late evenings. However, for the most scenic views of the sun setting over the tops of New York City’s skyscrapers the absolute best time to visit the reservoir is evening time. The Jackie Kennedy Reservoir is located to the very east of the park with benches facing west towards an unobstructed line of view of the buildings on Central Park West. In the daytime the views are great, but in the evening the sunset casts an orange glow on top of the building’s peaks that is one of the most beautiful sights in Central Park.
If you love sunsets and scenic evenings, this is probably the best thing to do in Central Park. Find a bench facing west and people watch until it’s time for the sun to set. Or if you plan on jogging or walking, time it so that you can face west when the sun sets. The views will stay in your memory for a lifetime.
8. Go Bird Watching
Bird watching is one of those hobbies that attract both consummate bird lovers and those whose knowledge of birds extend only as far as the easy to identify parrot. Regardless of which type you are, Central Park is one of the best places in New York City to observe or learn about birds in any season. As both a habitat and a migratory stop for various birds, the park is almost always populated with at least a few species of birds.
Bird enthusiasts can try their luck solo, or join one of the guided walks. Some guided walks are free, while others attract a small fee. To join one of the moderately paced guided walks, check the park’s website for scheduled walks and. Walks leave from one of the park’s visitor centers.
9. Smell the Flowers in Shakespeare’s Garden
The most attractive thing about Central Park is its focus on aesthetics. There are many beautiful spots where one can see flowers and other colorful plants in the park. Shakespeare Garden ranks among the top place to just sit and take in the natural beauty of flowers and plants. Gardeners and lovers of flowers will love the pleasing design of the garden and the breath-taking variety of flowers in the small space. The tulip collection is particularly impressive, but there are many other varieties of flowers and trees.
10. Sail on a Gondola From Loeb’s Boathouse
While everyone has their favorite spot in Central Park, one thing most New Yorkers agree upon is that Loeb’s is the most action-packed spot in the whole park. In the warmer months families, couples, friends and basically everyone head to Loeb’s to rent a boat for a sail around the gorgeous Central Park Lake. Families with young kids bring a lunch and point out Central Park’s wildlife and foliage or head to the restaurant in Loeb's for a good meal and better views.
Couples and those seeking relaxation a la Venice hire a gondola for an hour and glide around the lake for one of the most romantic things to do in Central Park. Gondola rides cost $30 for 30 minutes and are available from Loeb’s boathouse.
11. Watch the Ducks Swim on the Central Park Pond
Watching ducks swim is one of those free activities that is inherently soothing. While one is likely to see ducks on any of Central Park’s lakes and ponds, the Central Park Pond is the best place to take in the relaxing sight. The pond located in Central Park’s northern end is a favorite with the park’s duck population. Many duck families choose to hang around the park: even for the colder months. Owing to this, it has become a popular spot for New Yorkers on lunch break.
Come lunch time, they head to the surrounding benches to watch the ducks swim by while having their meal. Whether you seek relaxation or a bit of people watching, sitting by the pond while the ducks paddle by is one of the best things to do in Central Park.
12. Ride the Central Park Carousel
Sometimes, indulging in a childlike activity is all it takes to relax. Whether it is because of the instant jolt to a more innocent time, or the release of just letting go for a moment, indulging in those things we did in childhood can be the best antidote to the stress of adulthood. The Central Park Carousel is the perfect place to act like a kid again even if just for a few minutes: and if you have actual kids in your group the Carousel is one of those spots in Central Park you simply must visit.
Hop unto a colorful horse for a slow, rhythmic ride while soothing music takes all the stress away. Look outwards to behold Central Park's greenery and natural beauty all while remembering what it feels like to be a kid. Carousel rides are offered April to October and attract a small fee.
13. Have a Picnic on Sheep Meadow
Come spring and summer, Sheep Meadow is the center of activity in Central Park. Bring a blanket and a picnic and stake out your spot early in the day for an experience that is as New York as it gets. Have your picnic while watching your uninhibited neighbors suntan half naked, play frisbee, listen to music and just enjoy life. Hanging out on Sheep Meadow is the secret way to really experience New York culture on a weekend, and it’s all free!
14. Admire Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
When one thinks of Central Park, one immediately thinks of nature and being in the great outdoors. And rightly so. On Central Park there are however a few institutions that offer activities that are just as soothing as being in the actual park. For those who find art therapeutic, the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the park’s eastern end may just be the most relaxing thing to do in Central Park.
Art lovers will find the museum’s vast collection of traditional and newer pieces a real pleasure. Genuine art lovers should plan on spending at least half a day going over the museum's collections. Each collection wows. The masters Leonardo Da Vinci, Matisse and everyone in between are all represented. So are tribal artforms, and more modern styles.
The mind boggling collections often focus on themes so diverse that to spend even a few hours in the museum’s halls is to get instructive education in a wide range of subjects so interesting that the hours slip away without notice. A sample of the collections as of this writing include: Portraits in Pastel; Cell Phone Photography; China’s Landscapes; Pencil Drawings; Japanese Bamboo Art; Korean Art; the Paintings of Mexican Baroque artist Cristobal de Villalpando and much more.
Needless to say, for the art lover this is the best thing to do in Central Park.
15. Sit by a Waterfall in North Woods
Some of the most serene spots in Central Park sits in the forested part of the park called the North Woods. Designed to imitate the woods of the Adirondacks, North Woods is 40 acres of wildlife, trees and water features that is the best thing to do in Central Park for lovers of nature, hikers and birdwatchers. Perhaps the most soothing features in this part of Central Park are the waterbodies. The water features include many waterfalls that cascade melodically over gray rocks to evoke a feeling of calm when experienced up close. To get to North Woods, use the park's 110th Street entrance on the west side.
16. Take a Yoga Class
The ancient practice of yoga is well known as a relaxing and conditioning activity for both mind and body. Yoga practitioners will be delighted to find that they can indulge in a bit of the exercise surrounded by Central park's beauty. Spend an hour relaxing while bending and stretching your body to the limit with a company called The Yoga Trail. Classes are in the Vinyasa style and take place on one of Central Park’s lawns
17. Glide Around One of Central Park's Ice Skating Rinks
Central Park is as alive in winter as it is in the summer months. Winter activities like sledding and ice skating take over the snow filled park to provide fun during winter's dreary days. Out of the two, ice skating is arguably the most relaxing for those with some skill at the activity.
Whether you want to glide around a rink or simply watch some romantic looking skating action from a safe spot, Central Park's ice skating facilities are some of the most picturesque in New York City. First, there is the picture perfect Wollman rink with its amazing NYC backdrop and intimate feel. Then there is the smaller and less crowded Lasker Rink for those who don't want to deal with the crowds. Regardless of which you choose, Central Park's ice skating rinks will offer a welcome break from the dreariness of winter.
Enjoy Central Park
Central park should be on the itinerary of every visit to New York City: if not for the celebrated park's breathtaking beauty, then for its ability to drown out the noise of New York City. These 17 things to do in the famous park will soothe and rejuvenate. Happy Travels!
© 2017 Rosheda Stephenson