The 16 Best Things to Do in Central Park

Central Park is huge -- 843-acres huge -- making it Manhattan’s largest green space, and an easy place to spend hours just roaming around. While that may have been the intention of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the park in 1858 as an urban escape, there isn’t always time to wander aimlessly from Midtown to Harlem. To help you make the most of the park, here are the best things to do there -- from waterfall-chasing to fishing.

waterfalls central park

Find hidden waterfalls in the North Woods

If New York City water is good enough for drinking and making superior bagels, then it’s no surprise that it has some damn pretty waterfalls, too. Contrary to TLC’s advice, these rushing falls are worth chasing -- or at least worth the trek up to the western corner of 101st and 110th Street, where they’re located inside a lush ravine modeled after the Adirondacks.

sheep meadow picnic

Picnic in Sheep Meadow

It may not be the largest stretch of green inside Central Park -- that title goes to the appropriately dubbed Great Lawn -- but Sheep Meadow is the superior picnicking ground thanks to its combination of skyline views and picturesque grassy terrain. Pick up a spread from Daniel Boulud’s nearby cafe, Epicerie Boulud -- there’s a daily selection of sandwiches, salads, and head baker’s Francois Brunet’s beautiful croissants.

conservatory garden central park
T photography /

See a flower show in the Conservatory Garden

Visitors to Central Park’s official garden are greeted by a striking iron gate -- crafted in Paris in 1894 -- that opens into six acres landscaped in three distinct styles. Highlights include blooming spring tulips in the French-inspired garden, a wisteria pergola in the Italian-influenced plot, and an English sculpture and lily pool dedicated to Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden.

Watch a show at the Delacorte Theater

Tickets to Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen still elude you? There’s another A-list production worth lining up for: The Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park. Former summertime showings of the Bard’s best work include Othello, Taming of the Shrew, and The Comedy of Errors with star-studded playbills (James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, respectively). The best part? Tickets to the show are completely free and available directly at the park and Public Theater or via digital lottery -- the only catch is, they’re pretty hard to come by online; your best bet is to camp out in front of the theater on the day of the show. They’ll start giving them out at 12pm (first come, first served).

harlem meer central park

Go fishing in Harlem Meer

In a city surrounded by H2O, there’s a serious shortage of water-related activities. For those who want to try their hand at fishing, pick up a pole and bait at Harlem Meer’s Charles A. Dana Discovery Center and see if you can catch some bass, carp, or catfish -- the only caveat is anything you catch has to be released back into the lake.

conservatory water sailboat

Launch a model boat inside the Conservatory Water

In one of the most iconic scenes in E.B. White’s Stuart Little, the book’s titular mouse helps his pal George win a model boat competition that took place in this very pond. While there won’t be any critters manning vessels in real life (probably), humans can rent a mini-schooner from the Kerbs Memorial Boathouse and race to their hearts’ content.

chess & checkers house central park
Flickr/Andy Atzert

Play a round at the Chess & Checkers House

Think you have what it takes to be a Grandmaster? Show off your chess (or checkers) skills at one of the city’s few dedicated playing pavilions. Bring your own game set or rent one from the Central Park Conservancy for two bucks and sidle up to one of 24 tables for an afternoon of intense concentration underneath a beautiful shaded pergola.

belvedere castle central park

Climb up Belvedere Castle

True to its name -- which translates to “beautiful view” in Italian -- this towering stone structure offers a panoramic outlook of both the park and surrounding skyscrapers from its two balconies.

hans christian anderson statue

Visit the Hans Christian Andersen statue

Just west of Conservatory Lake is a statue commemorating prolific Danish storyteller Christian Andersen. The bronze figurine depicts Andersen sitting on a bench and reading to a two-foot tall duck, a nod to his famed tale “The Ugly Duckling.” A real life storytime happens daily in the summer months, featuring -- of course -- the writer’s iconic fairy tales.

central park carousel

Take a whirl on the carousel

There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about riding a carousel, especially the one located inside Central Park, where the merry-go-round has been making, well, rounds since 1871. A ride on one of the 58 hand-carved and painted horses will set you back three bucks, but the Instagram potential is priceless.

Meander through The Ramble

In the middle of the park, between 73rd and 78th Streets, you’ll come across a winding path that the original designer once nicknamed “The Wild Garden.” Get lost in the flora and fauna, while keeping an eye out for traveling birds -- this patch of the park is part of their migration route in the spring and fall.

strawberry fields central park
Michael Gordon/

Pay tribute to John Lennon

After John Lennon’s death in 1980, the city renamed a quiet tree-lined plot between W 71st and 74th Streets after The Beatles song “Strawberry Fields.” In 1984, Yoko Ono and landscape architect Bruce Kelly added the round Imagine mosaic where fans now leave flowers as a tribute to the late singer.

umpire rock

Scale Umpire Rock

In a park that’s known for being almost entirely man-made, this ancient piece of bedrock is one of the few all-natural features. Measuring 40-by-15 feet, the large, steep boulder offers the best vantage point for watching baseball games on the nearby field (hence its name) and serves as a training ground for aspiring rock climbers.

central park zoo
Alan Tan Photography/

Monkey around at the zoo

Subway rats aren’t the only type of wildlife in New York City. Despite its tiny six-and-a-half acre size, the Central Park Zoo packs in three different climate zones -- tropical, temperate, and polar -- which means you can get up close and personal with everything from spotted snow leopards to tropical lemurs and lizards without taking an actual safari.

Hear music from the Delacorte Music Clock

Not far from the zoo sits this musical timepiece, added to the park in 1965. Between 8am and 6pm, the sculpture -- adorned with whimsical bronze animals -- plays one of 32 nursery rhyme songs at the start of every hour. It’s even more fun in the winter months, when the playlist switches over to festive holiday carols.

loeb boathouse central park
Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Rent a boat from the Loeb Boathouse

This may be the most cliched Central Park activity, but there’s no denying that paddling around the scenic 22-acre lake -- with Belvedere Castle and the Loeb Boathouse in the distance -- is also one of the most romantic things to do in New York City. Don’t be surprised if you witness a proposal or two.

Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.

Patty Lee is a native New Yorker whose favorite Central Park activity is the people watching. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.