Hidden Secrets of NYC Parks: The Definitive Guide

No, New York City is not all buildings and cement. It’s sustained by a vital, green network of parks that beats throughout the city. And it’s FULL of hidden gems.

For the best spot for a ping-pong match, or a beer and a burger, or a forest stroll–or a clean public restroom–look no further! Tour guide Susan knows the parks as only a native New Yorker could.

Here is her definitive guide to New York City’s parks.

1. Washington Square
I must, of course, begin this list with the green heart of Greenwich Village, a highlight of our Central Village tour. Washington Square is a small (not quite 10 acres) gem among New York parks, now more than ever: it’s nearly at the end of a lengthy, gorgeous renovation, which has renewed the square’s nineteenth century gracious elegance, and rebuilt the classic fountain while preserving the beloved Arch anchoring the Park, and Fifth Avenue, since 1892. Fears re over-gentrification were unfounded:WS retains its status as the most eclectically musical park in town, with local color to spare.

2. City Hall Park
Tourists generally circle around this little oasis laid out before City Hall on their way to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, most without realizing it’s one of the oldest (and still one of the loveliest) green spaces in New York.
Then: In the days of the Revolution, it was the Commons, the site of mass public meetings, where the Declaration of Independence was read in New York for the first time, on July 9, 1776.
Now: A late twentieth-century restoration has made it a far more delightful setting: amid restful greenery. fountains and classic statuary, City Hall Park stages contemporary group sculpture exhibits year-round. 

3. Madison Square Park
There is more to Madison Square Park than Shake Shack (though it’s still a must for visitors looking for a a fun food experience sans major expense). You won’t find the first (or even the second) Madison Square Garden any longer, but the park is set off by a number of splendid historic buildings—including the Flatiron, tallest “skyscraper” in town when it was finished in 1903—and has been hosting major solo art installations for the last several years.

4. Bryant Park
Most visitors do flock here, as the holidays approach, for the Winter Village, anchored by a temporary outdoor skating rink (free!) and one of the city’s most vibrant collections of holiday gift shops (not to mention sweet and savory edibles, including outstanding hot chocolate selections.) Come back in other seasons for the carousel, the ping-pong and petanque, the little lending library…or just relax in bistro chairs on the lawn, under the trees, of this Parisian-style green, before taking a walk around the corner to visit the lions at the 42nd Street Library

P.S. Not to be missed: the very best public restrooms in the city: attendants! fresh-cut flowers! spotless facilities!

5. Riverside Park
This is my own favorite among our larger-scale Manhattan parks; I’ve been lucky enough to live right near it my whole adult life, including some happy years spent on Riverside Drive itself, directly across from the park. Longer and narrower than Central Park, it was designed by the same celebrated team, Olmstead/Vaux and originally stretched northward from West 72nd Street. Nowadays, if you enter at 72nd—you’ll be warmly welcomed by a bronze Eleanor Roosevelt—you can walk up toward the venerable Riverside Park Boat Basin—and grab a beer and burger at the Boat Basin Cafe—or: walk down into a new section of the park, Riverside South, marked by beautifully-weathering wood-plank paths, new pedestrian piers (including one that extends a quarter of the way out into the Hudson River), all enhanced by naturalistic waterside landscaping. This is the closest you can get to the city’s most iconic waterway, and the views uptown/downtown/across the Hudson are spectacular!

6. Morningside Park
Another Olmstead/Vaux masterpiece, this dramatic landscape plunges from the “heights”  behind The Cathedral of St. John the Divine down into the “plain” of Central Harlem above 110th Street. Highlights include a waterfall (alas, not flowing again until spring), ponds teeming with turtles, well-maintained playing fields, as well as woodsier areas to safely explore: look for the charming Bear and Faun Fountain while you’re there.

7. Central Park (North)
When people talk about touring Central Park—when I bring groups of my own there—routes are mainly restricted to the lower half of these brilliantly-designed 842 acres. For the more adventurous, I recommend venturing further uptown: toward the Reservoir (86th-96th Streets) and on, all the way up to 110th Street to survey that most expansive of  Central Park waters, the Harlem Meer. (Right behind it, by the way, right in time for now, is the much-underused, rarely-crowded Lasker Skating Rink.) For those in search of wilder terrain, there are the North Woods; for those who crave a more manicured scene, there are the Conservatory Gardens along Fifth Avenue, where you’ll also find the beginning of Museum Mile, including some Museums you hadn’t thought of visiting.  But that’s a list for another time…  

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