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Secrets of Central Park

Wonders that even locals miss fill the green heart of New York City. Here’s a guide to some must-see spots.

Central Park is America’s most-visited urban park and one of the world’s most popular movie locations. This 843-acre oasis in the center of Manhattan offers 58 miles of meandering paths, ponds, waterfalls, children’s playgrounds, athletic fields (even a formal lawn bowling field), woodlands, bridges, and more. 

Most visitors walk the trails or the 6.2-mile main loop road, which is closed to cars, but you can also rent a bike or hire a pedicab or a horse and carriage. Don’t worry about getting lost, because every lamppost on the main loop has a sign indicating the name of the nearest street.

The park offers pleasures in every season. In spring, cherry blossoms and azaleas are in full bloom; in summer, 18,000 trees offer shade; in autumn, the foliage pops out in brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows; and in winter, snow blankets the meadows for sledding, snowmen, and cross-country skiing. In the crisp winter air, nothing is more romantic than ice skating at Wollman Rink beneath the glittering skyscrapers surrounding the park.

Many people enter the pedestrian path opposite the Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue near Central Park South and continue to the Central Park Zoo, then pass under the arch with a clock to the Children’s Zoo, and on to the famous statue of Balto. It’s worth pausing at the arch before continuing. Above, on the hour and the half-hour, the Delacorte Clock chimes nursery rhymes while whimsical bronze animal musicians circle the timepiece. 

The Mall—also known as Literary Walk, because of its statues of famous writers—is home to the new Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument (the first statue of real women in the park), which depicts Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

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Bethesda Terrace, at the end of the Mall, is among the park’s most photographed spots. Most visitors cross the road and take the steps down to Bethesda Fountain, but instead, take the steps leading down to the arched walkway. Look up to see the nearly 16,000 beautiful Minton tiles (installed in 1869) that have been restored on the ceiling. Opposite the Mall is the Boathouse, which offers both formal dining and snacks. At the lake nearby, rent a rowboat or choose a gondola, complete with a gondolier singing a song such as “That’s Amore.”

Central Park has three wooded areas where you won’t see a skyscraper and will feel as if you’re in the Adirondacks. The 40-acre North Woods, the largest of these areas, offers cascading waterfalls and rustic bridges. It’s also home to the Blockhouse, a fortification built during the War of 1812 that is the oldest structure in the park. 

Currently, part of the North Woods is being restored, so head instead to the 36-acre Ramble. This woodland maze with winding trails was purposely built to make you feel lost. It’s also the park’s best birdwatching spot, especially in the early morning.

The newest and smallest woodland is the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, four acres on a rocky hill overlooking a pond. While a sign and a wooden gate mark the entrance to Hallett, most people walk right by, so you’ll have it mainly to yourself. 

On the park’s west side at 79th Street is the Shakespeare Garden, a four-acre English cottage garden planted with trees, herbs, shrubs, and flowers that are mentioned in the Bard's sonnets and plays. Bronze plaques with Shakespeare quotes accompany each planting. 

Walk up the steps to the top of the garden where you’ll see a long semicircular granite sitting area known as the Whispering Bench. Sit in one corner and whisper into the granite. The person sitting on the other end of the bench will hear you perfectly. (This is a great place for wedding proposals.) A second Whispering Bench is near the park entrance on 72nd Street, but it’s close to Fifth Avenue traffic and the sound isn’t as clear.

Belvedere Castle, which overlooks the Shakespeare Garden, is the park’s second-highest point, with sweeping views of Turtle Pond and the surrounding skyline. Climb the circular steps inside the castle for an even higher view. Wonder where they measure New York City’s temperature? From the top of Belvedere’s tower. 

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On the other side of Turtle Pond is the Delacorte Theatre, which offers summer productions of Shakespeare in the Park. To the left of the theatre is a path leading to a wooden terrace overlooking Turtle Pond. Look down to spot dozens of turtles swimming a few feet below. Look to the right at a small island full of birds. Hold out some birdseed, and chances are a bird will fly from the island and land on your palm.

Even New Yorkers rarely get to the northeast side of Central Park, but it holds the beautiful six-acre Conservatory Garden, which is actually three separate gardens. The Center Garden has a large lawn and a fountain that springs 20 feet into the air (one of the park’s most popular spots for wedding photos). Behind the fountain is a semicircular pergola covered in wisteria. Up the steps and etched into the concrete walkway are the names of the original 13 colonies. The garden is framed by yew hedges and allées of crabapple trees, which burst in spring with pink and white blooms. 

The French parterre North Garden has tulips every spring and chrysanthemums in autumn. In the center is a fountain with a statue, Three Dancing Maidens, which depicts the girls holding hands and dancing happily around the water.

The informal South Garden is modeled after an English perennial garden. Here, flowers bloom all year, and magnolias and dogwoods border the walkways. In the center are a lily pond and a bronze sculpture of the young boy and girl featured in The Secret Garden, the popular children’s book. Sit on a bench, relax, enjoy the view, and forget all about the bustling city.