Exploring New York City’s Parks

Holly Rosen Fink - New York
March 20, 2012

New Yorkers love the time of year when the sun comes out and we can kick back and go fancy free in the parks around town. Many of us live in small spaces and yearn for a bit of space and recreation.  

What you may not realize is that there are a large number of parks in the city: more than 1700 parks full of playgrounds and recreation facilities across the five boroughs. NYC's parks range from swimming pools to wetlands and from woodlands to skating rinks. Whether you're a tourist or a local, it's helpful to know which parks not to miss. Some are beautifully maintained with magnificent gardens, some offer a respite from city life, and many are located near tourist attractions, offering the perfect break. Here is a list of the our favorite parks for exploring:

Central Park

Set in the middle of Manhattan right above 57th Street, Central Park serves as a haven for children, runners, musicians, writers, strollers and more, while offering stunning views from all sides. Surrounded by well-known buildings like the Dakota where John Lennon once lived, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Plaza Hotel, you can enter from any direction. Cars are allowed to cross through only on main streets, and you can easily spend an entire day here exploring every nook and corner, from its exotic fountains and monuments to the sculptures, bridges, and arches. Or you can jog, pedal, row, dribble, swim, ice skate, hike, or climb rocks. The park is also home to 21 playgrounds, each one with its own special features. Some playgrounds include sprinklers for cooling off in the summer, and others have slides and structures perfect for year-round play. You can visit the Central Park Zoo and enter a room full of penguins or dine in the luxurious Boat House. During the summer, you can catch one of the park's many concerts at Summer Stage, and during the winter time the park becomes a wonderland wrapped in snow. Whatever the time of year, there is no place quite like Central Park.

The Cloisters/Fort Tyron Park

One of the most perfect afternoons in the city can be found in Fort Tyron Park, right around 190th Street. Built in 1935, the park is like a piece of art with its views of the river and the Medieval museum. Facing the Hudson River, you have stunning views, tall trees to sit under, and windy paths to walk or ride your bike on, as well as perfect spots to picnic. There is also plenty of space for children to run around, as well as two playgrounds and a dog run. Perched high above its northern grounds are the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum that houses nearly 5000 medieval works in a reconstructed Medieval monastery, which will also keep your family entertained and educated for several hours. At the end of the day, you can head into Hudson Heights to one of its many trendy, family-friendly restaurants for dinner.

Madison Square Park

Tucked away in the middle of downtown Manhattan around 5th and Madison Avenue, between 23rd Street and 26th Street lays Madison Square Park, a large grassy area that gives many a reprieve from a grueling workday. From anywhere in the park, you have a great view on the surrounding architectural landmarks, including the Flatiron and the Met Life Clock Tower. The park has ample benches, and another perk that is rare for an outdoor park: free Wi-Fi. It also has a large playground where kids can spend time while you sit and take in the diversity of the park's visitors. In the summertime, the park offers the Madison Sq. Kids concert series, which is a fantastic free offering for kids of all ages. There's Shake Shack, which opened up a few years ago and delights the park's visitors with milkshakes and hamburgers (but unfortunately has very long lines at all times of day). But the most unique feature of Madison Square Park is its artwork. Each season the park showcases thought-provoking sculptures, structures, video and audio art throughout the park by the most prominent artists in the world including Antony Gormley, Jim Campbell, Richard Deacon, Tadashi Kawamata, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, William Wegman, Ursula von Rydingsvard, and Sol LeWitt.

Riverside Park

Don't get fooled by thinking that Central Park is the only park to go to if you live on the Upper West Side. Riverside Park stretches from 62nd to 158th Streets and has the most awesome views of the Hudson River. On a stroll in the park, you'll encounter beautifully laid out bike paths and gardens that the neighborhood's residents take special care of. You'll also find grand monuments like the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, the Hamilton Fountain, The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Garden's People Garden, the Fireman's Memorial, and the Joan of Arc Monument. People live in houseboats on 79th Street and proudly display their wares. There are piers you can walk on, and the park contains some of the city's best playgrounds for children, fully equipped with sprinklers, swings and skating ramps. Every weekend, you'll find teams on the fields playing soccer and baseball. There are basketball nets and paths for runners and roller bladers, as well as tennis courts.  If you're thirsty or hungry, head to the Boat Basin, located at 79th Street, and grab a table facing the water.

Prospect Park

Over in Brooklyn, Prospect Park has boomed into a destination for Brooklynites. Designed by the same architects behind Central Park, the park has a 90-acre meadow, which provides ample space for families to ride bikes, have picnics and enjoy summer concerts. Contained within its 585 acres is a zoo managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the first urban-area Audubon Center in the nation, Brooklyn's only lake, an ice rink, a band shell, a carousel, and dozens of athletic and recreational facilities. The park also has sports facilities including seven baseball fields in the Long Meadow, and the Prospect Park Tennis Center, basketball courts, baseball fields, soccer fields, and the New York Pétanque Club in the Parade Ground. There is also a private cemetery on Quaker Hill near the ball fields, where actor Montgomery Clift is buried.

Governor's Island

This summer, if you're looking for a day where the kids can spend ample time outdoors, without getting bored, Governor's Island is for you. A mere eight-minute ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street, right next to the Staten Island Ferry, there is a FREE ferry every half hour. You can either bring your own bicycle or rent at Bike and Roll. There is mini golf, food carts, art installations, festivals all summer long, badminton, kite flying, outdoor bocce, unicycling, trapeze flying, swim...and much, much more. At Picnic Point, you can lunch while overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Governor's Island is a treat for the whole family.

Holly Rosen Fink is the editor and founder and The Culture Mom. She has a career that spans the world of television and publishing, including positions at Lifetime Television, Nickelodeon/MTV and John Wiley & Sons.  As a marketing consultant her current client list includes Ruckus Media Group.  She is also now founder of MamaDrama Consulting and WestchesterIRL. She is also a contributor to AChildGrows.com, TravelingMom.comCBS New York and Project You Magazine. She contributes to the ABC Million Mom Campaign and has joined the ONE Moms mission. She lives in Larchmont, NY with her husband and two children.  

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