In their original plans for the park, Olmsted and Vaux called the area known today as the Mall “the Promenade,” and intended for it to be an “open air hall of reception.” Today when you visit you’ll be greeted by a grand elm tree–lined walkway bedecked with statues. At its Uptown end is an underused band shell, and west of that is one of the park’s premier party places: an unofficial roller-blading rink where regulars dance-skate for hours each weekend to blasting disco music. It’s quite a scene.

Bethesda Terrace is at the Uptown end of the mall (just across the road) and is, without a doubt, the architectural heart of the park. You’re likely to see a bride or two here, as many use this extraordinarily lovely area of the park as a backdrop for wedding photographs. If you approach it from the Mall, you’ll come to a ravishingly carved gate with symbols representing day and night (the side with the witch on a broom is "night"). Take a look as well at the carvings on the stairs down to the fountain area; they represent the four seasons, and no two are alike. Bethesda Fountain was erected to celebrate the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which finally solved New York’s water problems in 1842. Sculpted by Emma Stebbins, the first woman to receive this type of commission from the city, the statue represents the angel Bethesda. She blesses the water with one hand, carrying a lily—the symbol of purity—in the other.

Added to the park in 1874 is Loeb Boathouse. This is where you rent the boats that you see bobbing on the lake. It’s also the best place in the park to eat, with a decent fast-food counter and a very good restaurant, for which you’ll need a reservation. Carrie and Mr. Big, of Sex and the City, fell into the water together at the end of a disastrous date on the dock that pushes forward from the cafe.