Manhattan’s 843-acre green oasis is the yin to the city’s neon, concrete, and office tower yang. It serves as the city’s backyard, its concert hall, its daytime pick-up bar and, in the summer, when dozens don bathing suits to soak up the rays, its green beach. The marvel of the park, besides its size (a full 6 percent of the total area of Manhattan), is its ability to provide just the right sort of experience for the myriad of very different personalities who think of it as their own. I think it’s that chameleon-like quality that makes it such an interesting place for visitors to tour. Seeing it from an outsider’s perspective, it’s much easier to recognize that the park is a great mirage and paradox.

Because, let’s face it, very little here is natural. Every tree, every shrub, every lake and most of the rolling hills were designed, planted, or blasted into existence by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux back in the 1850s, and their efforts still shape our experiences today. These two geniuses took a 2[bf]1/2-mile tract of swampland, farms, and suburban towns and created an Arcadia that had no resemblance whatever to what had come before. Below the park, 95 miles of drainage pipes were installed, many to both fill and periodically empty the four lakes that were created; at ground level the site was transformed using six million bricks, 65,000 cubic tons of gravel, 26,000 trees, and 250,000 shrubs. Even the dirt was imported; the natural topsoil was so poor that 500,000 cubic feet of topsoil was shipped in from New Jersey. As Olmsted once wrote, “Every foot of the park, every tree and bush, every arch, roadway and walk, has been fixed where it is with a purpose.”

And what was that purpose? No less than the health of the city. Those who rallied for its creation felt that it was crucial to create a place where New Yorkers could blow off steam, get away from the stresses of urban life. Moreover, Olmsted wanted to create a park that would be a bridge between classes. “There need to be places and time for re-unions,” Olmsted wrote, “[where] the rich and the poor, the cultivated and the self-made, shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate.” Though that didn’t happen when the park was first finished—it was too far from the homes of poor New Yorkers for them to visit it—that ideal was realized when the city itself began to wrap around the park, making it finally a true central park.

In your own strolls around the park, you’ll encounter three different types of landscapes: pastoral vistas, such as the Sheep’s Meadow, which are meant to invoke a cultivated countryside; primitive portions where dense forestation shuts out any view of the city; and the promenade zones, which were once used by the city’s aristocracy as an extension of their parlors, a place to strut and be seen. An ideal visit here will include all three. I’ve created a relatively brief list of highlights, along with the activities you can engage in once in the park, that should allow you to do just that. Feel free to ignore the following list altogether and just wander the curving paths of the park, exploring its hidden nooks, surprise vistas, ball fields, and dog runs. There’s no right way to see or do this park.

Orientation and Getting There

The park runs from 59th Street (also known as Central Park South) at the south end to 110th Street at the north end, and from Fifth Avenue on the east side to Central Park West (the equivalent of Eighth Ave.) on the west side. A 6-mile rolling road, Central Park Drive, circles the park, and has a lane set aside for bikers, joggers, and in-line skaters. A number of transverse (crosstown) roads cross the park at major points—at 65th, 79th, 86th, and 97th streets—but they’re built down a level, largely out of view, to minimize intrusion.

A number of subway stops and lines serve the park, and which one you take depends on where you want to go. To reach the southernmost entrance on the west side, take an A, B, C, D, or 1 to 59th Street/Columbus Circle. To reach the southeast corner entrance, take the N or R to Fifth Avenue

Central Park Highlights

Belvedere Castle and the Delacorte Theater: Olmsted and Vaux’s “folly” (or fantasy building), this turreted castle sits atop the second-highest elevation in the park. Inside is a nature observatory with good rainy-day activities for children. In front of the castle is the Delacorte Theater where the famed Shakespeare in the Park is performed, a star-studded and free evening of theater staged in the summer months only. If you decide to take in a show, know that you could end up spending 4 or more hours standing in line to get tickets; they’re passed out at 1pm in front of the theater, but depending on the popularity of the show, crowds have been known to show up hours before that, and even camp overnight at the gate to the park. From Belvedere, you’ll also look down on the Great Lawn, which has gone through a number of incarnations, first as a reservoir and later in the 1930s as “Hooterville,” the shantytown where hundreds of homeless families lived out the Depression. Today it’s most famous as a concert space: Simon and Garfunkel reunited here in the early 1980s in a widely televised concert.

(Enter the park at either 72nd or 79th St. For info on Shakespeare in the Park. tel. 212/539-8500. Free.)

The Carousel: A Victorian spinner, this is most children’s favorite park stop (it certainly is my daughters’). Though it’s not the original carousel (the first burned down in the 1950s), it’s a beaut, built in Coney Island in 1908, and featuring some of the tallest merry-go-round horses in the U.S. It’s also a much more humane carousel than the original, which was rotated by a blind mule and horse toiling in the basement.

(At approximately 65th St., in the dead center of the park. $3 per ride. Apr–Nov 10am–6pm, Dec–Mar 10am–dusk.)

Central Park Zoo/Tisch Children’s Zoo: Because of its small size, the zoo is at its best with its displays of smaller animals. The indoor multilevel Tropic Zone is a real highlight, its steamy rainforest home to everything from black-and-white colobus monkeys to Emerald tree boa constrictors to a leaf-cutter ant farm; look for the new dart-poison-frog exhibit, which is very cool. So is the large penguin enclosure in the Polar Circle, which is better than the one at San Diego’s SeaWorld. Despite their pool and piles of ice, however, the polar bears still look sad.

The zoo is good for short attention spans; you can cover the entire thing in 1.5 to 2 hours. It’s also very kid-friendly, with lots of well-written and illustrated placards that older kids can understand. For the littlest ones, there’s the $6-million Tisch Children’s Zoo. With goats, llamas, potbellied pigs, and more, this petting zoo and playground is a real blast for the 5-and-under set.

(830 Fifth Ave., at 64th St., just inside Central Park). tel. 212/439-6500. Admission $18 adults, $15 seniors, $13 children 3–12, free for children 2 and under. Apr–Oct Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun and holidays 10am–5:30pm; Nov–Apr daily 10am–4:30pm. Last entrance 30 min. before closing. Subway: N, R to Fifth Ave; 6 to 68th St.)

Cleopatra’s Needle:This handsome obelisk was a gift to the United States from Egypt in 1881, in recognition of the help this country gave in the construction of the Suez Canal. Transporting the 200-ton pillar took 38 days from Alexandria to New York by ship, and then another 144 just to get it from the Hudson River to Central Park. It originally stood at the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, and is believed to have been erected in 1600 b.c. The Romans moved it in the 12th century to the front of a temple built by Cleopatra, hence the name. A plaque at the base translates the hieroglyphics.

(Near the back of the Metropolitan Museum at roughly 83rd St)

Conservatory Gardens: The park’s only formal gardens are simply stunning, which may be why this is a favorite for wedding photographers. Walk around and you’ll notice that each of the gardens' three sections has a different ambience; one is meant to mimic the gardens of France, another those of Italy, and the third pays tribute to Britain’s blossoms.

(Enter at Fifth Ave. and 105th St.)

Conservatory Waters: Here’s the model boat pond where Stuart Little had his fabled race. You can rent a model boat to float around (via remote control), take a look at the Hans Christian Andersen statue (where storytelling takes place on weekends in summer), or visit the Alice in Wonderland statue, an artistic jungle gym for the city’s youth.

(Enter at 79th St. on Fifth Ave.; the pond is directly uptown of the entrance, down a hill.)

The Dairy: Completed in 1871, this frou-frou laden Gothic structure was an actual dairy set up to give city children access to fresh milk. Today it serves as the park’s visitor center, so it’s a good place to stop first, to pick up maps. Most of the Central Park Conservancy’s free tours start from this point, see below for info on finding their scheduling.

(At roughly 65th St., closer to Fifth Ave., at 64th St., just inside Central Park). tel. 212/360-2726 for tour info.

The Mall, Bethesda Terrace, and the Loeb Boathouse: 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 café.

(At approximately 74th St., off Park Dr. tel. 212/517-2233. Boat rentals Apr-Nov $15 1st hr., $4 every 15 min. thereafter. A gondola with singing oarsman is often available for $45/hr.)

Sheep’s Meadow: The premier see-and-be-seen spot for New York’s teenagers, who turn this expanse of grass into a sunbathing party come spring and summer. They’re following a long tradition: This is where New York’s hippie “be in,” a day of non-political grooviness created by Abbie Hoffman, took place in 1967. The meadow got its name in 1864 when park commissioners set sheep to graze here in an attempt to stop the First Division of the NY National Guard from using the meadow as a parade ground (it didn’t work). In 1934 the sheep were exiled to Prospect Park in Brooklyn

(Between 64th and 68th sts., towards the West Side.)

Strawberry Fields: A memorial to John Lennon, who was shot to death in front of the Dakota apartment house (1 W. 72nd St.) just across the street from here. A mosaic spells out “Imagine” on the ground; many come here to play music and leave flowers.

(Enter at 72nd St. and Central Park West and follow the crowds.)

Wollman Rink A wonderfully scenic place to skate, you may remember it from the movie Love Story. In the summer, the rink is transformed into a mini-amusement park called Victorian Gardens.

(Enter at Central Park South, across from the Plaza and walk to the rink. Mon−Thurs $11.25 adults, $5 seniors, $6 children 11 and under; Fri−Sun $18 adults, $9 seniors, $6 children 11 and up. Mon−Tues 10am−2:30pm; Wed−Thurs 10am−10pm; Fri−Sat 10am−11pm; Sun 10am−9pm.Open for skating from late Oct to Apr.)

Though the places I list above are just a few of the wonders of the park, there are many others. And many may feel familiar if you’re American. Central Park was and remains the most influential piece of landscape architecture in the United States; and many parks around the country were directly copied from this one.

Playgrounds, Bird Watching and Carriage Rides

A word on playgrounds: With a few exceptions, most of the park’s 22 playgrounds are located on the rim of the park near the entrances. They tend to pop up every five blocks or so, with some of the more elaborate playgrounds located on the south end of the park (conceived as the children’s side of the park because it was nearer to where the lower-income families would have lived at the time of the park’s opening).

Horse-drawn carriage rides: At the entrance to the park at 59th Street and Central Park South, you’ll see a line of horse-drawn carriages waiting to take passengers on a ride through the park or along certain of the city’s streets. A ride is about $50 for 20 minutes (plus tip), but I suggest skipping it. Not only are the horses sad-looking, the “tour” you’ll get is likely to be filled with misinformation. We New Yorkers are still waiting to see if Mayor DeBlasio will succeed in getting the carriage rides outlawed, a vow he made his first day in office.

Wildlife in the park: Birdwatchers from all over the city flock to the park for the variety of species it hosts, the most coveted sightings being of the endangered red-tailed hawks that make their nest on Woody Allen’s Fifth Avenue building (at Fifth Ave. and 74th St.)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.