New York may be one of the most densely populated cities in the world, but you’re rarely more than a few blocks away from green space. The city has almost 30,000 acres of municipal parkland, from the meadows and glens of Central Park to the sprawling riverfront esplanades of Brooklyn Bridge Park to tiny community gardens scattered throughout the five boroughs. Here are our top picks:
Central Park: The Granddaddy
Frederick Law Olmstead, who co-designed Central Park with Calvert Vaux, called his creation the “lungs of New York.” This is where New Yorkers come to breathe, unwind and escape the city. Olmstead’s goal was to create a natural retreat where urbanites would feel fully enveloped by wilderness, even as Manhattan loomed around its edges. The result is a plentiful 843 acres of verdant parkland, rolling lawns, shaded paths and placid lakes, including the handsome European-style Mall, lined with American elms, and the majestic Bethesda Fountain, one of the largest fountains in New York City, measuring 26 feet tall. Many tours explore the park, including Bike and Roll, the Central Park TV & Movie Sites Tour and Central Park Sightseeing. Southern entrances on Central Park South/59th St., centralparknyc.org
The standout: The park may have been designed as an escape from the city, but its most iconic vista is in fact a blend of the two: the Reservoir framed by the NYC skyline.
Eat: The park is dotted with food vendors selling everything from chewy pretzels to hot dogs. Or, dine at the scenic lakefront Central Park Boathouse (thecentralparkboathouse.com, 212-517-2233), which serves elegant fare like swordfish, salmon and filet mignon.
Prospect Park: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Prospect Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after they completed Central Park, but Brooklynites like to say that Central Park was just their practice run, and Prospect is the real work of art. This landscaped beauty covers 585 acres, with highlights like the Long Meadow, a freshwater lake, nature trails and a wild ravine. The park has tennis courts and baseball fields, a bandshell for concerts, and a carousel. The lush Brooklyn Botanic Garden also makes its home here. Various tours pass by Prospect Park, including Gray Line. South of Grand Army Plaza, prospectpark.org
The standout: Inspired by the impressive bird population, the park is home to the country’s first urban Audubon Center, which has interactive exhibits on the park’s diverse natural abundance.
Eat: Pick up fresh fruits at the Saturday Greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza or refuel over baked goods and smoothies at Songbird Café (prospectpark.org, 718-287-3400, x 303) at the Audubon Center.
Hudson River Park: A River Runs Next to It
As you trek the concrete canyons, it’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island. The newly complete Hudson River Park serves as the perfect reminder. Unfolding on the banks of the west side, the longest waterfront park in the U.S. features five miles of continuous esplanades for walking and cycling; tennis, basketball and beach volleyball courts; baseball diamonds, a mini-golf course and two skate parks; and the Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex (a day pass starts at $60), with rock climbing, golf and much more. Hudson River Park is an ideal green getaway for all of lower and upper Manhattan, with easy access from many neighborhoods, including Tribeca, Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. A variety of tours cover the park, including Bike and Roll and OnBoard Tours. From 59th Street to Battery Park, hudsonriverpark.org
The standout: Water activities, including kayaking (free in the summer), sailing and paddle-boarding. You can also get adventurous above water at the Trapeze School New York (newyork.trapezeschool.com, 212-242-8769)
Eat: Celebrate the maritime theme and feast on crab cakes, fresh shrimp and grilled corn on the cob at the Lightship Frying Pan (fryingpan.com, 212-989-6363) at Pier 66.
The High Line: From Freight Trains to Flowers
In this eco-aware era of recycling and sustainability, the High Line is one of New York’s greatest contemporary contributions. Stretching along the west side of Manhattan, the High Line is built on a former elevated rail line. Where freight trains once rumbled along tracks, there is now landscaped parkland, with walking paths, trees and shrubs—from pussy willows to grey birches—and plants and flowers like wild petunias and thimbleweed. The park offers a creative range of activities, from guided tours with High Line gardeners to stargazing. Tour companies that cover the High Line include Gray Line and Uncle Sam’s New York Tours. From Gansevoort St. to West 34th St., between 10th & 11th Avenues, thehighline.org
The standout: The High Line public art program is exemplary, with new projects unveiled throughout the year. Art pieces have included everything from a giant inflatable globe by musician and artist David Byrne to performance art like “Make a Salad,” where visitors were invited to mix a massive salad together.
Eat: The High Line offers a movable feast of seasonal food carts, including Bark, with gourmet comfort food and La Newyorkina’s Mexican-style popsicles. Ease into the night at the outdoor Terroir wine bar (wineisterroir.com, 212-625-9463).
Bryant Park: Midtown Jewel
In the case of Bryant Park, size doesn’t matter. It may be compact and hemmed in by looming buildings but this manicured, elegant park is a respite in Midtown, with ample lawn space, plenty of chairs and tables, and perhaps best of all, clean public restrooms. The park features one of the city’s most diverse activity calendars, including summer movie nights, ice-skating in winter, juggling performances, ping-pong, petanque and a seasonal carousel. Behind the New York Public Library, between 40th and 42nd Sts. and Fifth and Sixth Aves., bryantpark.org
The standout: The park pays tribute to the adjoining New York Public Library with its open-air Reading Room. Modeled after Depression-era reading rooms, where books were made available to all, Bryant Park’s Reading Room has library carts filled with books, movable furniture and author readings.
Eat: Fill up on fresh sandwiches (try the juicy roast pork or pole-caught tuna), inky espressos and seasonal soups at ‘Wichcraft (wichcraftnyc.com, 212-780-0577) run by New York chef Tom Colicchio.
Brooklyn Bridge Park: On the Waterfront
For the best views of Manhattan, you need to leave the island. Head to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which not only has screensaver-worthy vistas, but is also easy to fit in to a sightseeing itinerary that includes walking across the bridge. The beautifully maintained park, which extends from the bridge along the shores of the East River, features greenways for cyclists, sun-washed piers, free weekend kayaking and rowing at the Boathouse, a pop-up summer pool, kite-flying and more. Inside Out Tours is one of many operators that will guide guests through the park. South of Brooklyn Bridge, near Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, brooklynbridgepark.org
The standout: Many parks have river views. Few have this many excellent vantage points from which to take photos. The piers and waterfront promenade offer numerous photo ops, including close-ups of the bridge with the skyline shimmering in the background.
Eat: In season, cool off at Ample Hills Creamery (amplehills.com) and Blue Marble Ice Cream (bluemarbleicecream.com). Or try meaty burritos at Calexico Carne Asada (calexicocart.com) or fresh lobster at Luke’s Lobster (lukeslobster.com), followed by a glass of wine (or three) in the shadow of the bridge at Brooklyn Bridge Wine Bar (brooklynbridgewinebar.com).
Van Cortlandt Park: Bronx Beauty
In northwest Bronx, New York City’s fourth-largest park claims plenty of superlatives. It has the nation’s first public golf course (opened in 1895), the borough’s largest freshwater lake and New York City’s oldest house museum, built in 1748. The 1,146-acre park is a boon for outdoor adventures that require lots of space, like mountain-biking and cross-country running. The park also has outdoor pools for summer splashing, as well as tennis, bocce and handball courts. The well-maintained 1748 Van Cortlandt House Museum hosted George Washington twice during the Revolutionary War. Northwest Bronx, nycgovparks.org
The standout: Play urban cowboy at the Riverdale Equestrian Centre (riverdaleriding.com, 718-548-4848), which offers horseriding classes for all ages and levels, an indoor arena, and woodsy trails that snake through the park.
Eat: Refuel with hot dogs and bagels from food vendors that are dotted throughout the park, particularly at the northeast corner of Broadway and Van Cortlandt, or grab a snack at the Van Cortlandt Pool Snack Bar.
Governor’s Island: On Island Time
The ferry ride is under ten minutes but, as the cliché goes, Governor’s Island feels world’s away. A former Coast Guard base in the middle of New York harbor, Governors Island features a two-mile promenade and peaceful shoreline parks. The island also has a robust arts program, with open-air sculpture gardens, summer concerts, theme days, and other public art initiatives. Governor’s Island has a formidable history: It’s one of the oldest European settlements in New York (the Dutch arrived in the early 17th century), with old chapels as well as Fort Jay and Castle Williams, fortified reminders of the island’s role as a military base used by British and American forces for over two centuries. Upper New York Harbor, free ferry from Manhattan and Brooklyn; open on weekends, May–Sept.; nyharborparks.org
The standout: The Statue of Liberty. From Manhattan, you see the statue at an angle. On the island, it’s a face-on view. In fact, park officials say that the island is the closest point on land to the face of Lady Liberty (barring actually going there).
Eat: In addition to food vendors, the island often hosts popular summer food festivals, including a BBQ festival, a food truck festival and a jazz-age picnic.
Fort Tyron Park: Manhattan’s Highest Park
Rise above it all at Fort Tyron Park, which encompasses one of the highest points in Manhattan. Overlooking the mighty Hudson River, Fort Tyron is also proof that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.—son of the renowned co-designer of Central Park—is the man behind Fort Tyron. Olmstead tamed this once densely forested wedge of Manhattan, creating a genteel retreat with shaded promenades, wooded groves and eight miles of walking paths. The park experience is further enhanced by the The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that features five impeccably reconstructed European medieval cloisters, dating from the 12th to 15th centuries, including Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa from the northeast Pyrenees. Stroll the peaceful cloisters and the collection of over 3,000 pieces of medieval art, including the famous tapestry “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” Northern Manhattan, near Inwood, nycgovparks.org/parks/forttryonpark
The standout: The panoramic views. Few spots in Manhattan offer such unobstructed, sweeping vistas of the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge and the New Jersey Palisades rising beyond. Bring the camera.
Eat: Dine on Hudson Valley duck and ricotta ravioli on the outdoor terrace of the inviting New Leaf Restaurant & Bar (newleafrestaurant.com, 212-568-5323).