Spend a carefree (and fee-free!) day in Central Park. With 843 acres of woodlands, lawns, paths, and water, Central Park offers something for everyone. While some activities require a fee (carousel, zoo, row boats), there are more free activities in Central Park than you can possible take advantage of in an entire weekend! Here are some of my favorites:
Lovers of music and whimsy will enjoy stopping by the Delacorte Musical Clock, which sits above the brick arcade between the Central Park Zoo and the Children’s Zoo (east side between 63rd and 64th Streets). Every half hour, between 8 am and 5 pm, six marching animal figurines follow their well-worn rails, musical instruments hoisted high, as the clock bells chime. The repertoire includes 44 songs, many of which are seasonal favorites.
And, while we’re on the topic of music lovers, consider catching a free concert in the Park! Both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera offer free performances each summer.
Movie fans should check the Park’s Film Festival schedule. Each summer fabulous films are shown at Rumsey Playfield (5th Avenue and 69th Street). No reservations, no fee, just get there early and bring a BIG blanket to reserve your patch of lawn.
FREE THINGS TO SEE IN CENTRAL PARK
Hundreds of species of birds make their home in Central Park for at least part of each year. The Central Park Conservancy recommends seeking out birds in the Ramble (mid-park from 74th to 79th Streets), the North Woods (mid-park from 102-106th Streets), and the Great Hill (West 104th Street, off Central Park West). Also, in the fall, visit the Ranger Hawk Watch at the Henry Luce Observatory to see and learn about migrating hawks. Children ages 6-12 may pick up a complimentary Discovery Kit(including binoculars, a guidebook, maps, and sketching materials) at the Observatory.
If you are a horticulture lover, you’ll want to make a beeline for the Conservatory Garden (5th Avenue and 105th Street) where free tours of Central Park gardens are given on Saturdays at 11 a.m. from April through October. Enter through the ornate iron gates to join the tour or guide yourself through three distinct gardens – the French (North) Garden, the Italian (Central) Garden, and South (English) Garden.
Art lovers will delight in the 51 fountains, monuments and sculptures, including the Obelisk (Cleopatra’s Needle) and Alice in Wonderland, tucked away throughout the park.
Architecture buffs can find hours of distraction admiring and learning about the Park's historic structures like the cast iron Bow Bridge and the brick Trefoil Arch plus charming old buildings like the Swedish Cottage and Belvedere Castle.
Keep your eyes open for newlyweds, I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve literally stumbled across while visiting the Park. It’s fun to be a witness – just smile and wave as you pass by!
FREE ACTIVITIES IN CENTRAL PARK
Catch and release fishing is a popular program, and equipment is provided for free by the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (110th Street between Fifth and Lenox Avenues) from April to October.
Athletes will find endless opportunities to exercise in Central Park. With more than 58 miles of paths plus fields for country skiing and two ice skating rinks, you will see tourists and native New Yorkers exercising side by side. If you forget to pack your sports equipment, the Central Park Conservancy loans field day kits for free (photo ID required) at the North Meadow Recreation Center. Kits are stocked with a basketball, 10 cones, 3 bats, horse shoe set, playground ball, nerf ball, football, Frisbee, 2 handballs, soccer ball, jump rope, 2 whiffle balls, and hula hoops.
Kids who need to wiggle will be thrilled to visit any of the 21 playgrounds between 57th and 110th Streets. The Ancient Playground at East 85th Street is one of our favorites. Its design was inspired by the Egyptian Wing of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, and includes equipment designed for older children, like rope and tire swings, pyramids and bridges, plus chess and checker tables. Younger siblings can enjoy the swings and sandbox here. Remember: to keep away rodents, there are no trash receptacles within the gates of the playgrounds. While most include picnic areas, you must carry your trash out when you leave.
Board game enthusiasts may bring their own boards and pieces or borrow and spend endless hours challenging young and old opponents at the Chess & Checkers House (mid-park at 64th Street).
Stargazers should make their way to Belvedere Castle (originally designed by Calvert Vaux as a miniature fantasy castle that provided a view over the Croton Reservoir), which now houses the Henry Luce Nature Observatory complete with telescopes, microscopes, and nature exhibits.
Budding historians will be fascinated to learn about the events of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War that unfolded here as well as the history of Seneca Village, the first known community of African-American landowners, that once thrived on this land.
A variety of free tours of Central Park are led by knowledgeable guides. Tour themes range from Amble through the Ramble to Memorial Walk. MP3-guided tours are also available online.
The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center and the Henry Luce Nature Observatory provide free educational programs, events and exhibits throughout the year.
Information on events and tours may be found here.