Fun Things to Do in Central Park (free scavenger fun!) 2023

The Dakota, NYC

My absolute favorite place in New York City is Central Park. My daughter lived in NYC for many years, and I relished visiting her and taking in a show, or visiting a museum. But I always insisted on a day in the park, no matter the season! She has since moved out of the city, but I still love to drive in just to stroll around this magnificent park with my granddaughters. There are so many things to do in Central Park, that it’s worth the trip! If you’re debating a trip to NYC, do come! and read on for our curated list of the best things to do in Central Park with kids.

What makes this city park so special? Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States and is an oasis in the megacity. Its 843 acres include playing fields, gardens, boating areas, 21 playgrounds, the Central Park Zoo, and acres of green space. A six-mile paved running and cycling trail is in almost constant use in good weather. There are restaurants and concession stands to find a bite to eat and wide open lawns if you prefer to picnic.

With its natural areas, playgrounds, and cultural treasures, Central Park offers unforgettable experiences for families in every season. In spring the garden beds are ablaze with color and New Yorkers flock to the park to savor the new season. In the summer months there’s Shakespeare in the Park and free concerts. Summer’s a lovely time to enjoy the park. Fall brings cooler weather and glorious foliage. But come to NYC in the winter and you’ll find the park filled with New York children doing what children everywhere do – building snowmen, sledding, and skating. (Just be sure to bundle up if you plan to visit in the winter!)

Top 10 Things to Do in Central Park with Kids

Alice in Wonderland in New York's Central Park
Image by Monica Subietas from Pixabay
  1. Central Park Zoo
  2. Play at a Playground
  3. Boat Rides at The Central Park Boathouse
  4. Alice in Wonderland Statue
  5. Conservatory Water
  6. Central Park Carousel
  7. Shakespeare Garden
  8. Turtle Pond and Belvedere Castle
  9. Picnic in the Park
  10. Bike the Park Trails

Central Park's Bow Bridge with turtles in foreground
Photo by unserekleinemaus from Pixabay

Nature and Outdoor Fun in the Heart of the City

Download our Central Park Scavenger Hunt for the kids.

Nature and Scenic Spots

Central Park offers a wide variety of natural spaces for families to explore and learn from. Here are just a few of our favorite outdoor spots in the park:

The Ramble: The Ramble is a wooded area that allows kids to explore winding pathways, rocky outcrops, and a diverse array of trees and plants. This section of the park provides a sense of adventure as children can discover hidden pockets of nature while engaging in birdwatching or simply enjoying a leisurely stroll.

Turtle Pond: Turtle Pond is a serene oasis where kids can spot turtles basking on rocks and logs. Exploring the pond’s edge, children might also encounter various bird species, such as ducks, geese, and herons. It’s an ideal spot for observing wildlife and learning about different animal habitats.

Hallett Nature Sanctuary: Nestled near the southeast corner of the park, the Hallett Nature Sanctuary is a hidden gem that offers a glimpse of untamed wilderness. Guided tours, suitable for families, provide insight into the park’s natural habitats and the importance of conservation. It’s an opportunity for kids to experience a slice of wilderness within an urban setting.

Conservatory Garden: The Conservatory Garden (near East 105th St.) is a beautifully landscaped area divided into three distinct sections, each with its own unique design. Kids can wander through the gardens, admire the flowers, search for butterflies, and learn about different plant species.

North Woods: Located in the northern part of Central Park, the North Woods offers a more rugged and immersive natural experience. It’s hard to believe you’re in NYC when you’re walking rustic trails and crossing wooden bridges over streams in this wooded wonderland.

Bow Bridge and The Lake: Bow Bridge provides stunning views of the Lake, where kids can watch rowboats, paddleboats, and the occasional swan glide by. This is an ideal spot for family photography!

The Reservoir: The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, though not a ‘natural’ spot, is definitely a highlight of the park for families. Walk, or bike, the 1.58-mile track around the reservoir to get some exercise and enjoy the tranquil setting.

These nature spots in Central Park offer kids a chance to engage with the natural world, explore various ecosystems, and develop a deeper connection to the environment, all within the confines of one of the biggest cities in the world!

Playground in Central Park, a free thing to do in Central Park

Playgrounds and Outdoor Activities

Central Park boasts twenty-one playgrounds that cater to different age groups and interests. They are spread throughout the park so that New Yorkers can access a playground from any entrance to the park. These playgrounds are thoughtfully designed with safety in mind while incorporating elements that encourage imaginative play and physical activity. Here are some of the best playgrounds in Central Park:

Heckscher Playground: (my granddaughter’s favorite!) Located near the southwest corner of the park, Heckscher Playground is one of the largest and most popular playgrounds in Central Park. There are play structures, swings, climbing walls, and sandboxes to enjoy. The spacious layout of this playground means that it never feels crowded (but parents will have to keep up with their littlest ones).

Adventure Playground: Situated near the East 74th Street entrance, the Adventure Playground lives up to its name. Geared towards older kids, this playground features unique and challenging play equipment, such as ropes, bridges, and climbing structures. It encourages children to test their physical skills and conquer obstacles in a safe and supervised environment.

Diana Ross Playground: The Diana Ross Playground, near the West 81st Street entrance, is a tribute to the legendary singer and actress. It offers a variety of play structures, swings, and slides, as well as a musical garden where kids can explore different sounds and rhythms. This playground is particularly well-suited for younger children.

Tarr Family Playground: Located at West 93rd Street, this adventure style playground encourages kids to engage in imaginative play. With its cowboy-themed play tree houses, climbing area and interactive water feature structures, kids can explore and let their imaginations run wild.

Ancient Playground: Situated near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ancient Playground (East side near 85th St.) transports children to the world of ancient Egypt. This playground features climbing pyramids, a giant stone sphinx, and other play structures that allow kids to embark on archaeological adventures while having a blast. This is a great activity to include before or after a visit to the Met.

Billy Johnson Playground: Situated at West 67th Street, the Billy Johnson Playground is inspired by Central Park itself! There are kid-sized bridges, granite slides and lots more to explore. Definitely worth a visit!

East 110th Street Playground: Located near the northeastern corner of the park, the East 110th Street Playground offers a variety of play equipment, including swings, slides, and climbing structures. What sets this playground apart is its stunning view of the Harlem Meer, making it a picturesque spot for play and relaxation.

There’s more than just playgrounds for kids to enjoy in Central Park!

Boat Rides at The Central Park Boathouse: Enjoy a paddle across Central Park’s tranquil lake with rowboat rentals at The Central Park Boathouse. Let your kids take the helm (under adult supervision, of course) and row amidst picturesque surroundings. It’s a fantastic way to create memories for the whole family.

Skating in NYC's Central Park, one of the things to do in Central Park with kids
Photo by Ihor Dvoretskyi on Unsplash

Wollman Rink: Depending on the season, Wollman Rink offers ice skating in the winter and roller skating in the warmer months. Kids can have a blast gliding on the ice or rollerblading while the parents enjoy views of the surrounding park.

Harlem Meer Center: The Center, formerly the Lasker Rink and Pool, is currently undergoing renovation. When completed it will feature two skating venues, an Olympic sized swimming pool, and a splash pad.

Conservatory Water: Set sail with remote-controlled sailboats at Conservatory Water. Kids can race their mini vessels across the pond, fostering friendly competitions and inspiring their inner captains. It’s an activity that combines outdoor fun with a dash of friendly competition.

Snow Leopard at Central Park Zoo. One of the highlights of a day in New York's Central Park

Educational and Cultural Attractions

Central Park is home to many educational and cultural attractions that your kids will enjoy. Here are some of our favorites:

Central Park Zoo: The Central Park Zoo (near East 64th St) is a must-visit for animal enthusiasts. From mischievous monkeys to elegant snow leopards, your kids will be enchanted by the wonders in this compact zoo. Despite its small size (6.5 acres), the Central Park Zoo features outdoor habitats that mimic the animals’ natural environments. It’s a fantastic opportunity for kids to connect with the animal kingdom in a naturalistic setting.

The Central Park Zoo offers a wonderful opportunity for kids to learn about and observe a diverse range of exotic animals from around the world. Educational exhibits provide insights into animal behavior, habitats, and conservation efforts.

The Central Park Zoo is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society which also manages the Bronx Zoo, the Queens Zoo, and the Prospect Park Zoo. If you’ll be staying in the city for a length of time, consider a membership to the WCS to save on admission and parking.

Tisch Children’s Zoo: Located within the Central Park Zoo, the Tisch Children’s Zoo is specifically designed for younger children. Your kids can feed and pet gentle animals like goats, sheep, and cows. This hands-on experience teaches children about domestic animals and fosters a sense of responsibility and empathy.

Charles A. Dana Discovery Center: The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (Central Park North) serves as the park’s visitor center and offers a variety of educational programs and workshops for kids. From birdwatching to ecology-themed activities, children can engage in fun and informative experiences that help them connect with the natural world.

Belvedere Castle: Kids will love climbing the castle’s spiral staircase for panoramic views of the park from Belvedere Castle. The castle houses the Henry Luce Nature Observatory, where the kids can explore exhibits about the park’s geology, plants, and animals. It’s an educational and awe-inspiring experience rolled into one.

Shakespeare Garden: This is one of our favorite spots. The garden’s design is inspired by the English countryside and is dedicated to the Bard’s timeless works. Its winding paths, aromatic blooms, and hidden nooks encourage children to embark on adventures of their own. Your older children might be inspired when they discover plants mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. (near Belvedere Castle and 79th St. Transverse)

Central Park Conservancy Programs: The Central Park Conservancy offers a range of family-friendly programs, including guided nature walks, wildlife spotting, and arts and crafts workshops. These programs are designed to engage kids and families in hands-on learning experiences while exploring the park’s natural and cultural treasures.

Outdoor Performances and Events: Check the park’s website to see what’s scheduled when you visit. Central Park often hosts family-friendly outdoor performances, concerts, and events. From puppet shows to live theater productions, these cultural experiences allow kids to enjoy entertainment while being exposed to various art forms.

Bethesda fountain

Entertainment Opportunities in Central Park

Central Park offers a range of entertainment experiences that cater to kids and families. Whether you’re looking for a scheduled show or just hoping to catch street performers, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Here are some entertainment options in Central Park:

Central Park SummerStage: During the warmer months, Central Park SummerStage hosts free concerts, performances, and cultural events suitable for the whole family. Check the schedule for family-friendly shows that your kids will enjoy.

Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre: A genuine 1870 Swedish wooden cottage is the site for popular marionette shows that that will appeal to kids and adults alike.

Street Performers: As you explore the park, you might come across talented street performers, including musicians, magicians, and artists. Kids will be delighted by the impromptu shows and interactive displays.

Model Boat Sailing: Witness the charm of model boat sailing at Conservatory Water. Kids can watch as enthusiasts sail their miniature boats across the pond, showcasing impressive craftsmanship and skill.

Shakespeare in the Park: If your kids are a bit older, consider attending a Shakespeare in the Park performance. While Shakespearean plays might be more suitable for teenagers, the experience of watching live theater in the park’s natural setting can be truly magical.

The Delacorte clock by the zoo is one of the best things to do with kids in Central Park

Statues and architecture in Central Park

Bethesda Terrace and Statue: If there were a centerpiece in Central Park, it would be Bethesda Terrace. This iconic two level plaza with its gorgeous fountain is on everyone’s Central Park Bucket List. Bethesda Terrace offers breathtaking views of The Lake, Central Park’s natural landscapes, and the city skyline beyond.

At the center of the terrace stands Bethesda Fountain, known as the “Angel of the Waters.” The fountain features a winged angel symbolizing “health” and “purity,” and she stands above four cherubs that represent “temperance,” “purity,” “peace,” and “health.” The angel holds a lily in her hand, and water flows from beneath her feet into the circular pool below.

Alice in Wonderland Statue: Step into the world of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale at the Alice in Wonderland statue and playground. This whimsical spot invites kids to explore, climb, and interact with the larger-than-life characters from the story – Alice, the Mad Hatter and a rabbit. It’s a perfect opportunity for imaginative play and delightful photo ops.
Fun Fact: Next to Alice stands a rabbit. Is it the March Hare as the Parks Department states, or is it the White Rabbit as indicated by the Central Park Conservancy? You decide!

Delacorte Clock: I have to admit that this is one of my favorite pieces in Central Park. The clock (leading into the Central Park Zoo area) features intricate bronze sculptures of animals that come to life when the clock strikes the hour. Each animal has its own unique movement and personality, creating a captivating spectacle for onlookers.

These are just some of the over 50 statues and monuments in Central park for the family to enjoy. Let your kids discover their favorites as you explore.

Central Park Museums

Some of Manhattan’s best museums can be found in and around Central Park. Adults and older kids will appreciate the Guggenheim, the Frisk Collection, the Neue Gallery, and, a bit of a walk south of the park, MoMA, the famed Museum of Modern Art. For visitors with younger children we highly recommend:

American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West is a treasure trove of educational and engaging exhibits for children. My family’s favorites are the dinosaur fossils, but we can spend hours in the museum enjoying animal, earth and space exhibits, and the discovery stations throughout the museum that encourage hands-on exploration.

Check the website for events and for the IMAX theater schedule.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a wide range of experiences that children can enjoy. The museum often offers family-friendly activities and events so check their website. But even without a scheduled event, kids will be fascinated by the ancient Egyptian collection, especially the impressive gallery containing the Temple of Dendur.

New York Historical Society

The New-York Historical Society on Central Park West offers a variety of engaging and educational experiences for the whole family. The lower level of the museum contains the Dimenna Children’s History Museum, with interactive exhibits the kids will enjoy.

Plan a visit in the winter months for the Holiday Express model train show. Runs mid-November – mid-February but check the website for more information.

Where to Eat in Central Park

The Boathouse in Central Park is the local's favorite place to eat.

There are dozens of options for eating in Central Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. Here are a few we recommend:

Please note that availability, hours of operation, and offerings may vary, so it’s a good idea to check ahead or inquire on the day of your visit.

Sit down for a meal

Tavern on the Green: This historic restaurant is located near Central Park’s West 67th Street entrance. Once a sheepfold, Tavern on the Green has transformed into a charming restaurant that serves a variety of dishes, from salads and sandwiches to heartier fare. The outdoor seating area is particularly lovely, especially during warmer months.

The Loeb Boathouse Restaurant: Situated by the lake, The Loeb Boathouse Restaurant is one of Central Park’s iconic dining destinations. With indoor and outdoor seating, it offers a picturesque setting with glimpses of New York’s skyscrapers peeking over the surrounding woods. The restaurant’s menu features American cuisine with a focus on seafood and seasonal ingredients.

The Central Park Boathouse: Adjacent to the Loeb Boathouse, The Central Park Boathouse is a more casual dining option offering a selection of sandwiches, salads, and snacks. It’s a great spot to grab a quick bite while enjoying views of the lake and rowboats.

Light meals and snacks

Le Pain Quotidien: Found at various locations throughout Central Park, Le Pain Quotidien is a bakery and café chain offering a range of freshly baked bread, pastries, sandwiches, salads, and organic beverages. It’s one of our favorite options for a light meal or a coffee break.

Café Strollers: Located at the Chess & Checkers House, Café Strollers offers a selection of snacks, beverages, and light bites. It’s a cute spot for refreshments while taking a break from exploring the park.

Wollman Rink Snack Bar: During the ice-skating season, the Wollman Rink Snack Bar offers hot and cold beverages, as well as snacks and light fare. It’s a convenient option for skaters looking to refuel.

Food Trucks: Central Park often hosts food trucks throughout the park. From ice cream to gourmet hot dogs, food trucks provide a convenient way to grab a quick snack or treat.

Our favorites in Central Park - picnic, music, and dogs.

Picnic in the Park

Though we love Le Pain Quotidien and have been known to get a glass of wine at Tavern on the Green, our favorite way to enjoy an afternoon in the park is with a picnic. When my daughter lived in the city, we’d prepare our own lunch, but now we stop at a deli and pick up sandwiches. Then back to the park to find a spot.

There are so many options for picnic spots! We enjoy the area near the the New York Lawn Sports Center. It’s shady, quiet, and convenient to the Upper West Side Terrace Drive entrance. But your family might prefer the wide-open spaces of Sheep Meadow and the Great Lawn.

The Central Park Conservatory Garden on the Upper East Side is also a great place for a relaxed family picnic. Enjoy your food amidst the stunning backdrop of blooming flowers and tranquil fountains.

Best restaurants just outside the park

Central Park is surrounded by the Upper East Side and Upper West Side neighborhoods, both of which offer numerous dining options just a short walk from the park’s entrances. Some favorites:

Sarabeth’s, 40 Central Park South. We love Sarabeth’s for breakfast or a light lunch.

The Plaza, 768 Fifth Avenue (at the intersection with Central Park South) is an upscale choice. We love it for an afternoon tea splurge!

Café Sabarsky and Fledermaus in the Neue Gallery, Fifth Avenue. Stop in for viennese treats and delicacies.

Imagine mosaic in Central Park

One day in Central Park: walking (or cycling!) tour suggestions

Classic Central Park – a 3-mile walking tour

This loop will cover many of the highlights of Central Park. You can begin this loop from the east on Fifth Avenue or from the west from the Terrace Drive entrance. For our purposes we’ll begin where many visitors first find the park – at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. (near New York’s Apple Store and the famed Plaza Hotel, where your family might enjoy their Eloise afternoon tea!)

  1. Cross the Grand Army Plaza (note the imposing statue of General Tecumseh Sherman) and enter Central Park on Park Road. (Google map available)
  2. First stop is the Central Park Zoo. It’s fun to walk through this area even if you’re not going to enter the zoo proper. Time your walk right and you’ll get to enjoy the dancing animals on the Delacorte Clock as you leave the zoo area.
  3. Cross over 65th St. and under 66th St and you’ll come to a ‘y’ in the path. Take the left path towards East Drive and the Mall. (If the kids are antsy stay right towards the Billy Johnson Playground where they can let off some steam before you resume your walk towards the Mall.)
  4. The Mall is a grand promenade lined with American Elms, one of the last stand of elms in the country. Along the way you’ll see statues of famous literary figures, thus the other name of the promenade – the Literary Walk. No matter the name it’s a lovely area with artists and musicians often showcasing their talents. Enjoy the walk.
  5. Next up comes Bethesda Terrace. Take a moment to enjoy the view over the lake (There are restrooms here if needed!)
  6. Follow the lake to the right toward the Boathouse, but before you get to that restaurant take a short detour right to the Conservatory Water and the Alice in Wonderland statue.
  7. Back toward the Boathouse and on through the Ramble toward Belvedere Castle and Turtle Pond. This is the area of the park where you’ll find the Shakespeare Garden and the Delacorte Theater.

[You are now at the southern edge of the Great Lawn. Continue going if you wish. There’s much to see further in the park. But for our purposes, imagining walking with kids in tow, we’ll turn back.]

Running for elephants during the Save the Elephants Run in Central Park
  1. Beginning our walk back on the western side of the park you can choose to walk again through the Ramble, over the picturesque Bow Bridge, and right on Terrace Drive, or you can follow the easier paved path beside West Drive.
  2. Both paths will meet near Strawberry Fields. This area, just across from the famous Dakota building is dedicated to John Lennon. Take a moment here to see the Imagine mosaic and listen to musicians playing favorite Lennon songs.
  3. Getting hungry? You’re right near Le Pain Quotidien where you can grab a light lunch or continue on West Drive towards Tavern on the Green. They have an outside eating area that’s great for kids.
  4. You’re walking along Sheep Meadow now, a great place for the kids to run a bit while you catch your breath.
  5. Cross over 65th Street and bear to the left in between the ball fields toward Heckscher Playground, a family favorite.
  6. Almost finished! If you’re exhausted, exit the park and walk along the sidewalk on W 59th Street back to the starting point. OR if you’ve a bit more energy left, wend your way over Center Drive, through the Hallett Nature Sanctuary and over the Gapstow Bridge. You’re now back to East Drive.

Rent a bike – one of the best things to do in Central Park

Central Park is huge and it’s impossible to see it all in one day on foot. But with a bike you can see the park, get some exercise, and have plenty of time for relaxing breaks along the way.

The main loop around the park is 6.1 miles (9.8 km) and is mostly flat with some easy hills. Riding is only allowed on the paved roads so walk your bikes, or lock them up, if you want to explore.

There are lots of bike rental options throughout the city and many within the park. Bikes can be rented by the hour or for the day. Check into reserving a bike online, as this often saves you money. Helmets and child seats are also available.

Central Park ABC scavenger hunt, a great thing to do in Central Park with kids.

Logistics for your visit to Central Park


The park opens at 6 am and closes at 1 am all year round.

Occasionally there will be events, construction, or other disruptions that might close parts of the park. Consult the park’s website before your visit.


Though most of the trails in Central Park are well paved, there are some stairs and some steep inclines. Check the Central Park Access Map before your visit to be sure you can comfortably explore the park.

Download our Central Park Scavenger Hunt for the kids.

Getting to the park

Best way to access the park is on foot or by public transportation. There are parking garages in the neighborhoods around the park, but they are very expensive. Central Park is accessible from almost all NYC subway lines, and several bus routes.

Belvedere Castle in Central Park

A Brief History of Central Park

Central Park map

Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States. In 1857, the Central Park Commission held the country’s first landscape design contest and selected the “Greensward Plan,” submitted by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s superintendent at the time, and architect Calvert Vaux. Over a 15-year span, the land transformed from a rocky and swampy landscape into a meticulously designed urban oasis.

Creating the park however required displacing roughly 1,600 residents, including poor Irish and German farmers, and dismantling of Seneca Village, one of the city’s most stable African American settlements. The village (~ West 82nd to West 89th Street) was a thriving community with three churches and a school. The displacement of the residents of what is now Central Park highlights the challenges faced by marginalized communities when urban development takes precedence over existing neighborhoods.

Central Park is a treasure for families in New York City. From boating on the park’s lakes to enjoying the various playgrounds, every corner of this urban oasis presents an opportunity for families to create lifelong memories. So, gather your little ones, pack a picnic, and set out for a day of exploration in the heart of New York City. And have fun!

What to do in NYC's Central Park. Best ideas for visiting Central Park with kids. Free #scavengerhunt for kids. #newyorkcity #centralpark #scavengerhunt
What to do in NYC's Central Park. Best ideas for visiting Central Park with kids. Free #scavengerhunt for kids. #newyorkcity #centralpark
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Amy, a writer on responsible bucket list travel, is your reliable source for insightful travel advice. With a career background in libraries, and a degree in biology and mathematics, Amy's approach to travel is rooted in meticulous research and planning, and her commitment to eco-conscious adventures.

Amy’s dedication to sustainable travel practices, including efficient packing techniques, ensures that every adventure leaves a positive impact on both the environment and the traveler's well-being. Trust Amy to guide you towards meaningful and eco-friendly travel, making the most of your retirement years.

A lifelong New England resident, Amy is also the source for insider tips on travel in the Northeastern U.S.

2 thoughts on “Fun Things to Do in Central Park (free scavenger fun!) 2023

  1. Thank you for this fantastic article. I will be spending a few days in NYC this December and will definitely put your walking tour through Central Park on my list, no matter the weather.

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