Central Park, the heart and lungs of New York City

by Kevin Hughes

If you're feeling exhaustion in New York - perhaps the world's busiest city - head for Central Park. There's so much to see and doing it justice will take far longer than you might think

Inevitably, perhaps, any trip to the Big Apple is going to turn into a whirlwind, almost manic, experience. Visitors dash from the hustle and bustle of Times Square with its skyscrapers and gaudy neon lights to the architectural delights of Grand Central Station, or take the elevator to the observation deck of the Empire State Building before heading off on a shopping trip to Macey’s.

And with thousands of other sites, in what is surely the world’s most exciting city, demanding plenty of time and attention, the chances are most visitors to New York only manage a quick stroll through the city’s heart and lungs - Central Park.

However, with more than 840 acres crammed full of wonderful architecture, fantastic monuments, incredible people, tremendous fauna and flora and even top quality restaurants, you could easily spend a week in the park and still only take in a half of what’s on offer.

Here are my top Central Park attractions:

Strawberry Fields - this monument to Beatle John Lennon can be found at the west side of the park between 71st and 74th Streets close to the Dakota Building where, on December 8th, 1980, Lennon was shot dead as he entered his home.

Strawberry Fields was officially opened on October 9th 1985 on what would have been his 45th birthday. Every October 9th since there has been an all-day vigil by fans mourning his passing.

Personally, I can happily sit for hours on any day just watching people pass-by while quietly listening to his music.

Horse-drawn carriage rides - located at Central Park South between 5th and 6th Avenue the carriages are a wonderful way to take in the beauty of Central Park. The carriages operate all year round but drivers are not allowed to operate in temperatures above 87 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer or below 19 in the winter. Rides cost around $34 per carriage for a trip lasting about 20 minutes. Longer rides can be arranged by appointment.

Ice skating at the Wollman Rink - located on the east side of the park between 62nd and 63rd Streets, the Wollman Rink operates between November 1st and March 31st. Adults can skate for as little as $10.50 weekdays and children for $5.50. Plus locker hire of $4.50 and there is also a charge for spectators. It’s great fun but, be warned, New Yorkers are pretty hot on blades!

There is a second smaller, cheaper rink called the The Lasker, near to Harlem Mere between 106th and 108th Streets.

In the summer months the Wollman Rink is transformed into the Victorian Gardens, a mini-amusement park for children.

The Dairy - once a real dairy where visitors, especially children, could get fresh milk, The Dairy now serves as a general visitor centre and official Central Park gift store with maps, guides, history books and park souvenirs. The Dairy can be found in the middle of the park at 65th Street.

Bethesda Terrace and Fountain - overlooking the lake this is considered to be the true centre of the park and the wonderful lower terrace is a great place to view the lake. Once run-down, the terrace and fountain have been painstakingly restored and the surrounding area has been replanted with native American plants and trees. The location has provided the backdrop for many popular movies and even video games.

Conservatory Garden - the garden has to be one of the best, and quietest, Central Park locations.
At 5th Avenue and 105th Streets it is a secluded little oasis just a few yards away from the hustle and bustle of one of Manhattan’s busiest avenues. In spring and summer the garden offers colourful displays of beautifully manicured flower beds in what is Central Park’s only formal garden.

Obelisk - is by far the oldest man-made object in the park, or for that matter New York. Erected in around 1,500 BC in the Middle East it was shipped to the United States in 1879 where it was erected in the park on the east side at 81st Street, close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Whether it was a gift from the Egyptian government or was taken from Egypt without consent is a matter of debate. The Obelisk, also known as Cleopatra’s needle, was in fact built to honour an ancient Egyptian king.

Add to that list the delights of Central Park Zoo and a multitude of other monuments, and features from the Reservoir to the Turtle Pond, and it‘s easy to see why Central Park is so popular with New Yorkers and tourists alike.

Then of course there are the cultural and sporting events to be enjoyed, from rock concerts to classic theatre and tennis tournaments to the finishing line of November’s New York Marathon.

Where to eat and drink

The Loeb Boathouse restaurants - there is a choice between Lakeside, Outside Grill and Express Café - offer the chance to indulge in fine food while watching rowing boats and gondolas cruise the lake in what is a picturesque surrounding framed by skyscrapers.

The Lakeside, at East 72nd Street and Park Drive North, offers a fantastic menu with wonderful starters such as Caesar salad, chilled artichokes or caramelized onion and goat cheese strudel for around $12-18. Mains include stunning dishes such as double cut Berkshire pork chops with roasted red onions, figs, honey and lavender, pan roasted Florida snapper with melted cabbage, scallions and lemongrass vinaigrette or traditional roasted chicken for between $32-47. Check out www.centralparkboathouse.com.

The Bridge Café  (279 Water Street at Dover Street; www.bridgecafenyc.com) might be as far away from Central Park as you can possibly get while remaining on Manhattan, but it has to be one of the best places to eat anywhere in America, let alone New York City. It’s the oldest surviving tavern and the last wood-built building still standing in New York. The former brothel was built as far back as 1794. Now, with Brooklyn Bridge towering overhead, this fantastic restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric with an unbeatable menu and reasonable prices. Starters include corn and red onion fritters, calamari, steamed mussels and crispy deep fried prawns at $8-23, and mains of grilled wild Pacific salmon, half-pound buffalo burgers or hand craved turkey for $15-27. If that’s not enough, the mouth-watering sweet menu will leave you begging for mercy.

The great food is complimented by the cosy atmosphere and friendly service. It might take you two or three runs around the block before you find it but believe me, the Bridge Café, whether for lunch, brunch or dinner is a culinary diamond well worth searching out.

Where to stay

Novotel New York - Times Square is located right in the middle of mid-town New York at 52nd Street and Broadway. The bar, Café Nicole, on the seventh floor, has a terrace overlooking Times Square while Central Park is just a few minutes' walk away.

This 480-room hotel offers all you’d expect of a modern, contemporary hotel and being high rise, importantly for me at least, it has audible fire alarms in all rooms and an easy to follow fire escape plan. Rooms cost between $115-140 a night for a double room.

Breakfast is not included and can prove expensive in the hotel restaurant but with so many fantastic cafes around Times Square, cheaper alternatives are just yards away.

The Bedford Hotel at 118 East 40th Street is convenient for the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings and is just a short walk from Grand Central Station. It has a real European feel and is much smaller and more personal than many of the big Manhattan hotels.

Rooms cost between $120-150 a night for a double room but check out their website for deals and offers.

Back to the park

With a city as vibrant, exciting and busy as New York it’s impossible to cover all the highlights without writing a guide book. However, when visiting the Big Apple take a closer look at Central Park, there really is something for everyone.

It’s simple really, love New York, love Central Park!

Kevin Hughes

I am a retired police officer who enjoyed a second career in journalism with a weekly newspaper. I now work as a freelance journalist concentrating on politics, sport and local issues. I also do some freelance photography.

I have a passion for travel and enjoy writing about my experiences - good and bad. I have had several travel features published in regional and weekly newspapers and some magazines but I'm hardly a professional travel writer although I certainly wouldn't mind doing more!

Married for thirty plus years and with three adult children and one grandchild my wife and I now have more time to travel. I generally shy away from package holidays finding it more fun to plan where I want to go, how I want to get there and what I want to see and do when I arrive. However, for me, the most important part of any trip is the local people I meet and interact with. It is they who give me a sense of what a place is really all about.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.