Strolling aimlessly through Central Park while absentmindedly licking a rainbow Popsicle is something we’re all familiar with. The park was designed to be enjoyed from every angle, but it was also designed deliberately. And as enjoyable as aimlessness is, there are definitely some things worth seeking out. So here are a few suggestions to guide your meandering path.
Yes, it’s a tourist haven, but the south end of the park still has plenty to offer, and it’s fun to be touristy every now and then. You can gaze at two of the city’s great monuments: the memorial for the USS Maine and the six-story-high Columbus statue. This is also the place to go if you’re in the market for $5 posters or ridiculously priced carriage rides.
The Mall/Bethesda Fountain
Though it can also be a popular spot for tourists, I usually try to walk through the mall plaza because there’s always something happening. Independent performers, including break dancers and flautists, abound. I once stumbled upon a Japanese cultural festival that was raising money to plant cherry trees in the park and featured, among many other things, a gospel choir from Queens that sang exclusively in Japanese.
Chess and Checkers House
A quiet little octagonal house tucked halfway between the carousel and the Dairy (Central Park’s official gift shop), this might be New York’s best kept secret. I love that the city I live in assumes that I want to not only play chess but also do so in the most idyllic setting possible. A terrace lined with stone chess tables surrounds the building, and players are welcome to bring their own pieces or borrow some from the friendly and welcoming staff for free.
Created in 1869 on the whim of the park’s co-designer, Calvert Vaux, this miniature castle offers one of the fullest views of the park that you can get inside the park itself. The structure fell into disrepair for a few decades, but it was restored in 1983 and is now open for free to the public. Fun fact: Though it was originally designed as a completely useless edifice, the National Weather Service now measures the temperature of Central Park from Belvedere’s tower.
The Conservatory Garden is perfectly manicured and gorgeous. Because of its location and designation as a quiet space in the park, it’s usually almost deserted, so you can walk around pretending you’re minor French royalty, surveying the grounds of your estate. The space is divided into French, Italian, and English sections, so I suggest looking up their characteristics beforehand and then going with someone you’re trying to impress and slipping in that knowledge.
The Great Hill
For anyone who misses the dirt paths through forests in her home state, Central Park North Woods is the closest thing I’ve found to hiking anywhere in Manhattan. At any given moment, the northernmost 10 blocks of the park have about 20 percent of the occupancy of the southernmost, and the activity gives way to a more serene and immersive atmosphere, especially if you’re willing to go off the beaten path.