Two people walk on a path with a large blossoming tree hanging over it with two buildings rising in the background

How to See Central Park Like a Local

A must-do part of any trip to the Big Apple is Central Park. This sprawling oasis stretches from 59th Street to 110th Street and from 8th Avenue to 5th Avenue. That’s 843 acres! It’s easy to get lost there. I lived in New York City for fifteen years, and I still get lost. But it’s definitely worth exploring thoroughly, even if you do need your GPS to find your way out.

As a tourist, you’ll usually enter the park either from one of the southernmost entrances or near the Metropolitan Museum. While these most-visited parts of the park are beautiful, I invite you to range a little further afield to experience the park like the locals do. Below are a few of my well-known and not-so-well-known favorites.

The Shakespeare Garden

This four-acre little gem is found near the Delacorte Theater, where Shakespeare in the Park performs in the summer time. Dedicated to Shakespeare in 1916, it has had its ups and downs over the years, but it’s kept in pristine condition these days and is especially enchanting in the spring.

Wandering through the winding paths is a botany lesson and a Shakespeare study put together. The plants that have been selected for the garden were either mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays or poems, or they’re plants that appeared in Shakespeare’s own garden in England. You’ll find little plaques next to certain plants that quote the corresponding passages from his works.

The unique knotty wooden benches found here are a great place to stop and take a deep breath amid the crazy hustle of the big city. The garden’s relative seclusion is ideal for meditation, and I once passed a whole afternoon sketching the big mulberry tree there.

A plaque that reads "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would small as sweet." with flowers in the background
The plaque with a famous quote from Romeo and Juliet in the Shakespeare Garden

The Loop

Central Park is a New Yorker’s backyard, playground, and gym. On any given day –  especially on weekends when the weather is nice – you’ll find thousands of locals exercising here. There are many paths for running and biking, but the most popular are those that make up The Loop.

At any of the southern entrances to the park, you’re bound to find someone on the sidewalk who is trying to get you to rent a bike. Personally, I prefer to rent from a place with lockers for personal belongings. Biking the big loop is a fantastic way to see Central Park, especially the beautiful, wilder northern sections that tourists rarely see. Just be prepared for a few mild hills.

Running the loop is also a great option. The whole thing is approximately six miles, but there are many smaller sections as well. Conveniently, the southernmost section splits off at 72nd street, goes past the famous Bathesda Fountain, and turns south again. This lower section is about 1.7 miles. Twice around, and you’ve got yourself a 5k plus a little warm-up and cool-down time. Perfect!

If you’re going to run, I’d recommend starting at the southwest corner of the park, Columbus Circle (take the A/B/C/D to Columbus Circle). New York Running Company on the second floor of the Time Warner Center offers complimentary small lockers for personal belongings. You’ll need to supply your own lock. If you’d rather run one of the upper sections, you might consider running after a trip to Metropolitan Museum or Museum of Natural History and leaving your stuff stashed at the bag checks there, which are outside of the paid entry areas.

You can find a map of the different loop sections and their various lengths here.

Bikers and joggers along the paved path of The Loop with the towers of the Time Warner Center in the background
A busy spring Saturday on a southern section of The Loop

Literary Walk

I have a confession. Until I was researching and photographing for this post, I had never walked along the famous Mall in Central Park. You know, the one where Carrie and Alexandr Petrovsky went for a (very unrealistic) sleigh ride on Sex and the City? Yep, 15 years in the city, and I had never been there.

On the southern end of the American elm-lined pedestrian boulevard is the Literary Walk. Here you’ll find statues of four literary masters: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and our pal William Shakespeare. Oh, and there’s also a statue of Christopher Columbus. I have no idea why he’s there.

A bronze statue of a seated man in robes holding a book
Sir Walter Scott is one of four authors represented on the Literary Walk

Alice in Wonderland Statue

Any fans of Alice from the books or movies will want to pay a visit to this statue featuring many favorite characters and an inscription from the Jabberwocky poem. Although I was very familiar with the poem, I only recently watched the Disney version of the story as part of my preparation for our Disney Global Tour. (For more on that, click here.)

Kids love to play and climb here, and it’s one place where they’re actually allowed to! It’s just to the north of the Conservatory Water, where kids and adults alike can rent and navigate toy sailboats. It’s roughly halfway between the Plaza Hotel and the Metropolitan Museum on the east side of the park.

Many children climb on a bronze sculpture of a young girl and her fictional character friends
Children play and climb on the Alice in Wonderland sculpture

Sheep Meadow

(Open 11:00am-7:00pm spring, summer, and fall)

This one isn’t really off the beaten path, but it’s still one of my favorites. Sheep Meadow is a 15-acre grassy expanse, dotted with a few shade trees here and there. At one time, it actually was a grazing meadow for sheep, but alas, no more. Still, it’s a wonderful place to take off your shoes and feel the grass on your bare feet.

Sheep Meadow is not far from Columbus Circle, where you can find a Whole Foods in the basement of the Time Warner Center. Grab a picnic from their hot food or salad bars. It’s cheaper than any of the restaurants in that area, and probably healthier too!

On weekends, the meadow will be packed with locals and tourists alike – frisbee games, kids playing, and people lounging around with friends. Shaded areas are at a premium, so make sure to bring sunscreen.

A crowd of people lounge around the green grass of a large meadow
Sheep Meadow is an extremely popular destination for weekend lounging

The Reservoir

Officially called The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, The Reservoir was built in the 1860s. At that time, it actually was a working reservoir, used as a water supply when the city’s regular water system was being repaired. In modern NYC, it wouldn’t last very long if it had to be used in that capacity.

What I love most about The Reservoir is that you’re right in the middle of the park, but you can see buildings all around you on the outside. It really gives the impression that you’re in an oasis. The city is still present, but you’re removed and protected

The path around the outside of The Reservoir is a little over 1.5 miles. Bikes aren’t allowed, so it’s a great spot for strolling or running. Just make sure you heed the signs indicating which direction to go! It’s meant to be counterclockwise only.

A wrought-iron fence surrounds a large reservoir with skyscrapers and trees in the distance
A view from the north end of The Reservoir with part of Midtown Manhattan’s skyline

The Ravine and The Loch

Want to venture even further north after your visit to The Reservoir? Check out The Ravine and The Loch. You’ll walk through the baseball fields of The North Meadow and continue into this wilder and more peaceful northern section of the park. It’s part of the larger 40-acre North Woods.

The Ravine was designed as a getaway to nature for Manhattanites. Its boundaries are marked by two stone arches, Huddlestone and Glen Span. There, you’ll find excellent opportunities for bird-watching and quiet picnics. The Loch is essentially a stream that starts at The Pool and rolls along in The Ravine before ending at the Lasker Rink. Along the way, there are several cascades. Amid the dense trees and the sounds of the babbling water, you could almost forget you’re in New York City.

A cascading waterfall surrounded by rocky terrain with a budding tree in the foreground
A cascade near the north end of The Loch
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