Upper West Side & Central Park
Walking past rows of brownstones on quiet side streets, the Upper West Side still has the power to make you feel like you've stepped out of a New York movie. Diners and delis harbour vestiges of old communities in this noted family neighbourhood, now being given new verve by artisan coffee shops and designer emporiums. It is bordered by two parks: Riverside Park lines the Hudson River, while the verdant expanse of Central Park stretches off to the east. It's also where you'll find the stellar Lincoln Center cultural enclave, and American Museum of Natural History.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Upper West Side & Central Park.
One of the world’s most renowned green spaces, Central Park comprises 843 acres of rolling meadows, boulder-studded outcroppings, elm-lined walkways, manicured European-style gardens, a lake and a reservoir — not to mention an outdoor theater, a memorial to John Lennon, an idyllic waterside eatery and a famous Alice in Wonderland statue. Highlights include the 15-acre Sheep Meadow, where thousands of people lounge and play on warm days; Central Park Zoo; and the forest-like paths of the Ramble, popular with birdwatchers. In warm weather there are free outdoor concerts on the Great Lawn and top-notch drama at the annual Shakespeare in the Park productions held each summer at the open-air Delacorte Theater. Other recommended stops include the Shakespeare Garden, on the west side between 79th and 80th Sts, with its lush plantings and excellent skyline view. The history of Central Park Like the city’s subway system, the vast and majestic Central Park, a rectangle of open space in the middle of Manhattan, is a great class leveler – exactly as it was envisioned. Created in the 1860s and ’70s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux on the marshy northern fringe of the city, the immense park was designed as a leisure space for all New Yorkers regardless of color, class or creed. Central Park is actually only the fifth largest park in New York City, trailing behind other local greenspaces like Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt parks in the Bronx, the Greenbelt on Staten Island, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. But over 800 acres is nothing to sneeze at in tony, dense upper Manhattan – even in the mid-19th century when New York City was just a fraction of its present size, much of the land had to be acquired by eminent domain. Ironically, what is now Central Park was commandeered from settlements like Seneca Village, home to the very immigrants and free Black community members the park was ostensibly supposed to benefit. From that raw, swampy material Olmsted and Vaux were tasked with creating a place where the rich could see and be seen in their carriages and promenading in fine clothing, and later where the middle and lower classes could gather away from pubs and in lieu of garden cemeteries. Olmsted was inspired by Birkenhead Park near Liverpool – the first taxpayer funded public park in England – during a trip he later recounter in his travel memoir Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England. The trick, of course, would be to create what felt like a natural American landscape where once there had been pig mucks and and urban detritus. The result was, after many years, huge sums of money, thousands of laborers, and slow progress during the Civil War, a sprawling green space that felt distinct from the city bordering it in both its democratic vision and pastoral expanse. It was also a triumph of engineering. Olmsted and Vaux (who also created Prospect Park in Brooklyn) were determined to keep foot and road traffic separated and cleverly designed the crosstown transverses under elevated roads to do so. It’s also an oasis from the urban crush: the lush lawns, cool forests, flowering gardens, glassy bodies of water and meandering, wooded paths provide the dose of serene nature that New Yorkers crave. The legacy of Central Park The success of Olmsted's vision – and his first major project – went on to launch his career (and influence generations of landscape architecture) with commissions from Buffalo to San Francisco, from the manicured grounds of the Biltmore Estate to the trailing parks of Atlanta. It's no wonder it's one of the most popular film locations in cinematic history, cropping up not just as a background but a character in movies like Hair, When Harry Met Sally, Enchanted and The Muppets Take Manhattan. It's also no wonder that Central Park quickly became a nexus of New York architecture, fringed by buildings that both benefit from proximity to the city's back yard and try to live up to its larger-than-life legacy. From penthouse apartments of the Dakota Building where Lauren Bacall, John Lennon and other luminaries lived to recent additions like the tall, skinny Central Park Tower that climbs to 1,550 feet over its namesake, the skyline rimming Olmsted's creation is almost as iconic as downtown treasures like the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, or the Brooklyn Bridge. Things to do in Central Park Today, this ‘people’s park’ is still one of the city’s most popular attractions, beckoning throngs of New Yorkers year round. While parts of the park swarm with joggers, inline skaters, musicians and tourists on warm weekends, it’s quieter on weekday afternoons, especially in the less-trodden spots above 72nd St, such as the Harlem Meer and the North Meadow (north of 97th St). During summer in Central Park, you can try activities from fishing to camping without once leaving Manhattan, or make like countless movie characters and head to the Victorian Bow Bridge, which spans Central Park Lake and connects Cherry Hill and the Ramble. Nearby, ornate Bethesda Fountain edges the lake, and its Loeb Boathouse is a beloved attraction where you can rent rowboats or enjoy lunch. Speaking of eats, Central Park's designers may have intentionally included few buildings in their landscape, but Tavern on the Green is a New York classic for a reason. Designed by Vaux himself in 1870 as an actual sheep paddock, the structure was turned into a restaurant in 1934 by Robert Moses, and it eventually earned a landmark reputation in the city's already competitive, legendary food scene. Former New York Times restaurant critical Ruth Reichl once observed in the pre-smartphone 1990s, "To thousands of visitors, Tavern on the Green is New York. They are so happy to be here that you see them all around the room, videotaping one another as they eat their meals." Though it closed in 2009 for a few years, Tavern on the Green has been open again since 2014. Folks flock to the park even in winter, when snowstorms inspire cross-country skiing and sledding or just a simple stroll through the white wonderland, and crowds turn out every New Year’s Eve for a midnight run. Also very popular is skating on one of two stretches of ice in Central Park – Wollman Rink, located in the southeast part of the park, and Lasker Rink in the north. The Central Park Conservancy offers ever-changing guided tours of the park, including ones that focus on public art, wildlife and places of interest to kids (check online for dates and times; most tours are free or $15. To get the lay of the land at a faster clip, there's numerous running routes through Central Park, too. Getting to Central Park Central Park is accessible by numerous forms of transit, including the N, R, Q trains with service to 57th Street & 7th Avenue; the 1, 2, 3, A, B, C, and D trains with service to 59th and Columbus Circle and Broadway at 72nd, 96th, & 110th Streets; and the B and C trains with stops along Central Park's west flank. As for bus routes, there are over a dozen to choose from, but some of the most accessible include the M10 the runs up the Central Park West side, the M20 from Penn Station, and the Q32 from Grand Central. Free and metered street parking exists around Central Park, though you'll want to be sure to check signage to make sure you won't run afoul of the meter maids. There are numerous paid lots and garages, too, where you can park for an hour or for the day. Central Park accessibility Central Park's rolling topography was created well before the ADA became the law of the land, so you might be curious how it holds up for visitors with disabilities. The Central Park Conservancy publishes an accessibility map to help visitors plan ahead for use of a wheelchair, rollator, cane, or other mobility aids. The accessibility map has marked and color coded different degrees of incline throughout the park, as well as where you may find obstacles like stairs, or accessible features from restrooms to trails to subway stations. Central Park is also home to the Robert Bendheim Playground, which was redesigned in 1996 to accommodate children of all abilities. It features ramps, a wheelchair accessible water feature, an elevated sandbox, and play structures with auditory features for Deaf and hard-of-hearing kids and their caregivers.
Founded back in 1869, this venerable museum contains a veritable wonderland of more than 34 million objects, specimens and artifacts – including armies of menacing dinosaur skeletons, herds of stuffed wildlife, and a crystal garden of gems and minerals. This New York icon is rightly recognized as one of the world’s top museums of natural history, and it’s a great place to get face to face with a T rex or a blue whale and realize the humble scale of the human race compared to nature’s giants. When planning what to do in New York with kids, don’t overlook the museum’s Rose Center for Earth & Space, with its cutting-edge planetarium, and the Butterfly Conservatory – open from October through May – a home for more than 500 live butterflies from all over the world that will flutter about and land on your outstretched arms. To prime small travellers, show them the Night at the Museum films, partly filmed at the museum. Exploring the American Museum of Natural History On the natural history side, the museum is perhaps best known for its bright and airy Fossil Halls containing nearly 600 specimens, including mammoth crowd-pleasers such as gargantuan Apatosaurus, tremendous Titanosaurus and a fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex frozen mid-prowl (its kitchen knife-sized teeth will scare the bejesus out of you). Triceratops and Stegosaurus also put in appearances. Advancing forward a few million years, there’s also a complete mammoth skeleton. For those who prefer their wildlife skin-on, there are plentiful animal exhibits packed with American and world species – the stuffed Alaskan brown bears and giant moose are always popular stops. The Milstein Hall of Ocean Life contains dioramas devoted to marine ecologies, weather and conservation, as well as a beloved 94ft replica of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling in a position that mirrors the whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum in London (the AMNH whale came first). The museum’s Mignone Halls – currently accessible on guided tours – are devoted to gems and minerals, with an impressive set of geodes, gemstones, crystals, and raw metals, including some impressive, supersized gold nuggets. Kids who are inspired by the collection (and new-age types) can pick up souvenir minerals in the gift-shop. At the 77th St Grand Gallery, there's a 63ft canoe carved in the 1870s and featuring designs from different Native American peoples of the Northwest Coast, alongside anthropological displays on cultures from around the world. The museum was previously fronted by a statue of Theodore Roosevelt with African American and indigenous American attendants, but the sculpture was widely criticized for implying a hierarchy of races, and the New York City Public Design Commission voted to remove it in 2021. For the astronomical set, the Rose Center is the star of the show. Every hour at the planetarium you can drop yourself into a cushy seat to view stellar displays on the history and mysteries of the universe. Inside this planet (or space-station) shaped building, you'll also find the astonishing Willamette Meteor, a 15.5-ton hunk of metallic iron that fell to earth in present-day Oregon some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. History The museum was founded in 1869, with support from – amongst other people – Theodore Roosevelt, Sr, father of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th American president. The collection was originally displayed in the former New York Arsenal at Central Park, built to store the arms of the New York State Militia, but it moved to a purpose-built Victorian Gothic building on the present location in 1874. The original buildings have since been consumed by a series of expansions and redevelopments – the famous Beaux-Arts entrance on Central Park West was a 1936 addition by John Russell Pope, of Jefferson Memorial fame. In 2019, the museum broke ground on a $383-million expansion set to be completed by 2022 that will include the education-focused Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Tickets and practicalities The general admission fee covers the main permanent displays but not special exhibitions; booking online is the best option. Residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can pay what they wish for general admission. In order to see space shows, IMAX films or ticketed exhibits you'll need to pay the higher ticket price for admission plus one show, or admission plus all shows, but it’s only a few dollars extra. Come early in the morning when it opens to beat the crowds (school groups fill the galleries on weekdays, and things are even busier at weekends). Where to eat near the American Museum of Natural History There are several museum cafes and a food court, but many take a picnic to Central Park, or eat nearby. Blossom on Columbus Kefi Cafe Lalo Jin Ramen
This stark arrangement of gleaming modernist temples houses some of Manhattan’s most important performance companies: the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. The lobby of the iconic Opera House is dressed with brightly saturated murals by painter Marc Chagall. Various other venues are tucked in and around the 16-acre campus, including a theater, two film-screening centers and the renowned Juilliard School for performing arts.
This compelling little museum, housed in a three-story town house from 1898, is one of Manhattan’s best-kept secrets. It displays 150 paintings by the prolific Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich (1874–1947), a Russian-born poet, philosopher and painter. His most remarkable works are his stunning depictions of the Himalayas, where he and his family settled in 1928. Indeed, his mountainscapes are truly a wonder to behold: icy Tibetan peaks in shades of blue, white, green and purple, channeling a Georgia O’Keeffe/Rockwell Kent vibe.
As the antiquated hyphenated name implies, the Historical Society is the city’s oldest museum, founded in 1804 to preserve historical and cultural artifacts. Its collection of more than 60,000 objects is quirky and fascinating and includes everything from George Washington’s inauguration chair to a 19th-century Tiffany ice-cream dish (gilded, of course). However, it's far from stodgy, having moved into the 21st century with renewed vigor and purpose.
This small institution offers rotating exhibitions in three small galleries. Past exhibits have included quilts made by 19th-century soldiers and sculptures by a celebrated Ghanaian coffin-maker of forts through which slaves were trafficked. The gift shop is a trove of unique, artsy items: books, jewelry, accessories, scarves, home decor etc. There's free music on Wednesdays (2pm) and Fridays (5:30pm).
The arched and frescoed walkways of Bethesda Terrace, crowned by the magnificent Bethesda Fountain, have long been a gathering area for New Yorkers of all stripes. To the south is the Mall (featured in countless movies), a promenade shrouded in mature North American elms. The southern stretch, known as Literary Walk, is flanked by statues of famous authors.
Standing inside the park across from the famous Dakota Building, where John Lennon was fatally shot in 1980, is this poignant, tear-shaped garden – a memorial to the slain star. It contains a grove of stately elms and a tiled mosaic that says, simply, ‘Imagine.' The spot is officially designated a quiet zone but you wouldn't know it from the multitude of tour guides and buskers who come to vocalize here – it's a hugely popular area of the park.
A classic beauty designed by Central Park creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, this waterside spot, running north on the Upper West Side and banked by the Hudson River from W 59th to 155th Sts, is lusciously leafy. Plenty of bike paths, playgrounds and dog runs make it a family favorite. Views from the park make the Jersey side of the Hudson look quite pretty.