New York City's Spectacular, Natural Wonderlands — All Just a Subway Ride Away

You’ve scaled the Empire State Building, toured One World Observatory at the Trade Center, bustled your way through Times Square, boarded the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, checked off the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, even glared at your favorite celebrities at Madame Tussaud's, and now you want to breathe. Look no further than the next patch of green on your subway map.

Ask any New Yorker to name his or her favorite park and likely it is one you have yet to visit because inside this vast urban cosmos called New York City are great swathes of verdant meadows, trails, golf courses, waterways and vestiges of native woodlands. Most attractions are free or inexpensive – from Central Park that stretches from 59th Street to 110th Street to vest-pocket parks that offer tiny respites like Father Demo and the Carmine St. Park in Greenwich Village – visit sites for special events year round.

As New York City’s former industrial sites – factories, gantries and railroad tracks  have also transformed into parks that ribbon through the city. Public parks are essential elements of every New Yorker’s life. If it is simply people watching you want to do, come to a New York City park, natives love the spaces and use them year-round. Bryant Park in midtown at 42nd St. for instance, shows films outdoors in summer; in winter the lawn becomes a skating rink.

For the most up-to-date information on events, visit City Parks Foundation and for locating spectacular performances in the city's parks, visit Summerstage.

Brooklyn Bridge Park
Getting there is half the fun when you hope on a ferry to Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River; subway lines can get you there too. Another example of transforming an industrial site into an 85-acre playground. Wednesday Night walking tours from May-October start at Pier 1 with guest lecturers focusing on horticulture, design, history and sustainability. A Roller Rink adds allure to the new Brooklyn Bridge Park where the five-acre Piers 2 and 4 give visitors a chance to wriggle their toes in the sand off the former pier lined with picnic tables, play turf, bocce and basketball courts; kayaking and Bargemusic in summer. Brooklyn Bridge Park Book Cart houses a small library at Pier 3 Greenway. Trains N 3 or East River Ferry, NY Water Taxi, Governors Island ferry ((718) 222-9939)

The High Line
An abandoned railroad that became a park that enhanced a neighborhood is pretty much what the High Line is all about. Built on an historic freight rail line elevated above Manhattan's west side the High Line runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatbacking District to West 34th Street between 10th and 12th Avenues. Highlights along the way include panoramas both east and west from the Tiffany & Co. Overlook just above the newly opened Whitney Museum of American Art. Don't miss the Chelsea Market Passage, a foodies delight. Feels like you may have walked into a secret city. Trains 1 2 3 A C E L (212-206-9922)

Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Even if you have never visited Flushing Meadows Corona Park, you've seen its icon -- the Unisphere. The site of two 20th century Worlds Fairs that attracted millions of people, this park still lures big numbers, but since it is the largest park in Queens, it never feels crowded. This is New York City's most ethnically diverse borough. On weekends the Park is thronged with families picnicking, informal soccer, tennis and cricket teams. Within this vast complex is a zoo, the newly renovated Queens Museum, stroll along the Flushing Bay Promenade, ice skate in winter, paddleboat in summer. Trains 7 (718-760-6565)

Thomas Jefferson Park
On the route of the Atlantic Flyway for the bald eagle, it's an ideal place for migrating birds and visitors to rest, refuel. Once summer arrives, the neighborhood playground known as Thomas Jefferson Park throngs with families when the outdoor pool opens. Set between East 111-114th Streets & First Ave. in East Harlem, just a few blocks from the top of Museum Mile. A friendly place to rest, run, shoot hoops or, in April join the Annual Street Games sponsored by the Walt Disney Company. Free wifi throughout. Its proximity to Museum Mile makes this a rest stop with benefits. Trains 6/110 St.

Gantry Plaza State Park
Travel five minutes by cab or one stop on the subway for a completely unobstructed view of the world-famous Manhattan skyline. Gantry Plaza State Park is built over yet another intriguing industrial relic of New York City's history, dating back to 1925, when gantries were constructed in Long Island city to serve Long Island. At that time they were used to load and unload rail car floats that operated via Long Island Rail Road tracks. Built in stages to accommodate residential space, it has been transformed into an oasis for families, a dramatic stage for concerts with the city skyline as the backdrop with sports fields and piers for light dining or more formal options nearby. Within walking distance of MOMA's PS1 Museum, quick cab ride to Isamu Noguchi Museum, Socrates Sculpture Park and the Museum of the Moving Image. Trains 7/Vernon Boulevard (718-786-6385)

Fort Tryon Park
Sixty-six densely forested acres touch the hilly neighborhoods of Inwood, Hudson Heights and Washington Heights. Fort Tryon is opened year round. Capped by The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum that is an ensemble of medieval European monasteries overlooking the Hudson River (its café is opened only in warm months). Fort Tryon Park has eateries, and trails and is the setting for wine tastings, and morning fitness routines. The Medieval Festival fills the air with medieval music, magic, mime, theater as well as jugglers and jesters and a spectacular joust between knights on horseback, markets and vittles. Romancing? Try lunch or dinner at the New Leaf Restaurant and Bar next door to the museum. Trains A/W.190th St.

Madison Square Park
The Flatiron district was once associated with the Toy business but that industry has largely moved overseas; it is now referred to as the Photo District as so many photographers' studios are nearby. Located in the evolving Park Avenue South neighborhood, Madison Square Park and the Madison Square Park Conservancy have a lineup of year round events including Madison Square Reads, a semi-annual culinary pop-up, Madison Square Eats, The Studio Series features live music performances from 3pm-5pm on Saturday afternoons. The restaurant scene is flourishing with local dining and drinking options and Eataly is just a few steps away. Trains N R 6 (212-520-7600)

Central Park
The 800-acre Central Park burst out of the minds of urban visionaries like Frederic Law Olmstead. Joggers, nature lovers and bikers use the park daily. Kids young and old enjoy skating at Wollman Rink, visiting the Central Park Zoo, and riding the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, and climb into Alice in Wonderland's lap. Sheep Meadow and the Great Lawn host free live performances by The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Delacorte Theater sets the stage for Shakespeare in the Park; while SummerStage takes over Rumsey Playfields. Join walking tours around the North Woods, a 40-acre forest smack in the city, Bird Watching groups. Central Park Conservancy Visitor's Centers are located at: the Dairy, mid-Park at 65th St., Belvedere Castle, mid-Park at 79th St., mid-Park at 97th St., the North Meadow Recreation Center, and the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center (off Fifth Ave.). 212-769-5100 (212-360-3456)

Van Cortlandt Park
Giddy up to Van Cortlandt Park in the northwest Bronx to the Riverdale Stables, walking trails average about 1.5 miles. One of four city parks designated a Natioanl Audubon Society Bird area, take a guided Bird Walk. Discover the last vestiges of New York City's native woodlands and other surprises: a freshwater lake, pool and the first municipal golf course that opened in 1895, Van Cortlandt Golf Course. Do good while having fun on Forest Restoration Days or poke around the Van Cortlandt House Museum and the Nature Center. If this is your Bronx day, do not miss the Bronx Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens; catch a bit on Arthur Avenue, the other Little Italy. Trains 1 or 4 ((718) 430-1890)

The Battery
The 25-acre waterfront is the cradle of New York history, the front lawn of the Downtown district, and the hub of harbor access. The Battery is where New York City all started as the Dutch settlers established New Amsterdam. The Battery houses an Urban Farm, Garden Bikeway, a Layrinth, Waterfront Promenade, Castle Clinton, and The Bosque and now, an aquatic-themed carousel called the SeaGlass Carousel (closed Jan. and Feb.). The magnificent fish figures -- as large as 9 ½ feet wide and 13 ½ feet tall -- create an underwater experience inside a spiraling pavilion of glass to the melodies of Mozart, Saint-Saens and Ravel. Open 10 AM-10 PM, $5. Workshops focus on hands-on-activities, tours of the gardens, snacks at the Table Green kiosks in the Bosque, ride, tour Lower Manhattan. Or, see the Manhattan skyline from Clipper City, a former cargo schooner that was recently refurbished into a tall ship (on loan from the Smithsonian). Trains 1 4 4 R 212-344-3491 (212-360-3456, 212 344-3491)

Native New Yorker Maria Lisella loves to show off her magical city. Having traveled to 60 countries, she returns home to find the world at her doorstep. She started as an Annie Oakley imitator; morphed into a dancer with modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman; but her love of words won out.  Maria writes about Europe, Italy in particular, and other destinations for various outlets. Work appears in Wells Fargo Conversations, Dallas Morning News, German Life,, and travel trades. As Queens Poet Laureate, she also knows where to find the hottest literary venues all over town some of which she organizes.

Read more about Maria Lisella here.

Connect with Maria via: Twitter

Maps and Directions

Brooklyn Bridge Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Attractions, Free Attractions, Gardens, Great Views, Parks, Public Spaces
Neighborhood: DUMBO
The High Line 10Best List Arrow
Type: Free Attractions, Gardens
Neighborhood: West Village
Flushing Meadows Corona Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Active, Art & Culture, Attractions, City, Day Trips, Family Friendly, Free Attractions, Gardens, Great Views, Local Picks, Museums, Outdoor Activities, Outdoor Activities - Summer, Outdoor Activities - Winter, Parks, Performing Arts, Public Spaces, Public Transportation, Relaxing, Romantic, Science Museums, Sightseeing, Theater Productions, Water Sports, Zoos
Neighborhood: Queens
Thomas Jefferson Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Active, Art & Culture, Art Museums, Attractions, City, Day Trips, Family Friendly, Free Attractions, History Museums, Museums, Parks, Public Spaces, Public Transportation, Recreational Facilities, Relaxing, Sightseeing
Gantry Plaza State Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: City, Day Trips, Family Friendly, Food & Wine, Free Attractions, Historic Sites, Parks, Performing Arts, Sightseeing, Uniquely Here
Neighborhood: Queens
Fort Tryon Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Active, Architecture, Art & Culture, Art Museums, Attractions, City, Day Trips, Free Attractions, Gardens, Great Views, Historic Sites, Museums, Outdoor Activities, Outdoor Activities - Summer, Outdoor Activities - Winter, Parks, Public Spaces, Public Transportation, Romantic, Uniquely Here
Neighborhood: Inwood
Madison Square Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Family Friendly, Food & Wine, Free Attractions, Gardens, Local Picks, Outdoor Activities, Outdoor Activities - Summer, Outdoor Activities - Winter, Parks, Public Transportation, Relaxing, Romantic, Sightseeing
Central Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Parks, Public Spaces
Neighborhood: Upper East Side
Van Cortlandt Park 10Best List Arrow
Type: Active, Day Trips, Family Friendly, Gardens, Golf Courses, Great Views, Historic Sites, History Museums, Museums, Outdoor Activities - Winter, Recreational Facilities, Relaxing, Reserves
Neighborhood: Bronx
The Battery 10Best List Arrow
Type: Attractions, Classes or Instruction, Cultural Venues, Day Trips, Family Friendly, Free Attractions, Gardens, Great Views, Historic Sites, Outdoor Activities, Outdoor Activities - Summer, Parks, Public Spaces, Public Transportation, Relaxing, Romantic, Uniquely Here
Neighborhood: Financial District
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