Central Park is one of New York City's most famous landmarks, and right now it is reawakening for spring, with trees and flowers blooming and leaves beginning to emerge. But there is much more to the 843 acres in the middle of Manhattan than just grass and trees.
Did you know that more gunpowder was used to blast through granite to obtain the landscape's desired topography than was later fired in the entire battle of Gettysburg? Or have you ever wondered what that Obelisk, nicknamed "Cleopatra's Needle," is doing there behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
Central Park is a fascinating, not to mention beautiful, place and there is no better way to discover its rich history than with a walking tour (something you can do at any time of year, though it is particularly nice at the moment).
The Central Park Conservancy, the organization in charge of the management, restoration, and preservation of Central Park, offers frequent free guided walking tours through the park all year long, rain or shine. There are eleven tours from which to choose, each crafted to introduce you to the park's history and unique sites through the point of view of a particular physical area or path, such as the Castle, the Ramble, or the park's waterways. For example, in the A Road Once Traveled Tour, visitors learn about Harlem Meer and its importance during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, while walking that northern area of the park.
On the Conservancy's website, click on a tour that interests you to find out when it is next scheduled and to learn where to meet. Each tour is also graded for its accessibility. All tours run about an hour to an hour and a half, and they ask that you arrive five minutes before the start time. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. No reservations are required for individuals or up to six people, and groups of seven or more should call 212-360-2726 to schedule a custom tour.
If you'd rather explore the park on your own, the Conservancy's website is a wealth of information to help guide you. There are three recommended self-guided tours – South End, Mid-Park, and North End – each with a map and ample historical information. There is also a cell phone-based audio guide that lets you call in from sites of interest around the park to learn more information (which you will then hear narrated by New York celebrities). So the next time you're out walking around and you see a little green sign that says "Seeing Central Park AudioGuide," you know what to do! Check out the map for an overview of the audio locations.
To be truly self-guided, pick your own area to go check out on a walk. The Things To See section of the website lets you search by quadrant of the park or type of attraction, and some simple browsing reveals many areas to explore. For example, did you know about the Chess and Checkers House in the southern end of the park (where you can borrow game pieces from the staff or bring your own)? Or that the East Green is one of seven designated "Quiet Zones" in the park? You're sure to find something you'll want to see in person. And for those who want to know a little more about all the wonderful greenery, the Tree Database is a wonderful resource on the plant life in the park.
For a predetermined audio tour, CentralPark.com offers free Walking Tour podcasts, along with corresponding printable maps and interactive online maps with links to further information. Choose from the Family or Arts and Architecture tours. To download from the website, you must sign up as a member with CentralPark.com (don't worry, it's free). If you have iTunes, the podcasts are also available by searching for "centralpark.com audio walking tours" and are free to download.
Be warned that these podcasts are sponsored by Jumeirah Essex House, a hotel on the southern edge of the park. Because of this, the first few minutes of the podcast do include a publicity message from the hotel, but get through that (and the slightly obnoxious transition music) and you have a free 50-minute in-depth audio tour that includes some great historical facts.
Both of these podcast tours start from Central Park South/59th Street at the bottom edge of the park and guide you as high as 81st Street before looping back down again towards the hotel and your starting point.
No matter the method, Central Park is ready to be explored – what are you waiting for?