Every time I visit New York City, I find myself completely energized by the pace and whir of activity—even with an early 5:30 AM wake up call to catch a bus there. As soon as I step out of the Port Authority onto 8th Avenue, the streets have me wide awake and ready to conquer the day.
And I love getting this dose of city life a couple times every year.
But it’s not long before I crave a bit of nature. (Let’s be honest, those little squares in the sidewalk with dirt and a sapling–where all the neighborhood dogs do their business–leave me wanting more.)
Despite being dubbed the concrete jungle, New York City has a surprising amount of places to enjoy nature. Like most people, my mind immediately goes to Central Park when I think about beautiful parks in NYC. With good reason, this park is world-renowned.
But there are plenty of other green spaces throughout the city that provide a soothing departure to nature. From hidden parks to rooftop gardens to waterfront bike paths, you’ll find them tucked into various corners of Manhattan and beyond.
So if you’re wondering where to enjoy nature in New York City, keep reading for 14 ideas that are sure to inspire you to head outside!Even in the concrete jungle, there's an insane amount of green space where you can enjoy nature. Check out 10+ ideas for your next trip to NYC!Click To Tweet
Thanks to the amazing travel bloggers who collaborated with me to contribute these ideas! Many of them are New Yorkers and they share some great insider tips. Be sure to check out their blogs at the end of each entry (if no one is listed, it’s written by yours truly).
- Nature Escapes in Manhattan
- Nature Escapes in Brooklyn
- Nature Escapes in Queens
Nature Escapes in Manhattan
1. Riverside Park
Riverside Park is on the upper west side of Manhattan and is a wonderful area spanning four miles of prime waterfront real estate. From photos, it’s hard to believe this is in Manhattan, one of the most densely populated, busiest cities in the world.
What to do there: This public New York City park has so much to do from running trails, to skate parks, beautiful greenery, to bike riding, to a children’s playground, and monument admiration. But my favorite thing to do is visit their Boat Basin Cafe area where you can meet a friend for drinks and a snack or meal. It’s very easy to feel like you’re on vacation here!
I recommend timing your visit so you get there about an hour before sunset to claim your table, order drinks, and admire golden hour. It’s fun to see the reflection of the night lights in the water into evening as well after the sun sinks beyond the horizon.
Plan your visit: Riverside Park Conservancy
2. The High Line Park
The trains serving the west side of Manhattan in the mid-1800s, coupled with busy pedestrian streets, gave way to the nickname “Death Avenue” because of frequent fatal accidents. In the 1930s, an elevated rail line was built above the streets, and the High Line freight rail soon became known as the “Lifeline of New York,” serving New York City’s factories and warehouses with deliveries of meat, dairy, and produce for decades. With the eventual decline of railroad use and of manufacturing in Manhattan, the last train ran down the tracks in 1980, and it wasn’t long before nature took over.
The High Line may have been demolished if it weren’t for two local residents who led the way to preserve and repurpose it, eventually forming the non-profit Friends of the High Line, which now manages the park.
The park opened in 2009 and the last section was completed in 2014, and it’s now free and open to the public.
There are plenty of informational markers along the 1.45-mile trail to help you learn about the park, as well as open spaces, seating, overlooks, and art. You can also join a free tour if you want a more in-depth experience. Accessibility note: the park is wheelchair-accessibly and there are several elevator entrances. Bicycles and dogs are not allowed on the High Line.
What to do there: Connect with an interesting part of New York’s history, admire the ways nature has of taking over man-made structures, and people watch from above. Or simply take the scenic route through midtown Manhattan!
Plan your visit: Friends of the High Line
3. The Cop Cot in Central Park
Many people know Central Park for being the largest green space in New York City, and the reality is that you could visit the park for years and never fully discover everything it has to offer. The Cop Cot, which actually has nothing to do with cops and means “little house on top of the hill” in Scottish, is one such place that may not even be on the radar of many New Yorkers.
The Cop Cot is the largest rustic wooden structure in Central Park, and just like the translation implies, it’s situated on a little hill that boasts some of the best views of both Central Park and the city skyline around it. It’s accessible via a small, often overlooked, pathway off to the left after you enter Central Park through the 6th Avenue entrance.
What to do there: The best way to experience the area surrounding the Cop Cot is by taking a seat at the beautiful rustic bench outside of the structure and enjoying a cup of coffee or an otherwise peaceful break away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The views from the Cop Cot are some of the best in the park, giving you a gorgeous glimpse of the city and the park itself at the same time, making it a green space that shouldn’t be missed on a nice summer day.
Plan your visit: Central Park Cop Cot
4. Carl Schurz Park
Not many New Yorkers know where the mayor of the city lives. Overlooking the East River sits Gracie Mansion, a two-story, light yellow structure built in the Federal style in 1799. The mansion has been the official home of most mayors of New York City since 1942 and is just one of the many attractions you can find in Carl Schurz Park. This area on the Upper East Side of New York City is 15 acres of park bliss in Manhattan’s hectic and bustling East Side.
What to do there: There are many things to do in this wooded peaceful park with its playgrounds, sports courts, dog parks (one for big dogs and one for the smaller ones), tours of Gracie Mansion, summer movies, art exhibits and much more!
The promenade that lines the East River is great for jogging or just sitting and watching the ships on the river. In the summertime, local residents gather to plant and maintain the wild flower beds scattered throughout the park.
Plan your visit: Carl Schurz Park Conservancy
5. Paley Park
Tucked inside an almost hidden space in Midtown Manhattan lies Paley Park, one of New York’s hidden garden gems. This is often recognized as one of the best urban spaces in the United States, and it is quite easy to see why.
Paley Park was a revolutionary design in urban landscaping when it opened in 1967. That was when people realized what it meant to successfully design a landscape for human use: light furniture allows users to redesign their seating arrangements to their liking. (Watch how everybody will unconsciously move their chairs just before sitting down, or pick up and move around tables or chairs.)
Paley Park’s space is formed by surrounding walls on three sides, and its narrow and dark space is designed really well to become an urban oasis from the hustle and bustle of New York’s city life. Tall mature trees in this space allow wildlife to live here, and it is a popular spot for nearby workers to escape the office routine and to wind down and socialize with others.
The main feature of Paley Park is the 20-foot artificial waterfall on the back wall. It creates white noise to disguise the noisy city surrounding it.
What to do there: Spend a hour here for lunch, or read a book while re-energizing!
6. The Elevated Acre
Long before the High Line became the hottest attraction in New York, the Elevated Acre was already a secret lunchtime spot for New Yorkers working downtown.
Like the name suggests, the Elevated Acre is an elevated garden, one acre in size, located on the first floor at 55 Water Street, only a couple blocks from Battery Park. It came to life in the 1970s, thanks to a city regulation allowing developers to add six more stories to a building, provided the property included a public plaza.
There’s nothing to advertise the Elevated Acre, save for stairs and an escalator going up one level. Climb up, and you’ll find yourself on a beautiful landscaped terrace opening up to the river, with amphitheater-like seating and wooden boardwalks between the plants.
What to do there: In winter, the Elevated Acre is very quiet, but in summer it houses several events, from outdoor cinema screenings to dance shows, concerts and more!
Contributed by Margherita Ragg from The Crowded Planet // Follow on Instagram
Read more NYC content on her blog: 19 Unusual Things to Do in New York City
7. Madison Square Park
Named for President James Madison, the small Madison Square Park has been a public space since 1686 and became a public park and green space in 1847. Nowadays, it is as well known for burgers as it is for leafy green trees, squirrels, and pigeons.
Begun as a park hot dog stand, celebrity chef Danny Meyer changed it into a burger kitchen and opened his first Shake Shack here. Because there seems always to be a line—rain or shine—I’ve never actually eaten at this site, but I have had the chain’s burger and fries and shake elsewhere, and they are all good enough to warrant a stint in line.
What to do there: Grab a shake or snack at the original Shake Shack. Time your visit right and the park will be alive with an art display or concert. Or visit with children, who will have a fabulous time swinging and sliding in the colorful playground.
Plan your visit: Madison Square Park Conservancy
Whether you're visiting for the 1st or 20th time, or you call New York City home, you're going to love these beautiful parks and nature escapes! Click To Tweet
8. Shakespeare in Central Park
Central Park is one of the most beautiful places in New York City and certainly one of the best urban parks in the world. There is so much to do in the park—from running, biking, going to the zoo, or just whiling away the hours on the grass.
What to do there: One of the best and most popular free things to do in Central Park is the annual Shakespeare in the Park put on by the public theater. Beginning in 1954, it continues to be one of the top must-do summer activities in New York City.
Each year two different plays are put on at the Delacorte Theater in the park (located close to West 81st Street) and many are modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Lines of people dot the park waiting for the free tickets to be distributed each performance day. You’ll certainly see both professional and amateur actors in each of the productions and incredible production quality.
Plan your visit: Shakespeare in the Park
Contributed by Anwar from Beyond my Front Door // Follow on Instagram
Read more on his blog: Local’s Guide to Shakespeare in the Park Tickets – NYC
9. Bryant Park
Back in the 1970s, Bryant Park was full of crime and surrounded by a chain link fence. Since the early 90s, however, it has become Midtown Manhattan’s nicest green space, run by a non-profit organization that is dedicated to its upkeep. One edge of the park is the back of the beautiful Beaux-Arts New York Public Library, and the other three sides are the towering skyscrapers of Midtown, so Bryant Park really is an oasis in the middle of the city.
What to do there: There’s an enormous lawn where you can watch outdoor movies for free on Monday nights in the summer. Surrounding the lawn are lots of lovely spaces, including a free outdoor reading room where you can sit and read borrowed books, a table tennis area, a carousel for kids, a games area where you can play Chinese chess and quoits among other games, and a beautiful fountain.
There is a great café with comfortable seating areas, as well as plenty of chairs and tables scattered around the park. The lawn is surrounded by trees and gardens that make delightful shady spots to relax.
Plan your visit: Bryant Park
Contributed by James Ian from Travel Collecting // Follow on Pinterest
10. Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park
Looking to “escape” to nature without leaving Manhattan? Nestled right in bustling Central Park is Hallett Nature Sanctuary, a quiet haven with dirt trails, bird life, and benches to sit on. It had actually been closed since the 1930s, and just re-opened in 2016, making this green space extra special.
What to do there: It’s a great place to come with a book, a picnic or a guided meditation. What’s also great is that it’s right near other scenic attractions within Central Park, like The Pond (home to the famous Mandarin Duck), Gapstow Bridge (popular with proposals), and Inscope Arch (fun for silhouette photos). Additionally, you’ll find ice skating or rides nearby depending on the season.
Plan your visit: Hallett Nature Sanctuary — Central Park Conservancy
Contributed by Jessie Festa from Jessie on a Journey // Follow on Facebook
Read more on her blog: 41 Unique Ways to Enjoy NYC in Spring (Beyond Central Park)
Nature Escapes in Brooklyn
11. Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park is a gorgeous waterfront park located along the Brooklyn side of the East River in New York City. Part of the park is stationed under the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and attracts thousands of visitors each week.
One popular activity here is a bike ride along the greenway, enjoying the river breeze and stunning views. The Brooklyn Greenway Initiative began in 2004 with a mission to “connect a greener, stronger, and healthier Brooklyn.” This initiative will connect neighborhood parks and open spaces from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge, with many green spaces adjacent to the greenway.
Currently the portion of the greenway located in Brooklyn Bridge Park is in operation with work still being conducted on the remainder of the greenway.
What to do there: The views of the lower Manhattan skyline are absolutely incredible from the park and well worth a visit just for this. However, there is so much more to explore.
During the spring and summer months, the park is perfect for waterfront dining and relaxing picnics. The city also hosts many free events here, including an outdoor cinema, kayaking and rowing adventure, various fitness events, and art exhibits. There are also plenty of options to rent a bike nearby, and with various distances to ride, The Brooklyn Bridge Park is the perfect place to cruise around, taking in the sights and supporting the importance of much needed green spaces in New York.
12. Prospect Park
In Brooklyn, you can find a park that has no reason to envy Central Park. It was designed by the same two men after the completion of Manhattan’s most famous green area, and it has an area of 585 acres. You can find several plazas, bridges, waterways, monuments, statues, and hundreds of bird species. It can be enjoyed during all seasons, but on warmer days there are many things to do here. You just can’t miss this beautiful park in NYC.
What to do there: Head to Prospect Park to enjoy a picnic with your friends or family in one of the multiple designated areas. It’s practically impossible to get lost, as there are always people doing it!
One of the best ways to see the park is renting a bike and just getting lost on the numerous trails. Or watch some baseball, relax in Long Meadow, or rent a kayak to navigate through the lake. Additionally, there is a big movies under the stars festival, which is a very popular summer event.
Plan your visit: Prospect Park Alliance
Nature Escapes in Queens
13. Socrates Sculpture Park
One of the best parks in Queens is Socrates Sculpture Park, located in Astoria. This urban space, perfect for photographers and art lovers, was created by a sculptor on an illegal dumpsite and landfill in Queens. Since 1998, the park has been a haven for sculptors from NYC (and beyond) to show off interesting works. The exhibitions generally change each spring.
What to do there: Be sure to check the park’s schedule for free events, including interactive art projects with the artists themselves, as well as free yoga and movie nights in summer.
It’s easy to spend at least an hour wandering around the park, which has different views over Manhattan, while debating the artist’s intent. Socrates Sculpture Park is a great place to visit after getting a bite to eat in Astoria, one of New York’s coolest neighborhoods. Some of the works are intended as interactive works, which are perfect for those visiting with kids.
Plan your visit: Socrates Sculpture Park
Contributed by Karen from WanderlustingK // Follow on Instagram
Read more on her blog: Your Insider Guide to Astoria, Queens
14. Brooklyn Grange
Brooklyn Grange is an organization that runs not one but two urban rooftop farms in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, one of which is the largest rooftop farm in the world. Their mission is to bring fresh, organic produce to the heart of the city while taking advantage of the unused space that New York’s many flat rooftops provide.
The farm is a commercial farm, meaning they sell the 50,000 pounds of produce they produce each year to local restaurants, at farmer’s markets, through a CSA program, and directly on site.
What to do there: There are so many ways to visit these rooftop gardens! Since they are exposed to the harsh New York winter, the rooftops are only open to visitors during the warmer months of May-October.
You can go on a guided tour, take a workshop (also available in the winter), participate in a yoga class, attend one of their farm dinners, or visit at your own pace during a free open house. The rooftops are perfect for a picnic assembled from freshly picked produce with a beautiful view of the New York City skyline.
Finally, community building and nourishment are central to the mission of Brooklyn Grange. They host thousands of educational tours and workshops for NYC youths through their educational non-profit partner, City Growers.
Plan your visit: Brooklyn Grange Farm
Contributed by Sam from Alternative Travelers // Follow on Instagram
Read more NYC content on their blog: A New Yorker’s Guide to Cheap Vegan Food in Brooklyn
Which of these parks and outdoor spaces would you most like to visit? Do you have any others you’d add to the list? Let me know in the comments!
Originally published February 25, 2019.