If you are unable to join one of our scheduled tours, you might be interested in one of our self-guided tours described below. Each tour will take you to the most visited and the most popular sites in Central Park.
Charles A. Dana Discovery Center
The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, which opened in 1993, was the first building in the Park's history to be built as a visitor center. Environmental education and activities are offered, as well as community programs, seasonal exhibits, and holiday celebrations. In the warm months, enjoy the Central Park Conservancy's free catch-and-release fishing program and the free Harlem Meer Performance Festival, two popular outdoor programs.
The Park's co-designers, Olmsted and Vaux, called this man-made water body "the Meer" (a Dutch word meaning "lake"), in recognition of the former swampland that was a part of Harlem, the 17th-century community established in this area by New York's first European immigrants.
In the 1660s, the British governors constructed the Kingsbridge Road, an east side highway that linked the growing port at the southern tip of Manhattan Island to Harlem and the British colonies to the north. The road crossed over the swamp by a series of low-lying bridges and passed through the only narrow break in the wall of steep rocky cliffs that line the southern shore of the Meer today. That opening became known as McGown's Pass, a site that played a significant role in the American Revolution. When British ships attacked the indefensible New York colony in September 1776, the British army marched up the Kingsbridge Road to McGown's Pass and captured the fortification that was placed at the pass. For the next seven years, British and Hessian troops occupied this strategically important area until their defeat in the Battle of Yorktown in 1783.
The majestic trees of North America were a source of great national pride in the 19th century and many of the entries for the 1858 design competition suggested that an arboretum be included in the Park. Olmsted and Vaux envisioned their arboretum for the northeast corner of the Park - now the site of the Conservatory Garden and the Harlem Meer. The arboretum was never established, but the Park's first formal garden - the Conservatory Garden - was created in 1898 when a large E-shaped greenhouse was constructed at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street. It featured an indoor winter garden of exotic tropical plants and outdoor decorative Victorian flowerbeds. In 1937, the deteriorated greenhouse was demolished and a new six-acre formal garden was designed for the site.
The garden is divided into three distinct styles: French, Italian, and English. The French-style garden - closest to the Meer - features an ellipse of meandering boxwood and pansies, and showcases spectacular seasonal displays of tulips in spring and chrysanthemums in autumn. In the center is the charming Three Dancing Maidens fountain by German sculptor Walter Schott. The central Italian garden features an elaborate wrought-iron entrance gate and a wisteria pergola, a large lawn surrounded by clipped hedges, a 12-foot-high jet fountain (3.7 meters), and two exquisite allées of pink and white crabapple trees on either side of the lawn. To the south is the English-style garden, featuring sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh's lovely Burnett Memorial fountain surrounded by flowering trees, beds of perennials and annuals, and a woodland slope.
During the War of 1812 New Yorkers assumed that the British would attack from the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and they built forts in that area accordingly. But in fact the British stormed Long Island Sound at Stonington, Connecticut on August 1814. New Yorkers became fearful that the enemy would sail west through Long Island Sound and attack Manhattan from the north. In August and September several fortifications were built on the high cliffs that flanked the Kingsbridge Road (also known as the Albany/Boston Post Road). From that vantage point, the American troops could see any advancing ships from the Hudson and East Rivers and the Long Island Sound, as well as any armies coming from the northern end of Manhattan. Named after Mayor DeWitt Clinton, Fort Clinton was one of four fortifications on the site that is now Central Park. Although soldiers were stationed at the fortifications, the British never attacked New York City, and in 1815 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war.
In 1867, Calvert Vaux, Park co-designer and architect, created this fanciful observation tower as a “belvedere,” Italian for “panoramic viewpoint”. Placed atop Vista Rock, it overlooks the old reservoir (now the Great Lawn). Designed in the Norman Gothic style, the Castle is constructed of the same Manhattan schist as its promontory, giving it the magical appearance of rising out of the rock itself.
Central Park Mid-Park Tour MapThe United States Weather Bureau set up offices in the Castle in 1919 to monitor and report New York City's weather. In the early 1960s, the Weather Bureau installed automated meteorological instruments, and the staff vacated the building. The empty Castle deteriorated into a sad, graffiti-covered ruin. In 1983, it was restored by the Central Park Conservancy and became a popular visitor center and nature observatory. The weather instruments remain on the Castle's tower and monitor New York City's weather around the clock. When you hear “The weather in Central Park is…” on the radio or television, remember the information comes from Belvedere Castle in Central Park.
King Jagiello and Turtle Pond
This imposing statue by Polish sculptor Stanislaw Ostrowski (1879-1947) portrays King Jagiello, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, who united Lithuania and Poland after marrying the Queen of Poland. The monument depicts the moment preceding his victory at the Battle of Grunewald of 1410 when the King crossed the two swords - handed to him by his adversaries, the Teutonic Knights of the Cross - above his head.
The sculpture was chosen in 1939 for the entrance to the Polish Pavilion at the World's Fair in New York. That year, the Nazis invaded Poland, preventing the sculpture's return to its homeland. In 1945 it was placed in Central Park by the Polish government as a symbol of the proud and courageous Polish people.
The King Jagiello statue is located at the eastern end of Turtle Pond, which attracts migrating birds and waterfowl and three species of turtles. The snapping turtles can reach nearly 20 inches (50.8 cm) in diameter, and can be seen sunning themselves at the waterline of Vista Rock. The nature blind, a platform that juts out into the northern side of Turtle Pond, is a wonderful place from which to observe wildlife.
This 3,500-year-old monument stands directly behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To celebrate the 30th year of his reign, Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III (c. 1479-1425 B.C.) commissioned a pair of obelisks for the sacred city of Heliopolis. In 12 B.C., they were moved to Alexandria, where they stood until the 19th century, when all great cities around the world clamored for an ancient Egyptian obelisk. The Khedive of Egypt gave one obelisk to England in 1879 and the other to America in 1881, in exchange for foreign aid to modernize his country.
On a snowy January 22, 1881, thousands of proud New Yorkers celebrated the turning of Central Park's 220-ton obelisk (nicknamed “Cleopatra's Needle”) to an upright position. The renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, who fondly remembered playing in the area as a boy, donated the plaques that translate the hieroglyphics.
Very few people know that the Great Lawn, a luxurious green area at the geographical center of Central Park, was originally the site of the Croton Reservoir completed in 1842, fifteen years before the construction of Central Park began. With the City's increasing need for water, plans for a new water system rendered this reservoir obsolete. The reservoir was drained in 1931, filled in, andopened as a luxurious green oval in 1937.
The Great Lawn is better known as the venue for famous concerts and events, beginning in the 1970s. Concerts by Elton John, Diana Ross, Simon and Garfunkel, and Luciano Pavarotti; the exhibit of the AIDS Quilt; the visit of Pope John Paul II; and the film premier of Disney's Pocahontas drew enormous crowds, causing severe damage to the lawn. In addition, the site still held the subterranean walls of the old reservoir, which prevented adequate drainage, and by the 1980s the Great Lawn had turned into the “Great Dustbowl.”
From 1995 to 1997, the Central Park Conservancy and the City of New York undertook the largest single restoration in Central Park's history - the 55-acre area covering the 13-acre Great Lawn Oval and its surrounding landscapes. The Great Lawn is once again the setting for ballgames, sunbathing, and picnicking; the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic each give their two traditional performances a year. All these activities are carefully monitored in accordance with the management guidelines instituted to ensure the continuing health of the Great Lawn.
The Great Lawn is a particularly good place to admire some of the Park's more than 20,000 trees. The Arthur Ross Pinetum at the northern end of the Oval features 15 species and five varieties of pines.The twin linden trees inside the middle of the eastern edge of the Oval mirror each other, their intertwined branches forming an elegant heart-shaped silhouette.
Calvert Vaux, Park co-designer and architect, designed this Victorian Gothic Revival structure with an ample loggia as a respite for Park visitors, particularly for children and invalids, where they could buy a glass of fresh milk and catch the cool summer breezes coming off the northern lobe of the Pond (now Wollman Skating Rink). However, when the building finally opened to the public in 1870, city officials established it as thePark’s first “fast food” eatery. In the 1950s, the dilapidated loggia was torn down, and the remaining stone structure was reduced to a maintenance storage shed. In 1979, under the new Central Park Administration, the restored Dairy became the Park’s first visitor center, and in 1981, the loggia was returned to its original Victorian elegance by the newly formed Central Park Conservancy. Today the Dairy is the Park’s premier gift shop.
Chess and Checkers House
In 1866, Calvert Vaux designed the largest and most elaborate rustic summerhouse in the Park for children and their caregivers, known as the “Kinderberg” (Dutch for children’s mountain). The open-air shelter, made from unmilled timber, was built atop a large rock outcrop. Children and their caregivers sat at rustic chairs and tables to play games that they could borrow from the Dairy. After many years of neglect and disrepair, the structure was torn down in the early 1950s. In 1952, the present brick Chess and Checkers House was built and chess tables were placed around it, making it a haven for enthusiasts of both time-honored games. In 1984, the Chess and Checkers House was refurbished and a wisteria pergola was added. In May 2007, it reopened as the official visitor center for the Park’s south end and as the volunteer headquarters. Visitors can borrow different games and sit at the 24 chess tables under a modern-day pergola to match wits and enjoy the summer shade.
Wollman Skating Rink
When the Park was being planned, New Yorkers demanded a place for the new sport of ice skating because the rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan rarely froze. Immediately, the Pond and the Lake - both man-made water bodies - became the most popular winter destinations in the Park. Frustrated by the whims of Mother Nature, however, Park visitors wanted the guarantee of ice skating all season long. In 1950, Kate Wollman donated the money for the rink, which was placed on the northern arm of the Pond. In the 1980s, the rink was reconstructed by the City of New York with assistance from real estate developer Donald Trump, whose organization manages it today.
The Pond and Hallett Nature Sanctuary
The Pond is one of the Park’s masterpieces of engineering and technology. Designed to resemble a quiet woodland lake, it is actually lined with geosynthetic materials and filled with city water by subterranean pipes. Concrete shelves, constructed along the naturalistic shoreline, feature many plants and shrubs that contribute to the impression of a bucolic lagoon set deep in the woods. From the 1870s until 1924, visitors to the Pond could ride on swan boats, still a famous attraction at the Boston Public Garden. The Promontory is a rocky woodland slope that juts into the Pond. In 1934 it was renamed the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, set aside for wildlife and closed to the public. Tours of the Sanctuary are given in season by members of the Central Park Conservancy youth programs.
Self-guided Tours of the North Woods and the Ramble are available as downloadable PDFs.
Explore some of the Park's most exceptional and beloved landscapes on the Conservancy's new Tree Discovery Walks. Wander at your own pace through three scenic routes, selected and mapped by the Conservancy's Park experts, and expand your knowledge of the Park's trees along the way. See the Park as the experts do: a rich landscape where every tree and shrub has a unique name and identity.
The three walks have been selected to maximize arboreal diversity along routes that offer more than just trees. Visitors will also be guided through some of the Park's most celebrated destinations, including Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain, Conservatory Water and the Great Lawn. The three walks are the East Side Zofnass Walk, located between 85th and 60th Streets on the Park's east side; the Great Lawn Walk, running east-to-west between 79th and 81st Streets; and the Bethesda Walk, running east-to-west at 72nd Street. The walks feature a combined total of 125 unique tree and shrub species.
Maps are available to download and print (PDF):
The Tree Discovery Walks are supported by the Zofnass Family, Robert Scully and Barrie Wigmore.
Download our fall foliage map as a PDF.
Why do leaves change color?
Did you know the color leaves turn during the autumn have been there all year? The pigments are masked during warmer seasons by the green chlorophyll that enables photosynthesis. As the fall begins and the days get shorter, there's dwindling sunlight for trees to convert to food. The loss of nutrients stops production of chlorophyll and, as their underlying pigments emerge, the trees begin to store energy for the winter. Once leaves fall for the winter, the Conservancy's Tree Crew takes advantage of the newly exposed trees to inspect previously hidden areas for pruning and maintenance needs.
The variety of colors displayed by different trees are produced by differing chemical make-ups within the leaves. Anthocyanins produce red and purple colors seen in red maples and sumacs. Carotenoids give leaves yellow and orange pigments, such as in Norway maples and ash trees. And tannins are responsible for the brown visible in leaves of many oak trees. Whatever color they turn, the Conservancy's staff and volunteers will be out in the Park raking them up to make way for winter walkers.