The Best Outdoor Activities in New York City

Manhattan is one of New York's five boroughs that has plenty of outdoor spaces worth a visit
Manhattan is one of New York's five boroughs that has plenty of outdoor spaces worth a visit | © Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Culture Trip
12 October 2020

From adventure activities to family-friendly days out, Culture Trip charts each of New York City‘s five boroughs to find the best things to do outdoors.

It’s dubbed a concrete jungle, but in fact, NYC has an amazing variety of outdoor opportunities: hiking and trail running in hilly parks, surfing on beaches, enjoying fun with the family at the zoo or playing a spot of golf in the country’s oldest course. Here’s our roundup of the best ways to experience nature and the city’s open spaces.

Manhattan

Take a stroll through Central Park

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© Jermaine Ee / Unsplash
Central Park, spanning 863 acres (349ha) in the middle of Manhattan, is free for all to explore its lush nooks and crannies. Stroll across the romantic Bow Bridge, a picturesque cast-iron bridge that serves as the setting for unforgettable TV and film scenes as well as wedding and engagement photos. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is an ideal background for a run as the trees and flowers blossom in the spring, and change color in the fall, with the skyline serving as a backdrop.

Venture along the High Line

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The High Line
Courtesy of Pentagram
On the West Side of Manhattan, the High Line is on an old freight line that opened as a public space in 2009. Stretching 1.45mi (2km) from Gansevoort to West 34th, it features seasonally shifting works of art, food vendors, gardens and performances. and is open year-round, making it an excellent way to head uptown and get a unique perspective on the Chelsea streets and the Hudson River beyond.

Go kayaking along the Hudson River

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For an alternative way to enjoy the marvellous NYC skyline in a family-friendly and outdoorsy setting, try kayaking. A number of boathouses offer free kayaking through volunteer-run communities along the Hudson or East rivers. Pier 96 provides free kayaking organized by Manhattan Community Boathouse. Park-goers can take advantage of 20-minute free rentals on a first-come, first-served basis.

Go nature walking in Inwood Hill Park

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At the northernmost tip of the island, Inwood Hill Park is Manhattan’s only natural, non-landscaped park. This 196-acre (79ha) gem boasts cliffs, coves and forest, with marked picturesque sights and historic highlights trail that will lead you to the top of the hill, where the park’s oldest trees live. The area is also home to one of NYC’s most legendary tales of Dutch colonist Peter Minuit in 1626, who is said to have purchased the island of Manhattan from the Lenape Native American tribe for a handful of trinkets.

Enjoy outdoor theater in Shakespeare in the Park

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Kayaking in Hudson River with NYC skyline
© laurie allread / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Participating in this long-time tradition should be on every local’s bucket list. Since 1962, New Yorkers (more than 5m, to be exact) have marked the start of summer by the return of Shakespeare in the Park, the city’s premier free theater festival at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free, but obtaining them involves a bit of luck and patience, whether through a digital lottery or waiting in line each morning. Hopefuls line up in Central Park at the crack of dawn – remember the park doesn’t officially open until 6am – with the aim of receiving a pair of tickets during distribution at noon for that day’s show.

Brooklyn

Enjoy the fun, sun and sand at Coney Island Beach

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Nothing says summer outdoor fun in NYC more than Coney Island Beach in the southernmost part of Brooklyn. Breathe in the salty sea air on the beach and boardwalk that are open all year round. When it gets too crowded, head for the Cyclone, a wooden rollercoaster and landmark that’s been in operation since 1927. And no trip to Coney Island would be complete without snacking at Nathan’s, famed for its annual hotdog-eating contest on July 4.

Relax amid the lush greenery of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

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United States, New York, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Japanese Garden Basin
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the perfect way to get lost in nature without leaving the city. This 52-acre (21ha) garden is open all year round, as the greenhouses allow tropical vegetation and arid desert cacti to thrive in the New York climate. It also has fun educational activities for families, including the Discovery Garden, where kids can explore different habitats and learn about plant wildlife in a hands-on experience.

Try free yoga in Prospect Park

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Finding a moment of calm amid the hectic urban scene is crucial (just ask the locals) – and there’s no better place to do it than in cloistered Prospect Park. Enjoy the grass below your downward dog and clouds floating above your mountain pose at free yoga every Thursday at 7pm from June to September on Long Meadow – just fill out the online waiver before your first class. Take a moment before or after yoga to wander around Brooklyn’s main green space with its wild trails, fishing clinics, splash pad, lakeside skating rink, Smorgasburg on Sundays or the Brooklyn Roots Festival.

Go birdwatching at Marine Park Salt Marsh

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View of Marine Park Salt Marsh, Brooklyn, New York.
© Felix Lipov / Alamy Stock Photo

Birdwatchers will be as happy as a lark and as wise as an owl at this preserved patch of wildness. These 530 acres (214ha) of wetlands and grasslands in Brooklyn’s largest park are home to some 325 species including warblers, sparrows and pheasants. There is a flat pathway along a creek and around the preserve where you will be able to take some fantastic photos, and the park offers fun outdoor activities for families and friends including live entertainment such as storytellers and musicians.

Queens

Go surfing at Rockaway Beach

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This pristine beach is a big draw for swimmers and surfers in summer. The coastline serves as a spectacular place to hang out, relax, swim and camp. The name Rockaway originates from the Delaware and Chippewa Native American dialects that reflect the historical and geographic traits of the peninsula. Reckonwacky (the place of our own people), reckanawahaha (the place of laughing waters), lekau (sands) and lechauwaak (fork or branch) are all words that describe Rockaway Beach.

See outdoor art at Socrates Sculpture Park

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Located one block from the Noguchi Museum in Astoria, Queens, Socrates Sculpture Park is an outdoor museum and public park with towering sculptures and multimedia installations. Founded in 1986 by sculptor Mark di Suvero, the park hosts four major visual-arts initiatives each year: the Spring/Summer Exhibition, the Socrates Annual Fellowship & Exhibition, the Folly/Function Architectural & Design Competition and the Broadway Billboard Series. Admission to the park’s grounds, exhibitions and programs is free all year round from 9am to sundown.

Head back to the future at Flushing Meadows Corona Park

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Flushing Meadows Corona Park Queens New York
© Len Holsborg / Alamy Stock Photo
Most visitors to this part of Queens head to a baseball game at Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, or tennis at the US Open. But there are arguably more eccentric, unique (and certainly eerie) architectural sights to be seen at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, once host to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fair. Feast your eyes on the Unisphere, a 12-story high, spherical steel representation of Earth, the world’s largest globe structure. Fans of 1997 sci-fi comedy Men in Black will recognize the now-vacant UFO-like observation towers overlooking the flying saucer-shaped Pavilion building.

Venture further to the Jacob Riis Park beach

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This is one of NYC’s least crowded beaches, partly because it is a little further out of the city. Visitors to the People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park can travel by bus or subway. The Beach Bazaar at People’s Beach offers concessions. Head away from the boardwalk if you want an uncrowded space to lay out your towel.

The Bronx

Discover an abundance of animals at Bronx Zoo

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No trip to the Bronx is complete without a visit to the city zoo, the largest in the United States. Opening its doors in 1899, this sprawling 265-acre (107ha) wildlife reservation houses more than 6,000 animals and 700 species. The zoological gardens host events such as daily feedings of sea lions, penguins and other critters, as well as poetry readings.

Enjoy the foliage and flowers at the New York Botanical Garden

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Arguably the most well known of NYC’s gardens, the New York Botanical Garden displays the most spectacular foliage in the city. The garden features a 50-acre (20ha) plot of trees known as the Thain Family Forest, the last surviving remnant of the city’s original woodland. While the outdoor garden is open year-round, the indoor conservatory offers a warm welcome to those trying to escape the bitter wind chill. The annual Holiday Train Show is a must-see for families, but the exotic tropical plants, palms and desert cacti inside are not to be missed.

Go hiking or golfing in Van Cortlandt Park

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NYC’s third-largest city park could arguably be ranked first when it comes to outdoor pursuits. Van Cortlandt’s hilly 1,146 acres (464ha) boast several hiking routes, traversing across the forest, scrubland, meadows and wetlands. Vanny – as locals call the park – also has the country’s oldest public golf course, where many actors and athletes including Sidney Poitier and Willie Mays have played.

Relax at Orchard Beach

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The spectacular, crescent-shaped Orchard Beach is the only public beach in the Bronx. Covering 1.1mi (1.8km) and 115 acres (47ha) of exquisite sands, it consists of a sandy beach; a 50ft (15m) wide promenade; a 1,400ft (427m) by 250ft (76m) wide mall that extends to a 90,000-sqft (8,361-sqm) bathhouse; and 26 courts for basketball, volleyball and handball. Such a remarkable setting lures visitors in abundance, who flock here to cool off on a scorching summer day.

Staten Island

Cruise on the Staten Island Ferry

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The Staten Island Ferry is one of the last remaining vestiges of an entire ferry system in New York City
© Eric Farrelly / Alamy Stock Photo
The Staten Island Ferry plows New York Harbor between the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan and the St George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island. Hop aboard the free ferry and enjoy picturesque views of the city, plus a killer look at the Statue of Liberty no matter what time of day or year – the ferry operates 24/7, with food and beer concessions on board.

Go mountain biking in Wolfe's Pond Park

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Wolfe’s Pond Park, on the south shore of Staten Island along Raritan Bay, is home to one of New York’s best urban mountain-biking venues. Through thickly wooded terrain filled with white oak and hickory trees, bikers will find trails for all levels leading to glacial ponds and freshwater wetlands. A pristine beach on Raritan Bay with family-friendly facilities is the perfect place to end your day of biking.

Go fishing on the Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier

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In Staten Island, why not get “hooked” on some urban fishing? At 835ft (255m), Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier is one of the longest fishing piers in the city, offering plenty of opportunities for deep-water angling, making the pier a popular fishing spot on the island. Its distinctive design, with wavy edges and a T-shape, reduces the effects of the shade on the water and fish below.

These recommendations were updated on October 12, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.