Manhattan can often feel overwhelmingly urban, all concrete and hustle. Central Park might be green, but there’s so much going on there that a visit doesn’t always feel like a break.
In my 14 years of living in the city, I’ve made it a point to find the lesser-known parks of Manhattan, where life is a little slower and the people-watching is a little better. The sights range from a waterfall peacefully splashing in Midtown to a long strip of land on the southwestern side that offers wonderful views of the harbor. Here, I’ll introduce you to seven of my favorite parks, both private and city-owned, but all open to the public, so that you too can duck out of the city grind and enjoy a bit of the quiet life in America’s busiest city.
Let’s start in Lower Manhattan, where you’ll find the beautiful Hudson River Park . It extends from Battery Park City — a housing and shopping complex built on the ground excavated and relocated during the building of the World Trade Center towers — all the way up to 59th Street. Enter at Vesey Street to see the haunting Irish Hunger Memorial; it’s closed until the spring of 2017, but the cottage walls and quotes on the side are still visible from outside . Walk or bike south for glorious views across the harbor, or north to see what’s happening on the piers that line the river. Nearby restaurants offer tables with a view or takeaway food, particularly in the lower part of the park. There are playgrounds, outdoor sculptures and beautiful gardens. The park is a little-known oasis, especially for those who would like some quiet after a visit to the nearby National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
In the West Village, there’s another lovely place to sit, eat lunch, think or read: the gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields (487 Hudson St. ). The walls around the garden create a microclimate that allows less-hardy plants to thrive there, so flowers often bloom in the warmer months. It’s a popular spot for watching birds, and blessedly quiet even on busy weekdays. This a private space maintained by the church, and is not accessible after dark or on some holidays.
Continuing up the West Side, you’ll come to the High Line, a city park built where elevated train tracks once wound through the extreme west side of Manhattan . Although it’s certainly not obscure, it’s an absolute must-see for transportation buffs, photographers and gardeners — and, really, anyone who wants to experience Manhattan in a unique way. The newly relocated Whitney Museum of American Art anchors the southern end at Gansevoort Street ; many visitors walk the High Line only a few blocks north, but the park actually extends all the way to W. 34th Street. There, you can see massive construction projects up close and enjoy fantastic views of New Jersey and Midtown as well as gorgeous small gardens planted with native grasses and flowers. If stairs are an issue (it is an elevated park, after all) make sure to enter where there’s an elevator.
The Stonewall Inn became the Stonewall National Monument, the first related to America’s LGBT rights movement, when it was designated by President Obama in June. Christopher Park is a pocket park across the street from the inn, with benches lining a small circle and sculptures of two same-sex couples by George Segal. It’s a wonderful place to take a seat and think about history while watching the many tourists paying homage to the importance of the site.
For history of a slightly older stripe, visit the General Grant National Memorial (more popularly known as “Grant’s Tomb”) way up on the Upper West Side around 123rd Street. It’s adjacent to Riverside Park, another lovely, if blustery, green space that winds its way up the edge of Manhattan and offers wonderful views of the Hudson River . This once was a must-see for tourists. Now it’s usually a solemn, quiet place for reflection. Carved onto his mausoleum, General Grant’s words “Let us have peace” are worth contemplating.
I love Greenacre Park, a private space with a 25-foot waterfall in midtown Manhattan, at E. 51st Street between Second and Third avenues. There’s a small food kiosk there, and lots of tables and chairs. This is a busy area of Manhattan, and the natural sound of rushing water is especially nice to find. Although the park is said to be open 24 hours a day, I have seen it closed on Sunday mornings.
Another wonderful rest stop is Grand Central Plaza (622 Third Avenue at 40th Street) . It’s a rooftop spot not far from Grand Central Terminal, where the subways pass through and the Metro-North Railroad terminates, so it’s a busy neighborhood. This little parklet fills up at lunch, but during other parts of the day it’s pleasantly shaded and provides great people-watching from the second floor. This spot may also close on weekends. Head for 40th Street and Third Avenue, then look for the steps up to the second floor next to Zengo restaurant. There is also an elevator inside the building at 622 Third Ave.
These are just a handful of the smaller parks in Manhattan. There are many more community gardens, playgrounds, public spaces and grassy areas set aside.
Manhattan can certainly be a grind, but there always is a spot to take a break, if you keep your eyes open. Sit a spell, take a deep breath and enjoy stepping outside of the intense energy all around you.
Reed is a freelance writer and novelist who splits her time between Brooklyn and Pittsburgh.
More from Travel: