Central Park may be the best-known park in the world, but even so, it has secrets.
There’s a secret way to help you get around, a secret nature sanctuary, secret leftovers of buildings long-gone, a secret tunnel underneath it. There’s also many fun facts that aren’t secrets at all, but help make Central Park more interesting and special.
Here are our top eight secrets of Central Park:
Orient yourself with the lampposts
It’s easy to get lost, when the foliage is too thick for you to see the buildings and skyline that you would normally use to help you find your way. Look to the lamposts instead.
There are two sets of numbers on each one. The first set indicates the nearest cross street, from 59th to 110th. The second set tells you if you’re on the east or west side—odd means west, even means east.
A nature sanctuary steps from Fifth Ave.
The four-acre Hallett Nature Sanctuary is on the southeast corner of the park, just steps from the Apple Retail Store and The Plaza hotel. It’s an oasis of native wildflowers, ferns and birds and other wildlife open briefly for wandering and enjoying at your own pace.
Hallett was closed off as an experiment in 1934, to see what would happen if an area were left completely untouched and allowed to grow naturally. After all, Central Park is mostly landscaped.
No groups, dogs, bikes or strollers are permitted in Hallett Nature Sanctuary. Wear sturdy shoes since you’ll be walking on uneven wood-chip trails. FREE, of course, but you are welcome to make a donation to the Central Park Conservancy.
Hallett is one of three natural woodlands in Central Park. The others are The Ramble, on the west side, and North Woods, at the northern edge of Central Park.
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Look for the ruins of an old tavern
The dilapidated remnants of a century-old stone structure can be found behind the Conservatory Garden, at 105th St. and Fifth Ave., called McGown’s Pass. It’s named for McGown’s Pass Tavern, which closed in 1915.
Originally, the site was the Academy of St. Vincent, built in 1845. Then it was occupied by a hotel, then a restaurant and then a museum before burning down in 1881 and replaced by the tavern. The Central Park Conservatory now uses it as a compost pile
Everything in the Shakespeare Garden is in a Shakespeare play or sonnet
The Shakespeare Garden, on the west side of the park near 79th Street, is a four-acre patch of lovely flowering plants. Everything cultivated here is mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s works, and most are labeled with the quotation, so you can find a rose by any name that smells so sweet.
Every year on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 21, every one of his 154 sonnets is read in order, by top Broadway actors and other fans. Shakespeare Sonnet Slam is held at the Naumberg Bandshell mid-park at 72nd St.
What lies beneath
There are countless relics from the NYC subway’s past hidden beneath the streets. One of the most intriguing is a so-called Ghost Tunnel under the corner of Central Park at Fifth Ave. and 59th St. It was built in the 1970s as part of the attempt to bring the Second Avenue Subway to life, and abandoned when the city went into recession.
Forty years later, the Second Avenue Subway (SAS) is reality, and the loop is alive, helping move the Q train link to it’s new northern route.
The roads are curved to prevent horse and carriage races
No drag racing allowed in Central Park! The pathways in the park were designed in the 1850s with deliberate curves, to prevent horse-drawn carriage racing.
Today, those curves still prevent speeding, and add some scenic benefits for cyclists.
The Ramble Cave was real and dangerous
Back in the early days of the 20th century when Central Park was under construction, workers discovered a natural cave near the Ramble.
Not surprisingly, the cave became a magnet for shady, underground activity (both literally and figuratively), and the city filled it with asphalt.
There was once a Central Park Casino
The children’s playground on the east side of the park near Fifth Avenue and 72nd Street was once the site of the Central Park Casino.
Originally, it was designated as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon for afternoon tea and gossip. During Prohibition, it became a speakeasy serving both women and men, and just after Prohibition it became an upscale nightclub.
When the Depression hit, it lost popularity because of its high prices, and NYC master builder Robert Moses demolished it in 1936.
Central Park contains 9,000+ benches, and 4,500+ of them have been adopted with a personalized plaque.
The Adopt-A-Bench program was established in 1986 as a permanent fund to maintain and endow the care of Central Park’s benches and their surrounding landscapes. In recognition of contributions to the fund, Central Park Conservancy installs a personalized plaque on a park bench of the donor’s choosing. Benches may be endowed for $10,000.
Far from a secret, the Bow Bridge is one of the most popular spots in Central Park, and has been featured in many films and TV shows.
It’s also the cover of my recent NYC guidebook, Peaceful Places in NYC.
See the Central Park website for additional information on all these fabulous features.
This post was first published in 2017 and is updated periodically.