Gotham is certainly not the first place that comes to mind for fresh-air enthusiasts and nature lovers seeking things to do outside. But when summer comes to the hot town, even the most stalwart take to the water, woods and gardens—all without leaving the city—for some best-of-both-worlds outdoor adventures in New York City.
On the Water(front)
In the middle of Times Square or Greenwich Village, it’s hard to remember Manhattan is an island. But come summer, the city’s waterways become the real avenues, bursting with activity. Get an elegant overview via a cruise on World Yacht (Pier 81, W. 41st St. & the Hudson River, 888.679.7812). Its sit-down dinner voyages go around Manhattan’s tip, offering views of iconic skyscrapers and bridges—and a ringside seat of Macy’s Fourth of July Fireworks on a special, July 4 cruise.
For more purposeful journeys, New York Water Taxi (866.985.2542) services several piers along the East and West sides, offering a Hop-On/Hop-Off opportunity to see Manhattan monuments. Colored like the checkered yellow cabs of yore, the Water Taxi also departs from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to the neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, whose fast-gentrifying delights include an Ikea superstore. But don’t forget to stroll around Red Hook’s Louis Valentino Jr. Park and Pier (Ferris Street, between Coffey & Van Dyke streets), a small waterfront park filled with greenery and flowers. The hawsers, anchors and oyster traps scattered along the water’s edge will make you feel like you’re on a ship more than land.
If you hit Red Hook on a Thursday or Saturday, you’ll find open the Waterfront Museum (290 Conover St., 718.624.4719), with its eclectic collection of river memorabilia and live riverboat-style acts in a restored wooden barge run by “Captain Dave,” a former circus performer turned waterway activist. Then hit Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies (185 Van Dyke St., 888.450.5463) nearby for a chocolate-covered mini-pie on a stick.
If you’d rather be the captain than a passenger, head to New York City Downtown Boathouse, a volunteer, nonprofit group that offers free, walk-up kayaking excursions from three sites along the Hudson River on weekends and weekday nights: Pier 40 at West Houston Street, Pier 96 at West 56th Street and West 72nd Street. This is your chance to see some of the most spectacular views of the city, and get some exercise to boot.
Looking for a little culture while you enjoy the waterfront sights? The River to River arts festival is staged in the summer (typically in July) and features a daily variety of music, dance, theater and art projects throughout lower Manhattan. For this festival, a very diverse variety of artists perform at outdoor locations like Rockefeller Park, located at the north end of Battery Park City, and One New York Plaza, located between South and Whitehall streets.
Into the Woods
Many a native New Yorker grows up thinking “woodlands” is synonymous with the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, 718.817.8700), whose terrain includes the 50-acre Thain Family Forest, the largest remaining tract of the original forest that once covered this concrete jungle. The Botanical Garden also features exhibitions; for the 2013 summer it is the "Wild Medicine: Healing Plants Around the World" exhibit and there's also the Italian Renaissance Garden, based on a 1545 botanical effort at the University of Padua. The garden was been created just for the show. Thus inspired, you may want to head to nearby Arthur Avenue afterward for some of the tastiest Italian food north of Little Italy, served at several al-fresco-oriented restaurants.
However, there’s no need to leave Manhattan for rolling fields. Riverside Park, a long and luxurious tract of greenery running for four miles along the Hudson River, from West 72nd to West 158th streets, is one of only eight designated city scenic landmarks. And scenic it is, with 330 acres of English-style parkland, gardens, recreational areas and winding paths, arranged in a series of landscaped levels down to the river’s edge. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, the park was augmented by urban planner Robert Moses in the 1930s, who added features such as the limestone Rotunda—which now houses the Boat Basin Café (West 79th Street & the Hudson River, 212.496.5542), an ideal spot for a burger and brew.
Out for a Stroll
Head Downtown for the High Line (212.500.6035), a pedestrian parkway built on a historic elevated freight rail line that runs between 10th and 11th avenues., from Gansevoort to West 30th streets. It’s a reclaimed oasis of creatively planted blooms and greenery sprinkled with art exhibits and artisanal snack stands; newcomers this year include Delaney Barbeque’s SmokeLine, featuring ribs and brisket sandwiches, and Sigmund’s Pretzels, a twist on a New York tradition with flavors like feta olive, truffle cheddar and bacon scallion. Or save the High Line for nighttime. Every Tuesday, starting at dusk, between West 13th and West 14th streets, telescopes and instruction provided by the Amateur Astronomers Association offer a chance to learn more about the NYC stars (beyond the ones on Broadway).
Running parallel to trendy Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, the High Line is always bustling. If it’s a more civilized stroll you’re after, nothing fits the bill better than the Conservatory Garden (Fifth Avenue & East 105th Street, 212.310.6600), a hidden enclave within Central Park. Reached through an ornate, wrought-iron gate that once decorated a Vanderbilt manse, it’s actually several little formal gardens, done in Italian, French and English styles. You’re in luck in July, as roses, hollyhocks and baby’s breath are all in full bloom. After exiting, head east one block to tree-lined Madison Avenue, whose quaint shops, art galleries and outdoor cafés may remind you of that other great al-fresco city, Paris.
There may be no more iconic walk in New York than crossing the East River on the mile-long wooden plankway smack in the middle of one of the most celebrated bridges in the world—the 130-year-old Brooklyn Bridge (from Manhattan, enter at Park Row & Centre Street, across from City Hall Park; from Brooklyn, at Tillary Street & Boerum Place). Current construction may mean some views are slightly obstructed. No matter: Walkways and bike paths are open to accommodate the 7,100 souls who cross each day. History, a dramatic skyline and Lady Liberty herself come together over the water and under the cables to remind you that once summer hits the city, New York is best experienced from the outside in.