New York City’s Best Outdoor Adventures

Plan your next trip around the city’s best activities to experience a more active, adventurous side of the Big Apple.

No, New York City isn’t Denver or San Diego when it comes to access to the outdoors. You don’t stand in midtown Manhattan and gaze upon the blue Pacific or hike right into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. But, hey, the Rockies didn’t birth hip-hop, and good luck finding a decent thin crust in Southern California. This is New York after all, the largest city in the U.S., by population, with five boroughs home to 8.9 million people, among the most diverse on earth. New York bore us the Sons of Liberty and Ella Fitzgerald. It gave us breakfast sandwiches, Seinfeld and the Wu-Tang Clan. 

And past the rich history and institutions of American culture, beyond Broadway there’s also great fun to be had outdoors. New Yorkers have found (or developed) numerous adventures between the sidewalks, bridges and skyscrapers. Keep in mind, however, that NYC’s climate is bipolar. Winters are famously harsh with wind and ice, and summers can be, too, when a heatwave takes hold—though that doesn’t keep New Yorkers inside. Just bundle up December through April and have some smart footwear for adventure in the warmer months. (Tip: September and October are amazing!). And the wildlife is more than just pigeons and subway rats.

So, experience the best of the Big Apple by framing your next visit around the city’s plentiful outdoor activities, instead of the overcrowded tourist-site mainstays. Take your pick: Go mountain biking in the morning, ride the subway to surf or kayak, and finish the day dining outside at Umberto’s Clam House in the midst of Little Italy, all within this pulsing metropolis. 

Central Park 

Any list of New York outdoor adventures must start with the green space that defines the city and occupies the middle of Manhattan: Central Park’s 843 acres of recreational opportunity.

Historians tell us that in the early 1800s, the area north Midtown (originally Lenape land prior to Dutch settlement in the early 1600s) was largely an African-American community called Seneca Village. And it was a thriving one at that, with farms, homes (owned by African Americans even prior to the Civil War), schools and churches. The state of New York began the legal process of setting the area aside as the nation’s first landscaped public park by the 1950s, acquiring the land through eminent domain (sparking controversy on whether the landowners were paid a fair price to relocate). The rather unique area of swamps, rocky outcroppings and bluffs quickly became a widely used outdoor space within the growing metropolis, which it remains today, a recreational outlet open to people of all backgrounds.

In addition to the countless runners, walkers and cyclists that use the park daily, snowstorms will bring cross-country skiers as well. There are families fishing in the summer and bird watchers enjoy incredible opportunities that often get overlooked. Many species make their nests here, including birds of prey like owls, falcons, hawks, and kestrels. You can watch loons, ducks and egrets in the lakes. And when migratory birds travel through the Atlantic flyway, Central Park provides a lush, natural area in which to stop. You can even sign up for a guided birding tour.

Go ice skating at Wollman Rink in the winter. Sunbathe at Strawberry Fields in the summer. Run a 1.7-mile loop around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. You might even take a walk and learn about the edible plants within the park with a local naturalist. And since you’re in the city, anything you need is just a walk away—especially great food. Of course, Tavern On The Green has been a prestigious mainstay since 1934, but you’ll also find some of the best Italian food in the country nearby, including dozens of amazing pizza joints just blocks from the park, or whatever else you’re craving from burritos to souvlaki, tandoori to crepes.

I’m on a Boat!

If someone tries to sell you tickets to the Staten Island Ferry, tell them to go kick rocks. The Staten Island Ferry is free. Running since 1817, the four different boats make 117 trips per weekday. It’s a great way to see the skyline from the water, the Statue of Liberty, the impressive bridges and Ellis Island, disembarking from Whitehall Terminal on the southernmost tip of Manhattan. 

And if you want a closer, more high-exertion adventure on the water, head west to the Hudson River. If you don’t have the paddling skills to handle dynamic, tidal-influenced (and sometimes heavily trafficked) water, launch with an outfitter like Manhattan Kayak Company or Kayak Hudson. There are also Manhattan boathouses along the Hudson River Park that offer lessons, rentals and storage, like the all-volunteer/nonprofit Downtown Boathouse in Tribeca, built in 1994 to provide free public access for kayaking the harbor.

Island Adventures 

Though it’s pricey, you can go camping in New York City, albeit very lavishly. Take a short ferry ride to Governors Island, a 173-acre island in New York Harbor. Book with Collective Retreats and you can sleep in the most luxurious of tents, wake up to the NYC skyline and then take part in a full day of wellness activities, dining and recreation.

Want more island vibes in the city? Head to the underappreciated greenway loop of Roosevelt Island. You can enjoy water-level skyline scenery on a flat, paved 4-mile route that encircles the small East River island wedged between Manhattan and Queens, bookended by the Lighthouse Park (north) and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park (south). Access it directly from the pedestrian path/bike lane off the Queensboro Bridge, or for added adventure and views, use your MTA subway card and take the Roosevelt Island Tram, America’s original commuter aerial tramway. 

Runners and cyclists on the East Side of Manhattan shouldn’t miss the chance for the classic 1-mile rite of passage that is crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, starting from City Hall Park, and extending to more miles connecting with the Brooklyn Bridge Park and Brooklyn Greenway (go sunrise-early to beat the crowds on the elevated bike/walk path).  

Fish On!

Yes, fishing. The famed Harlem Meer offers a catch-and-release program for kids. Or anyone can rent a bamboo pole for $10 and fish for crappie, catfish, bass, pickerel or sunnies. The lake is man-made and the fish are stocked but it’s still exciting to get a bite. And especially when it’s a stroll away from a public art wall known as the Graffiti Hall of Fame.

Want to get saltier? While the outer boroughs have access to the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean, Manhattan is an island. The East and Hudson rivers are saltwater tidal estuaries that hold fish. Dedicated anglers have fished these banks for generations and the water is considerably cleaner than a few decades ago. You can book a sportfishing charter right out of Chelsea Piers. The crew at New York City Sportfishing Charters specializes in getting anglers on trophy striped bass right under the high rises. You can pull fluke and bluefish out of these waters as well.

Two-Wheel Wanderings

Bicycling through NYC takes a lot of caution or bravery, perhaps a sensible combination of both. No doubt, there is an entire subculture of bike enthusiasts here on the streets. But dedicated bike paths in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan allow for safe riding and a chance to stretch your legs. Prospect Park’s system is 3.5 miles while Central Park has a 6-mile loop where “Central Park Laps” are famous among road bikers. Try the 9.5-mile East River Greenway on the east side of Manhattan or the 11-mile Hudson River Greenway on the west side. Bikes are a great way to see the city and the N.Y. Department of Transportation has worked hard to create, map and promote safe bike paths over the last several years. 

You can even mountain bike within city limits. Between their trips upstate, MTB riders hit spots like Wolf Creek in Staten Island, High Bridge Mountain Biking Course in Manhattan and Cunningham Park in Queens. All three have some wooden trails and features to challenge yourself.

Urban Waves

The Ramones may have told the world about Rockaway Beach in Queens, but for many years only a hardcore local crew knew about the waves year-round. In recent decades, Rockaway has developed into a thriving, groovy urban surf scene. 

If you want the waves to yourself, you can literally surf New York City’s Atlantic waters off a series of jetties. You’ll want to look for moderate swells with north winds. The ocean here can drop to 32 degrees in the winter and then 78 in the summer, so plan accordingly. Also, beginners should read up on basic surf awareness before paddling out—things get a little crazy in warmer months. Pop in at the super cool Rockaway Beach Surf Club for travel-inspired food and drink.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.