(CNN) — Manhattan might be best known for its towering skyscrapers and bustling pavement, but there are few New York City locales more loved than the 843 acres of green that is Central Park.
Stretching from Midtown to Harlem, the park is a year-round natural oasis for locals and visitors alike.
With the city's population ballooning in the mid-19th century, the New York State Legislature set aside a large swath of land to create a much-needed public park. After winning a design contest in 1858, landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were tasked with bringing to life what Olmsted called "the lungs of the city."
The park has changed and evolved over the century and a half since then to become what it is today: a diverse public space encompassing forest paths, ponds and fountains, performance spaces and long, dreamy stretches of green. Here's how to enjoy it to the hilt:
Central Park is easily accessible via the subway, with entrances running all along the park.
The A, C, B and D lines run along the western side of the park on Central Park West; the 4, 5 and 6 lines travel up Lexington Avenue to the east; the N, Q, R and W stop along the southern edge; and the 2 and 3 stop on the northeast side.
To get a full experience of the park, get off at Columbus Circle or Fifth Ave/59th Street and amble north through the greenery.
Central Park: Where New York goes to chill.
What to do
There are activities in Central Park to match every mood, whether you're looking to exercise, take in some culture or just sit back and relax:
Bethesda Terrace offers picturesque views of the Lake and Bethesda Fountain, a monumental fountain presided over by sculptor Emma Stebbins' "Angel of the Waters." If you want to take to the water yourself, rowboats can be rented at the Loeb Boathouse for $15 per hour.
In summer, you can catch star-studded Shakespeare in the Park productions at the outdoor Delacorte Theater.
Admission is free, but it's not guaranteed. Tickets (maximum two per person) are distributed at the theater the day of the show starting at noon. For your best chance of getting one, show up at the park when it opens at 6 a.m and get ready to wait. For non-early birds, there's an online lottery each day that you can enter via the TodayTix app.
Other highlights of the park include the small but teeming Central Park Zoo, the European-style Conservatory Garden, the wildlife habitat at Harlem Meer, and two ice-skating areas (Wollman Rink and Lasker Rink) that are open in winter.
Then there's the array of world-class museums dotted in or around the park, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum and the Museum of the City of New York.
Of course, you can also just spread out a blanket and bask in the sunshine on Sheep Meadow or the Great Lawn, the park's two most celebrated stretches of grass.
Explore Central Park Lake by boat for $15 an hour.
Where to eat
If you don't want to venture back out into the city, there are plenty of dining options within the park itself.
Food carts throughout the park sell hot dogs, ice cream, pretzels and other snacks. If you didn't pack a picnic lunch, you can grab one on the spot at the Le Pain Quotidien beside the Sheep Meadow.
For an old-school classy New York meal, make a reservation at Tavern on the Green, which has been around since the 1930s but reopened in 2014 after a renovation. Outside the park, you can dig into classic Jewish deli fare at the century-old Barney Greengrass, where the lox are piled high and credit cards are not accepted. Get a taste of inventive modern Chinese fare in funky environs at RedFarm, the brainchild of chef Joe Ng and restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld. For a splurge, dine on Michelin-starred Italian seafood at Marea in Columbus Circle. And if you're just craving a quick cheeseburger, there's also a Shake Shack outpost right outside the park across from the Museum of Natural History. RedFarm, 2170 Broadway, New York, NY 10024, +1 (212) 724-9700 Shake Shack, 366 Columbus Ave, New York, NY 10024, +1 (646) 747-8770