People are always surprised when I, an avowed nature devotee, express how in love I am with New York City. I feel so at home there each time I visit, and I was even lucky enough to work there in the summer of 2017 for a celebrity, managing their artwork and photographing their home (and helping them prepare for a renovation). While it may seem contradictory to be an outdoorsy person and also feel this way about New York City of all cities, it really isn’t. For one, human beings are complicated and messy, and being contradictory is part of our nature. I love forests and hiking, and I can also love bustling cities and art museums just as much. They’re both exciting to me, and like everyone, I don’t fit into a box. For another thing, the truth is, New York City actually has a lot of places that really speak to the nature part of my soul. These places are amazing, because it allows someone like me to enjoy the life that a city like this breathes into my heart, while at the same time connecting with Mother Earth.
If the idea of being tugged at by both cities and nature resonates with you, read on—this is a guide to New York City just for you. Here are the best spots to enjoy nature in the city (as well as some amazing places to eat that honor the natural bounty of the land around it).
Travel around the natural world at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One might not think of a museum when they think of the outdoors, but believe me—this will feed the nature lover in anyone. Spend time with the paintings of nature, done by classical and world-renowned artists, thinking about your relationship to the natural world. Take in scenery from around the world, and file away places that you’d like to travel to. When you want some fresh air, head up to the roof of the Met for the best views in the city and the incredible plant life up there. This is the best place to meditate on the dreamy nature paintings you devoured emotionally, and to slow down. Also, it’s the one place in the museum where you won’t find crowds, since many don’t even know the roof is open!
Let the urban greening efforts at the High Line inspire you.
This place has really blown up in popularity since Pinterest made it all the rage several years back, but the hype is finally slowing down a bit. My favorite place to start is in Chelsea right outside Chelsea Market. Make sure to wear sunscreen, because this place doesn’t have much shade; you can pick some up in the market before you climb the stairs to the Highline itself. Enjoy plant life in the middle of the loud city, and take in the locally painted art and open-air art along the walkway. Grab a snack at one of the vendors (the fresh fruit popsicle stand is always my favorite for their watermelon ice, so visit them if they’re there when you go), and take some time to appreciate the fresh air and imagine a world where nature and urban spaces could collide as naturally as this. We really do have the capabilities to have green cities and incorporate plant life into our cities: we just need to make sure our city planners prioritize it. Hopefully this experience will encourage you to write to your local cities about your experience and your hopes for greening efforts where you live.
Stop and smell the flowers at New York Botanical Garden.
Filled with wildflowers and colorful sculptures, this is both a flower child’s and an artist’s dream come true. This is a powerful organization to support, as they advocate and practice conservation as well on a large scale. Located in the Bronx, this is heaven for anyone just really needing the smell of flora or wanting to be among bumblebees and butterflies in the middle of their busy work week in the urban jungle (if you are in the Brooklyn area instead, check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for beautiful flowers as well). It’s a great place to clear your head. If you go anytime through the end of August of this year, you’ll get to see the much awaited exhibit from Yayoi Kusama—Cosmic Nature!
Go swimming at one of New York City’s many beaches.
It’s easy to forget that this crowded city is surrounded by the ocean—and lots of it! The city has a ton of beaches to enjoy, that most tourists never visit because again—people forget you can enjoy the sea and Fifth Avenue in one day. I recommend avoiding the packed Coney Island central beaches, and aiming for the beaches that the locals love. Jacob Riis Park Beach is beloved its Art Deco sculptures, famous bathhouse, and its history of being a safe place for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to swim and sunbathe. Brighton Beach is another favorite thanks to its boardwalk and location in Little Odessa—the Russian and Georgian neighborhood filled with great nightlife and international food. If you want something a bit more isolated, Jones Beach isn’t remote, but it’s quieter and offers a beautiful white sand beach.
Take a morning walk at Prospect Park.
This Brooklyn Park can get packed in the summer, but if you go at dawn, it’s quiet, peaceful, and misty. Walk through fields and sit with an iced coffee under trees as the sun rises higher in the sky. This place is especially beautiful in the autumn when morning walks are cozy under the colorful trees, but summertime is ideal for having a laid-back start to your day. It opens at 5 a.m., so get there early (grabbing a coffee or breakfast to go somewhere nearby—NYC eateries open early for workaholics, so don’t worry). Bring a book if you plan on staying for a few hours, or just wander happily through this peaceful sanctuary in the middle of the neighborhoods.
I had wanted to do this since I was a kid, and when I finally did it in the winter of 2018, it was the highlight of my trip. It remains one of the most beautiful mornings of my life, and the best sunrise I have ever seen. I love the Brooklyn Bridge, but during the day, throughout the year it gets so crowded and hard to enjoy. I like to start in Manhattan at least half an hour before sunrise, that way when I get halfway across the bridge that’s when the sun will rise and I can take in full views of the water and colors of the sky. As someone who grew up on the sea, this activity is one that especially helps me feel centered and whole, and in touch with the natural world that I connect most with. I love to take my time watching that (sometimes a few locals will be out too and it’s fun to make friends), and when I’m hungry, walk over the Brooklyn and find some good vegan breakfast food.
Visit a farm in the middle of the city.
There are so many urban farms in New York City—whether it be in Brooklyn or at the NYU campus! If growing your own food inspires you, or you feel connected to the practice, be sure to check out one of them. Heritage Farm on Staten Island is environmentally friendly, and sits on almost 3 acres of land, making it larger than most of the other ones closer in to Manhattan. Snug Harbor (where the farm is located) has a lot of parks and even scholar gardens to explore, so making the trip out there will bring with it all sorts of opportunities to connect with nature.
Explore Central Park during the golden hour.
Central Park can get really busy, but for good reason. It’s huge, and it’s filled with such beautiful sites and corners where you can enjoy some alone time—a luxury in a condensed city like New York. I love it most either early in the morning before the tourists come, or during the golden hour when the evening breezes sweep through it and I can do some yoga to wind down my day before walking to grab a glass of wine. You can take classes there to enjoy the outdoors, or you can enjoy it yourself. Rent a bike and explore the park on wheels, or take a long walk and just linger wherever calls to you. The trees are especially beautiful during the golden hour of the day, so take that in. There are plenty of wilderness areas where you can even hike in the middle of the city—as mentioned the park is huge! There are also castles, places to play volleyball, meadows, Revolutionary War forts, wildflowers, outdoor concerts, boating, Swedish cottages, ponds, and much more. It’s such a perfect place to reconnect with the natural world, and if you’re needing that in this urban space, head straight here. My favorite areas for some quiet time in nature are Bank Rock Bay, Turtle Pond, and The Ravine.
Head to a high point in the city and enjoy the sky.
You can go to the top of one of the famous skyscrapers (like the tourist-loved Empire State Building), or you can aim to rent a hotel room on a higher floor. However you get high up, enjoy sweeping views of the sky at the top. I love doing this at sunrise because of the fact that the sunrise lasts longer than the sunset here since the city faces the Atlantic Ocean, but even if you just go in the middle of the day, it’s beautiful. Grab a refreshing drink and just relax while sky-gazing. It’s a great way to clear your head in the busy urban space. Other low maintenance ways to enjoy nature in New York City include actually admiring the trees you pass on the sidewalk and spending time with them, smelling flowers as you pass them (there are a lot in The Village), walking through flower shops (there are plenty in Soho) and smelling them as well, head to the produce section of a market in the city and admire the fruits and veggies, and bird watching for urban birds. Despite us urbanizing this space, it’s still nature too.
The best eateries that honor the natural world around the city:
- Friend of a Farmer – vegan pot pie, grilled cauliflower, and mushroom cavatelli among other farm-to-table finds that honor the local produce and farmers.
- The Farm on Adderley – sourdough focaccia with whipped vegan ricotta, grilled summer squash sandwiches, and spring vegetable pasta all surrounded by local art that highlights the beauty of food.
- Blackbarn – curried cauliflower steaks, leek squash and apple soup, and grilled Brussels sprouts make this farm-to-table eatery a hearty choice (though they have plenty of vegetarian options on the actual menu, making them vegan is very easy since the animal products are few on these items).
- Gentleman Farmer – vegan split peas soup, veggie paninis, and carrot salads are just a few options from the locally sourced menu.
- Harvest Kitchen – expect dishes like grilled whole-wheat molasses flatbread with jam, charred peppers, and squash bowls when you enjoy this farm-to-table restaurant.
- Colonie – herb-filled salads, roasted carrots, whole wheat campanelle with hen of the woods mushrooms, and grilled sunchokes grace the menu of this farm-to-table eatery in the city.
- Festival – for farm-to-table cocktails, look no further because this light-fare eatery makes just that!
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn