While the allure of New York is rooted in the city’s manmade spectacles rather than natural beauty, Prospect Park (pictured above) has been enchanting the most diehard urbanites since the middle of the 19th century. The greensward is the city’s wildest natural setting, a 585-acre parcel of forests and wetlands in the center of Brooklyn.
Prospect Park’s ponds, lake, and streams are remnants of 225,000 acres of wetlands that once covered the paved-over terrain of present-day New York City and are home to all manner of plants and critters. Salamanders and toads hatch in the reedy ponds, mallards float through the grassy shallows of the lakes, hawks, herons, and hundreds of migrating birds alight in swamp azalea and willows. Long Meadow, a 60-acre pasture, winds through the center of the park and creates the illusion that you are surrounded by bucolic countryside in England or somewhere else far away from busy Brooklyn.
A far more tamed landscape prevails across Flatbush Avenue at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a contemplative and aromatic 39-acre plot of flowerbeds, rose and herb gardens, ponds, and a promenade lined with flowering cherry trees.
The New York Transit Museum evokes the city’s greatest unnatural phenomenon, the 842-mile-long subway system. A vintage Brooklyn subway station shows off photos of the system’s construction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the advertising that has bombarded riders over the decades, and best of all, vintage subway cars that make us realize that as much as we complain about the subway, today we ride beneath the streets in relative luxury. A shop at the museum and an annex in Grand Central Terminal are good stops for New York City souvenirs, selling such items as rain boots and umbrellas emblazoned with subway route designations.
A tree grows in the Bronx
One of the world’s finest botanical gardens flourishes on 250 acres in the Bronx. The New York Botanical Garden harbors 1 million plants in 50 cultivated gardens and a 50-acre native forest that evokes New York as it appeared to Native American inhabitants and early settlers. A tropical climate prevails in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, an enormous Victorian greenhouse where rainforest plants, cacti, and palm trees thrive beneath acres of glass panels. By train, you can reach the gardens from Grand Central Terminal, getting off at the Botanical Garden Station. By subway, take the B, D, or 4 trains to the Bedford Park Blvd Station and walk (about 15 minutes) or take the Bx26 bus. (Bronx River Parkway at Forham Rd, tel: 718-817-8700, www.nybg.org; Tue–Sun 10am–6pm).