The Coolest Things You Can Do Outdoors in NYC This Summer
Broadway is dark, nightclubs are nixed, and celebratory parades might be indefinitely postponed, but New York City is still buzzing with excitement about summer. Unlike last year, when pandemic-related trauma left New Yorkers despondent, this coming season promises to reawaken the city that supposedly doesn’t sleep from a long winter’s nap.
In early April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city’s public pools and beaches would open on time this year. Miles of streets have already transformed into pedestrian-friendly plazas. The opening of new parks will turn stretches of cement into inviting green spaces, and as the weather warms, in-person performances will continue making an open-air comeback.
Although visitors are unlikely to find boisterous indoor events between June and September, the number of outdoor activities in New York seems endless. Aside from the standard fare — like listening to buskers in Washington Square Park, grilling grub by the Brooklyn Bridge, or scrutinizing architectural curiosities along the High Line — travelers should consider the following list of outdoor events and excursions to make the most of this unique New York City summer.
1. Watch an in-person performance like Shakespeare in the Park
If iambic pentameter and public parks tickle your fancy, get thee to the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Public Theater will present an outdoor production of Merry Wives, Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, from July 5 to August 29, marking a triumphant return to in-person performances. The Public’s website states the adaptation, set in South Harlem, “will be a celebration of Black joy, laughter, and vitality.”
Shakespeare in the Park regularly features big-name stars like Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman, and this year’s lineup will undoubtedly be equally impressive. The best part? It’s free. Check the Public’s website for updated information on safety protocols and free ticket distribution.
Luckily, Central Park doesn’t have a monopoly on live performances this summer. All the city’s a stage thanks to initiatives started by NYC’s creative set. BAM and Playwright’s Horizons will team up to present Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden this June. The New York Philharmonic Bandwagon will bring professional musicians to the city’s five boroughs, where they’ll present concerts featuring everything from “Baroque to Broadway.” NY PopsUp will deliver hundreds of other spontaneous outdoor performances — including stand-up, dance, music, and more — through Labor Day. These offerings only scratch the surface considering the number of buskers and performance artists who regularly showcase their art throughout the city.
2. Enjoy the city’s Open Streets by hanging out in the road
The Big Apple might be synonymous with bad traffic, but this summer, NYC is trading in the honking horns for block parties. Last year’s successful Open Streets program closed nearly 70 miles of roads for pedestrians, restaurants, and cultural events to give residents safe outdoor spaces during the ongoing health crisis. Although the initiative fell roughly 30-miles short of its original plan, it still became the nation’s largest project for pedestrian freeways. This summer, the European-style plazas will be back in full force, offering people unique opportunities to eat, relax, and play in roadways usually crowded with cars.
NYC’s Open Streets are as diverse as its neighborhoods: some feel like DIY carnivals that rage all weekend long while others have a close-knit feel favored by locals. Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights is one of the most popular spots to hang out. Locals picnic on meridians, musicians flood the streets with jazz, and last summer, a couple even used the space to get married. In DUMBO, Washington Street between Water and Main gives Insta-bloggers a car-free photo-op of the Manhattan Bridge. Manhattan’s Little West 12th Street — steps from the Whitney Museum and High Line — is a buzzy spot to see and be seen. Amsterdam Avenue between 106th and 111th offers a relaxed residents-only vibe.
Google Maps uses a dotted blue line to indicate Open Streets on its app; the NYC.gov website lists participating areas online. Many car-free zones run between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM, though some, like Vanderbilt Avenue, only open to pedestrians on weekends.
3. Visit the Little Island at Pier 55
Little Island, Manhattan’s newest park, will make a big splash in the Hudson River when it opens to the public later this spring. The park will cover nearly three acres of concrete pods that rise from the water like industrial tulips, bursting with 35 types of trees, 65 species of shrubs, and over 200 varieties of grasses and flowers. The undulating landscape, designed collaboratively by Heatherwick Studio and architecture firm MNLA, will also contain three outdoor performance venues: an open plaza, a garden space for small productions, and a 700-seat amphitheater.
Throughout the summer, visitors can enjoy cultural events curated, directed, or performed by a starry list of creatives like director Tina Landau and tap dancer Ayodele Casel. But the performances are only part of the reason to explore the island. Whether you’re looking for expansive views of the Manhattan skyline, a grassy spot to sunbathe, or a refuge far from the bustling Meatpacking District, this art-and-nature nook near West 13th Street will provide the place.
4. See artist Yayoi Kusama’s show at the New York Botanical Garden
The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is a sensory treat no matter the season. Still, this summer, an exhibit by pop artist Yayoi Kusama brings a new kind of stimulation to the outdoor museum.
Kusama, best known for her infinity mirrors, decorates the 250-acre park with sculptures, installations, and paintings that look like acid-inspired hallucinations from another planet. Supernatural flowers bloom among greenhouse flora; a dancing pumpkin sways its limbs in front of the Enid A Haupt Conservatory’s Victorian facade; steel balls float in on the banks of a pool like alien fish eggs. Each element of the exhibit appears more whimsical than the last.
Perhaps the most joyful piece of the exhibit is the lack of crowds. Yayoi Kusama regularly draws long lines to her shows, but NYGB’s reduced capacity and timed-entry tickets mean you can observe her work without fighting through a sea of fellow onlookers.
If polka-dot trees and human-sized daisies aren’t your style, NYGB is still worth a visit. Between its 50-acre old-growth forest, a gorge that leads down to the Bronx River, and flower beds that change seasonally, a trip to NYGB can feel like a trip far away from NYC. KUSAMA: Cosmic Nature runs through October 31.
5. Bike the length of Manhattan on the Hudson River Greenway
When it comes to commuting, subways are out, and cycling is in. New York added nearly 30 miles of protected bike lanes across all five boroughs last year and hopes to add another 80 miles by the end of 2021. It’s never been safer or easier to travel around the city via pedal power, and this summer, it’s time to join the party.
NYC’s most exciting stretch for bikers is the Hudson River Greenway, a 13-mile path extending from Battery Park to Inwood along Manhattan’s west side. The ride offers both an architectural tour of the city and an adventure through some of New York’s most scenic parks.
Starting in Battery Park, the ride begins where cobblestone streets meet glassy skyscrapers. In the West Village and Chelsea, contemporary buildings flank popular hangs like the Christopher Street Pier and the High Line. Hudson Yards’ shining towers and the Intrepid’s steely fortress can be seen while gliding through Midtown, which leads to the Sanctuary — a willow-tree lined walkway that snakes from 59th Street to 65th Street. For a mid-ride pick-me-up, head to Ellington in the Park — a beer garden at 105th Street and Riverside Park. Fort Washington Park offers expansive views of lower Manhattan’s skyline while getting intimate with the George Washington Bridge. From here, the bike path climbs upward to Fort Tryon Park, where visitors can find unobstructed views of the Palisades rising from the Hudson River.
This car-free esplanade caters to both seasoned cyclists and novices with wide bike lanes and many points for exit and entry. Still, all cyclists must remember to remain alert while riding. Swerving, riding headlong into traffic, riding side-by-side, and disobeying traffic signals are a recipe for disaster. For those who need to rent a set of wheels, Citi Bike is the easiest option. The public bike share program offers pick-up and drop-off locations near the entire length of the trail.
6. Lay on Lincoln Center’s faux lawn
Lincoln Center — the sprawling performing arts complex dominated by white travertine buildings and an expansive cement courtyard — is getting a faux-grass makeover just in time for summer. Set designer Mimi Lien has reimagined the 14,000-square-foot Josie Robertson Plaza as “The GREEN” — an accessibility-friendly park with gentle slopes, half-circle hideaways, and ample seating covered in recyclable artificial turf. Visitors will be welcome to picnic, read, or simply lounge in the public space; the New York Public Library will provide books to borrow, and an on-site snack bar will provide treats. Lincoln Center’s stages might be empty for the season, but these hills will be alive with the sound of music: a series of pop-up outdoor performances will grace the space throughout summer. The GREEN will be open between May 10 and September from 9:00 AM to midnight. Admission is free.
7. Explore Governor’s Island
Governor’s Island might only be 800 yards from Manhattan’s Financial District, but this slow-paced paradise feels worlds away from the city’s packed streets.
Visitors can explore the 172-acre island on the car-free bike path that loops the island, set up a picnic with unobstructed city views, or even overnight in a tent provided by the glamping hospitality group Collective Retreats.
A series of events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party, the New York City Poetry Festival, and Pinknic attract large crowds throughout the summer. If you’re looking for something sans tourists, visit during the week, rent a bike from Blazing Saddle or Citi Bike, and take a food tour. Threes Brewing serves Brooklyn-made beer, Melt Bakery makes mouth-watering ice cream sandwiches, and Kimchi Taco Truck hocks Korean-inspired street food — a small sample of the treats you’ll find while pedaling around the island’s perimeter.
8. Go birding in a city park
Pigeons might reign over the streets of New York, but they’ve got stiff competition in the city’s public parks. Throughout spring and fall, over 200 species of migratory birds flock to green spaces from the Bronx to Jamaica Bay and put on a colorful show for local bird lovers.
Avian aficionados can spot a diversity of plumage by pointing their binoculars at trees in Central Park’s North Woods or the Ramble. Prospect Park’s Lullwater or Ravine provide Brooklyn birders an equally dynamic array of feathered jet setters.
Young folks take note: birding is no longer reserved for septuagenarian ornithologists. It’s a hipster-approved pastime celebrated on Twitter accounts like Manhattan Bird Alert, apps like eBird, and by millennial-run organizations like the Feminist Bird Club — an inclusive bird-watching community for women, BIPOC, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Founder Molly Adams, a 31-year-old based in Brooklyn, regularly leads events where newbies can learn the ABCs of avian enjoyment. The NYC Audubon Society also hosts free birding events throughout the city for prospective bird nerds.
9. Search for street art in Bushwick
Save the stuffy museums and timed-ticket entries for a rainy day — Bushwick is a free, unfussy outdoor art gallery that never closes and never makes you wait. In the past fifteen years, this Brooklyn neighborhood went from industrial dive to artist enclave and now boasts nearly 100 blocks of well-painted walls as proof of its transformation.
The Bushwick Collective, a non-profit street art initiative started by native Joe Ficarola, invites an international roster of world-renowned painters to revamp the neighborhood annually. Local graffiti masters regularly bomb walls with quippy messages and silly homemade stickers, too. As a result, Bushwick feels like an ever-evolving art project. Visitors will find most murals along Jefferson and Troutman Streets between Cypress and Knickerbocker Avenues. Check the Bushwick Collective’s website for information on the annual block party. According to Bedford + Bowery, Ficarola hopes this year’s street art celebration will take place sometime in June or August, pandemic rules pending.
10. Break out your bathing suit at an NYC beach
Alicia Keys says it’s a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” but in summer, NYC can be a concrete jungle where dreams melt into a sidewalk that stinks like urine and despair. When the heat and the stench become too much to bear, it’s time to bear it all at one of the city’s many beaches instead.
For a slice of New York’s queer life, take a day trip to Jacob Riis Park — a sandy mile-long stretch of Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. The LGBTQ section can be found at the People’s Beach in front of an abandoned Art Deco bathhouse. The boardwalk at Brooklyn’s Coney Island is another seaside spot worthy of an adventure. Once you’ve gotten your fill on hot dogs and sideshows, test your nerves on one of the vintage amusement park attractions nearby. Rides like the 150-foot-tall Wonder Wheel and the bone-shaking Cyclone will be open with reduced capacity throughout summer.
11. Cruise around NYC’s waterways
If you can’t take the crowds, get off the island — literally. Whether it’s sailing, kayaking, or cruising in a water taxi, hitting the open water is an ideal way to beat the huddled masses while enjoying the city’s sites. Floating down the Hudson River leads to views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, George Washington Bridge, and Manhattan’s West Side. The East River showcases skylines from four of the city’s five boroughs, the Brooklyn Bridge, and quiet escapes like Roosevelt Island.
Adventure seekers will get a thrill by renting a jet ski and zooming around Manhattan on a guided tour. For a low-key outing close to shore, try the free 20-minute kayak rentals at Pier 96 in Hudson River Park. The romantically-minded should consider setting sail at sunset on a leisurely cruise through New York Harbor. If you’re looking to travel like a real New Yorker, hop on the Staten Island Ferry, which gives free 25-minute rides between lower Manhattan and Staten Island.
12. Take a late-night stroll through Green-Wood Cemetery
When Trump called NYC a “ghost town” last fall, he was 100% wrong — unless he was referring to Green-Wood Cemetery. Brooklyn’s 478-acre graveyard might have roughly 560,000 permanent residents, but it’s still one of NYC’s most quiet outdoor locations. During the day, visitors can take a serene — and free — stroll along footpaths that snake around historic graves occupied by ghostly inhabitants. Battle Hill — Brooklyn’s highest geographic location — is a must-see spot in the cemetery with clear Manhattan and New York Harbor views.
If you prefer spooky to serene, sign up for a Green-Wood After Hours tour. This guided trek explores the graves of famous New Yorkers like Leonard Bernstein and Boss Tweed as night descends upon the city. But get ready for a post-tour shock because once you leave Green-Wood’s gothic gates, you’ll be thrust into a town that — despite the past year’s many travails — is far from dead.