I have always been fascinated by castles.
Like most little girls who are now my age, I read fairy tales of princesses, magic, and castles. A castle playset that included all the necessities from the flag at the top down to the drawbridge over the moat was one of my coveted possessions. Of course, I envisioned myself as the princess. I have since abandoned the Middle-Aged construct of femininity fantasizing I was the damsel in distress. I no longer dreamt of being the princess waiting in the castle for the prince…
I wanted to OWN the castle.
Castles to me were fortified–safe. Their stonework and combination of outstanding architecture and engineering, especially for the periods they were constructed, amazed me. Similarly, I contemplate the design and construction of the Colosseum in Rome and the Pyramids in Egypt and wonder how they were built without today’s equipment and technology.
I can’t tell you how or when it happened, but one day in my 20’s I stumbled upon Belvedere Castle in Central Park (NYC).
Was this a castle in the middle of the park in one of the busiest cities in the world?
And as long as we are on a fairy tale theme, I felt like Goldilocks: it was just right.
Belvedere Castle is a charming structure located mid-park around 79th Street. It was designed in 1869 by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who were also the co-designers of the park. A gem of a mini-castle, almost hidden by the greenery surrounding it, was not completed as originally planned. Though to me, it’s perfect.
As you walk through the brush and Shakespeare Garden (if you approach from the West) it appears atop Vista Rock. Its magic takes your breath away for a moment. Head to the pavilion and you’ll see the Great Lawn, the Ramble, reservoir, and the city’s skyscrapers. What a view! I was not the first to see it; Belvedere is Italian for “beautiful view.”
This castle is not only home to fairy princesses though, every weathercaster knows about it. In 1919, a new resident moved in: The National Weather Service. For the last century, The NWS has taken measurements of wind speed and direction, and more recently other data such as rainfall. The latter continues today.
Like most structures of its age, the building began to deteriorate. The Central Park Conservancy restored the castle in 1983 and converted it to a visitor center.
Fast forward to 2019. As part of a $25 Million Gift from the Thompson Family Foundation, Belvedere Castle was treated to a core and external renovation. I visited once again a few weeks ago. It radiates with newly restored beauty, yet still holds its old-world charm and sense of magic.
I made time to sit on the steps overlooking the Great Lawn and the cityscape. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath; everything melted away. The cabs weren’t beeping their horns, horses’ hooves and carriages weren’t scraping the blacktop, and tourists weren’t asking questions. I was alone in the moment, soaking up what my city has to offer: silence and a castle in New York’s largest urban park, and one of the largest in the world.
While I can’t promise a princess, moat, or a dragon, this castle is a certain kind of special. It is hands down my favorite place in all of New York City.
Have you visited Belvedere Castle? What was your experience like?
Drop me a line–I’d love to hear from you!