Looking for something unique and adventurous to do in New York in the warmer months, especially in summertime? Head to Governors Island, a fascinating spot just 800 yards from lower Manhattan. What used to be a base for the U.S. military, as well as the Coast Guard, is now New York City’s most hip outdoor playground. Fun for all ages, a trip to Governors Island is like taking a mini vacation.
A 172-acre island in New York’s harbor, Governors Island is car-free, and can be accessed by ferry from either South Street Seaport in Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn. When my family lived in Brooklyn, we used to take the ferry over with our bikes, which was all of 5 minutes. But once on the island, it was like being in another world. As Governors Island’s website says, “it is a world unto itself, unique and full of promise”. And that it is.
What makes Governors Island so cool? To me, it’s the mere fact that for almost two centuries the island was closed to the public, as it was an army and Coast Guard base, and today you can walk around the old army buildings, historical houses, even a castle. The fact that walking or biking around the perimeter of the island gives you some of the most phenomenal views of the city and the Statue of Liberty. The fact that within the old world feel of the island there is also a modernity to it full of trendy food trucks, beer gardens, modern playgrounds and recreational activities.
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You see, Governors Island has virtually been turned into an outdoor play space for New Yorkers looking to get out of the every day hustle and bustle. Operated by the Trust for Governors Island, the Friends of Governors Island and the National Park Service, the island is a place for sports activities, art installations and shows, on-going public programs, and several events throughout the season. There is a little bit of something for everyone, whether you’re more of an outdoorsy type, an art lover, a seeker, a wine lover, or all of the above.
Things to do on Governors Island
First off, I recommend taking a look at a map of the island, which you can see here. There is a lot to explore, including Fort Jay, Castle Williams, food courts and food trucks, Liggett Terrace, Hammock Grove, Parade Ground, Play Lawn, Picnic Point, and the new and highly popular project The Hills.
You can bring your own bikes on the ferry, or you can rent bikes from Blazing Saddles bike rentals. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the Manhattan ferry, closer to the center of the island, so just allow yourself the time. Available rentals include bikes, kids bikes, tandems, 4 seater surreys, helmuts and child seats.
Biking is the best way to see the island, and there is a path that takes you around the perimeter of the island where you can see all those must-have views. Some of the walking paths closer to the center of the island don’t allow bikes, FYI. There’s a lot of space to explore, so I highly recommend biking, plus it’s some of New York’s best biking paths. There is something so exhilarating about biking around the island and taking in the whole of the city from somewhere that seems so close, yet very far away at the same time.
Hang out in Liggett Terrace and Hammock Grove
Located in the center of the island, Liggett Terrace has a food court, outdoor seating, a playground, obstacles courses and the nearby Hammock Grove. Looking out to the Statue of Liberty, Hammock Grove is a 10-acre space with up to 100 hammocks in it. Play, hang, eat, or people-watch! (also nearby is Play Lawn, with some much run-around and lounge space).
Check out The Hills
In its description of The Hills, Governors Island refers to it as an “island transformed for the future”. What exactly are The Hills? They are hills made of recycled construction and fill materials that rise 25 to 70 feet above the Harbor. The island’s “crown jewel”, the summit of the tallest hill provides onlookers with 360-degree panoramic views of the harbor, the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan skyline.
Also located within The Hills, is “Slide Hill”, which has 4 slides, including the largest slide in New York City (so be sure to take the kids there), as well as “Discovery Hill”, which has a permanent exhibition by the artist Rachel Whiteread, “Outlook Hill” and “Grassy Hill” where you can enjoy views atop in Adirondack chairs.
Enjoy some art
Governors island has become an amazing resource for art and site-specific instillations, exhibitions and performances, due to the vastness of the space, and the uniqueness of the island. The island’s commission program attracts artists from all over the city, and no doubt whenever you make a trip to Governors, there will be a myriad of interesting shows to see.
Eat Good Food
Just because Governors Island isn’t connected to the rest of the city by land it doesn’t mean the food truck craze hasn’t taken over there either – oh, it has. On our recent trip we had the most delicious fresh crepes from the CREPES food truck. My veggie and mozzarella crepe was amazing. There is the Wing Lovers Food Truck, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Mi Pequeno Terruno, and Governors Beer Co, to name a few.
There are two food courts with these vendors and more, at Liggett Terrace and King Avenue Food Court (open only on the weekends).
For a snazzier experience head to Island Oyster at Soissons Landing. A waterfront oyster bar with cocktails and summer fare, you can sit, eat and drink while enjoying the Manhattan Skyline backdrop. There is also the new Taco Beach, another waterfront restaurant on the eastern side of the Manhattan ferry landing.
If you prefer to bring your own food, picnicking is allowed, however note no alcohol can be brought on the island – you must purchase beer, wine and cocktails from one of the many vendors.
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Go on Some Adventures
The Adventures at Governors Island zone includes the Amazen’ Maze, a Climbing Wall, and Mini Golf to be coming soon. Please note that there is also a popular zip line, however it is currently closed until further notice. You can read more about these activities, including pricing, here.
Explore Castle Williams, Fort Jay and the many historical buildings
For us it was just enough to walk around these historical buildings, but should you want to tour the castle (which actually used to be an old prison) or Fort Jay, you can take a guided tour through the National Park Service. In just walking around, like us, you will come across many buildings, including old homes, a hospital, a movie theatre and more. It’s fascinating to explore and picture the island back in the day.
Take the Kids to The Yard
The Yard is a play space for kids 6 and older and is parents-free. Yes, adults are not allowed into The Yard, where trained staff help kids discover and play with things like hammers, shovels, paint, tires, wood and saws. Parents and kids under 6 are invited to go to an adventure play area nearby together.
Go to an Event
Governors Island has become known for its many events and festivals, some adult-themed, others family-style, and some a combo. Any age can enjoy an event on the island almost any weekend.
Examples of upcoming events include:
Late Friday Night (continual)– from Memorial Day weekend through September 14, the island stays open until 10.
Jazz Age Lawn Party, with live music, dancing and cocktails
Figment Festival, a family-friendly arts event
Pinknic, a rose-themed party where thousands of people descend in pink and white and drink rose all day. Sounds fabulous!
These are just some examples – make sure the check the website here for the latest in current events.
How to Get There and Need to Know
Governors Island is open from May 1 – October 31.
Getting to Governors Island is easy. You can either take a ferry from 10 South Street in Lower Manhattan, or from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Ferry service runs everyday from Manhattan, but only on Saturdays and Sundays from Brooklyn. See here for the ferry schedule.
Ferry round trip service: $3 for adults, free for children under 13, and $1 for senior citizens.
You can purchase tickets where you board, however arrive 15 – 20 minutes early, as lines do form.
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 10 – 6
Fridays, 10 – 10 (May 26 – September 14)
Saturdays and Sundays, 10 – 7
Governors Island is an experience like no other in New York City. It is also always changing and adding new events, programs, activities and more, so be sure to check the website before you plan your trip.