Despite its military past, Governors Island offers New Yorkers a bit of peace from the hustle and bustle of city life.
From May 1 to Oct. 31, the 172-acre island in New York Harbor acts as a big backyard for locals and tourists alike, where they can spread out with room to breathe and time to kill.
The island was used as a military outpost from the American Revolution through the 1990s, when it was a Coast Guard installation. Opened for public use in 2005, much of its U.S. Army and U.S. Coast Guard buildings are still intact, which makes for a very peculiar but interesting setting worth exploring.
There’s a lot to enjoy on the island, so let us help prepare you before you ship off. Here’s how to spend a day on Governors Island, from sunrise to sunset.
Grab a coffee to enjoy on the ferry
Before you head over to the Governors Island Ferry at 10 South St. (if you’re coming from Manhattan), grab a coffee and a pastry to enjoy on the ship. It’s only an eight-minute ride, but it’s really nice to take in the fresh air with a cup of joe in hand, ready to start your adventure.
There’s a Starbucks at 1 New York Plaza, across from the slip, and Waves Cafe is located in the New Amsterdam Plein and Pavilion if you haven’t gotten anything before heading downtown.
Ferries disembark hourly starting at 10 a.m. during the week and every half-hour starting at 11:30 a.m. on the weekends. Tickets are $3.
Once you get on, relax and take in the view.
Make a bee-line to bike rentals (or go kayaking)
Don’t waste any time and get a bike straight away — you can walk the island, but cycling around is not only a joy (there are no cars to worry about) but it gets you around quickly.
You can rent a Citi Bike, which is near Soissons Landing and Yankee Ferry Terminal (where you got off the boat), or you can rent a bike, a four-seater Surrey or kids equipment from Blazing Saddles at Liggett Terrace.
Note: If you buy a day pass for Citi Bike, it’s $12 but an additional $4 for each additional 15 minutes you keep it out longer than 30 minutes at a time. Blazing Saddles’ all-day pass is $25 and you don’t need to worry about re-docking your bike.
If your goal is to go kayaking, it’s best to go earlier so you have enough time to get it in. Kayaking is only offered on Saturdays (June 15 – Sept. 14). Walk to the Downtown Boathouse at Pier 101 for quick instructions and a sit-on-top kayak.
Learn the island’s history
The island’s military history is still so present. So while you’re cycling around, make sure to stop and read some of the posted material.
Castle Williams, a circular fortification built between 1796 and 1811, was first used as a defensive system for the inner harbor with gun emplacements across three floors, with one tier used as a barracks. Later during the Civil War, it was used to house new Union recruits and to imprison Confederate men and deserters. It became a full-time prison in the early 20th century, until 1965, when the U.S. Army closed its post there. The U.S. Coast Guard took it over and used it as a community center for island residents, but that all ended in 1997 when it closed its base.
There are also homes you can view in Colonels Row and Nolan Park that once housed 3,500 residents before they were relocated in 1966. Even though the homes’ paint is peeling and it’s eerily quiet, it almost feels like the residents just left. It is strange to see such a suburban setting just a few hundred yards off the southern tip of lManhattan. It’s reminiscent of the movie “Pleasantville.”
There are not only homes, but just about everything a town would need to thrive — a YMCA, a couple of churches, a fort and even a theater — all of which you can find on Owasco Road.
Explore some art exhibits
And what is even cooler is that some of the homes are used on the weekends as art galleries. Park your bike at Colonels Row and you’ll be welcomed into some of the old homes to see some artwork:
- Art Force 5 — Create your own superhero action figure and customized cape in this comic book exhibit about the history of the genre. Visitors can also paint a tile that will be used to create a mural celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
- Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons — Learn about the humanity and creativity behind bars with this exhibit by current and former prison inmates.
- New Art Dealers Alliance — Across 34 rooms in three historic homes, 45 artists will display their works that speak to the island’s changing identity.
- Rare Air — Explore the role the green screen has on territory and the vastness of space within New York.
One that is always open regardless is “Church” by Shantell Martin. The actual Catholic chapel, Our Lady Star of the Sea, on Owasco Road features faces, words and other images by Martin upon it.
Grab a bite in Liggett Terrace or have a picnic
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to Liggett Terrace where you will find a slew of food options for lunch, including Neapolitan Express; Makina Cafe, which offers Ethiopian and Eritrean food; Perros Y Vainas, offering hot dogs and other Venezuelan treats; and snacks at Joe Coffee, Melt Bakery and People’s Pops. We recommend getting a Cuban sandwich from Little Eva’s Beer Garden Grill and pairing it with a frozen mango drink (which can be mixed with booze if you’re feeling it).
Otherwise, if you packed a lunch, find a nice spot within the beer garden or on the grass to lay out your blanket and get your grub on.
Take a post-lunch nap in a hammock
It’s already been a pretty packed day and your stomach is full, so why not take it easy for the next hour with a siesta? South of Liggett Terrace, you’ll find Hammock Grove. Walk your bike down the pedestrian-only path and you’ll come upon the most glorious red hammocks, ready to carry your weight.
Park your bike and climb in for some quick shut-eye. All your worries should melt away as you are only surrounded by tall grasses, flowers, the gentle wind and the sound of kids’ laughter.
Enjoy the view and let out your inner child
Ride down to Outlook Hill near the southern end of the island, where you’ll find the best point of view to survey the acreage and all 360 degrees.
You’ll find four rolling peaks, each with unique characteristics, that all gesture to the Statue of Liberty across the harbor, offering picture-perfect views. Outlook Hill actually reaches 70 feet above the island, once you lumber up the granite blocks. It is a spectacular view that you can enjoy and sit at for as long as you’d like.
Now that you have traversed the highest point, make your way down to Slide Hill. Yes, it’s primarily a hot spot for little islandgoers, but adults have fun here, too. The hill has four slides, including the longest in the city — winding 57 feet down the hillside.
Chill out, play frisbee, catch a movie
The island is so wide open that you can literally spread out. If you brought a ball or a frisbee, there’s plenty of spots throughout the island where you can play, and there’s ample room to sunbathe.
In fact, if you stay late enough, you can catch a free movie on the lawn — “School of Rock” on June 14, “After Hours” on July 12 and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on Aug. 9.
Watch the sunset before you head home
We recommend you stay on the island for dinner. After all, the last ferry doesn’t leave for Manhattan until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. (The last ferry to Brooklyn Bridge Park leaves at 7 p.m.)
Island Oyster, which is near Soissons Landing, where you first arrived, really does have the best sunset view. The oyster bar, which also serves salads, fish tacos, cheeseburgers and other dishes, is a beachy, outdoor restaurant with front row seats to the Manhattan skyline. Paired with the setting sun, it is the best show in town.
So order a lobster roll or some Navy Point oysters and your favorite drink and settle into your seat.