Things to Do What to do on Roosevelt Island after you hop off the tram By amNewYork staff Updated May 2, 2019 11:52 AM Print Share fbShare Tweet Email Roosevelt Island, a long sliver of land situated between the East Side of Manhattan and Long Island City within the East River, is often forgotten in many New Yorkers' minds or is mysterious to many. But the island is actually part of the city's identity going all the way back to before the Dutch bought it from the Lenape people. Skip forward 200 years and you learn that the island, then named Blackwell's Island (Roosevelt Island was named after the 32nd president in the early 1970s), operated as a home for the city's unwanted — the poor, the sick and the criminal. The only remnants of that time are the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital, a lighthouse and part of the Octagon apartment complex, which originally served as the entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum. More recently, the island has been a go-to for filmmakers who want a unique setting within the city. The Tobey McGuire "Spider-Man," "The Exorcist," "New Amsterdam," "Shaft," "1990: The Bronx Warriors," "Gossip Girl," "Blacklist" and so many other films and TV shows have been filmed here. Of course, Roosevelt Island is much more than film appearances and its dark history. There's a rich community of people here who help govern and preserve the island. For others, it's a nice escape from the bustle of the city when they need a quiet place, just for a few hours, to think and explore. With that said, here are our top picks for touring Roosevelt Island, which is just a tram ride away. Get an aerial view from the tram Photo Credit: Linda Rosier Board the Roosevelt Island Tram at East 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, and you'll get aerial views of the island, the East River and the Manhattan skyline. There is no other experience in New York City like riding the tram and you won't regret skipping the subway. You'll arrive at the Tramway Plaza in Roosevelt Island (near the Queensboro Bridge) in about 10 minutes. Don't forget your MetroCard. Stop by the visitor's center kiosk Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver This quaint shop sells kitschy merchandise, including "asylum for the insane" mugs, plush toys of the island's famous friendly squirrels, and books about the island's darker history. (The island was home to the infamous insane asylum that journalist Nellie Bly exposed in the late 1800s.) The tiny store is inside the former Queensboro Bridge trolley kiosk and just feet from the tram station. Go for a walk along the East River Photo Credit: Wendy Lu Roosevelt Island has unparalleled views of Manhattan across the East River. Whether you take a jog or a leisurely walk, don't miss it. Turn south after you visit the visitor's center kiosk and head toward the water, where beautiful cherry trees line the esplanade. In the spring, their blooms attract thousands of people (and their cameras). Imagine life in the Smallpox Hospital Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver Before the island was named after FDR, it was called Welfare Island and primarily used for serving patients, including those at the Smallpox Hospital on the southernmost part of the island. Also known as the Renwick Ruins, the Smallpox Hospital opened in 1856 and was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect behind St. Patrick's Cathedral. The hospital cared for smallpox patients until a vaccine was developed; closed by the 1950s, it's been abandoned ever since. Although it's not open to the public, the landmark is worth visiting for its history and Gothic Revival architecture. Check out the Cornell Tech campus Photo Credit: Getty Images/Drew Angerer Discover the campus, which includes a tech company incubator, academic buildings, an energy efficient housing facility, and public space, including a cafe open to the public. Grab a good cup of coffee, a pastry and then lay out on the pristine lawn before heading back to the busy city. (2 West Loop Rd.) Take photos at FDR Four Freedoms Park Photo Credit: Charles Eckert Continue south to The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which is a memorial that's free to the public and offers different educational programs like a pop-up library on the weekends, Summer Sunset Thursdays and an amazing Manhattanhenge viewing party. Make sure to check the schedule first. The park also offers breathtaking views of the city skyline, both to the south, east and the west, which are even more beautiful set against the bright white and gray of the concrete inside the park. This is also the perfect opportunity to think on the contributions FDR made in his presidency. (1 FDR Four Freedoms Park; open until 7 p.m. April 1 to Sept. 30 and until 5 p.m. Oct. 1 to March 31; closed Tuesdays) Look east Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver Take in the view from the east side of the island, too. You'll find the Pepsi Cola sign on the waterfront in Long Island City. The sign, which was landmarked in 2016, looks small from the island but its "P" and "C" are each 44 feet tall. It used to be located on top of the PepsiCo bottling plant there, but it was moved to the waterfront when the building was torn down in 2004. It's become a beloved monument to LIC's industrial past. Stop by the historic Blackwell House Photo Credit: Wendy Lu A visit to Roosevelt Island would be incomplete without a brief walk to Blackwell House, a historic gem located at 500 Main St. and the city's sixth oldest house. The wooden structure was built in 1796 for the Blackwell family, who farmed orchards on the property and had inherited the island from Captain John Manning. For more than a century, the island was known as Blackwell's Island, named after its owners. The city of New York purchased Blackwell House in the 1820s, and the cottage was used as housing for hospital and almshouse wardens. Blackwell House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. It is undergoing renovation to be turned into a community center, where visitors will be able to take tours around the house. In the meantime, you can take pictures outside and contemplate Roosevelt Island's living history. Take the obligatory lighthouse selfie Photo Credit: Wendy Lu The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, named a city landmark in 1976, is a 50-foot-tall lighthouse located at the northeast section of the island. Though myth holds that patients from mental health hospitals created the stone structure, the lighthouse was actually designed in 1872 by New York City architect James Renwick Jr. Savor some sushi at Fuji East Photo Credit: Wendy Lu Get sushi for lunch at Fuji East Japanese Bistro on 455 Main St. (Store #3A). Choose from more than 70 different kinds of rolls, including classics like the Philadelphia and special rolls such as the Long Island (king crab, tuna, salmon, avocado, soybean seaweed). Share the Fuji Crunch Tower (spicy tuna, spicy salmon, spicy lobster and wasabi crackers and spicy tomato sauce) with a friend, or the Fuji pizza (spicy tuna or spicy salmon) for $10. The restaurant also offers a wide selection of noodle soups, fried rice and teriyaki dishes. Catch a show from Main Street Theatre Photo Credit: Irina Hage of Irina Island Images For 35 years, the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance (548 Main Street) has been putting on performances for the Roosevelt Island community (as well as offering dance and fitness classes). The theater regularly has shows on its schedule, like a teen performance of "The Theory of Relativity," an adult performance of "Oh What A Lovely War" and others. Cap your night off with a performance before heading home. Take the tram home Photo Credit: Shaye Weaver You could take the F train on your way home, but why? There's nothing quite like seeing the sparkling lights of the skyline as you seemingly float toward Manhattan. The tram operates between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 6 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Note: The line for the tram can become very long on holidays and for special events, so plan accordingly. 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