Escape bustling NYC and head to Governors Island this summer ... it's the perfect urban getaway, and this fun guide has everything you need to plan the perfect day!
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I love New York, but summer in the city can be kind of brutal. More often than not, it's hot and humid, which makes walking around super sticky.
And the crowded subway feels like an oven. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want after a long, sweltering day is someone's sweaty armpit in my face!
What if I told you that you could easily visit a tranquil NYC island for the afternoon? And that it was just a 10 minute ferry ride away from Manhattan and Brooklyn?
If you've never been to Governors Island in New York, you need to add it to your summer bucket list! This National Monument and urban park is the perfect escape from the city, and it's close enough for quick afternoon (or all day) trip.
Governors Island Guide
I'm so excited to share one of my favorite New York activities with you today!
A trip to this unique island is the perfect way to spend a sunny summer day, and I like to go at least a couple times every summer. Best of all? It's just a quick ferry ride from Manhattan or Brooklyn ... unlike Rockaway Beach, my other fave summer escape, which is quite a trek.
The first time I visited the island, I really didn't know what to expect. And although you could definitely just wing your visit, too, it helps to go with a bit of a game plan. There's so much to do, see, and eat, and I'm covering everything you need to know below.
Ready to start exploring the island?
Just keep scrolling to read everything OR use the links below to find exactly what you're looking for!
Before we talk about what to do on the island, let's dig into the island's history ... it's really interesting! Here are some key facts about how this special place evolved over time:
- Because it was the landing place for the first Dutch settlers, the island is recognized as the birthplace of New York state.
- Before the Dutch colonized it though, the island was home by the region's Native Americans, the Lenape. They camped on the island seasonally, and used it as a base for fishing and hunting.
- The island was supposedly bought from the Lenape for two ax heads, a string of beads, and handful of nails by a director of the Dutch West India Company.
- In 1664, the British captured the island from the Dutch, and in 1699, it was renamed Governors Island. (It was originally called Nut Island, by both the Native Americans and the Dutch, due to the preponderance of nut trees found there.)
- After the Revolutionary War, New York began fortifying the island to protect the harbor. In 1800, the U.S. government took over the island for military use, and by 1812, they had constructed three forts: Fort Jay (named Fort Columbus at the time), Castle Williams, and the South Battery.
- The recently built forts helped deter the British from New York during the War of 1812.
- During the Civil War, the island provided housing for newly recruited soldiers, and Fort Jay and Castle Williams were used to hold Confederate prisoners of war.
- In the early 1900s, the island was expanded using rocks and dirt from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue Subway, as well as dredge from New York Harbor.
- The island continued to serve as an important headquarters for the Army during the two world wars. Changing times and technology led the Army to leave the island though, and they transferred it to the Coast Guard in 1966.
- Over the years, thousands of Army and Coast Guard personnel and their families had called the island home. However, the island's use by the military ended in 1996, when the Coast Guard relocated.
- Many uses for the vacant island were proposed, but in 2001, President Clinton designated parts of the Island, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams, as a National Monument. The rest of the land was sold to the city and state of New York for use by the public.
- The National Park Service started giving guided tours of the park in 2003, and in 2006, the island was opened to the public.
- Since then, the island has been continuously developed with new features and facilities. It seems like there's something new to see every summer!
Want to learn more about the island's history? Check out this book, which has tons of interesting information about the park.
By the way, make sure to read my National Parks List before your visit to this National Monument. It has a free printable National Parks Checklist, so you can check the island off your bucket list!
There are sooo many fun things to do on Governors Island! And there's something new every year, too, which makes exploring the island so fun.
You'll find activities on the island for all ages ... here are some of my faves:
Take the Kids to the Playground
Your kids will have tons of room to run wild on the island, but they'll especially love the Play Area (by the Hammock Grove) with ropes for climbing, swings, and more. Another unique play space can be found at play: groundNYC / The Yard (open on weekends), a 50,000 square-foot adventure playground that's filled with all sorts of loose parts, tools, junk, and space for building stuff.
Enjoy the Amazing Views
The island is located just a few hundred yards from the tip of Manhattan, so as you can imagine, the views are spectacular! Depending on where you're standing, you'll be able to see Lower Manhattan, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, and more!
Explore the Farm
Visit the island's 21,000 square foot urban farm, The Teaching Garden. This working urban farm features over 20 vegetable beds made from recycled plastic lumber, an aquaponics system, an outdoor kitchen, a greenhouse, fruit trees, several rainwater harvesting systems, and more. It's open to the public on weekends.
Get Your National Parks Passport Stamped
Indulge in Food and Drinks
There are a number of temping places to dine and drink al fresco on the island, including food trucks, popsicle stands, coffee spots, and restaurants ... you'll find everything from tacos to pizza and cocktails (more info below).
Relax in the Hammock Grove
Is there anything better than gently swaying in a hammock on a warm summer day? I can't think of much! Visit the Hammock Grove to grab your personal piece of paradise. It's pretty easy to snag one during the week, though you may have to fight a crowd on the weekend.
Enjoy a Picnic
It's rare that I head to the island without packing a picnic. Bring your own blanket and spread out on the lawn, or find one of the many picnic tables scattered throughout the island. If you're planning a party, family reunion, or other event, you can reserve tables and a grill in advance.
Visit Fort Jay and Castle Williams
Exploring the historic forts is one of the best things to do on Governors Island! You can visit the forts on your own or take a tour to learn more about their history. NOTE: Fort Jay and Castle Williams are temporarily closed for the summer of 2020.
Get Active on the Play Lawns
There's plenty of room to run around on the island, but if you're looking for more organized activities, head to the natural turf ball fields. If the Play Lawns are free, you can use them for pickup games. Or if you're traveling with a team, you can secure a permit in advance.
Ride the Longest Slide in NYC
Visit Slide Hill to ride the longest slide in New York ... a whopping 57 feet! If that sounds a little scary, don't worry ... you'll find slides of different lengths and heights, perfect for all ages.
Attend an Event
The island is home to numerous events during the summer, including runs, concerts, festivals, and parties ... many of which are free. I love heading there during the popular Jazz Age Lawn Party just so I can check out everyone's costumes!
Climb the Hills
For one of the cooler features on Governors Island, head to The Hills. These man-made hills rise 70-feet above sea level, and not only are they fun to climb, but the 360-degree views from the top are amazing! You'll be able to see Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and more.
Cool Off and Get Wet
Summers in New York can be hot! If you and your kids are feeling the heat, head to the Play Fountain at Liggett Terrace to cool off.
Just Sit and Relax
There's so much to do on the island that it can be tempting to try to cram it all in. Don't forget to take some time to just sit and relax ... at least a for a bit! I loved whiling away the afternoon in these Adirondack chairs we found on our last visit.
Explore the Pop Up Amusement Park
Ready for an urban adventure? Head to the pop up amusement park, where you can ride a zipline, take on a climbing challenge, explore a maze, or show off your mini golf skills.
Bike Around the Island
The island is covered with roads that were built for the Army and Coast Guard. While you're free to explore them on foot, a bike makes it easier to cover more ground. You're welcome to bring your own bike on the ferry, or you can rent one from Blazing Saddles when you arrive. Have a Citi Bike pass? You'll find three Citi Bike stations on the island, as well.
Learn How to Kayak
See the island from the water! Head to Pier 101, and you'll get a free kayak lesson and all the equipment you need to set sail. Kayaks are available on Saturdays, starting June 15.
Check Out the Public Art
Viewing all the art is one of my favorite things about visiting Governors Island. You'll find long-term exhibitions like Yankee Hanger and the Cabin, as well as others that change every year. There's always something interesting to see!
Explore the Buildings
Make sure to spend time wandering around and checking out the buildings ... it's a great way to explore the island's past life. There's a big variety of structures, from individual houses to a YMCA and even a chapel and a synagogue. Some of the buildings are open, so you can go inside, but most are closed.
Take a Walking Tour
Want to learn more about the island, its importance, and what all those buildings were used for? Take a walking tour with the National Park Service or the Friends of Governors Island. NOTE: Walking tours may not be available in 2020. However, it’s possible to download an app and take a self-guided walking tour.
The NPS offers daily tours of Castle Williams. Tours of Fort Jay have been available in the past, although it's currently closed due to construction.
You can also take a tour with the Friends group. Tours are scheduled for 11:30 AM from Wednesday through Friday, or at 11:30 AM, 1:30 PM, and 3:30 PM on the weekend. Meet at the Governors Island Welcome Center at Soissons Landing.
Whether you've brought a picnic and just need drinks, or you're hungry for a full meal, the island is full of tempting restaurants, food trucks, and stands.
Visit Soissons Landing, Liggett Terrace, and the Western Promenade for the most choices:
- Island Oyster - oysters / American food, beer, wine, and cocktails
- Taco Vista - tacos, beer, and margaritas
- Fauzia's Heavenly Delights - Jamaican fusion food
- Little Eva's - Island-inspired food, burgers, brats, drinks
- Threes Brewing - beer and wine
- Melt Bakery - ice cream sandwiches
- People's Pops - popsicles
- Perros y Vainas - Venezuelan hot dogs and potato sticks
- Makina Cafe - Eritrean / Ethiopian food
- Joe Coffee - coffee
- Kimchi Taco Truck - Korean Street Food
- Everything About Crepes - sweet and savory crepes
- Terry & Yaki - Teriyaki for everyone
- Pizza Yard - Neapolitan and Roman-style pizzas
- Waffles & Dinges - Belgian waffles
- Three Peaks Lodge at Collective Retreats - American food; reservations required
- Sea Biscuit - small plates and cocktails
Getting to the island is very easy, but you can only do it by ferry. The ride takes about 10 to 15 minutes, including embarking and disembarking.
Make sure to review the schedule ahead of time, so you don’t end up missing your ferry. And since there will probably be a line to buy tickets, plan on arriving at the ferry terminal about 10 to 15 minutes before boarding. NOTE: For the 2020 season, you must reserve your tickets ahead of time.
Fees for a round trip ride are $3 for the general public, $1 for kids under 12, and free for seniors 65 and older, children 12 and younger, NYCHA residents, IDNYC holders, military service members (current and former), and Governors Island members. The ferry runs seven days a week, and rides are free on the weekend before noon.
- Manhattan Ferry: Find the ferry at the Battery Maritime Building (10 South Street).
- Brooklyn Ferry: The ferry will be departing from the Red Hook / Atlantic Basin Ferry Terminal in 2020. NOTE: There will be no Brooklyn ferries from Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2020.
Insiders Tip: Taking the Manhattan ferry from the Maritime Building? For amazing views of the New York skyline, make sure to stand on the deck of the ferry (facing the Manhattan ferry terminal). As the ferry pulls away from the terminal, you'll be treated to the most breathtaking skyline views of the city!
Although Governors Island is home to a few year-round businesses and a school, it's only open to visitors during the summer.
You can visit the island from May 1 to October 31. It's open Monday through Friday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, and on Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
If you want to escape the crowds, visit early in the day on the weekend, or go during the week. You'll also want to avoid days with big events, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party.
If you've ever visited the island and thought that you might want to spend the night, you need to check out Collective.
Camping accommodations are luxurious tents with real beds and beautiful views of the sunset, Statue of Liberty, and even the Staten Island Ferry. This is pretty much the ultimate glamping experience right in NYC!
Because the island is closed at night, you'll need to stay within Collective's grounds after hours. But don't worry, the staff provides lots of fun activities, like movie nights, lawn games, delicious eats, and more to keep you busy.
Unless you're attending an event with a specific dress code, you can wear pretty much anything on the island.
Keep in mind that you'll be walking around outside for the most part, and that a lot of the island has very little shade.
A good sunscreen and sunglasses are a must, and if you're super pale like me, you'll probably want to wear a hat, too. I have and love this super affordable, packable Panama hat (the one I'm wearing below is no longer available).
There's a lot of ground to explore on the island, so make sure to wear comfortable shoes, too.
I made a Google map for you with all the locations and activities mentioned here pinpointed!
You can access the map here. Make sure to pull it up on your phone during your visit, so you can use it to navigate around the island.
I hope I answered most of your questions about the island, but here are a few other FAQs (frequently asked questions):
What is Governors Island used for?
The island was originally a Native American hunting ground before being colonized by the Dutch, and then, the English. After the American Revolution, it was used as an Army base, and later, by the Coast Guard. Today, it's a National Park and open to the public during the summer.
How much does it cost to go to Governors Island?
The fee for a round trip ride is $3 for the general public, $1 for kids under 12, and free for seniors 65 and older, children 12 and younger, NYCHA residents, IDNYC holders, military servicemembers (current and former), and Governors Island members. The ferry runs seven days a week from Manhattan and on weekend from Brooklyn. Rides are free on the weekend before noon.
Can you see the Statue of Liberty from Governors Island?
Yes! For the best views of the Statue of Liberty, walk along the western side of the island or climb to the top of The Hills.
Are there cars on Governors Island?
Cars are not allowed on the island. To get around, you'll need to walk or ride a bike.
How did Governors Island get its name?
This island was originally called Pagganuck or Nut Island by Native Americans. The Dutch adopted this name, calling it Noten Eylandt. In 1699, it was renamed Governors Island by the British, and was reserved for the “benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors.”
Can you bring dogs to Governors Island?
Pets and other animals are prohibited on the island, however service animals are allowed.
Need ideas for the rest of your visit to New York?
There are so many fun things to do in NYC! Here are some of my favorites:
- Brooklyn Parks – Will you be spending time in Brooklyn? Then, check out my guide to the Best Brooklyn Parks ... there are so many great ones! If you’ll be in Williamsburg, make sure to visit one of my faves, Domino Park. This unique park was built on the site of an old Domino Sugar factory and features lots of industrial remnants.
- Domino Park - While you're in Brooklyn, head over to Williamsburg and visit Domino Park. This unique park was built on the site of an old Domino Sugar factory and features lots of industrial remnants.
- Central Park - No visit to NYC is complete with a stroll through this world-renowned park! My favorite time to visit is in fall, but it's stunning anytime of year.
- Rockaway Beach - Escape the bustle of the city and go chill at Rockaway Beach ... truly my happy place! It's kind of a hike, but totally worth it on a beautiful summer day.
- High Line - A visit to the High Line, an elevated park that was built on a deserted train track is never a bad idea. You'll be treated to public art, great NYC views, yummy food, and more.
- Heading to NYC during the holidays? It's magical ... before you go, make sure to check out my comprehensive guide to Christmas in New York. And you'll also want to take a tour NYC's best Christmas windows!
- Visiting in spring? Here’s where to find the best Cherry Blossoms in NYC.
- Brooklyn Bridge - Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is one of those activities on everyone's NYC bucket lists, and my guide has tons of tips to help you do it!
- Want more ideas? Check out my A to Z guide to visiting (or living in) New York, as well as my list of NYC favorites after living there for my first eight months!
Have you ever been to Governors Island in New York? What was your favorite part?