Thinking about an island destination this summer? Look no further than Governors Island, just south of Lower Manhattan. With 172 acres of parkland, beautiful scenery, history and culture, it’s one of the city’s last, best-kept secrets, but not for long. Summer is the perfect time for you and your family to explore this true New York treasure – for free.
Governors Island is open to the public on Fridays and weekends through September. Getting there is simple. A free ferry leaves from the Battery Maritime Building (right next to the Staten Island ferry terminal).
To really enjoy your trip at no cost, pack a picnic basket at home and take bicycles if you can. If not, you can rent them on the Island. And remember to take your camera!
The ferry ride alone is worth the trip. It’s less than 10 minutes, but offers great views of Lower Manhattan and its surroundings.
You’ll arrive at the north end of historical Governors Island. The U.S. Army operated here from the late 1700s to the 1960s. Then, until 1995, it was a base for the U.S. Coast Guard. Today, this history is yours to discover.
My husband, Douglas, and I have taken our daughter, Ava, to Governors Island the past two summers. On our first visit, we rented a small quadcycle with a canopy, which alone was a true adventure to pedal, just to get an overview of what there was to see and do. Feel free to enjoy the Island by bike, on foot, or even by tram (no cars are allowed).
One of our favorite spots is called Nolan Park. It’s a pedestrian-only area surrounded by former military residences, which now house different exhibits.
You should definitely stop by the Children’s Museum of the Arts outpost at the southern tip of Nolan Park. They offer free crafts for kids of all ages. Ava had fun adding her creative touches to a big outdoor mural. She also got to make a paper bag mask with stickers, buttons and more.
Next to Nolan Park is what’s known as the Parade Ground. The Big Apple Circus offers activities here all summer. Douglas and Ava tried juggling, but didn’t have much success.
Right around the corner is Colonels Row (more beautiful historic buildings) and Liggett Hall. Both times we’ve visited the Island, there’s been a Jazz-age lawn party going on in this area. It’s really cool to hear the lively music and see all of the people dancing in their flapper dresses and sharp suits (there is a fee to participate).
The activities on the Island change from weekend to weekend, so check the schedule of events online before you head out. There is truly something for everyone!
If that’s not enough, one of the two major historic sights on the Island is reopening to the public this month. Castle Williams, which you’ll see as you arrive on the ferry, just underwent a multi-million dollar renovation. Now the 200-year-old former fort and prison offers rooftop views across the Island and the harbor. The other historic sight is Fort Jay, near the Parade Ground. Douglas, Ava and I enjoyed walking underground there to see where weapons were stored (and to hear an echo when we talked).
Once you’re done exploring the north end of the Island, you can walk or bike to the south end and Picnic Point. Can you guess what most people do here? There are lots of picnic tables to choose from and even hammocks to relax on. This is also where you’ll get your best view of the Statue of Liberty. It’s pretty close!
The National Park Service can also enhance your visit to Governors Island. They offer a variety of activities led by park rangers. You can take a guided hike through the historic district on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the Island is closed to the rest of the public. There is also Friday morning “living history” programs for children, complete with guests from the past and weapons demonstrations. And don’t forget to get a children’s ranger book and help your child get a National Park Service badge. On July 4th, there will be a 50-gun salute and then Aug. 13 and 14 is their signature event, the Civil War weekend.
Any way you choose to spend your time on Governors Island, it is sure to be a true family adventure. Now is a great time to discover this gem that will only grow in popularity in summers to come.
Andrea White is an Edgemont-based writer who loves to explore new places with her husband and daughter.
When You Go …
Governors Island10 South Street – Slip 7, New York, N.Y. 10004
• Open every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Sept. 25. For the first time, the Island will also be open on holiday Mondays (July 4th and Labor Day).
• The Governors Island ferry is free. It departs from the Battery Maritime Building located at 10 South Street in Manhattan. You can find street parking in the area, or park in a garage nearby for a fee.
• No pets, alcohol, controlled substances, weapons or explosives are allowed on Governors Island.
• For a ferry schedule, calendar of events, and more go to www.govisland.com. Or call The Trust for Governors Island at 212-440-2202.
• For National Park Service information, visit www.nps.gov/gois/ or call 212-825-3045.