Technically, it's part of Manhattan, yet Governors Island, only 10 minutes by boat from the South Ferry subway station, is miles from the concrete and clamor of the city. Perched in New York Harbor with commanding views of Lady Liberty and the surrounding waters, this idyllic escape might be New York's best-kept secret.
"Governors Island offers a truly unique escape from New York––wide open fields, car-free cycling, great arts and entertainment programming––while being so close," says David Hitchner, co-owner of Taco Vista, a local eatery serving Mexican fare since 2018.
"Pretty much anywhere on the Island, you look up at the horizon, and you'll see One World Trade Center and other skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan."
A military base-turned-park since 2005, this backyard destination has blossomed in the past decade or so and continues to evolve. Governors Island and its 172 acres teem with history, educational activities, and special events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party: a Prohibition-inspired event each summer that’s drawn as many as 10,000 revelers.
For the price of a subway fare and a ferry ride, leave urban life behind for an unforgettable day trip.
How to Get to the Ferry
3 minute walk from South Ferry
4 minute walk from Whitehall Street/South Ferry
6 minute walk from Bowling Green
Take the Journey
Travel to and from Governors Island is half the fun. Savor the harbor breezes, panoramic vistas, and Insta-worthy moments on both ferry trips. Fare is $3 for a round trip, and ferries start at 10 a.m. Monday through Friday, with the last return trip at 6:20 p.m.; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday through Sunday, with the last return trip at 7 p.m.
“From the moment you board the ferry, visitors are transported to a vibrant destination that brings history, expansive open space, vibrant arts and culture, and unique hands-on education right at the center of New York Harbor,” says Sarah Krautheim, a spokesperson for the Trust for Governors Island.
All passengers ride free before noon on weekends. Reserve tickets in advance on govisland.com. Return trips do not require reservations. Arrive 15 minutes before all departures.
Immerse Yourself in Art and Culture
The juxtaposition of the architecture and surrounding landscape with the towering New York skyline set the stage for art and culture. Part of the 92-acre historic district, Colonels Row and its parade of eight stately homes, as well as Nolan Park and its manicured lawns and charming yellow houses dating to 1810 house a host of cultural organizations. Dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, Fort Jay and Castle Williams are a National Monument that adds to the isle’s Old-World feel.
Since 2013, the Trust for Governors Island has commissioned various exhibitions and collaborated with numerous arts organizations to host events. Daytrippers can discover a collection of intriguing public artworks, including Yankee Hanger by Mark Handforth and Shantell Martin's Church and The May Room, set in the former Our Lady Star of the Sea chapel.
Meanwhile, ArtCrawl Harlem is a residency featuring local, up-and-coming artists Michael Obele, Melissa Sutherland-Moss, and Mario Joyce. Also with a home on the island, HarvestWorks highlights the marriage of art and technology and offers exhibition opportunities for creatives specializing in electronic media.
Bike, Walk or Paddle: Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Roam the island on foot or take a trip on wheels. Bikes, tandems, and surreys ($20 to $50) are ready and waiting at Blazing Saddles near Liggett Terrace, and Citi Bike offers several docks: Soissons Landing, Yankee Pier, and Picnic Point. Water enthusiasts can head to the Downtown Boathouse at Pier 101 for a free sit-on-top kayak and peaceful float on the water, while the adventure-minded can fly high at a speed of up to 21 miles per hour on a
300-foot zip line ($14 per trip or two for $25).
“Governors Island feels like a playground set away from the city, yet still so close to it,” says Michele DeBella Lewis, a native New Yorker and editor of From Inwood Out, a travel blog on the best destinations in New York State. ”I roamed the island one afternoon and spent some time people-watching and enjoying the skyline view. I can’t wait to return and try kayaking or biking.”
If chilling out is on your list, then head for Hammock Grove, a collection of hanging beds on a grassy patch near Liggett Terrace. Nearby, kids (and kids at heart) can romp in the Hammock Grove Play Area.
Set in the 21,000-square-feet Urban Farm, GrowNYC's Teaching Garden is a working farm that organizes tours and workshops on weekends. The Bee Sanctuary gives visitors a chance to observe the buzzy insects in their natural habitat among the verdant space on the island.
Wine and Dine
Step off the ferry at Soissons Landing and walk two minutes to Taco Vista, an island-themed bar and grill serving hearty carnitas tacos, cheese quesadillas, veggie burritos, and frozen margaritas. Also near the dock, Island Oyster shucks bivalves and prepares fish sandwiches and lobster BLTs to pair with summery cocktails like the Tropicalia, a mix of vodka, watermelon, cucumber, and lime.
Through the arch at Liggett Hall, find an outdoor food court on Liggett Terrace. Little Eva's cooks up comforting classics like burgers, hot dogs, and mac n' cheese, while Fauzia's Heavenly Delights is the spot for Jamaican fusion––think jerk chicken and fried plantains. On Comfort Road near The Parade Ground, Brooklyn-based chef Massimiliano Nanni and his team bake delicious Neapolitan pies like the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil) and the Salsiccia e Friarielli (mozzarella, sausage, broccoli rabe) in a brick oven at Pizza Yard.
One of New York's most unusual properties, Collective Retreats located on the west side of the island, provides luxury glamping (glamorous camping with all the modern conveniences) starting at $329 per night. This dreamy oasis features 30 accommodations, including upscale tents and "Outlook Shelters"––mini-hotel rooms with private terraces––as well as a litany of amenities ranging from complimentary Continental breakfast with mini croissants, Greek yogurt and fresh fruit, to 1,500 thread count sheets and service on its water taxi to and from Pier 25 in Hudson River Park.
“There’s no place for glamping in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens,” says Angelo Esteban, assistant manager at Collective Retreats Governors Island. Esteban feels the island is in its own league since it’s, “quiet and not commercialized,” setting the stage for the ideal glamping excursion in New York City.
At Three Peaks Lodge, the property’s on-site restaurant, a Chef's tasting menu and an à la carte lineup spotlight farm-to island cuisine including a succulent whole Maine lobster, grilled half rack of lamb, and fresh produce grown on the Urban Farm. For cocktails with ambiance, Sunset Terrace is the spot to sip an IPA, glass of Sancerre, or a cool libation such as the Hennessy and Campari-based Castle Williams––named for the fort on the
island––while watching a breathtaking sunset.
Governors Island is open seven days a week from May 1 to October 31. Weekday hours are 10 a.m. until 6:20 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays through September 4, the island is offering extended hours until 10 p.m.
Tracy Kaler is a New York-based journalist who’s covered travel, food and drink, culture, design, and other lifestyle topics for The Telegraph, Barron’s Penta, Mansion Global, amNewYork, Travelmag, and other publications.
Governors Island, NYC
Governors Island, New York, NY 11231, USA