Imagine: an uninhabited car-free island that once served as a military base, with a history that can still be touched through a 19th century castle, a whimsical English Gothic chapel and a row of abandoned barracks now housing art shows and events. The landscape is lush with greenspace, with visitors cycling and strolling, making stops to take in creative public art, swing in garden hammocks or climb adult jungle gyms. When sustenance is needed, some indulge in the various food trucks, while others take to the island oyster bar where rosé and cocktails are paired with waterfront views.
Now, would you believe me that such a place existed just eight minutes from Manhattan by ferry?
Let me introduce you to Governors Island.
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For anyone thinking “oh, yea, duh, Governor’s Island,” maybe you’ve heard of it…but have you actually been to it?
I’ve lived in New York my whole life — Manhattan via Brooklyn via Long Island — and while I’ve been to Governors Island for summer festivals (Jazz Age Lawn Party, anyone?) I’ve never been without a plan.
So, as the CEO of my own life, I decided to play hookey and spend a Friday exploring. My boyfriend Andy and I took the 4 Express Train down from the Upper East Side to the Bowling Green Station in Lower Manhattan, where we boarded the quick ferry to paradise.
Video: Exploring Governors Island In Less Than 1 Minute
The eight-minute ferry to Governors Island is $2 round trip — expensive compared to the free Staten Island ferry — but still super cheap as far as transport goes. Check the schedule before going, as it varies weekday vs weekend. You also don’t want to miss the last ferry back. On weekdays that’s 6pm and weekends that’s 7pm, though we were told there is an emergency 10pm ferry that comes to grab stragglers.Here's why Governors Island is the perfect day trip from #NYC! #travel Click To Tweet
No need to head upstate to the Hudson Valley for serenity — though that’s awesome too — as the car-less Governors Island made my anxiety slip off like a pair of heels after a long night.
To be honest, before arriving we knew nothing about Governors Island beyond that it existed; but as we wandered from the ferry, passing Castle Williams and the preserved buildings of the 1800s Colonels Row, we realized there was some important history to understand.
About The Island
Governors Island was originally inhabited by the Native Americans who called it “Pagganck” meaning “Nut Island,” named after the many chestnut, oak and hickory trees that grew. It was purchased by the Dutch in 1637 for the price of two axe and some nails and beads, according to the Trust for Governors Island.
My first thought: this is insane considering I pay over $22,000 per year in rent to live in a shoebox — albeit with very cute brick walls — and I have a “cheap” place.
The truth, however, is that what we look at as trinkets were actually very necessary goods. If you’re interested in learning more about how the Dutch acquired today’s NYC from the Native Americans, check out this excellent in-depth article from Untapped Cities.
So how did it go from being called Nut Island to Governors Island? The British took control in 1664. It switched back and forth between Dutch and British rule a few times, though under the British it was renamed in 1699 when they began using it for the “benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors.”
For much of its history Governors Island has also been a military outpost, thanks to its stretegic position along the coast.Governors Island played a role in the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, WWI and WWII. According to Time Out New York, it also functioned as the Army headsquarters for the entire eastern USA.
Much of this history is still apparent today, though with an interactive twist.
While I’m typically not a history buff, Governors Island and its 172 acres allows you to interact with almost everything — including the past. Right in front of Castle William, Andy and I found a free viewfinder pointing toward Manhattan. The attraction is meant to pay homage to the victims of 9/11, as it looks out toward One World Trade where the Twin Towers once stood.
Moreover, you can turn the viewfinder toward other attractions, with rotating signage underneath letting you know what you’re looking at.
Another historic highlight is the star-shaped Fort Jay, especially beautiful when viewed from above (as shown in The Hills video below). It was constructed between 1794 and 1809, meant to help protect the city from impending threats of takeover by the British and French.
Today, like most of Governors Island’s historic sites, it’s used for art and performance events. In fact, both the once-moat and former gunpowder and artillery storage rooms are performance spaces, while rocking chairs make the former military barracks a chill hangout spot.
There’s also the beautiful St. Cornelius Chapel. The original chapel dates back to 1846, built to keep prayer in the lives of the Army men and their families that inhabited the island. The present English Gothic chapel — with its Indiana limestone and soaring tower — opened in 1906.
Interestingly, it’s affiliated with Manhattan’s famous Trinity Church, home to a historic cemetery where notable New Yorkers like Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton are buried.
We simply passed by the chapel to admire the design, so I can’t remark on the interior. Judging by the exterior though I’d guess it’s pretty darn gorgeous!
We also wandered Colonels Row, used as housing for Army generals in the 1870s. You can actually go into the houses, and one even had a pay-what-you-wish production called Genesis 22 by The Woolgatherers. Inside, the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac was retold from multiple points of view in the various rooms.
We wandered through the old house, with walls covered in mud and ribbons or cloth hanging from the ceiling. It was an interesting scene for a historic site, but that’s what is so awesome about Governors Island: it’s very unexpected.
In fact, what’s wild is just how much this super historic island — managed by the National Park Service and the Trust for Governors Island — dedicates itself to the arts, as you’ll learn more about below.Governors Island is full of fascinating #NY and American #history! #travel #nyc Click To Tweet
Govenors Island By Bike
Along with having two Citi Bike stations (free on weekends from 10am-noon for one hour of use), there’s also Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals & Tours. For $15 we got 2-hour Cruiser rentals, while $25 gets you a whole day.
Note: you can also rent these super awkward 4-to-6-person bike-slash-carts called “surreys” that people really seemed to be struggling with. They might be fun if you want a laugh and a challenge, though!
It’s a small island, and two hours was perfect as we cycled the perimeter, enjoying views of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan.
Along the way we found a number of interesting attractions, like:
- Play Lawn. The playgrounds on Governors Island are nothing like I played on when I was a kid. Not to mention you’ll find many adults crawling the ropes courses and climbing the wooden planks. There are also modern swings and jungle gyms that are both works of art and play spaces.
- Museums. There are a number of interesting-looking museums and exhibitions on the island, though note many are only open on weekends (you can check the calendar here). A few of note are the HoloCenter – Art Center and Museum for holographic arts, the New-York Historical Society’s popup Battle for the Ballott: The Centennial of Woman’s Suffrage in New York and Escaping Time: Art From US Prisons.
- Picnic Point. What a view! There are many creative seating options, as well. Along with looking forward toward the Statue of Liberty, make sure to look backward. You’ll have a beautiful view of Lower Manhattan (shown below). Fun game: rent a bike and see if you can race the Staten Island Ferry to this beautiful spot.
- play:groundNYC. For kids, but fun to photograph. It’s a handicap-accessible junkyard that’s a playground. You’ll see signs stating “Your kids are fine without advice & suggestions” alonside “junk” that entices you to climb in it and play.
- Figment Mini Golf. Hands-down the most artistic mini golf course I’ve ever seen. Each hole in the course is like a mini art installation, making it interesting to walk around. Pro tip: don’t miss the annual Figment NYC, a free participatory arts event where anyone can submit for their work to be displayed!
- Hammock Grove. Here you’ll find 50 red hammocks for hanging out — literally — in nature. Additionally, biking through the gardens that line the grove was a treat as the flowers grew higher than my body.
- The Hills. As you’re probably realizing by now, Governors Island is truly a nature-filled, art-ladded playspace. The Hills — a new attraction on the island — really brings this to life. The best way to understand The Hills is through the below video, created by Governors Island, but basically there are four hills, each providing a unique perspective of NYC both literally and figuratively. There’s Grassy Hill, great for chillin’ with a book; Slide Hill, featuring four slides built into the hillside, including NYC’s longest slide at 57 feet; Outlook Hill, which has a scramble built with blocks of granite sourced from a historic army seawall; and Discovery Hill, which pays homage to the island’s rich artist culture.
- Compost Learning Center. We didn’t get to go as it’s only open on weekends, but it looked really neat and would be a must for anyone looking to learn how to compost and try it for themselves.
- Wright Brothers Propeller. (!!!!). So. Cool. Right next to Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals there’s a large stone that holds a bronze propeller cast directly from one of the two propellers outfitted on the first US military airplane, a 1909 Wright. The monument is known as the Early Birds Monument, and pays homage to Governors Island’s history as an aviator center. Fun fact: Wilbur Wright was the first to fly over New York in 1909.
A Delicious Ending
After returning our bikes, we strolled over to Island Oyster, a wall-less bar and restaurant affiliated with Manhattan’s popular Grand Banks, serving snacks and oysters with prime views of Lower Manhattan. You’ll find a colorful patio with funky seating and fairy lights as well as a line of small tables facing the water. The sections are separated by a long white bar of busy bartenders doling out tap wine and cocktails. Try the “Jungle Bird” featuring blackstrap rum, campari, lime and pineapple. Yum!
We arrived just in time — 5:20, as the bar closes at 5:30pm on weekdays so staff can grab the last ferry. Luckily, they were still serving beer and wine as they cleaned up.
Weekdays vs Weekends
We went on a Friday, which meant a lot of the attractions were closed. Weekends you’ll find more to do and the ferry runs later (7pm, vs 6pm on weekdays).
That being said, we really enjoyed the feeling of so few people on the island. And there are so many play, picnic and viewpoint places you can 100% enjoy Governors Island even if you don’t “do” anything aside from stroll or bike and end with a drink and a view.
While Andy accompanied me to Governors Island, it’s an ideal trip for solo travelers. Simply rent a bike and explore. It’s safe, and impossible to get lost as the island is small. You can also wander on foot, frolicking about the playgrounds and splash pads and checking out whatever event is going on that weekend. And definitely check, because Governors Island has MANY events!
For food and drink, bring a book and a picnic and head out to Picnic Point — where hammocks and a view of Lady Liberty await — or chill out at one of the many outdoor eateries.
Have you visited Governors Island? Please share your highlights in the comments below!
Getting There: There is daily ferry service from Lower Manhattan and Governors Island, as well as Brooklyn Bridge Park and Governors Island. Click here for the schedule. Rides are $2 round-trip per adult and free on Saturdays and Sundays until 11:30am. All ferries are wheelchair accessible.
Getting Around: Cars are not allowed on the island. Luckily, the island is only 2.5 miles in circumference. It’s easy to get around on foot, though renting bikes is a lot of fun. There are about seven miles of cycling paths. Plus, there is no surcharge on the ferry for bikes, so if you have one, bring it! Otherwise, you can rent from Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals ($15 for 2 hours; get 1 hour free Monday-Friday from betweem 10am and noon) or make use of the two Citi Bike stations on the island at Soissons Landing (where the Manhattan ferry docks) and Yankee Ferry Terminal (where the Brooklyn ferry docks).
Season: Governors Island can be visited from May 1 to October 31.
Bring: Don’t forget a water bottle and sunscreen! Additionally, if using Citi Bike bring your own helmet (optional). I’m also a big fan of the stylish hidden pocket scarves at Speakeasy Travel Supply. They even have light ones for summer and make it easy to store valuables securely!
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