Shore to Please: A Day in Staten Island
by Christina Parrella, 08/06/2013
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With coastline attractions, picturesque parks and kid-friendly activities, Staten Island remains an unspoiled paradise right here in New York City. A classic visit to the southernmost borough usually involves a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, followed by a quick stroll through the St. George Ferry Terminal and a returning boat ride to Manhattan. But there are plenty of reasons to stay in Staten Island for the entire day. Not only is it the greenest borough, boasting around 9,300 acres of parkland, but it's also one of the most historically rich, with ties to Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Revolutionary War and the abolitionist movement. There are exciting things on the docket for Staten Island, too, including a major new City attraction in the form of the New York Wheel, a soaring 360-foot Ferris wheel set to open in St. George in 2016. With its surplus of charming neighborhoods, cultural institutions, authentic restaurants and natural reserves, Staten Island provides a scenic daylong retreat from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
Rendering courtesy of New York Wheel LLC
Read on for an itinerary that will help you make the most of your day trip to Staten Island.
Get to Staten Island by way of the free Staten Island Ferry, which departs every half hour from Whitehall Terminal. The voyage provides postcard-worthy views of New York City's legendary skyline and Statue of Liberty. Once you arrive, take a walk on the North Shore Waterfront Esplanade, where you can take more photos of the Lower Manhattan skyline before heading to the Staten Island September 11 Memorial—a structure that honors the borough's victims of September 11.
Staten Island September 11 Material. Photo: Alex Lopez
A short bus ride will take you to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden—a stunning tree-lined complex that houses a number of impressive gardens and historic buildings. The green oasis is also home to the kid-friendly Staten Island Children's Museum, a performing arts center that supports a roster of local acts and the Noble Maritime Collection, which features fascinating exhibitions of maritime art and artifacts, as well as a 1950s houseboat studio belonging to artist and former seaman John A. Noble. Next year, the Staten Island Museum, which currently houses one of the largest assemblages of cicadas in the country, will showcase its profusion of natural science artifacts on the grounds of Snug Harbor. Located nearby is Mediterranean restaurant Blue, offering waterfront views and a seafood-centric menu; think steaming pots full of seasoned mussels, shrimp, clams and oysters served over noodles. The Sunday clambake special ($25 for three courses) is also enticing.
Other area eateries worth checking out include Enoteca Maria, serving up home-cooked meals prepared by authentic Italian "nonnas," and the casual Pier 76, home to piping-hot pizza and a selection of Italian dishes and bar food. During the week there's live music, drink specials and televised sports games at this laid-back spot (which is walking distance from the ferry).
If you (or your children) are up for refining your kickflips or 360s, swing by 5050 Skatepark, NYC's only indoor skateboarding park. Located close to the ferry, the venue offers ramps and rails for a variety of skill levels and extreme sports. Recent visitors include rappers Lil Wayne and Chris Miles, and pro BMX rider Nick Seabasty.
5050 Skatepark. Photo: Alexis Herrera
If you prefer to feel your feet on the ground (or in the sea), head over to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk, where you can stroll along the 2.5-mile-long promenade running adjacent to the charming South Beach, a pleasant place to lounge for a few hours in the sand and surf (don't forget the towels and sunscreen). While you're in the area, dine at one of the popular seafood restaurants on the boardwalk, such as South Fin Grill, or watch amateur anglers work their reels at the Ocean Breeze Fishing Pier, one of the largest in the City. Visitors should call 311 or visit nyc.gov/parks in advance to confirm operating hours.
History buffs won't want to miss a tour of Fort Wadsworth, one of the oldest bulwarks in America, with ties to George Washington and Revolutionary War battles. Occupying 226 acres, Fort Wadsworth is home to many batteries, tunnels, fortresses and passageways, and exploring it can be an extensive experience. Admission is free—and so are the spectacular views of the New York Harbor and skyline.
From the north shore of Staten Island, the best way to get around the Island is by public bus or the island's own railway system (SIR) [PDF]. A direct bus route will take you from Fort Wadsworth to the Staten Island Zoo, which houses an extensive collection of smaller animals in their natural habitats. Highlights of the zoo include the popular "Fear Zone" of venomous reptiles; a tropical forest; and the African Savannah exhibit with meerkats and leopards. The zoo recently welcomed two bat-eared foxes and will unveil an Amur leopard exhibit in the coming months.
Staten Island Zoo. Courtesy, Staten Island Boro President's Office
Nearby, the Greenbelt offers 2,800 acres of lush forest grounds and a number of trails that are perfect for an afternoon stroll or hike. Recreational spots along Willowbrook Lake make for a great spot to stop and enjoy a picnic. If colonial history interests you, head to Historic Richmond Town, where you can experience late-17th-, 18th- and 19th-century living firsthand. This village features costumed characters living and working amid period buildings, many of which are original sites. Before you visit, check the event calendar for specific information on all the old-fashioned fun that’s happening. History buffs will also enjoy visiting The Conference House Museum and Sandy Ground Historical Museum, both of which have assured Staten Island's place in history. The former, which sits on a 265-acre park at the southernmost point of Staten Island, was the site of a 1776 peace conference between British Admiral Richard Howe and Continental Congress representatives Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge. Today, tours and reenactments are given at the museum. The latter, also on the island's south shore, is the former site of one of the City's first free African-American settlements. Founded in 1833 as an oyster-farming community, Sandy Ground was once a stop along the Underground Railroad and became home to a thriving community of farmers. Today, original artifacts and documents are preserved at the museum and library.
Historic Richmond Town. Courtesy, Staten Island Borough President's Office
For a late lunch, drop by Lee's Tavern, a no-frills rustic spot that boasts full bar service and an Italian-American menu with house specialties like fried calamari and thin-crust white clam pizza. The family-friendly Denino's Pizzeria & Tavern, which has been a mainstay on Port Richmond Avenue since 1937, serves up traditional crispy brick-oven pies, including its signature "M.O.R." pizza covered in meatballs, onions and ricotta. Visitors will undoubtedly be drawn to Ralph's Famous Italian Ices & Ice Cream across the street for a refreshing frozen dessert. A local favorite since 1928, Ralph's owes its popularity (and long lines) to its ingenious iced creations like Rainbow Cookie and Banzai Banana, as well as to well-loved standards like cherry and spumoni.
Children of all ages will enjoy visiting the four-decades old Brownie's Hobby Shop, whose shelves are stocked with the implements necessary to fashion model airplanes and pocket-size automobiles. The store also sells new and vintage radio-controlled cars, boats and helicopters. Those who are more musically inclined will want to peruse the wares at Mandolin Brothers, featuring expansive showrooms full of high-end acoustic and electric guitars, as well as banjos, basses and ukuleles. Instruments start in the $500 range, with limited-edition and collectible items selling for up to $250,000. It's no wonder the music shop has been visited by Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney, among others.
Courtesy, St. George Theater
Settle in for a low-key evening at Casa Belvedere, a historic mansion that celebrates Italian culture through films, cooking classes, exhibitions and programs. Casa Belvedere, which translates into "house with a beautiful view," lives up to its name: the house is located on a three-acre hill that overlooks the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and its surrounding harbor. If you're looking for a livelier evening, head back to St. George, where the New York Yankees' Class A minor league team, Staten Island Yankees, play at the waterside Richmond County Bank Ballpark. If you're lucky enough to catch an evening "Baby Bombers" game Thursday through Saturday throughout the summer season, you'll have the added bonus of seeing a fireworks show against the twinkling Lower Manhattan skyline. If twinkling stage lights are more your thing, head to the nearby St. George Theatre. The historic venue plays host to music, comedy and drama performances all year round. On Saturdays in May the outdoor St. George Greenmarket (in the parking lot of the theater) displays fresh and seasonal produce, a perfect option for a healthy snack to hold you over until dinner.
Staten Island Yankees. Photo: Peter Frutkoff
For a heartier meal, restaurants in the area include Bayou, an eatery whose alligator- and gumbo-laden menu and dark decor conjure up an authentic New Orleans experience, and Ruddy & Dean, a standout steakhouse known for its aged meats and terrific terrace views.
Theater buffs interested in catching a high-energy performance on the small stage can see productions at numerous locations on the island. This fall at Snug Harbor, Sundog Theatre revives the Broadway comedy hit The 39 Steps (based on the Hitchcock thriller), while The Harbor Lights Theater Company presents the musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Other year-round cultural events courtesy of the Staten Island Arts organization include local music shows, comedic performances and art exhibitions.
If you're in the mood to extend your trip with some after-hours fun, then Drunken Monkey Bar & Grill or Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn should suffice. The tropical-themed Drunken Monkey presents live music and mixed-alcohol concoctions like the Drunken Monkey Beer, which is simply beer with a shot of banana liquor. The neighborhood beer garden, Killmeyer's Old Bavaria Inn, showcases its German roots with a menu that's packed with over 100 brews from Germany and other countries and authentic fare such as wienerschnitzel and auflauf. But be sure to keep your eye on your watch: the Staten Island Ferry runs hourly (not every half hour) after 12:30am.
Killmeyer's. Photo: Malcolm Brown
With this long list of Staten Island must-see spots, it's likely you may not be able to see and do it all, so make your plans now for a return trip. For tips on what experienced travelers should do and see throughout the five boroughs, read through our list of suggested itineraries.