Must-See Governors Island

Alyssa Grossman

Governors Island has come a long way from its days as a military outpost and former Coast Guard base. The 172-acre island in New York's harbor that featured in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 began welcoming the public to its shores in 2004, and has since become one of the City's most popular summertime destinations for visitors and locals alike. The island is car-free and accessible only by ferry, free of charge from Manhattan's Battery Maritime Building and Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 6—making it an idyllic respite that feels more like a leafy New England college town than a part of New York City. Grab a seat on the outside deck and have your camera ready—the short trip over affords striking views of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Once you dock, your biggest challenge is choosing what to do first. Putt your way through a game of handcrafted mini golf, tag along on a ranger-led tour of historic Fort Jay and Castle Williams, rent a bike to explore the terrain on two wheels, or drop into open artist studios and immerse yourself in the island's art scene. And that's in addition to a packed schedule of music, art and sporting events taking place all summer long. Thankfully, you have an entire season to fit it all in. Governors Island is open, through September 29, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from 10am to 7pm, with some special programming taking place during the week.

From Governors Island's historic district at the northern end of the island to rows of pre–World War II buildings to its annual Civil War Weekend celebration, it's clear this landmark has gone to great lengths to preserve its past. Its traceable routes go back as far as the 15th century, when Native American tribes used the island for its prime fishing waters. It was bought by a representative of Holland in 1637 but was later seized by the Dutch government. Between 1664 and 1674, the Dutch and British battled for control over the island, finally ending with a British acquisition. The land would later serve as a home for the king's governors, giving it the name "Governors Island." Once the British left New York in 1776, Americans built up the island to protect themselves from future invasions. The British briefly regained control later that year, but the end of the Revolutionary War marked a return of ownership to American forces, and it was officially given to the US government in 1800. It served as a base for troops during the War of 1812 and as a recruitment station during the Civil War. The Army used Governors Island to store supplies during World War I and II; the Coast Guard operated Governors Island from 1965 to 1995. When 150 of the 172 acres became the property of New York, work began to transform the island into the arts and entertainment hub we know today. Still, Governors Island honors its past through historical tours, reenactments during Army Heritage Day (June 22) and musket and cannon demonstrations by historians during Civil War Heritage Weekend (August 10–11).

There's nothing quite like Governors Island's charmingly quirky FIGMENT festival to kick off the summer. The playful, island-wide celebration brings indoor and outdoor art, craft projects and no shortage of unconventional activities (hula hooping and trapeze lessons have both been present at past festivals). FIGMENT takes place from June 8–9, but if you can't make it, don't worry. There are plenty of things to be a part of throughout the season, including FIGMENT's mini-golf course. This year's theme, "State of the Art," asked designers to submit their own interpretation of the topic. The results include computer parts, augmented reality helmets and a life-size adaptation of a motherboard. Some of the festival's installations, including a hands-on sculpture garden and a giant tree house constructed on the island, will also remain through September 22.

Mini golf isn't the only way to get your fill of sports on Governors Island. While bikes are permitted on the ferries, you can also rent a set of wheels after docking, thanks to Bike and Roll bike rentals. Two kiosks are set up on the island where riders can pick up a bike, quad or tricycle for a few laps around the waterfront. The Skate Truck NYC will also be around on Saturdays and Sundays throughout June, July and August. Visitors can stop by the truck for a pair of skates, a helmet and gear. Competitive types converge on the island for the annual Come Out & Play Field Day (July 13), where players join together to try out newly designed games. Past events have included zombie tag and a real-life interpretation of the video game Pong. Keep an eye out for the full list of games as the day approaches. Finally, sporting-event organizer Recess New York will be stopping by throughout the season. On June 22, badminton takes over Colonels Row when 32 groups play for bragging rites. Then, on August 24, the bocce battle is on. Both events feature several public courts so spectators can get in on the action. There will also be complimentary bike rentals, food, drinks and music.

Sporting Events
If you'd rather kick back and watch the action, Governors Island has a host of unconventional sporting events to keep you entertained in the sun. Governors Island is home to the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York, a group dedicated to playing the sport the way it was in 1864. Feeling inspired? The team always welcomes spectators to try out the sport for themselves. To find out when home games are played, visit As it turns out, ferries aren't exactly the only way to get to Governors Island. Governors Island Swim (July 20) is a two-mile race that starts when swimmers jump from a ferry. Visitors to the island can watch competitors sprint across the river while taking in views of Lower Manhattan, Jersey City, Staten Island and Brooklyn. One of the island's final sporting events of the season is also one of its most unusual. The NYC Unicycle Festival (August 31–September 1) rolls into town over Labor Day weekend. Check out demonstrations, races and even unicycle basketball and hockey. Plus, brave festivalgoers will have the chance to test their balance on one of the single-wheeled bikes.

Food and Drink
When you're ready to refuel, head to King Avenue Food Court in the Historic District. There you'll find an assortment of offerings including Veronica's West Indian Cuisine, prepared picnic lunches from Perfect Picnic, Little Eva's Seafood Shack & Beer Garden and ice cream from Mister Softee. A host of temporary vendors will also be parking on the island throughout the season. Keep an eye out for the likes of Munchie Mobile burger purveyors, Hibachi Heaven, Brooklyn Soda Works and Taste This! Cheesecake. In addition to the island's seasonal staples, you'll also find one-of-a-kind eats at festivals and music events throughout the summer.

Music has long been a staple of summertime entertainment on Governors Island. For several weekends each year, crowds gather on the grass to hear an eclectic mix of acts. First up is the Jazz Age Lawn Party (June 15–16 and August 17–18), where revelers dressed in 1920s and '30s garb converge around the outdoor dance floor for a trip back in time courtesy of Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra. The festival brings live music, dance instruction and games, along with the perfect picnicking opportunity with Gatsby-era food and drinks. Then, the Rite of Summer Classical Music Festival presents three shows on Colonels Row. On the schedule for this summer are the internationally acclaimed Bang on a Can All Stars (July 13), bringing their custom blend of sounds to the island. Next up, composer and musician Ljova and his ensemble the Kontraband put on a joint show with chamber music group Fireworks (August 10). The festival closes on a high note with the Rite-a-Thon (September 1).

There's always a reason to celebrate on Governors Island, from a salute to the City's waterways to a day dedicated to unicycles. During City of Water Day (July 20), catch free entertainment and education for kids and adults centered on the ways that the five boroughs interact with our waterways. The event brings complimentary boat tours, kayaking lessons and an activity fair. The NYC Poetry Festival (July 27–28) also returns to the island this summer. Grab a blanket (and maybe your own poetry to read aloud) and board the ferry for a full weekend of poetry from 50 organizations, vendors, a beer garden, food, arts and crafts and children's activities. Later in the season, The NYC Volkswagen Traffic Jam (August 25) drives onto the ordinarily car-free island. Part car show and part picnic, this classic showcase presents vintage Beetles, dune buggies, VW buses and more from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. For other exciting things going on throughout the island, keep checking our Lower Manhattan events calendar.

Indoor and Outdoor Art
Whether you're walking the pathways or stepping into the history-rich buildings, art is everywhere on Governors Island. Best of all, everything is free to see and experience. The Sculptors Guild has orchestrated a Hurricane Sandy tribute exhibit that highlights the artistic creations destroyed and artists who lost their studios to the storm. Rising Tide (season long, 11am–5pm) will focus on new artwork that responds to the devastation. The New-York Historical Society makes its way across the river for WWII & NYC: Photography and Propaganda (June 15–September 2, 10am–6:30pm). Travel back in time to when New York was prepped for war and everyone had their eyes on a win for the Allied forces. Highlights include photos, propaganda posters, a victory garden and a schedule of activities for young island goers. In Building 110, located across the street from Soissons Landing, is LMCC's Arts Center (season long, noon–5pm). Created by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, a key organizer of the River to River Festival, this waterfront building serves as a creative space for emerging artists throughout the year. When the island opens to the public, artists-in-residence get the chance to share their work with visitors.

Walking and Bike Tours
For a place so steeped in history, it takes an expert to see and learn it all. The National Park Service offers several tours throughout the week covering Governors Island's most significant spaces. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Hiking Through History leads walkers on a 1.5-mile outing covering the National Historic Landmark District. Or, explore Fort Jay and Castle Williams on a Get Fortified tour that takes you into the castle and onto its roof, which affords breathtaking views of the City's harbor. Army cannons take center stage on Thursdays, when tour goers are treated to demonstrations and details about the island in the 1800s. For more information and to register for National Park Service tours, visit or call 646-241-2670.

Next year is set to be a big season for Governors Island. In 2014, guests will have access to a brand-new 30-acre park, covering a large part of the island that was previously closed to the public. Until then, there are two ways to get a glimpse at the progress: via a viewing platform under the arch of Liggett Hall (with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty beyond the construction site) and through design team–led hard-hat tours of the area. Tours are first-come, first-served and suitable for kids older than 7.

Many of Governors Island's offerings cater to the entire family. But beyond putting a game of mini golf, renting gear from a skate truck or exploring the terrain by bike, they can check out a number of new activities launched this summer. New this season is Fête Paradiso, a collection of vintage carnival rides and other entertainment restored by French artisans for use on the island. On Saturdays and Sundays from July 6 to September 29, children and adults can experience amusements like a bicycle carousel, flying swings and midway games from the late-19th- and early-20th centuries. Adults can also take advantage of a bumper car pavilion-turned beer garden. Another of the highlights of the season is the Children's Museum of the Arts' Art Island Outpost program. Swing by Buildings 11 and 14 in Nolan Park 11am–3pm each weekend for these creative sessions geared toward children ages 12 and younger. Led by the museum's teaching artists, children will learn prop making, costume design, sculpture and more. Also returning to the island this year is the mobile education station Mü-Math (season long, select Saturdays and all Sundays, 1–5pm), prepped to add a fun factor to the numbers game by challenging guests ages 7 and older to City-centric, hands-on brainteasers about taxis, apartments, the subway and more. Families can also stop by a pop-up library created by the Brooklyn, New York and Queens libraries. All summer, pick up a book to read while you're on the island, drop into special programming and sign up for a library card. On Fridays, catch the 10am ferry from Manhattan for a special kids' history program. Bring Them Back Alive! teaches young park guests about Civil War soldiers and shares stories of adults and children living in the 1860s. Since this series is not hosted during normal park hours, registration is required by emailing the National Park Service at or by calling 646-241-2670. Still looking for more ways to keep busy on Governors Island? Don't miss Come Out & Play Family Day (July 13), a kid-friendly version of the island-wide gaming festival. Centered on the theme of time travel, every game transports participants to a new time and place, from the Dark Ages to a world full of robots.