Must-See Pelham Bay Park and City Island

Christina Parrella

When considering the Bronx, a number of landmarks come to mind—the Bronx Zoo, Yankee Stadium and Arthur Avenue foremost among them. But beyond those famed attractions, the borough offers several surprising urban oases—unexpected expanses where the bustle of the City is muted and life moves at a more languid pace. Two such places are Pelham Bay Park and City Island. The former is the largest recreation area in New York City; at 2,766 acres, it's more than three times the size of Central Park and features plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventures. The latter, meanwhile, represents an intriguing slice of the City's seafaring past—a charming maritime village that still relies on its waterfront for its identity.

Located at the northern end of NYC, these destinations are adjacent to one another, but visitors on their way to City Island must first pass through Pelham Bay Park. Traveling to the green space is relatively easy: take the 6 train uptown to the last stop—Pelham Bay Park—and emerge at the Bruckner Boulevard and Westchester Avenue intersection. Enter the southwest portion of the park there, or pick up one of a number of buses at the station that head in: the Bx29 runs north on Shore Road and then east on City Island Road, stopping twice in the park's confines; the Bx5 and Bx12 serve the golf courses and Orchard Beach; and Westchester's Bee-Line 45 bus will let you off in front of Bartow-Pell Mansion.

Bronx Equestrian Center. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Like some of the City's other natural areas, Pelham Bay Park's amenities include playgrounds, picnic areas, sports fields and running paths, along with bicycling and hiking trails, spots to kayak or canoe and even public golf courses and horseback-riding paths. Located just off Shore Road, the Bronx Equestrian Center provides English- and Western-style lessons. The facility also offers individual and group trail rides—a great way to explore the park's woods and marshlands. Another way to experience the outdoors is during a relaxing afternoon at the Pelham/Split Rock Golf Course, the only public 36-hole facility in the five boroughs. Built in 1901, the Pelham Bay course is better for beginners, with expansive fairways and a classic layout. Its more challenging sibling, Split Rock—named after a granite boulder that sits at the junction of the New England Thruway and Hutchinson River Parkway—is well suited for experienced golfers. And families with younger children will enjoy playing 18-hole mini golf at Turtle Cove Golf Center.

More leisurely activities can be found on Orchard Beach, the Bronx's famous stretch of sand. Dubbed “the Riviera of New York” after its opening in 1936, the 1.1-mile-long strand has a promenade, areas to picnic and prime views of City Island. Just to its north is the Hunter Island Marine Zoology and Geology Sanctuary, a 138-acre salt marsh and forest nature preserve that features a rugged, New England–style shoreline. Here intrepid explorers can discover boulders deposited during the last ice age, an oak forest and a rare intertidal marine ecosystem.

Those more interested in the area's past should make their way to Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, one of the oldest homes in the borough. Built in 1842, this grand edifice sits on a manicured 220-acre spot in the northern part of the park and affords a glimpse into 19th-century country life. The beautiful Greek Revival mansion and its nearby carriage house are open for public tours, and both are surrounded by gardens and hiking trails that stay open until dusk.

History-minded visitors should also make a point of seeing City Island, where the borough's oceangoing past is always on display. The City Island Nautical Museum, for instance, is housed inside a former schoolhouse that dates back to 1898, and the Harlem Yacht Club, still in operation, is one of the oldest yacht clubs in the United States—started in 1883 and first moving to City Island in 1894.

To get to City Island, take the Bx29 bus from the Pelham Bay Park subway station. (You can also hop on the City Island Seaside Trolley at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, but note that the trolley only operates the first Friday of the month, from April to December—and even then only in evenings.) The first stop over the City Island Bridge is at City Island Avenue and Kilroe Street, which puts you within walking distance of City Island Lobster House. Diners can enjoy Maine lobster, king crab legs and baked clams, along with views of the marina and Long Island Sound.

Johnny’s Reef Restaurant. Photo: Julienne Schaer Johnny's Reef Restaurant. Photo: Julienne Schaer

But the Lobster House is just one of the neighborhood's many seafood joints—it's unlikely you'll leave the island hungry. The Original Crab Shanty is a popular spot, serving crustaceans in over a dozen different ways—sautéed, stuffed, broiled, baked or steamed, among them. Farther down City Island Avenue are Sammy's Fish Box and two waterfront spots, Tony's Pier and Johnny's Reef, renowned for their fried dishes. Enjoy scallops, flounder, lobster tails, shrimp, soft-shell crabs, clams, oysters and squid, all served on paper plates, usually with a wedge of lemon. Johnny's dishes up an array of tropical mixed drinks amid its cafeteria-style decor; Tony's, right across the street and rebuilt after a fire caused by Superstorm Sandy, has similar liquid refreshments—and an arcade-style claw game with live lobsters in it.

BistroSK. Photo: Julienne Schaer

For a more formal experience, visit Bistro SK, where France native Stephane Kane and his wife, Maria Caruso, prepare Gallic dishes like escargots and coq au vin, or Artie's Steak and Seafood, where you'll find buttery lobster rolls (available at lunch only), mussels steeped in olive oil and garlic and a variety of steak and pasta dishes.

If you've saved room for dessert, head over to Lickety Split to cool off with your choice of 20 ice-cream flavors, from traditional ones like chocolate and vanilla to sea-salt caramel. Stick around until evening, and you might catch Lickety Split's owner, Gerard “Skip” Giacco (or any number of other local musicians), playing his music at the island's renowned Starving Artists Café and Gallery, a performance space.

Browsers, too, will find plenty to delight in. At Focal Point Gallery, open for four decades, owner Ron Terner showcases local contemporary art of all kinds as well as his own photography, which he mounts onto bricks, old ship wood and other repurposed elements. Next door, Early Ruth Antiques is an unassuming shop that carries nautical collectibles and furniture. Like Ruth's, Corona's Hidden Treasures carries pre-loved maritime accessories. Run by husband and wife Carolyn and John Corona, the store is a bargain hunter's dream. Stacked from floor to ceiling with artifacts, it's a great spot to lose a few hours—the owners clearly take pride in their stock. During your visit you may even find John in the back crafting a model ship by hand.

Kaleidoscope Gallery. Photo: Julienne Schaer

The nearby Kaleidoscope Gallery is a picturesque shop that carries objects and art related to the sea, as well as handmade soap by locals and toys for kids. Owner Paul Klein also makes and sells one-of-a-kind gold and silver jewelry. For more handmade baubles, visit Calico Juno Designs, where Bonnie Riconda fashions colorful gemstones into earrings, rings and bracelets. Her work has adorned the likes of Eva Longoria and Dylan Lauren.


Captain Mike's Diving Services. Photo: Julienne Schaer

No trip to City Island would be complete without some action on the ocean. If you're an adventure seeker looking to take a deep dive, know that Captain Mike’s specializes in underwater activities for both beginners and advanced divers. Across the street from Captain Mike's, Captain Chris runs Island Current out of Jack's Bait and Tackle, where visitors can charter a number of different boats, including the diesel-powered, 76-foot-long Island Current III. Slightly smaller boats that take anglers out to fish depart twice a day, at 8am and 5pm, and you can rent four-person boats just to get out on the water. There are few more relaxing ways to leave the City in your wake.