Summer Harbor Guide

Michael Hsu and Mallory Passuite

New York City may be renowned for its inland attractions, but the stunning breadth and grandeur of its surrounding waterways should also not be missed—especially during the warmer months of summer. The easy accessibility and gentle, steady winds of New York Harbor (which first made the City a center of shipping commerce) create the ideal conditions for local seafarers and landlubbers alike to connect with the open water.

In addition to providing breathtaking views, the City's miles of public shoreline also offer spots to bike, kayak, sail and, of course, sunbathe. We've put together daylong itineraries that string together some of the best waterfront attractions. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, you'll find plenty to discover—and return to—all season long.

Day One: West Side
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Your day starts bright and early at Castle Clinton, a departure point for ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. This circular sandstone fortress, built in 1812 as a defense against British invasion, has since been used as an opera house, an immigration station and the home of the New York City Aquarium. Today, it's a gateway for the nearly 4 million visitors to Liberty and Ellis Islands each year.

Summertime crowds and heightened security measures can mean wait times of several hours, so depart early, when crowds are thin; the security screening now takes place at the promenade in Battery Park, before passengers board the ferry (leave any large bags behind). To further reduce your wait time, purchase your ferry tickets from Statue Cruises in advance.

First stop after setting sail is Liberty Island. If you want to peer out from the statue’s crown (renovated a couple of years ago), it's crucial to reserve your tickets well ahead of time—we'd recommend at least six weeks—through Statue Cruises, as only 365 tickets are allotted for visitors each day. Many more reservations are available for access to the monument's pedestal, which also provides a beautiful vantage point on the harbor.

Even if you don't feel like exploring the scenery from the monument itself, the grounds of Liberty Island provide a striking setting for viewing the statue, the ocean and the City. And all reservations come with access to Ellis Island, the next stop on the ferry. The island’s museum has mostly reopened, after damage incurred from Superstorm Sandy. You can visit the American Family Immigation History Center, Registry Room and Great Hall, along with various exhibitions—though a large number of artifacts remain in storage.

If your heart's not devoted to stepping foot on either island, consider another magnificent way of seeing the sights: a cruise with Manhattan by Sail on the Shearwater or Clipper City schooners. Unlike the motorized tour boats, these massive sailboats make a smooth, relaxing journey around Ellis and Liberty Islands, offering sweeping views of the statue and the Manhattan skyline. The Shearwater launches from North Cove Marina in Battery Park City, and the Clipper City leaves from slip 2 in Battery Park; both have daily departures.

Picnic in Battery Park
However you choose to experience the Statue of Liberty, head to Battery Park once you get back to Manhattan. Its top-notch people-watching and river views make it the ideal picnic spot. Pick A Bagel, near the south end of the park, is a reasonably priced New York mainstay that has everything you'll need for an alfresco meal: cold cuts, salad spreads, panini, knishes, lemonade and, of course, bagels. Across Vesey Street, in Brookfield Place, Financier Patisserie has a selection of sandwiches, soups, salads and quiches to go with its quality pastries and coffee. If you want a wider choice, head to the Hudson Eats food court on the terrace level of Brookfield Place. There you’ll find stalls from some of the top slow-food quick-bite places in town, including Black Seed Bagels, Num Pang and Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque, and some less familiar outlets like Skinny Pizza. If you're looking for a sit-down meal on the water, P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson, also just steps from the North Cove Marina, serves classic pub food in its outdoor seating area.

You may want to stick around after eating to check out free events at the Winter Garden, or elsewhere in Lower Manhattan. Visit the Downtown Alliance’s calendar for more ideas.

Stroll or Bike Up Hudson River Park
Next, walk up Hudson River Park, which stretches 5 miles along the Hudson River, from Battery Park to 59th Street. To make it a more vigorous expedition, rent a bicycle at Bike and Roll's Battery Park location (at the intersection of State and Water Streets), allowing you to get some exercise while covering more territory and sights. On your journey north, you'll come across opportunities for a bevy of outdoor activities, from the sedate (sunbathing) to the adventurous (trapeze lesson, anyone?).

There's free kayaking Thursday evenings and weekends, weather permitting, at Pier 40 (located off the very west end of Houston Street), courtesy of the volunteer-run Downtown Boathouse. (Pack a change of clothes or a bathing suit; locker rooms are available.) If you prefer to kick back and catch some rays, stop off at Pier 45, near Christopher Street, one of the City's more bustling sunbathing locales. You'll also find a water feature, café and water-taxi service. Those with children in tow will want to stop by Chelsea Waterside Park, at 23rd Street. It has a fun playground and sprinklers for visitors of all ages to cool off under.

Set Sail at Dusk
As the sun starts setting, wander up Hudson River Park to Pier 62 of Chelsea Piers, near 22nd Street (about a 45-minute walk from Battery Park), and hop on one of Classic Harbor Line's schooners. Their two-hour sunset excursions—which feature complimentary champagne, wine, beer and soda—loop around the southern tip of the island, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, returning back to Chelsea Piers by dark.

Day Two: NYC Ferry
In addition to breathtaking skyline views, NYC Ferry provides a refreshing mode of public transportation in the City, with regular service running between multiple locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. You can take a boat ride for the cost of a subway ride—and children under 44" ride for free. While the ferry jaunt alone is worth the ride, each stop offers loads to see and do. Read on for ideas to customize your own ferry tour.

Lower Manhattan
Start your morning at Pier 11, at the foot of Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and hop on board. Savor the breeze in your hair and the familiar buildings that pass by in the panorama as you float away from the island. The first stop from Wall Street/Pier 11 going north up the river is Brooklyn Bridge Park/Dumbo, so that's a good place to begin.

Fulton Ferry Landing/Dumbo
The historic Fulton Ferry Landing was the site of the first ferry service from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in 1642. The landing got its name from Robert Fulton, who inaugurated steamboat ferry service between the two cities in 1814 (he invented the steamboat, as you may remember). Purchase a treat from the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, located in a 1920s fireboat house, and settle on a bench to take in views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan cityscape. On Saturdays at 3pm, Bargemusic, a floating concert hall, located on the south side of the pier, hosts free neighborhood family concerts (ticketed performances take place Friday & Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons).

A short walk along Water Street (and under the Brooklyn Bridge) takes you to Dumbo, a former manufacturing district notable for its cobblestone streets, spacious stores like the lofty powerHouse Arena and specialty boutiques such as Japan-centric shop/artists' space Zakka and Jacques Torres Chocolate. Check out our "Must-See DUMBO" slideshow for more ideas. Then hop back on the ferry and head for Williamsburg.

The next stop is in developing South Williamsburg, where you can find restaurants—notably, the venerable Peter Luger Steak House and the seasonally focused Marlow & Sons—as well as shops and bars. Stop here for a stroll or continue on to North Williamsburg.

North Williamsburg/North 6th Street
Brooklyn Flea has indoor and outdoor locations in Williamsburg, not far from East River State Park, a block from where the ferry docks. The summer Williamsburg Flea takes place on Sundays from 10am to 5pm, at 50 Kent Ave. Meander through the maze of vendors, selling everything from original, handmade jewelry and art to vintage clothing and antiques. If you happen to have landed there on a Saturday, hit East River State Park for Smorgasburg, the all-food market that takes over that space with around 100 local vendors each week, ranging from established carts like Asia Dog and Red Hook Lobster Pound to up-and-comers like Inglorious Yakitorius. Smorgasburg is open on Saturdays from 11am to 6pm. During winter, both move indoors to a warehouse at Wythe Avenue and North 5th Street.

Then wander into the heart of Williamsburg, a bustling 'hood loaded with galleries, boutiques and vintage shops like Buffalo Exchange, not to mention local craft-beer purveyors, like Brooklyn Brewery, which offers tours and tastings throughout the week (reservations required) and hosts a Friday night happy hour. After exploring sales and ales, head back to the NYC Ferry, which continues on to Greenpoint and Long Island City, in Queens, before heading to its final stop, East 34th Street in Manhattan.

Hunters Point South/Long Island City
To wrap up your day's journey with an elegant riverside dinner, get off at Hunters Point South, not far from Water's Edge Restaurant, known for its seafood and spectacular views. Too early for dinner when you arrive? Venture inland to MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art affiliate devoted to innovative contemporary art. Every summer Saturday, from June through September, the museum hosts Warm Up, its annual outdoor series of experimental live music, performance, art and DJs.

Day Three: Governors Island
Riverside Ride to the Governors Island Ferry (May Through September)
If you have a bicycle, start your day at the top of East River Park, near 12th Street, and ride down the East River Waterfront Esplanade, a 2-mile public path that runs along the river to the southernmost tip of Manhattan. Hop off when you reach the Battery Maritime Building, at 10 South St., to catch the ferry to Governors Island. (If you don't have a bike, begin at the ferry terminal; you can rent a bike on the island.) Generally, ferries depart every half hour. Check the schedule for further details, and take note that this special Governors Island ferry is different than the NYC Ferry.

Bike Around the Island
Governors Island's 172 picturesque acres make it ideal for cycling, so if you didn't bring your own bike, rent one upon arrival. A short stroll from the ferry terminal, Blazing Saddles offers adult and kids’ cycles, tandems and surreys, plus bike seats and attachable wagons for the wee ones. Better still, during weekdays between 10am and noon, you can “rent” one of bikes totally free for up to an hour. Because no cars are allowed, biking here is more leisurely—and safer—than anywhere else in the City. Feel free to cruise past the island's two historical forts and many landmarked buildings at your own pace. Or loop around the 2.2-mile promenade that circles the island.

Lunch on the Beach
When it's time to eat, you'll find a wide selection of choices. Governors Beach Club, which has its own patch of sand, serves nachos with chili or pulled pork, smoked barbecue wings with blue cheese, veggie burgers and other summertime snacks. Not quite beachside, King Avenue Food Court (weekends only) has a clutch of vendors, including Carl’s Steaks and Momo & Buns for sustenance and Blue Marble Ice Cream and Brooklyn Soda Works for cooling down. Nearby, Liggett Terrace Food Court (daily) has offerings from Veronica's West Indian Cuisine, which serves jerk chicken and curried goat, and Little Eva's, serving up shellfish and hot dogs and touting a beer garden of sorts.