During the summer, visiting Governors Island should be a no-brainer. This New York Harbor destination features sprawling green spaces, striking views of the City skyline and plenty of shady alcoves—making it just right for relaxing on a hot and hazy day. Jonathan Allen, artist in residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Arts Center at Governors Island, says, "It's like stepping into another world. You're away from the friction of Manhattan, but you're still able to see it."
The island hosts a wealth of activities all summer long. Visitors can hear spoken word at the New York City Poetry Festival, dress up like a flapper for the Jazz Age Lawn Party, play mini golf, enjoy a picnic or watch a heated bocce competition—and that's just for starters. With its historical ties—the island was a military stronghold during both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—and vibrant contemporary arts scene, Governors Island offers a serene and rewarding escape from the City.
How to Get There
The car-free sanctuary is easily accessible via a 7-minute ferry ride from Manhattan's Battery Maritime Building seven days a week, and from Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 6 or any stop on the East River Ferry's route on weekends. For more information, visit govisland.com.
Long prized for its beauty and natural resources, Governors Island was once known for its fishing: Native American tribes trawled its waters as far back as the 15th century. During the British colonial period, it became a home for the king's governors—hence its name—before being used as a strategic military location for the American Revolution (when it was initially controlled by the British) and the War of 1812 (when it was not). The island remained a US Army headquarters until 1966, when oversight switched to the Coast Guard; it passed into civilian hands in 1996 and opened to the public in 2004.
The past is still very much a part of visiting the island. Get a peek into its history on ranger-led tours of Fort Jay, home to one of the first barracks in the US (weekdays twice a day, weekends on the hour) and Castle Williams, designed by Colonel Jonathan Williams, the first American-born military engineer (roof tours daily on the half-hour, 11:30am to 4:30pm). Michael Shaver, chief of educational and visitor services at the Governors Island National Monument, recommends viewing the weekend cannon demonstrations (2:30pm) and climbing to the roof of Castle Williams for a unique perspective on the island. "It was off-limits for two centuries," Shaver says. "It's a place you can explore like a kid again."
The Hills, a new topographic installation on the island, comprises four mounds; each offers incredible views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Grassy Hill is the smallest, with gentle slopes. Slide Hill includes four children’s slides, one of which is the longest (57 feet) in NYC. Outlook Hill is the tallest—at 70 feet, perfect for gazing out at the skyline—while wooded Discovery Hill features an art installation and hidden pathways. For more information, visit govisland.com.
Outdoors and Recreation
Every year, arts organization Figment NYC presents free, interactive exhibitions on Governors Island. Don't miss the colorful mini-golf course—each hole interpreted by a different artist according to this year's theme, "From Here to There"—sculpture installations and giant tree house. Meanwhile, cycling enthusiasts will find room to roam on the island's 5 or so miles of bike paths. Rent a bike or, if you're in a group, a surrey, and pedal around the waterfront.
Arts and Entertainment
The Hills and Figment's installations are just a few of Governors Island's draws. Art lovers, take note: the island presents many exhibitions, including its twice-yearly open studios show (the culmination of its artists' residency program). In addition, shows pop up all over, many hosted in Nolan Park. This recently renovated 30-acre green space at the southwestern tip of the island—near the hammocks, ball fields, sprinkler showers and playgrounds—features site-specific pieces like Mark Handforth's Weeping Hydrant and Painted Phone. The island welcomes more rotating presentations as well, including exhibitions from the New-York Historical Society.
Music is another a staple of the island's summer offerings. One of the past decade's long-running highlights is the Jazz Age Lawn Party, which takes place every June and August and blends live music, games and fashions of the 1920s and '30s. Many of the tunes—and most of the event's organization—come courtesy of Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra. "This is the only place where this could happen," Arenella says.
If all the sightseeing and relaxing makes you famished, visit the Liggett Terrace Food Court. During the week you'll find an assortment of vendors there offering tasty treats: Veronica's Kitchen, which serves West Indian cuisine; Perfect Picnic and its prepared gourmet lunches; and ice cream alternative Alchemy Creamery, among them. On weekends look for food trucks parked along King Avenue in the historic district.
Conservation and Volunteering
The Billion Oyster Project, supported by the island's New York Harbor School and Earth Matter NY, aims to reinstate oyster colonies in New York Harbor. Visitors can view a live feed of the oyster reef or demo oyster tank, and even participate by spending the day volunteering. Earth Matter is involved with other ongoing programs intended to sustain the island's wildlife; the organization teaches composting on its farm (Fridays, 9am–2pm) and allows families to help provide care for the animals involved in the process, including goats, chickens and rabbits.