Things To Do On Governors Island: Top 15 Most Unique Spots | Stanton House Inn
The view from Outlook Hill towards Picnic Point and New York harbor, one of best things to do on governors island

Things to Do on Governors Island: Ultimate Guide to Fun for Every Visitor

Building at the ferry dock for Governors Island

Governors Island is a peaceful urban park in the center of New York City. It’s a refreshing escape from the city’s sweltering summers. Covering only 172 acres, this former military base has transformed into a vibrant green space. Art installations and paths welcoming bicyclists only add to the experience. Visitors can discover:

 

  • A 19th-century castle
  • An English Gothic chapel
  • Repurposed barracks that now serve as venues for art exhibitions and events

 

The island is accessible year-round and features seasonal attractions. Some of the most unique spots include the Winter Village, an urban farm, and the Island Oyster restaurant.

 

Whether you’re drawn to historic forts or prefer sustainable biking options, Governors Island is one of the most unique spots in NYC.

 

Ready to discover the best things to do on Governors Island to plan your Governors Island day trip? Let’s get into it:

 

Quick hits

  • Governors Island, open weekends from May to November, is a trove of attractions. Options range from historic sites like Castle Williams and Fort Jay to family-friendly playgrounds, public art installations, and seasonal events.
  • Embrace the island’s car-free environment, ideal for biking and scenic walks with panoramic views of NYC landmarks. Picnic areas and food trucks provide a delightful range of dining options.
  • The luxury glamping experience with Collective Retreats is a unique way to extend your visit. Nearby neighborhoods like the Financial District and Chinatown also offer opportunities for extended exploration.

 

A Brief Governors Island History

Governors Island with the Statue of Liberty in the background from Picnic Point

At first glance, Governors Island seems like just another beautiful New York City park. But, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that it’s a living, breathing part of New York’s history. First named Pagganuck or Nut Island by Native Americans, the island’s modern name was adopted in 1699. That year, the British set it aside for the ‘benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors’.

 

Colonial & Revolutionary Era

Governors Island was a mere dot when New Netherland’s first settlers landed in May 1624. That said, it’s hailed as New York’s birthplace, where the seeds of tolerance were planted in North America. In 1633, Wouter van Twiller and his 104-man regiment claimed Noten Eylandt for themselves. By 1680, the island, then known as Nutten Island, had one house and pastures for colonial governors’ livestock. The British renamed it “Governor’s Island” in 1698, reserving it for the governors’ exclusive use.

 

During the American Revolution, defenders considered fortification plans in 1741 but didn’t follow through. A military presence first established itself in 1755 amidst the French and Indian War. British engineer John Montresor made further fortification plans in 1766. Following the revolution, General George Washington tasked General Charles Lee with designing New York Harbor’s defenses. The plan featured forts in Brooklyn, at Manhattan’s Battery, and on Governor’s Island.

 

19th Century

In the late 18th century, New York State took over Governor’s Island after the Revolutionary War. The U.S. legislature assigned its name, officially, in 1784. The New York State Board of Regents took control in 1790, eyeing it for educational purposes. That said, military tensions soon resurfaced, prompting the need to reinforce New York Harbor’s defenses.

 

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams proposed the Second System of fortifications, which included masonry structures and updated artillery. The federal government assumed control in 1800. Constructed on the site of older Revolutionary War earthworks in 1794, Fort Jay had deteriorated by 1805. Following the War of 1812, the island hosted station troops. The New York Arsenal moved there in 1832, erecting an armory building by 1835. Despite these changes, the Army maintained its presence, adding officers’ barracks, a hospital, and seawalls.

 

20th Century

During World War I, Governors Island hosted the United States’ initial military endeavors. The island saw the construction of barracks, tents, and temporary wooden structures in the northern section. In 1920, it was reorganized as the headquarters for the Second Corps Area. The Works Progress Administration took on the task of landscaping and fortifying the existing structures in the 1930s.

 

The island’s role shifted to an administrative hub during World War II. It boasted facilities such as three chapels, a movie theater, a YMCA, and an officers’ club. Recreational activities, including polo, were popular among the stationed personnel. The Governors Island Golf Course was established around 1925-1926 for leisurely pursuits, along with tennis courts and swimming pools.

 

Significant events in the island’s history include:

  • President Ronald Reagan’s visit during the Statue of Liberty restoration
  • And a notable summit that Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attended

 

The island gained its National Historic Landmark designation in 1985.

 

Governors Island has undergone many transformations, from its Native American origins and its strategic role in the Revolutionary War to its current status as a public park. One of its historic highlights is Castle Williams, a circular fort built in the early 19th century to protect New York City from naval attacks. Today, the island is cherished by New Yorkers and tourists visiting via ferries from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge Park.

 

The Best Things to do on Governor’s Island

On the grass on Governors Island, Manhattan skyline in the background

Now, on to the excitement: the myriad of activities that await you when visiting Governors Island! This compact island brims with a wide variety of activities that cater to all ages and interests. Whether you’re a history buff, an outdoors enthusiast, or a foodie, Governors Island has an experience for you.

 

For the active visitor, why not explore the island in the most eco-friendly way possible – by bike! With no cars allowed, biking is an ideal way to navigate the island while enjoying the stunning views of:

 

  • The Brooklyn Navy Yard
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Lower Manhattan

 

If you’re more of a history enthusiast, the island’s rich past awaits you at Castle Williams and Fort Jay, open on weekends from May to November.

 

But the island isn’t just about history and biking. If you’re visiting with family, playgrounds like The Yard, Slide Hill Playground, and Hammock Grove Play Area will entertain the little ones. For art lovers, public art installations dot the island. And don’t forget the red hammocks at Hammock Grove, where you can kick back and enjoy the island’s tranquility.

 

Castle Williams and Fort Jay

Parade ground, looking towards Fort Jay

Castle Williams and Fort Jay are windows into the island’s history as a military base. The National Park Service manages the site and opens them for visits on weekends from May to November. These landmarks are a journey through time for history buffs.

 

Colonels Row

Colonels Row, former home to military service members

Historic buildings dating back to the 1870s line Colonels Row. It’s is a must-see for history (and architecture) enthusiasts. Originally the quarters for Army generals, these neo-Georgian structures now provide a historical backdrop to various art exhibits and events.

 

Biking Bliss

Feeling a sense of adventure? Why not mount a bike and discover the charm of Governors Island on two wheels. Whether you bring your own or rent one from Blazing Saddles on the island, biking is a great way to see what the island has to offer at your own pace. Plus, with three Citi Bike stations on the island, you’ll never be far from a bike ride.

 

As you pedal around, don’t miss the stunning views of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge, and Lower Manhattan.

 

Scenic Hiking and Walking Tours

Walking trail on a Governors Island day trip

If walking is more your style, you’re in luck. Governors Island offers complimentary walking tours courtesy of the Friends of Governors Island. It’s an informative journey through the island’s storied past and cultural landmarks.

 

But the walking experience doesn’t stop there. Take a hike up the island’s hills and enjoy panoramic views of Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and the Statue of Liberty from the top. It’s a sight that will leave you breathless.

 

Family-Friendly Playgrounds

Planning a family trip? Fear not, York City’s Governors Island is well-equipped to keep everyone entertained. The Yard and Hammock Grove Play Area are two family-friendly playgrounds that are sure to keep your little ones entertained. At The Yard, kids can build and learn through play with materials such as nails, hammers, saws, paint, tires, and fabrics. And for the younger ones, the family play area is a safe space for imaginative play.

 

While not a child, this writer got a kick out of the Slide Hill playground. To be fair, though, how could one not have a blast on NYC’s longest slide?

 

Public Art Installations

Public art installation on Governors Island

Art lovers, rejoice! Governors Island is home to a variety of public art installations, offering a visual feast for the eyes. As you wander the island, you’ll come across both permanent and rotating exhibits that add a touch of creativity and inspiration to your visit. From large-scale installations to intimate exhibits, these works of art add a layer of cultural richness to the island.

 

The icing on the cake? Numerous exhibits are open from Friday to Sunday between 11 am and 5 pm. So you can effortlessly include art appreciation in your island adventure.

 

Hammock Grove

If you’re looking for a spot to relax and unwind, make your way to Hammock Grove. This peaceful oasis is home to 50 red hammocks. Take your pick for the perfect spot to kick back and enjoy the island’s tranquility. Surrounded by lush greenery and the occasional herd of sheep, it’s a slice of paradise right in the heart of the City.

 

QC NY Spa Indulgence

Looking for a touch of luxury on your island adventure? The QC NY Spa is just the place. Offering a range of wellness experiences, including:

  • Massages
  • Saunas
  • Water therapies
  • Relaxation areas

 

This spa is a haven of tranquility. And the infinity spa pools let you relax while enjoying breathtaking views of the Lower Manhattan skyline.

 

Connecting with Nature

If you’re a nature enthusiast, Governors Island offers plenty of opportunities to connect with the great outdoors. Few activities to enjoy while you’re here:

 

  • Join an educational program or join a workshop at The Teaching Garden
  • Learn about composting or volunteer at the Composting Center
  • Get a glimpse of the island’s bee sanctuary

 

With its lavender fields and environmental programs, Governors Island offers a serene and nature-focused experience amid the hustle and bustle of the city.

 

Seasonal Events and Festivals

Former Post Hospital

Governors Island isn’t just about history and art – it’s also a hub for seasonal events and festivals. One of the island’s main attractions is the Jazz Age Lawn Party, a weekend-long event that transports you back to the 1920s. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, why not join a running event or catch an outdoor movie night?

 

From ice skating in the Winter Village to the Rite of Summer Music Festival, there’s always something happening on the island, giving you plenty of reasons to visit year-round.

 

Restaurants on Governors Island

Building 315 on Governors Island, from the water

Governors Island offers a variety of dining options to satisfy your cravings after a day of exploration and adventure. Island Oyster is a popular spot, providing an outdoor ambiance where you can enjoy a selection of snacks and oysters, complemented by a stunning view of Lower Manhattan. Island Oyster serves up signature cocktails like the Sunflower and Revolución, plus unique options like fried North Atlantic cape shark.

 

Other dining options include Jamaican fusion at Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights and top-notch pizza at Pizza Yard.

 

For a more casual dining experience, Picnic Point is the ideal location. It offers breathtaking views, picnic tables. Bring your own food, or enjoy selections from the island’s food trucks. You can also reserve a grill in advance. Whether you’re planning a romantic picnic for two or a fun family BBQ, this beautiful spot is perfect for outdoor meals.

 

Directions to Governor’s Island from Greenwich, CT

Spoken from experience, a Governors island day trip is a great idea from our Greenwich, CT, bed and breakfast.

 

The journey to Governors Island involves a trip on the Metro-North train, followed by a quick subway ride. And, finally, the best part – a scenic ferry ride across New York Harbor.

 

A quick 10-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or the Brooklyn waterfront puts the island within easy reach. Embark from:

 

  • The Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan
  • Atlantic Basin in Red Hook
  • Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a top free Brooklyn attraction

 

Due to ferry capacity limits, advance ticket reservations are mandatory. On weekends, additional ferry service is available from Wall Street’s Pier 11 via NYC Ferry.

 

Hotels, Inns, and Places to Stay on or Near Governor’s Island

Luxury glamping tent on Governors Island

If you want stay overnight, it’s actually an option!

 

Governors Island offers a unique glamping experience. Guests can enjoy an overnight stay in luxury tents with Collective Retreats, complete with:

 

  • Real beds
  • High-quality linens
  • Morning basket of continental breakfast items
  • A complimentary Trail Bar

 

Activities like morning yoga, meditation sessions, movie nights, lawn games, and evening s’mores enrich the experience. The cost for two guests ranges from $600 to $1,300 per night.

 

For more conventional accommodations, Lower Manhattan hosts a variety of hotels. For exceptional views, try out:

 

  • the Mandarin Oriental, New York
  • 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge
  • Aman New York

 

More Places to Explore Near Governors Island

St Cornelius Chapel on Governors Island

After your Governors Island excursion, the adventure continues with neighborhoods just beyond New York harbor. Each offers unique attractions. And that’s true whether you’re drawn to historical sites, cultural experiences, or simply wish to explore more of New York City’s offerings.

 

NYC Financial District

The NYC Financial District, also known as FiDi, is bustling with activity. It houses iconic landmarks like The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, the Staten Island Ferry, One World Trade Center, and Federal Hall National Memorial. The financial giants of Wall Street like the New York Stock Exchange are here. Fearless Girl, and The Charging Bull, also reside here. Beyond finance, the district offers a variety of restaurants and shops, including the esteemed Le Gratin and Delmonico’s. You’ll also find the historic Fulton Fish Market and the artisanal New Amsterdam Market.

 

Lower East Side of Manhattan

Next on your NYC exploration list should be the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood steeped in history and culture. Known for its dynamic street life and culinary diversity, you can delve into the area’s immigrant past at the Tenement Museum.

 

And when it comes to food, you’re in for a treat. Here are some of the best places to eat in the city:

  • Russ & Daughters: for traditional Jewish fare
  • Yonah Schimmel Knishery: for delicious knishes
  • Dhamaka: for creative dishes
  • Cervo’s: for a unique dining experience

 

Chinatown of NYC

Finally, no trip to New York City would be complete without a visit to the vivacious neighborhood of Chinatown. This neighborhood offers a taste of Chinese culture right in the heart of the city. From the Mahayana Buddhist Temple and the Statue of Confucius to the bustling streets lined with shops and restaurants, there’s plenty to explore. Walk down Mott Street, with Chinese lanterns above you.

 

And don’t miss the chance to try the delicious cuisine on offer. From dim sum to noodles, you’ll find a wide variety of authentic dishes to tantalize your taste buds.

 

Tl;dr

Congrats! You’ve finished the comprehensive guide to Governors Island, an urban oasis teeming with history and a ton of activities for every visitor. Explore historic sites, cycle around the island, enjoy a spa day, or unwind in Hammock Grove. Plus, with attractions like the Financial District, Lower East Side, and Chinatown nearby, the adventure continues even after you depart the island. Don’t hesitate—board the next ferry and experience the wonders of Governors Island for yourself.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What’s special about Governors Island?

Governors Island stands out as a tranquil retreat a stone’s throw from the hustle of Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront. This urban gem features an award-winning park, an array of historic structures, and educational as well as cultural amenities. Adding to its charm is the 22-acre National Monument, under the stewardship of the National Park Service. It represents an oasis of peace and historical richness within New York City’s vibrant urban setting.

 

Is it free to get to Governors Island?

Yes, it is free to get to Governors Island on Saturdays and Sundays before noon, and there’s no surcharge for bringing bikes at any time. Access for bikes and strollers is on a first-come, first-served basis.

 

Can you walk around Governors Island?

Yes, you can walk around Governors Island for free and the walks are open to all. The tours depart from Yankee Hanger at Liggett Terrace near the Urban Farm.

 

Can I drive a car on Governors Island?

No, you cannot drive a car on Governors Island. Walking or biking are the best ways to get around.

 

Are there any accommodations available on Governors Island?

Yes, you can stay overnight on Governors Island in luxury glamping tents provided by Collective Retreats. Alternatively, you may choose from a variety of accommodations in nearby Lower Manhattan for a comfortable stay.

 

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