Governors Island in New York is one of the hottest summer getaways for travel enthusiasts in the Big Apple.
What was once a military outpost, closed off from the public for nearly 200 years, has turned into a laidback holiday spot ever since it was opened up in 2006. Eager to complete your New York City experience?
Check out my list of what to do on Governors Island. Below are some more travel tips on how to get there for free and what to bring with you as well.
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Top 10 Governors Island Things to Do
1. Go on a bike ride
If you can’t live without your bike or you need to get your exercise in, the New York isle is the perfect spot for easy-going bike rides. It covers a 7-mile stretch of impeccable, vehicle-free cycling land.
Bring your own or rent one at Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals. Citi Bike docking stations are also found on the island close to Picnic Point, Yankee Pier and Soissons Landing. They are the same as in NYC, so if you’ve used one before, you know what to do.
Particularly popular, especially with families, are the “multicycle” (and perfect for groups or families) surreys. They come with multiple seats and a sun cover, which is great on a particular bright and hot day.
2. Discover more of the isle through an official walking tour
Walking tours on the island are free of charge, last for an hour and are usually hosted by Friends of Governors Island. They start at Soissons Landing in the Welcome Center and are a great, factual way to get to know more about the place’s history and progress.
There are also guided tours in the main attractions on Governors Island, such as Castle Williams. Check the specific times to not miss your group because they only leave a couple of times a day.
3. Enjoy a picnic
One of the most New York-y things to do on Governors Island is having a picnic. There is a special picnic meadow, called Picnic Point, at the southern tip of the island, from where you can enjoy pleasant views.
It’s one of the best Governors Island points of interest as you can see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Jersey City and lower Manhattan all from the same spot.
There are picnic benches (you can get more from the information centre), grills and shady trees to keep out of the sun. Gather a friend or two and take advantage of the scenic spot.
Governors Island in NY is not only the city’s nearby nature space, it’s also laden with interesting spots where you can have a bit of fun or just plain chill and enjoy views of NYC.
The landmark boasts four hills, which each presents distinct perspectives of the city: Slide Hill, Grassy Hill, Outlook Hill and Discovery Hill. Don’t forget to bring your camera to capture the scenery. Outlook Hill is the tallest among them all.
Fun fact: the hilly landscape of The Hills is not only nice to behold but has a very practical purpose. Completed in 2017, it added more green space with trees to the area and is meant to prevent another natural disaster of the likes of Katrina by breaking oncoming waves.
4. Relax in a hammock
You’ve taken a walking tour, cycled the rest of the island and enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch. Now it’s time to take a much-needed respite; relax the way locals do by chilling in Hammock Grove.
Call one of the hammocks your own for the time being and be jostled into a soothing break surrounded by flowers, the subtle perfume of grasses and a gentle breeze.
Pick a shady spot on a super sunny day. (Or you’ll get burned like I did.) There are a few spots around Hammock Grove, so feel free to scout for your preferred location.
One more thing: examine your hammock before throwing yourself in… or you might end up entangled on the floor like I did. Some have holes.. oops.
5. Grill with friends and family
Besides having a picnic, grilling on Governors Island is a favoured activity that can be had every day of the week and deserves its very own mention. (After all, you pack different if you are having a picnic or a BBQ, don’t you? See!)
Whether it’s a birthday celebration, a summer bash or a family reunion or you just really love to heat up the grill, BBQing is a favourite pastime among locals and travellers alike.
Keep in mind that you need to reserve a grill spot. Be aware that they are often first-come-first-serve affairs and reservations should be done 2 days before your event.
You’ll be charged $26 and are required to bring your own grill items. The grills are installed at Picnic Point.
6. See the local art
When you get dropped off by the ferry on Governors Island, you will see a small building to your right. Apart from freshening up (it has toilets and water containers as well as a small cafe), you can satisfy your taste for art.
The building features exhibits by the LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. I really liked the wishing trees at the front (reminded me of those I saw by Yoko Ono during my time in Denmark.)
Then, check out the New Art Dealers Alliance exhibitions at NADA House, where you can find gallery pieces. Exhibitions and events change all the time, so it’s good to refer to the official program.
One example exhibition that was hosted here was Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons about current and former prison inmate. The house is located southwest of Parade Ground.
7. Get updated on history
Even if you simply visit Governors Island for a fun time in the sun, schedule in some time to learn more about the history of the island. After all, its military past is still around and highly visible; from afar even.
Should you have missed the guided tour or want to just explore by yourself, there are information boards by the main sights of Governors Island. And there are staff around for your questions.
Fort Jay for instance belongs to the National Parks of the USA and you can find rangers here in case you need some insights. They are easy to spot in their typical park ranger outfits.
A super detailed string of boards can be read at at Castle Williams. The military outpost was constructed between the mid-1790s and the early 1810s as part of a string of fortifications along the rivers and harbours.
At that time, war with Britain seemed imminent and enforcements were needed to provide a defensive and ward off any potential attacks.
The 40 feet high and 100 cannon strong castle succeeded in that an attack was never planted. All in all, the island boasts more relicts of the impressive defensive system of NYC.
There are also areas in the island that you can check out like Nolan Park and Colonels Row that invoke a nostalgic, old town feel.
8. Go Kayaking
Yes, you can take the ferry across but if you want to do some extra water activities around Governors Island, why not pick kayaking? Rent yours at Downtown Boathouse at Pier 101. It’s free on Saturdays from mid June to mid September, 11am to 4pm.
9. Challenge yourself to a zipline ride
Awesome thrills can be had in Adventures at GI, an amusement park housing Flywire Zipline. This zipline ride boasts of amazing views of NYC and the Statue of Liberty from a height of 35-ft. Guests zoom through the skies by means of a 300-ft. long cable.
There’s also an interesting maze called the Amazen’ Maze, which facilitates your problem-solving skills on 3,600 square feet, the 3D Climbing Challenge, which is a vertical climbing course, and an 18-hole mini golf course.
10. Have dinner on the island and catch the sunset
On Fridays and Saturdays, the last Manhattan-bound ferry on the island typically leaves at 10 pm while the ones bound to Brooklyn Bridge Park leave at 7 in the evening.
Opt for a dinner in Island Oyster, an outdoor oyster bar, which serves excellent fish tacos, burgers, salads and other scrumptious dishes. On top of all hat, you can take in the magnificent view of the Manhattan skyline while the sun sets.
More Travel Tips for Governors Island
What to Bring
I didn’t really prep much before racing to the ferry and getting on the island off of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In hindsight, I wish I had, though it wasn’t entirely necessary as you get most things on the small island.
For one, I should have brought more water because it was a super hot day. There are drinking fountains at several places but my bottle was a bit too small and I had to refill a couple of times. So definitely bring your own refillable water bottle, maybe even with different flavour tabs.
Also, it should be a given but of course I forgot sunscreen and ended up a pink baby lobster. Not cool. (Literally.)
And a hat or headscarf would have been absolutely ideal to protect my scalp as well. (I’m fair, so I burn super easily…) The scarf is also a great accessory on colder and windier days to keep your neck warm.
If you are walking and biking a lot, wear comfortable and flat shoes. Many paths are mostly small gravel (there are some concrete ones too), so heels would have been a pain. For biking, opt for shorts or at least longer dresses to not accidentally flash people.
There are ATMs near Soissons Landing and the food truck area, but they didn’t work during my trip. And I only had one dollar bill on me. Luckily, I found a truck that accepted credit card but I would definitely pack enough cash. You will need it for paying your ferry fare coming onto the island, too.
Are there restaurants on Governors Islands?
Speaking of paying for food. Yes, you don’t need to bring any with you. (Unless you want to have your picnic or BBQ. There are no supermarkets.)
At Soissons Landing in the art gallery, there’s the small Coperaco Café and in the centre of the island, by Liggett Terrace, are several food vendors. You can buy sausages, Asian fusion, Mexican food and more. See all the vendors in advance here.
I’ve already mentioned Island’s Oyster for delectable seafood. For Mexican style cuisine, take a seat at Taco Vista. The name says it all: you will have excellent harbour views from here. Plus, it offers gluten free and vegan dishes.
Along the Western Promenade of Gov Island, there are also some more low key, relaxed dining options. Sip on a cocktail at Three Peaks Lodge or nibble on a snack at Sea Biscuit.
What NOT to Bring
Yes, there are rules on what not to bring to Governors Island. You are not allowed to bring alcohol or smoke on the island.
At what time does Governors Island open?
The Governors Island is open daily from May 1 until October 31. It opens 10am and closes at different times, depending on the day.
Mondays to Thursdays it closes 6pm, unless it’s a special holiday. For those and weekends, the island closes at 7pm. An exception are special Late Fridays on Governors Island, which last until 10pm.
When to Plan Your Governors Island Visit
The best time to hit the island to enjoy some extra quiet are Mondays to Wednesdays. Weekends – especially non perfect weather days – are the most crowded, especially in the afternoon. Plan your arrival before noon or after 4 pm (but before the island closes) to avoid the crowds.
Don’t forget to check ferry times to not get stranded on the island. The last ferries leave at 5pm in the afternoon. See Governors island ferry times here. Don’t forget that the ferry to Governors Island is free on weekend mornings.
If you should take it during busy times, come 15-20 minutes before the ferry is scheduled to leave. It might fill out quickly and then you have to wait for the next one. I did have to…
How to Get to Governors Island
You can only access Gov Island by ferry. There are three ferry lines that travellers can choose from. The most popular option is the ferry from Lower Manhattan, namely from the Battery Maritime Building (next to Staten Island ferry terminal) in Manhattan.
On weekends, you can also take the Governors Island ferry from Pier 6 in Brooklyn. Another weekend alternative is the NYC Ferry’s Governors Island shuttle from Wall Street / Pier 11. Both will land at Yankee Pier. See more ticketing information here.
Yet another option is the East River Ferry, connecting Midtown Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn to Governors Island. It operates during summer.
Should you be travelling on busy days, come here particularly early to secure a seat on the ferry. If it’s full, you might even have to wait for the next one. It’s possible to bring a bike onto the island.
How to Get around Governors Island?
It’s totally walkable. It took me three hours (including photo, food and hammock stops) to walk the island’s circumference and see its forts.
There are also Citi Bike stations around the island, close to Soissons Landing, Yankee Pier, and Picnic Point. Bike rental from here is included in a NYC CityPASS.
With that, you also have access to the main attractions of the city and can skip the lines like a VIP. (At least that’s how I felt when I used it.) You can <a href=“http://www.tkqlhce.com/click-7824912-10758697″ target=“_top“rel=“nofollow“ target=“_blank“> save 43% or more on New York’s 6 best attractions with CityPASS – Shop Now! </a><img src=“http://www.awltovhc.com/image-7824912-10758697″ width=“1″ height=“1″ border=“0″/>.
Alternatively, you can rent bikes from the local Blazing Saddles. During the week, you can rent a bike for an hour for free between 10am to noon.
Download the handy Governors Island map to your phone here.
How often does the Governors Island ferry run?
On weekends, the ferries run hourly from Brooklyn and every half hour from Manhattan. On weekdays, it’s an hourly service from Manhattan and none for Brooklyn.
Where can I buy my Governors Island ferry ticket?
You can buy tickets at the ferry terminal in person or online through their app here. For the free transfers, you don’t need a ticket at all and get to just go through the gates.
How much does the ferry to Governors cost?
Tickets to the island cost $3 for adults and $1 for seniors. Kids go free. The way back to Manhattan or Brooklyn is free. (Which I gladly learned after only having $1 left and no chance of getting money out of an ATM on the island.)
If you get up on weekend mornings, you can take advantage of the free ferry transfers to Governors Island. From Manhattan, it’s free from 10am to 11:50am and from Brooklyn the 11am and 11:50 ferries are free of charge.
When to visit Governors Island?
Is there a Governors Island festival? Not exactly but throughout the year the island hosts various events and festivals, which are a great reason to come over. Check the program for Governors Island events here.
Some free things to do on Governors Islands include NADA House Opening Weekend (first May weekend), Rite of Summer (June), Porch Stomp Music Festival (June, August) and HoloCenter (August).
The festivals centre around a variety of topics, such as culture, music, art and food. If you’re into Japan (like I am), check out the Japan Performing Arts Festival. Put on your best flapper shoes and join the crowd at Jazz Age Lawn Party. Maybe a poetry festival is more your thing?
You get the idea. There’s a lot going on. After all, New York City is a melting pot of cultures and there’s so much to take in.
Do you have any favourite memory of the city and Governors Island? Please share in the comments.
Need more New York City tips? Click through to these tips below.