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Top Things to Do on Governors Island

Updated: April 5, 2024

This post is about all the fun things you can do on Governors Island, just an 8-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan.

We share the best things to do on Governors Island, information to help you plan your visit, where to eat and drink, and what special events take place!


Plan Your Visit

Governors Island is open year-round from Sunday to Thursday 7 am-10 pm and Friday and Saturday from 7 am-11 pm. The South Island Park is open until 6 pm daily.

It is accessible only by ferry. Our post, How to Take the Ferry to Governors Island, includes all the details you need to use the ferry service.


How much time will you need?

Governors Island is not very big, but there are plenty of things to do there.

You could easily spend a whole day there, but if your time in NYC is limited, three hours including travel time is more than enough to get a sense of the island.

TIP: Factor in the time waiting in line to purchase tickets for the ferry. It is not very long during the weekdays (or weekends in winter).

But on summer weekends the island gets lots of visitors. Be sure to arrive 10-15 minutes before your planned departure so you make the ferry you want.

Governors Island Map
You can download this map by clicking here.

You might want to take a look at Governor Island's visitor guidelines to make sure nothing interferes with your adventure.


THINGS TO DO ON GOVERNORS ISLAND

There are lots of things to do on the island for people of all ages.

Many activities are family-friendly. In the summer months, there are nighttime special events like concerts.

Here are the top things to do on Governors Island.


Bike around the island

This is by far one of the most popular and fun things to do on Gov­er­nors Island!

You can bring your bike at no cost on the ferry. You can rent a bike on the island if you don't have one.

Blazing Saddles rents bikes and they are located a short walk from both Soissons Landing and Yankee Pier so you can hop off the ferry and onto a bike!

They have a fleet of 1,000 bikes that come in different models and sizes. Pick from cruiser and high-performance bikes, surreys and even pedal cars for 2-6 riders.

They also have kids' equipment including trailers, tag-alongs and baby seats.

  • Open Sun­day-Thurs­day 9 am‑6:30 pm, Fri­day-Sat­ur­day, 9 am‑7:30 pm.
  • 2-hour rentals start at $20 for adult and kids' bikes. Full-day rentals start at $30 for adults and $25 for kids.
  • Free 1-hour cruiser bike rental between 9 am-12 pm on week­days (exclud­ing hol­i­days).
  • More information here.

New York Explorer Pass holders get free bike rentals from Blazing Saddles.

TIP: If you have been thinking about getting a tourist pass, our post on NYC Attraction Passes can help you decide what pass, if any, is right for you.

You can also rent a Citi-Bike, NYC's bike share system. For more information on how to use the NYC shared bike system Citi Bike, click here.


Take in the views

Governors Island is located in the middle of New York Harbor so you can see the Lower Manhattan skyline, most notably One World Trade Center.

You’ll also see the Brooklyn shoreline and the Brooklyn Bridge. You can even see the Statue of Liberty off in the distance.

The best spot for views is Outlook Hill peaking at 70 feet above sea level.

Check out our post, Best Skyline Views in NYC for even more locations.


Frolic on The Hills

Several hills are offering different experiences and activities.

The Grassy Hill is a grassy slope for relaxing. Discovery Hill is an easy path to walk along.

At Slide Hill there are slides of varying heights including the longest slide in NYC -- three stories high and 57 feet long!


Let the kids loose

The Yard (as in junkyard) in Nolan Park is a kids-only playground that focuses on creativity and build­ing with provided materials.

The Yard is open from 12 to 4 pm on weekends through the end of November.

The main play area is for young peo­ple ages 6-12. The fam­i­ly play area is good for chil­dren under 5.

Read about The Yard in advance of visiting since waivers are required.

TIP: For lots more kid-friendly activities in NYC, see our post, Things to Do with Kids in New York City.


Have a picnic and swing from hammocks

At Hammock Grove, climb into one of the 50 red hammocks available. Take a snooze or gaze at the views of the Manhattan skyline.

Bring food and a blanket and make your way to Picnic Point. There is shade there, as well as Adirondacks chairs and tables.

You can rent grills here every day May through Novem­ber. Click here to reserve a grill.


Enjoy arts and culture for free

During the spring, sum­mer and autumn, the Governors Island Artist Residency Program hosts more than 20 free art exhibits and activ­i­ties.

They take place in and around Gov­er­nors Island’s his­toric in the his­toric hous­es of Colonels Row and Nolan Park.

You can visit Fri­day to Sun­day from 11 am-5 pm. Find out more here.

There are also some cool large-scale art installations on the island that change throughout the year.


Get out on the water

There is free kayaking on Saturdays in the summer in collaboration with the Downtown Boathouse.

TIP: For other free boat rides and water activities see our post, Free New York Boat Tours.


Visit Governors Island’s abandoned buildings

Before the island became a recreational public space, it was used for many purposes, mainly as a military base (read about the island’s history below)

Explore the island’s past by visiting the island’s abandoned buildings, including two former historic forts which are national landmarks, Castle Williams and Fort Jay from the early 1800s.

Many buildings from the early to mid-1900s. The buildings are open to visitors on weekends from May to November. In all other months, you can see the buildings’ exteriors.

Read more about the abandoned buildings Of Governors Island.


Commune with nature

From May to January, the island has a large urban farm on the south side of the island. 

Free educational programs are offered and are good for people of all ages.

There’s a teaching garden, a compost learning center, and a bee sanctuary. Check out the solar-powered MicroFactory near the lavender field.


Take a free guided tour

Learn about Governors Island’s long history and exciting plans on a free one-hour walk­ing tour. 

Personable guides will show you examples of his­toric preser­va­tion, inno­v­a­tive design, and envi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship that make Governors Island a unique public green space.

Walk­ing Tour Schedule

  • Wednes­day: 10:45 am
  • Thurs­day: 10:45 am
  • Fri­day: 10:45 am, 12:45 pm
  • Sat­ur­day and Sunday: 10:45 am, 12:45 pm, 2:45 pm

All walk­ing tours begin at the Gov­er­nors Island Wel­come Cen­ter at Sois­sons Land­ing. Find out more here.


Pamper yourself

Housed in former military barracks (renovated of course!), the QC NY Spa offers more than 20 well­ness expe­ri­ences.

Relax in the saunas and steam rooms. Get a massage. Enjoy the Vichy showers.

Two infin­i­ty spa pools over­look the Low­er Man­hat­tan skyline. This is a spa experience to remember.

QC NY is open until 10 pm Sunday-Thursday and 11 pm Friday-Saturday. See services and rates here.


Stay overnight

From spring to fall, go glamping (glamorous camping) through Collective Retreats. 

The rustic-style private tents have wonderful views, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, bedside sockets and access to private shared bathrooms and showers.

The ferry ride there is just $4 but renting a luxury tent costs a whole lot more! Still, the beds have 1,500 thread count linens. Camping never felt so good.

Read more about Collective Governors Island Luxury Camping Resort. Reservations are required.


Special Events

Every year, the island hosts special events including concerts, outdoor movies and other festivals.

Here are the ones you can expect every year.

In May, you can participate in the NYCRUNS Summer Loving 5K and 10K.

In June and August, is the incredibly popular and super fun Jazz Age Lawn Party.

August brings the Brooklyn Music Festival to the island and, on the last weekend of the month is the Annual Unicycle Festival.

Many more are scheduled and change from year to year. See the schedule here.

See what else is happening in NYC these months:


Where to Eat and Drink

On weekends at Liggets Terrace, there are lots of food trucks serving everything from pizza, tacos, burgers and even oysters!

Liggett Terrace to sample a wide array of food truck cuisine on weekends. 

Here are some of the food vendors on the island (subject to change).

  • Island Oyster
  • Taco Vista
  • ​​Gitano Island
  • Collective Retreat’s Three Peaks Lodge
  • Pizza Yard
  • La Newyorkina
  • Little Eva’s
  • Tokyo Drumstick
  • Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights
  • Threes Brewing & The Meat Hook
  • Joe Coffee

Note that while you cannot bring alcohol, you can buy beer and cocktails at eateries that sell them.

For locations and hours of food vendors and restaurants, click here.


History of Governors Island

This tiny island has a long history!

  • Before 1637- The Lenape Native American tribe living in Manhattan called the island Pagganck (“Nut Island.”) The name likely came from the abundant chestnut, hickory and oak trees on the island. Native American tribes used it as a seasonal fishing camp.
  • 1637- Dutchman Wouter Van Twiller purchased the island from the Native Americans of Manhattan. He paid two ax heads, a string of beads and a handful of nails. Van Twiller was a representative of the Dutch government, but he purchased the island for his private use and called it Noyten Eylandt (Nutten Island). The Dutch government confiscated the island a year later.
  • 1664- The British took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. They also confiscated the island. The island changed hands for the next ten years but eventually went to the British. It became “for the benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors” and became known as Governor’s Island.
  • 1776- The island becomes an important stronghold during the American Revolution. The American colonists fortified the island first, with 40 cannons and earthworks, but were eventually driven off by the British in August of 1776 following the Battle of Brooklyn. The British held the island until the end of the war in 1783.
  • 1783- As a former holding of the Crown, Governor’s Island becomes the property of New York State. Fort Jay is built on the island a year later.
  • 1800- The island is handed over to the federal government for military use due to its ideal positioning in New York Harbor. Fort Jay is reconstructed and Castle Williams, the other major fortification on the island, is added in 1807. These two structures still stand today, as national landmarks, and are considered the best examples of First System and Second System American coastal fortifications.
  • 1861- The island is a prison during the American Civil War. Captured Confederate soldiers are held there.
  • 1912- The island is expanded. The Army Corps of Engineers supervised the deposit of 4,787,000 cubic yards of fill on the south side of Governors Island. The fill was the rocks and dirt that came from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue subway line. The island is expanded and is now 172 acres.
  • 1939- The island becomes the headquarters of the U.S. First Army, the longest-established field army of the United States.
  • 1966- Budget cuts from the Department of Defense close the Army Base on the island.
  • 1966- Governor’s Island becomes a Coast Guard Base. It is the largest installation of the Coast Guard, with a self-contained residential community and a total population of 3,500.
  • 1986- The island is the setting for the lighting of the newly refurbished Statue of Liberty.
  • 1988- President Reagan hosted Mikhail Gorbachev on Governor’s Island for a U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit.
  • 1996- The Coast Guard base on the Island is closed. President Clinton declares 22 acres of the island, including Castle Williams and Fort Jay, The Governor’s Island National Monument.
  • 2002- President George W. Bush, Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg announced that the island, minus the 22 acres of landmarked area, will be returned to the people of New York City for a nominal cost.
  • January 31, 2003- 150 acres of Governors Island is sold to New York City for 1$!

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About The Author

Courtney Shapiro

Courtney is a lifelong New Yorker fascinated with the city’s history, culture and cuisine. She loves exploring the world, as well as sharing her travel expertise with others. She joined the Free Tours by Foot team in 2011, first as a guide and then as a writer. She has a law degree, a teaching degree and a worn-out passport. Her motto is “Have backpack, will travel”. READ MORE...
Updated: April 5th, 2024
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