Just 800 yards from Lower Manhattan — and not too far from Essex County — Governors Island is full of fun things to do and makes for an incredible day trip. This island is open year-round and is only accessible by ferry. The 172-acre island is car-free and easy to explore on foot or by bike. And with tons of eateries, art exhibits, picnic spots, events, and a spa, there’s always something fun to do here. Read on to learn about things to do in Governors Island and start planning your adventure.
History of Governors Island
The Lenape knew the island as Paggank (“Nut Island”) and used it seasonally as a fishing spot. When the Dutch arrived, they set up their first camps here so it could be said that this spot is the birthplace of what would become New York City. When the British eventually took over, they renamed the island and reserved it for “Her Majesty’s Governors” — which suddenly helps make the island’s name make a bit more sense now.
The island was used by the British during the American Revolution. From the 1800s until as recently as 1996, the island was used as a base for the U.S. military. Two historic forts — Castle Williams and Fort Jay — are maintained by the National Parks Service on the island. Governors Island officially opened to the public in 2005 as a place for rest and refuge from city life.
How to Get There
Ferries depart from Lower Manhattan and a few spots in Brooklyn. If you drive to Hoboken or Jersey City, taking the Lower Manhattan ferry is the easiest way to go. You can head to The Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street to hop on the next ferry.
You can book tickets online in advance — which is recommended on busy days. Otherwise, there are $4 round-trip tickets available at the ferry terminal. A budget-friendly tip: ferries departing before noon on Saturdays and Sundays are free. Plus, it doesn’t cost extra to bring your bike.
Check the Governors Island website for the most up-to-date ferry schedule.
Things to Do
With 7 miles of paved trails, biking is one of the best ways to explore Governors Island. The views of Manhattan, Jersey City, and the Statue of Liberty are hard to beat. You can, of course, bring your own bike or even choose to rent one on the island. There are three Citi Bike stations — plus Blazing Saddles offers bike, scooter, pedal car, and surrey rentals.
For some R&R, Hammock Grove is the place to go. There are a dozen or so red hammocks in the area that are perfect for reading or dozing off. As you enjoy some downtime, you might hear some rustling in the grass around you. Don’t be surprised if you see a farm animal — a herd of sheep spends their summer on Governors Island helping to keep the invasive plant species in check.
Take a Hike
Or it can be a stroll, if that’s more of your thing. Guided walking tours are offered on the weekends. For more of a “hike,” we recommend climbing to the top of The Hills for a rewarding view over the island and Manhattan.
Bring The Kids to The Playground
Visitors can go kayaking for free from Pier 101. For now, kayaking is just offered on Saturdays from 11:00AM – 3:30PM. Everything you need is provided, including equipment and a basic lesson.
Connect with Nature
For those who don’t know, pétanque is a fun ball-tossing game that’s similar to bocce. There’s now an outpost of Industry City’s Carreau Club on Governors Island. Courts are available online to reserve in advance, or you can sign up in person to play this fun French game. It costs $5/per person per hour and you can grab drinks from the cute green cart before starting to play. First-timers can get a quick run down of the rules — but it’s really easy to get the hang of.
Keep an eye out for installations and public art programs across the island. “Yankee Hanger” always makes for a great photo op.
QC NY Spa is the ultimate escape on Governors Island. New for the 2022 season, this spa features outdoor pools with incredible Manhattan views, wellness experiences, massages, and more. For something especially romantic, book the Sunset Aperitivo experience.
For a grown-up version of camping, you can book a stay on the island’s Collective Retreat. Don’t worry — you can still make s’mores. These glamping tents are the only overnight accommodations on the island so you’ll really feel like you have the place to yourself. Breakfast is delivered straight to your tent which means you can enjoy some coffee and sunrise views without leaving bed.
What to Eat
All you need is a blanket and a basket of supplies to be set for a great Governors Island picnic. There are tons of grassy spots where you can set up and enjoy the sunshine and scenic views. If you want to take your picnic up a notch, you can actually reserve a grill in advance for some BBQ or burgers.
Island Oyster | 146 Carder Road
Island Oyster is all about the vibes. With its beach club style, which earned it a James Beard nom for design, and unbeatable Manhattan views, this is the chic choice for a cocktail and seafood.
Taco Vista | 140 Carder Road
When the guac craving hits, Taco Vista is ready to help. Margs, burritos, burgers, and, of course, tacos are also on the menu. This spot is right on the water and makes for a laid-back place to wait for the next ferry.
Gitano Island | 125 Carder Road
This Governors Island newcomer is transporting us straight to Tulum. Craft cocktails, elevated beach eats, and DJ sets can be expected.
Collective Retreats’ Three Peaks Lodge
This eatery isn’t just for glamping guests. It’s a great spot to stop by for lunch or to spend some time leisurely sipping a drink and taking in the views. It also features yummy desserts from pastry chef Aura Danton.
Pizza Yard | 403 Comfort Road
The best (and only) pizza on the island, as the energetic Pizza Yard team likes to say. This is the place to go for some delicious wood-fired pizzas which can be enjoyed from one of the many shaded picnic tables nearby.
Paletas are similar to popsicles but burst with more flavor. It’s no surprise that they make an excellent summer treat — and La Newyorkina is the spot to get a refreshing handmade paleta. Be prepared to wait in a line on a hot summer day.
Liggett Terrace | 517 Clayton Road
Most of the island’s food is found in the Liggett Terrace Food Court. A selection of permanent and rotating food trucks are parked here, offering cuisine from around the world. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect:
Little Eva’s always draws a crowd but it’s worth the wait. It serves everything from frozen cocktails to vegan chili. There’s plenty of seating around here so it’s a popular spot to camp out for a bit.
New for the season, Tokyo Drumstick serves fried chicken sandwiches and boba tea.
Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights
This is a Governors Island classic. It serves awesome Jamaican fusion and particularly nails its delicious cod fritters.
Threes Brewing & The Meat Hook
Local craft brews, burgers, and hot dogs are on the menu at this spot. Threes Brewing even made a special release just for Governors Island.
Some of NYC’s best coffee is available in a few spots around the island, including from a food truck — painted in Joe Coffee’s signature blue. Drip coffee, cold brew, teas, and pastries are available. Pro tip — they also scoop Oddfellows ice cream here.
Events + Traditions
This is Governors Island’s main event. One weekend each summer, people put together their best 1920s-era outfits and head to the island for tons of throwback fun. We’re talking vintage cocktails, live jazz, croquet, picnicking, and more. This year, the event was held in mid June. Tickets are required and they do sell out quickly — so be sure to plan ahead for next year.
Governors Island celebrates Pride Weekend by hosting a 21+ music festival. This is a ticketed event and the 2022 line up included Lil’ Kim, Kim Petras, and Shenseea.
During the summer, free outdoor movies are shown in the parade ground. Bring a blanket and plenty of snacks to enjoy during the show. The Wiz is showing next on August 5th.
NYC Runs Races
For those looking to work up a sweat on the island: you can sign up for one of the upcoming NYC Runs events like the Haunted Island 5k or 10k, taking place on Halloween.
With so much to do on Governors Island, it can feel like a different trip every time. It’s one of the easiest places to escape to when you want a car-free getaway.