By Matt Villano, on July 15, 2016

3 reasons to visit Governors Island

New York City has dozens if not hundreds of playgrounds. Governors Island, a 172-acre island in the middle of New York Harbor, might be the very best one—for everyone in the family.

The island spent decades as an army base until it was converted into a national park and opened to the public in 2003. Today, especially on weekends, when ferries provide transit to the island from Lower Manhattan, Governors is a fantastic destination for families with about 22 acres of park space.

My brood spent a day on the island during a recent visit. Here are the three things we liked best.

The diversions

There’s no shortage of stuff to do on Governors Island. For starters, many of the 19th century army buildings have been turned into museums—a great way to teach the kids about New York’s history. Second, this summer, there are a number of temporary diversions, including miniature golf and climbing structures.

Earlier this summer the island welcomed a new adventure playground, dubbed Play:ground. This 15,000-square-foot “adventure” playground is an area where kids are welcome to use scavenged items such as old tires, wood planks, and discarded home goods (including things like a broken-down exercise bicycle) to make as many kinds of structures, toys, and games as they can dream up. Parents aren’t welcome inside this area, but they can watch from outside.

(There also is a smaller section named “The Mess Kitchen” for younger kids accompanied by parents.)


Another attraction opens later this month (July 19, to be exact). Outlook Hill, a man-made, 70-foot rise, will feature a 40-foot “scramble” composed of granite steps—chunks of rock salvaged from the old Governors Island seawall earlier this decade. Considering how much my kids enjoyed climbing up the island’s trees, I bet they’ll love scrambling up this wall on our next visit.

The vibe

Even if you don’t really poke around that much, the vibe at Governors Island is like a tall glass of cold water on a hot New York summer day.

A bicycle outfitter rents surreys out of a tent. Food trucks sell a variety of different food options, as well as Mister Softee ice cream (for you rookies, this is New York’s take on soft-serve ice cream). On the main lawn, New Yorkers are picnicking—something you simply don’t see that often in the city that never sleeps. Throughout the summer, you also might stumble upon swanky lawn parties—fee-based events that include lunch, beverages, and live music.

When we visited, we walked right past a 1920s–themed party for which everyone was dressed in flapper costumes (it’s called the “Jazz Age Lawn Party,” the next one is August 13–14). Our daughters lingered for about 20 minutes, just ogling all of the pretty dresses.

Of course one of the best ways to soak up the vibe on Governors Island is to chat up a park ranger about the history. You can find these experts wandering around the park, or patrolling some of the historic buildings. They all know about the island’s past, and they’re all more than happy to educate you about it—especially if you’re polite.

Viewfinder Tip: Go early to Governors Island to avoid the crowds and the late afternoon winds.

The views

New York is a visual city, and the views from Governors Island are second to none. Because the island is just west of Red Hook, Brooklyn, the very best views are of Lower Manhattan, with the Brooklyn Bridge dominating the foreground and the Freedom Tower scraping the sky in the back. But the island also boasts stellar perspectives of the Statue of Liberty (to the southwest), the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (to the south, and Downtown Brooklyn (to the east).

You can catch these views from just about anywhere on the island; Outlook Hill is expected to offer a particularly epic POV.

Another great spot for memorable views is the Governors Island ferry itself. This is the passengers-only boat that provides passage from Lower Manhattan to the island every 30 minutes on weekends—the vessel that plies the waters back and forth across the mouth of the East River. On the way from Manhattan to the island, the Statue of Liberty feels close enough to reach out and touch; on the way back, the different spires of Manhattan’s Financial District glimmer in the sun.

Each ride is only about 15 minutes long, but keep your eyes peeled for the orange Staten Island Ferries that travel part of the same route. The kids will love the challenge. I’m willing to bet you’ll like it, too.

What are your favorite family-friendly destinations and why?