New York is a city built on water. Four of its five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island – are located on islands, and the city’s rivers and bays are dotted with many more. Two of New York’s lesser-known islands make terrific stops on a summer trip to the city, filled with history, green spaces and incredible views. And they’re easy and fun to get to: Visit Governors Island by ferry and Roosevelt Island by tram.
You can take the subway to Roosevelt Island, but it’s more fun to take the tram from 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan (one-way, $2.50 using a subway MetroCard). The six-minute ride offers views of the city, East River and Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
On the Roosevelt Island side, walk 15 minutes south to Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on a tree-lined path along the river with great views of Manhattan across the way. Near the park entrance, you’ll pass the Renwick Ruin, a gothic structure that looks like a horror movie set. It’s an abandoned smallpox hospital that dates to the 1850s.
The park, in contrast, offers a sleek, pristine landscape, full of symmetry and angled views. It was designed by Louis I. Kahn, an architect renowned for his Modernism. Kahn designed the park before his death in 1974, but its construction was postponed by the city’s near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. The park finally opened in 2012.
The park celebrates President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, made in 1941. FDR extolled freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear as “essential human freedoms … attainable in our own time.” An excerpt is engraved on a granite monument; a bust of FDR sits at the island’s Southern tip. Tree-lined plazas, steps and other structures offer vantage points for seeing the Manhattan skyline; you’ll easily pick out the Empire State Building, United Nations, Chrysler Building and 1 World Trade Center.
The park is free, open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. every day except Tuesday. More information: fdrfourfreedomspark.org. Dining options on Main Street, not far from the tram, include Italian, Japanese and the Riverwalk Bar and Grill’s yummy fish tacos and pulled pork sandwiches.
Governors Island, a former military and U.S. Coast Guard base, has become one of New York City’s most beloved day-trip destinations.
The vast green lawns and slopes, winding paths and views make the seven-minute ferry trip from Manhattan feel like a voyage to another world – not that you can forget you’re a mere half-mile from Lower Manhattan, with soaring views of 1 World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty just across the water. Some of the best views come as you round the bend near Castle Williams, a circular red stone fort that served as a barracks and prison in the decades after its construction in 1811.
The island hosts concerts, children’s activities, art shows and whimsical outdoor installations like a giant blue phone receiver in a tree. Events include a poetry festival, July 26-27, and unicycle festival, Aug. 30-31.
It takes less than an hour to stroll around the island, but allow more time for enjoying parks and green spaces like Hammock Grove, with play areas and 50 hammocks. You’ll also want to poke your head in historic buildings like the Admiral’s House and visit shops like Better Than Jam, which sells locally handmade crafts and products.
Food vendors – many of them at Liggett Terrace food court – offer everything from Belgian waffles, ice cream and beer, to oysters, sesame noodles and Cuban sandwiches. You can bring bikes on the ferry or rent bikes, tandem bikes and surreys on the island.
The island is open daily through Sept. 28 (10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, until 7 p.m. weekends and Labor Day). Ferries run daily from Lower Manhattan’s Battery Maritime Building, 10 South St., near the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Ferries also run weekends from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6. Round-trip fare, $2, with select free ferries weekend mornings. Information: govisland.com/html/home/home.shtml.