Summer guide to Governors Island: Things to do, where to eat and more

Long Islanders often head east to experience the joys of summer. But it’s not the only option. Go the other way and spend a day on Governors Island, the 172-acre park in the middle of New York Harbor (views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty: priceless), where there’s so much to do a day won’t be nearly enough.

“I feel like every visit is a surprise,” says Clare Newman, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island. “In just an eight-minute ferry ride,” she says, “you feel like you’ve been transported to a totally different place, where you can really relax and unwind. You’ll always find new stuff to do that you had no idea was there … the architecture is phenomenal, the trees, the plants, the flowers, it’s all totally magical.”

One of the good things about us, says Newman, is that a “vast majority of our guests don’t spend any money when they come here …. You don’t have to spend a dime.” Of course, you can drop a pretty penny at one of the many restaurants, the new spa or the high-end glamping resort. Here’s a guide to help you get the most of visiting Governors Island this summer.

GETTING THERE 

Exterior view of Governors Island ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan.

Exterior view of Governors Island ferry terminal in downtown Manhattan.

Governors Island is free and open daily, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Friday and Saturday nights until 10 p.m.) Only official cars are allowed on the island, so you must get there by ferry. From Long Island, you can drive to lower Manhattan but parking is limited. It's far easier to take the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station and hop on the subway (1 train to South Street). It’s a short walk to the ferry, which leaves from the Battery Maritime Building, 10 South St. Fare is $4 round-trip, but free for children 12 and under, seniors 65 and over and for everyone on Saturdays and Sundays before noon.

On busy weekends, the line for the ferry can get long, so buy tickets in advance and see schedules and updated information at govisland.com. (There are also ferries from Brooklyn.) Current COVID regulations require masks while waiting and onboard the ferry; no restrictions on the island. 

THINGS TO DO AND EXPLORE 

Castle Williams is a circular defensive work of red sandstone on the west point of Governors Island in New York Harbor on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Credits: Reggie Lewis)

Governors Island has a rich history. Two forts — Castle Williams and Fort Jay — were early fortifications against naval attack. The island remained a military post until 1966 and many of the buildings still stand, offering a fascinating look at the architecture of the era. Interesting things found on a recent visit: a theater that inspired Irving Berlin to write the musical "This Is the Army," Nolan Park, a row of yellow officers homes from the 19th Century, even a public high school, the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, where students learn to raise oysters, among other things. See the highlights on free guided walking tours (limited to 10, first come) that leave from the visitors’ center Saturdays and Sundays, 10:45 a.m. 1:45 and 2:45 p.m.

People inside the Our Lady Star of the Sea chapel on Saturday, June 18, 2022, on Governors Island. (Credit: Reggie Lewis)

Celebrating art is a prime objective of the Governors Island trust. Find several rotating exhibits in The Arts Center (govisland.com), almost adjacent to the ferry landing. Near the parade ground, artist Shantell Martin has transformed the interior and exterior of a small chapel with her signature black-and-white drawings.

The Open Orchard on Governors Island was created by artist...

The Open Orchard on Governors Island was created by artist Sam Van Aken, taking the form of a public orchard comprised of 102 fruit trees. Credit: Timothy Schenck

Perhaps the most fascinating of the installations on the island this summer is The Open Orchard (govisland.com), with 102 heirloom fruit trees that were grown in the city but have disappeared due to environmental factors. Throughout the summer, special events will be scheduled at the orchard — you might even get to pick an apple.

Film at Lincoln Center and Rooftop Films (filmlinc.org) will join Governors Island to present free movies on the central Parade Ground: including “The Wiz” on Aug. 5.

Blaz­ing Sad­dles offers bikes, go karts, pedal cars, scooters and more...

Blaz­ing Sad­dles offers bikes, go karts, pedal cars, scooters and more for rental to explore Governors Island.  Credit: Reggie Lewis

If you want a little more activity, there are plentiful options. It should take a little more than an hour to walk around the 2.5-mile perimeter if you don’t get distracted, which you surely will. Or explore miles of bike paths. You can bring a bike on the ferry, but if not, you can rent all kinds of bikes (a basic model starts at $30 for the day, $50 an hour for a large family) from blazingsaddles.com or from the City Bike location near the ferry.

The view from Outlook Hill on Governors Island in New York's...

The view from Outlook Hill on Governors Island in New York's harbor. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

For more serious cardio, check out the new climbing boulder on the western promenade, with several different climbing routes. Or head to the hills: Climb Outlook Hill for 360-degree views of the harbor all the way to the Verrazano Bridge. Walk up the nature trail that’s Discovery Hill or take a turn on Slide Hill, where the whole family can have fun on several slides, including one for thrill-seekers that’s three stories high.

Get on the water with free kayaks and lessons on the basics, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays at Pier 101 through Sept. 26 (downtownboathouse.org). And kids 6-12 years old should head straight for The Yard, a playground filled with hammers, nails and other building materials. (Open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and some holidays; a waiver, available at govisland.com, is needed for each child.)

WHERE TO RELAX

The QC NY Spa on Governors Island.

The QC NY Spa on Governors Island. Credit: Credit: QC NY Spa

QC NY (qcny.com), the first U.S. branch of Italian spa brand QC Terme, opened in March, with an assortment of saunas (including one with a delightful Central Park theme complete with tweeting birds), steam rooms, Vichy showers and relaxation areas. Waterfront pools and hot tubs opened over the Memorial Day weekend, with their submerged massaging lounge chairs overlooking the skyline and passing boats. A four-hour visit to the spa starts at $88 weekdays, massages are extra. Plans for significant expansion include more treatments and food offerings. 

Visitors relax at Hammock Grove on Governors Island.

Visitors relax at Hammock Grove on Governors Island. Credit: /Julienne Schaer

For a cheaper option: Plunk yourself down in one of the hammocks in Hammock Grove and watch the island’s resident sheep munch away as they try to contain invasive plant growth. 

GRAB A BITE

The Island Oyster eatery on Governors Island.

The Island Oyster eatery on Governors Island. Credit: Island Oyster

You can always bring a picnic, but you won’t go hungry without. Steps from the ferry landing, you’ll find Island Oyster and Taco Vista, or venture a little farther off the beaten path to Sea Biscuit (raves for its lobster roll) and the Liggett Terrace Food Court, centered with Little Eva’s Beer Garden and surrounded by a rotating assortment of food trucks. New this year is the Carreau Club, where you can play a round of petanque (French bocce) and sample craft beer and cocktails and Gitano Island, a branch of the Tulum-based beach club with an upscale Mexican menu. You can’t bring alcohol to the island, but it’s available at certain locations. And while the island closes at 6 most evenings, this summer it’s open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

GO GLAMPING 

Enjoy a meal at the Collective Governors Island resort, where...

Enjoy a meal at the Collective Governors Island resort, where guests can choose from a seasonally focused menu highlighting local farms. Credit: Collective Governors Island

If a night under the stars sounds appealing, head for the Collective Retreat (collectiveretreats.com) on the western side of the island, where you can stay overnight in fancy tents and shelters that bring to mind an urban safari. A basic tent (king bed or two doubles, shared bathroom) starts at $479 midweek in July, while the more luxurious Summit tent (with its own bathroom) starts at $929.

The Retreat offers complimentary breakfast, morning yoga, evening s’mores around the firepits, and lots of peace and quiet. Even if you don’t want to spend the night, dinner at the Three Peaks Lodge is a lovely way to get out of the city. It can be anything from a relaxing couple of hours with appetizers and drinks to an all-out, multicourse tasting menu ($195 a person). Fair warning: This is a popular spot with some summer weekends requiring minimum stays. You can book overnights at collectivretreats.com; the restaurant is on OpenTable.