Most visitors to Staten Island exit the ferry – which docks in downtown St George, on the northern tip of the 58-sq-mile island – then reboard right away. Indeed, if not for its namesake ferry – or Robert Redford and Jane Fonda’s wild night out with Armenians in Barefoot in the Park – New York’s ‘forgotten borough’ might be a complete unknown. Despite its unfashionable reputation for suburbanism and conservatism, Staten Island is not without its drawcards, and a day out here promises a surprisingly different take on NYC life.
From the ferry terminal, turn left onto Richmond Tce (which becomes Bay St) and walk 0.3 miles south to the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce for tourist information. For organic coffee, books, political talks – or later on, live music, walk a further 0.2 miles south on Bay St to Everything Goes Book Café & Neighborhood Stage, a Berkeley-style arts community. Close by you'll find its sibling, Everything Goes Furniture & Gallery, which sells eclectic antiques, collectibles and art. An easy 0.3 miles northwest of the ferry terminal, the Staten Island Museum offers an eclectic collection of local history, natural science and art. From late November 2014, the museum will also run exhibitions at its new building at Snug Harbor.
Staten Island's buses – which accept the MTA MetroCard and leave from outside the ferry terminal – are your best bet for reaching the island's more distant attractions. Top of the list is Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, a beautiful complex of themed gardens, historic buildings, art spaces and museums 2 miles west of the ferry terminal. Highlights include an ancient-style Chinese Scholar's Garden, a Tuscan Garden modeled on the Villa Gamberaia in Florence, and the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, which showcases changing exhibitions of modern art. From Henderson St on the southern edge of the Snug Harbor complex, the Staten Island Mall–bound S44 bus leads to Denino's Pizzeria & Tavern. The pizzas here are insanely good and revered by gastronomes across the city.
In the very center of Staten Island, Historic Richmond Town consists of 27 historic buildings (some dating back to a 1690s Dutch community) standing in a 100-acre preservation project maintained by the Staten Island Historical Society. The town includes the island's former county seat. Its most famous building, the two-story, redwood Voorlezer’s House, is the USA’s oldest schoolhouse, dating back to c 1695. Guides lead tours (included with admission) at 2pm and 3:30pm. From the ferry, catch bus S74; journey time is 40 minutes.
Another cultural drawcard is Alice Austen House, the harbor-side home of the early-20th-century photographer. The museum offers glimpses into her world, including her life on Staten Island, as well as exhibiting many of her works. It’s located just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or about a 15-minute ride south from the ferry terminal on bus S51.