You don’t have to travel far to find water in New York City, whose five boroughs are ringed by an astonishing 520 miles of coastline.

A famously maritime city populated by immigrants who sailed in through its iconic harbor, New York is itself a series of islands, with only one of its five boroughs actually part of the mainland USA. Yet several even smaller islands lie just off that long coastline, luring visitors with a range of athletic and cultural attractions, stellar skyline views and some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever taste.

Here are five New York City islands worth setting sail for.

A crowd of people sitting on blankets watch the sunset from Governors Island with the New York City skyline in the background
In addition being an endless source of entertainment, Governors Island is a fantastic location to watch the sunset © Michael Lee / Getty Images

Catch the ferry for continuous surprises on Governors Island

Only 800 yards from some of the most densely developed blocks in the world is a verdant, family-friendly oasis. Governors Island served as an active fort for some 200 years before the military pulled out and civic dreamers took over at the beginning of the century. The island has since become a blank canvas for the city’s most creative impresarios.

Indeed, you never know what programs are a (short) ferry ride away on any given weekend: from Jazz Age lawn dances to “Pride Island” celebrations to movie screenings, adventure playgrounds, site-specific art installations, a full-service spa and much, much more. All of this supplements the island’s permanent offering of miles of paths, bike lanes, historic buildings and some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty anywhere.

Insider tip: As you explore the island’s 172 acres, stop to pet a few of Governors Island’s cutest staffers: Max, Quinn, Chip, Aspen and Leader, border collies whose full-time job is to chase geese from the lawns.

How to get to Governors Island: Ferries depart the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan every half-hour ($4 one-way; take the 1, R or W train to Whitehall St–South Ferry). On the weekends, hourly ferry service is offered to Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park and Red Hook/Atlantic Basin in Brooklyn. NYC Ferry also stops at Governors Island on its South Brooklyn route.

Enjoy freshly caught fish and a village vibe on City Island

Off the shore of the Bronx, a piece of Americana awaits. With clapboard houses adorned with American flags and small vessels moored at well-used piers, City Island feels more New England fishing village than the Big Apple.

Seafood dinners are the main draw for outsiders here: beloved joints Tony’s Pier and Johnny’s Reef at the far end of City Island serve up fried shrimp and clams by the pound in a cafeteria-style setting, while fancier dining spots line the stretch just over the bridge from the mainland. We recommend exploring the cul-de-sac side streets off City Island Ave, where children playing in driveways and neighbors barbecuing in backyards show that small-town living can indeed happen in one of the most hectic cities in the world.

Insider tip: Anticipate sticker shock for some fish options on the menus of higher-end waterfront restaurants like City Island Lobster House and JP’s. But don’t even think of ordering anything else: a higher price means the catch is fresh from the Long Island Sound rather than the freezer.

How to get to City Island: Take the Bx29 bus, a car or rideshare service.

Empty Walkway with White Flowering Cherry Blossom Trees and Benches during Spring on Roosevelt Island in New York City
April is an ideal time to visit Roosevelt Island when cherry blossom season is in full swing © James Andrews / Getty Images

Enjoy a family day out on Roosevelt Island

This 2-mile strip in the East River once served as a site for quarantines and mental institutions – yet today, such institutions have given way to a close-knit neighborhood of apartment towers offering a respite from the Manhattan madness just across the water. The vertiginous and surprisingly smooth cable-car tram ride to the island is an attraction in itself (just try not to think of that harrowing rescue scene from Spider-Man). Off Main Street, green spaces and playgrounds boast fabulous views of the city skyline, and minimal traffic means you can allow the kids to let off steam safely.

Past the Queensboro Bridge overhead, the southern sector of the island offers two of New York’s most exciting new monuments: the ultra-modern Cornell Tech campus, a hub of cutting-edge science; and stately Four Freedoms Park, a tribute in granite and grass to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Insider tip: Come April, the allée of cherry trees on the island's west side toward Four Freedoms Park puts on quite the show. Shots of these glorious white and pink blossoms against the United Nations Secretariat Building and Midtown skyline will activate major FOMO among your followers.  

How to get to Roosevelt Island: Trams depart every 7–15 minutes during weekdays. The F train also serves the island, as does NYC Ferry.

Running and Skating Path Under Bridge
Bike your way to Randall's Island on the scenic pathway leading from the Bronx © Glasshouse Images / Getty Images

Watch an amateur match on Randall’s Island

Wedged between Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens – and easily accessible from all three boroughs – this large island might be the recreation epicenter of New York City. Over 60 athletic fields draw sports leagues of every stripe, from soccer and baseball to lacrosse, rugby, cricket and more. Icahn Stadium hosts major track-and-field events, with its parking areas serving as a venue for the Electric Zoo EDM festival, Cirque du Soleil and other pop-up entertainment.

Years of restoration have created beautiful green spaces surrounding all the sports facilities, and landscaped bike paths and benches thread throughout the island’s 480 acres. Planted with lilacs, echinacea (coneflower) and daisies, the lovely gardens near the pedestrian-only Ward’s Island Bridge offer a soothing respite after a strenuous game.

Insider tip: The Randall’s Island Connector lets cyclists access the park from the Bronx. Built under the heavy masonry arches of a train viaduct (that connects to the Hell Gate Bridge, the direct inspiration for Sydney’s more famous Harbour Bridge), this path might be the most photogenic bikeway you’ve ever seen. Once back on the mainland, stop in for a pint at the Bronx Brewery, just a few blocks away.

How to get to Randall’s Island: Arrive by car, on foot or by bicycle via bridges that connect the island to the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. Or take the M35 bus from Manhattan. 

side view of Little Island, a small green island supported by columns at the end of a pier
Little Island is the latest of New York's waterfront attractions, having opened to the public in 2021 © George Wirt / Shutterstock

Admire the glittering downtown skyline from Little Island

The newest jewel on New York’s revitalized waterfront, Little Island floats improbably on tulip-shaped platforms supported by tall, skinny columns rising up from the Hudson River, just off the Meatpacking District. This dreamy 2.4-acre folly opened to the public in 2021; since then, countless visitors have crossed the two small footbridges to enjoy its pleasures. 

Permanently parked food trucks in the central Play Ground plaza serve up bites and beers from morning to night. A rich schedule of performing arts troupes and community events draws audiences of all backgrounds on any given evening, from love-struck teenagers snapping selfies to dance aficionados checking out a new company to families enjoying kid-friendly (and kid-length) concerts.

Little Island’s surefire attraction is its gloriously varied plantings, which rise on terraced beds and surround pathways that snake all over the diminutive pier/park. As the pilings rise to their peak height at the structure’s southwest corner, amid the greenery you’ll encounter a panoramic view of downtown Manhattan, crowned by the soaring One World Trade Center – a splendid merger of natural beauty and man-made wonder. 

Insider tip: Performances occur almost every night in the warmer months at Little Island’s Amphitheater (or “Amph”). They’re all ticketed, with demand high; check the website a couple of days before the show, when heavily discounted or even free “community” tickets tend to get released.

How to get to Little Island: Take the A, C, E or L train to 14th St and walk west toward the river.

Explore related stories

A beautiful Lower Manhattan skyline view seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with green plants along the East River in New York City
1847588540

Theatre

I'm a travel writer in NYC – here are the questions I get asked the most

Jul 11, 2024 • 8 min read