Often overlooked by visitors and residents alike, New York City’s Staten Island gets stereotyped as a place that’s good for little else than a turnaround point for its iconic ferry. But taking time to disembark and get under the skin of the ‘fifth borough’ will reward the intrepid, no matter where your interests lie. From historic sites and cultural haunts to green escapes and avant-garde art experiences, there’s plenty to discover around every corner of this unexpected island.

Tuscan Garden at Snug Harbor- Staten Island, NYC
One of 14 garden areas at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden is the Tuscan Garden © sangaku / Getty Images

Staten Island for history buffs

As the site of some of New York City’s oldest buildings – and its oldest living historic village – Staten Island is a draw for anyone with a deep appreciation for history. It’s home to Sandy Ground, the oldest continuously inhabited black settlement in the country; has the largest population of Sri Lankans outside of Sri Lanka, and is where sailors once came to retire.

Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, Staten Island, New York
Snug Harbor contains 14 botanical gardens and 26 historic buildings housing various cultural organizations © Barry Winiker / Getty Images

Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden

One of the first established retirement homes for sailors in the 19th century, the Smithsonian-affiliated Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden underwent four decades of restoration to become a vibrant regional arts center, and is one of the largest ongoing adaptive reuse projects in the country.

In addition to 14 botanical gardens, there are 26 historic buildings housing various cultural organizations across its vast campus. Six of the buildings were the first to be designated as New York City landmarks in 1965, including the Greek Revival-style music hall – which is one of NYC’s oldest concert halls, second only to Carnegie Hall.

For a fantastic primer on local maritime history, check out the Noble Maritime Collection, a beautiful gallery and museum located on the campus. Housed in a former dormitory, it features an impressive collection of model ships and the real, fully restored houseboat studio of American artist John A Noble (1913-1983), plus his oil paintings, drawings, lithographs, writings and marine photographs.

Staten Island Museum

Taking an all-around historical approach, this museum set in beautiful neoclassical digs highlights everything from Staten Island’s natural history to artwork from around the world. Get a glimpse of a full-size replica of a mastodon plowing through a wall, peek at cicada specimens in jars, and meet ancient Egyptian figurines in the museum’s permanent collection.

Visitors can learn about the lives of the Lenape (the first Staten Islanders) through artifacts that date back 12,000 years – the museum has the most comprehensive exhibit on the region’s indigenous peoples in all of New York City. Also worthwhile are the temporary exhibitions, which have covered everything from womens’ suffrage to pop culture.  

Building in the museum village of Historic Richmond Town, Staten Island, New York, United States of America
Historic Richmond Town is New York City’s only living history village © De Agostini / G. Sioen/ Getty Images

Historic Richmond Town

New York City’s only living village, Historic Richmond Town is a settlement of more than 30 buildings on a 100-acre preserve in the heart of Staten Island. The open-air museum is a great way to get a sense of what life was like back in the 17th century, when it began as a Dutch colony.

Stroll the grounds to see a carpenter or blacksmith at work, learn how to make soap, and see the Voorlezer’s House, a 1760s structure that served as a school, a religious meeting space, and the home of the congregation’s voorlezer (lay reader). It’s worth showing up for the guided tour that takes place daily at 2pm, when docents grant you a glimpse inside various buildings that they unlock with huge, rusty keys. Check the website for events throughout the year, like folk-music concerts and centuries-old craft showcases.

For art aficionados

Manhattan’s Chelsea gets the glory for its gallery row, but tucked into pockets of Staten Island you’ll find a wealth of inspiring, important, and culturally relevant works by world-class artists.

Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art

Set in the oldest building on Snug Harbor’s campus, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art houses unique exhibits in its atmospheric gallery spaces. Throughout you’ll find paintings, sculptures, and digital media and experimental art displays from around the world, with the spotlight on local artists and curators. 

Get a deeper sense of Staten Island’s unique creativity at Newhouse After Dark, a series of after-hours events like avant-garde music performances, indie film screenings, and live art experiences. Newhouse’s PASS (Performing Arts Salon Saturdays) event showcases groundbreaking performances of original works in music, dance, theater and multimedia, all of which are the culmination of a one-month artists’ residency program.

Alice Austen House in Staten Island
Alice Austen's home is located on the banks of The Narrows waterway © alexat25 / Getty Images

Alice Austen House

A force of a photographer, Alice Austen (1866-1952) was known for her images that captured intimate – and radical – moments in the lives of Victorian women. In her Dutch Colonial home on the banks of The Narrows waterway are well-preserved period rooms where her photographs of women assuming masculine roles and dressed in drag are on display. It’s here that she lived child-free with her life partner, Gertrude Tate, for 30 years; the house is designated as a national site of LGBTQ+ history.

In addition to the rooms that showcase her photographs and personal relics, the house has modern galleries with rotating exhibitions. Queer contemporary artists and revolutionaries are celebrated, including the likes of Audre Lorde and Collier Schorr, whose ‘Stonewall at 50’ exhibition featured portraits of 15 intergenerational LGBTQ+ activists and artists to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

MakerSpace and Maker Park

If you love getting your hands dirty for the sake of self expression, check out MakerSpace NYC. A creative collective founded by sweetheart sculptors DB Lampman and Scott Van Campen in a 6000 sq-ft space, classes and workshops are offered with a big serving of collaboration and community. Classes and workshops, which start around $20, include everything from welding, printmaking, ceramics and sewing, to 3D printing, bee-keeping and dream house-building.

Just across the street you’ll find Maker Park, one of Staten Island’s few sculpture gardens filled with locally-created public art. Artists utilize an array of materials to construct the sculptures, which collectively tell a story of the borough’s working waterfront. Regular community events and workshops are also held in the park.

For nature lovers

When New Yorkers are in need of a nature escape, most hop a train upstate. Within much easier reach, Staten Island is home to more than 170 parks and gardens – as well as New York City’s largest remaining forest preserve – making it the greenest borough in the city.

Staten Island Greenbelt

Three times bigger than Central Park, Staten Island’s Greenbelt in the heart of the island is a sprawling network of forests, wetlands, ponds and parks. You’ll spot all manner of wildlife across its 2800 acres, and with 35 miles of trails, there’s plenty to explore by foot or on bike. Pick up maps and make your way to the trailheads from the Greenbelt Nature Center at 700 Rockland Avenue.

The cornerstone of the greenbelt, High Rock Park is a wild and peaceful escape. There are six trails through lush woodlands where you’ll see stands of red maple trees, plus plenty of ponds and wetlands. Be on the lookout for wildlife like blue herons, woodpeckers, muskrats and more.

Also within the Greenbelt is Moses Mountain, a man-made, 200ft-high formation of boulders, soil and serpentine rock that was cleared to make way for a highway in the 1960s. The project was never completed, yet the pile of earth remained; it eventually sprouted vegetation and drew animals that now inhabit the area. Today, it’s low-grade paths and panoramic views draw hikers and wildlife watchers.

New York Chinese Scholars Garden, Staten Island, New York
The New York Chinese Scholar's Garden is located at Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden © Barry Winiker / Getty Images

The New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden

Tucked away on the campus of Snug Harbor, the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a meditative respite a world away from the stress of the city. One of just two Chinese scholar’s gardens in the country, it overlooks wetlands and blossoms with flowering trees throughout the year. There are gorgeously intricate architectural details, displays of Chinese calligraphy, and a 15-ft Gongshi, or scholar’s rock, formation in the central courtyard.

Take your time exploring eight pavilions and a bamboo forest, and join a walking tour in springtime for deeper exploration of the surrounding landscape. Some tours include photography lessons, and you’ll get insights into ages-old horticultural traditions and the Chinese philosophy behind constructing a garden.

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Carefully crafted collaboratively between Visit Staten Island and Lonely Planet. Both parties provided research and curated content to produce this story, we disclose when information isn’t ours.

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