Off-limits to the public for 200 years, former military outpost Governors Island is now one of New York's most popular seasonal playgrounds. The fort-studded island is seven minutes by ferry from Manhattan, and threaded with cycling and walking trails. Playgrounds and picnic areas look across the water to views of glinting skyscrapers. With the city din of helicopters and distant traffic, you won't forget you're in NYC – but it's an invigorating interlude with historic sites to explore.
Each summer, ferries travel the short distance from Manhattan and Brooklyn across to the 172-acre oasis. It's easily walkable but cycling is a very pleasant way to get around; rent wheels from Blazing Saddles (www.blazingsaddles.com, per day $25) or use one of three Citibike stations around the island.
The north part of the island has historic spots including star-shaped Fort Jay, built in 1794 and rebuilt 15 years later, a failed attempt to prevent the British from invading Manhattan; Colonels Row, a collection of eight lovely 19th-century brick officers’ quarters; and the red sandstone Castle Williams, a 19th-century fort with 8ft-thick walls, which was later converted to a military penitentiary. The building exteriors and courtyards are free to explore, though visitors will enjoy deeper historical insights by exploring with the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/gois), whose rangers conduct guided tours of the historic district (see the website for specific days and times).
Nearby Liggett Terrace hosts food trucks, from tacos and ice pops, and an outpost of Brooklyn beer favorite Threes Brewing; there's the biggest choice of refreshments on weekends. Slightly southwest, 10-acre Hammock Grove has 50 hammocks to relax in, along with lawns and kids' play areas.
The Hills, in the southwest part of the island, have flower-fringed walking trails up to panoramic views of Manhattan (from 70ft high); below is attractive Picnic Point, with grassy spaces and lounge chairs. Inspiring views are also on tap along the Great Promenade: running for 2.2 miles along the island's perimeter, the path takes in everything from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn to Staten Island and New Jersey. On weekends The Yard, a 50,000-sq-ft space, opens up for family-friendly play.
Originally named 'nut island' (Paggank) by the indigenous Lenape people, the island was renamed first by the Dutch and then, when it became a military installation, dubbed Governors Island. Besides serving as a successful military fort in the Revolutionary War, the Union Army’s central recruiting station during the Civil War, and the take-off point for Wilbur Wright’s famous 1909 flight around the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island is where the 1988 Reagan/Gorbachev summit signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War. You can visit the spot where that famous summit took place at the Admiral’s House, a grand, colonnaded military residence completed in 1843 that’s part of the elegant ghost-town area of Nolan Park.
Since 2018, the island has hosted a seasonal glamping site by Collective Retreats (www.collectiveretreats.com). Prices range from $149 to $549 per night; early bookings are recommended.