Travel

This Laid-Back Island Is an Undiscovered Gem for New Yorkers and Tourists Alike

There’s delicious food, skyline views, historic sites, a hammock grove -- and almost all of it’s free.

Skyline views without the noise on Governors Island | Timothy Schenck
Skyline views without the noise on Governors Island | Timothy Schenck
Editor’s note: In addition to owning and operating Alphabet City Beer Co. in Manhattan’s East Village, Zach Mack is the owner of Taco Vista on Governors Island.

Back in 2006, the $220 in my bank account severely limited my options for a day out in New York. But I had a Metrocard, and a tip from a friend about a secret spot offshore, close enough to basically swim to. There were no cars, but there were crazy skyline views with a backdrop of nature. 

Stepping off the ferry at Governors Island, it felt like -- aside from a few families and small food vendors -- the place had opened just for me. And the serenity of the island’s historic buildings and truly spectacular views stuck with me. A decade later, I returned with a plan to open a humble food and beverage operation for the summer. Since then I’ve fallen in love completely, running Taco Vista for four straight seasons and learning the ins and outs of NYC’s best day-trip destination. 

Governors Island inspires awe and discovery in out-of-towners and hardened Manhattanites alike. But it’s too often passed over for trendy neighborhoods and tourist traps. Here’s why Governors Island should be on the top of your to-do list, whether you’re a local looking for a staycation -- that’s right, you can camp here -- or a visitor looking for a different view of the city.

The aptly named Hammock Grove | Timothy Schenck

What even IS this place?

Although it sits just 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, there are no flashy glass towers and no imposing bridges connecting it to the city. Unlike Roosevelt or Randall’s Island -- which everyone confuses it for -- Governors is only accessible by boat. 

After hosting an army base until 1964 and the US Coast Guard until 1996, Governors Island sat dormant for close to a decade. In one of his last acts in office, President Clinton designated the island a national monument, with the park service selling the remaining 150 acres to the city three years later (rumor has it for just $1). The one condition was that the island be used for public benefit: That means no apartment complexes, no airports, and no parking lots. That’s how this former military base has evolved into a serene green space, providing the kind of solitude even Central Park lacks. The only price of admission is a $2 boat ride.

Taking the ferry is playing sightseeing bingo | Radhika Chalasani

Getting to Governors Island is ridiculously scenic

The ferry ride clocks in at seven minutes slip-to-slip, but even a quick sail makes for an incredibly scenic trip, with unimpeded outbound views of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty, plus inbound panoramas of the dramatic lower Manhattan skyline, downtown Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s like playing sightseeing bingo from a boat.

Catch the Coursen ferry seven days a week from the Battery Maritime Building, directly next to the Staten Island Ferry Building (due to the pandemic, you’ll have to book your spots ahead of time, but they’ve also upped the number of round trips to ensure distancing.) On the Brooklyn side, there’s a ferry that runs on Saturdays and Sundays from the Red Hook/Atlantic Basin ferry terminal. NYC Ferry can also get you out to the island on weekends with a dedicated shuttle from Wall Street/Pier 11.

No cars allowed | Radhika Chalasani

Everything you can (and should) do on Governors Island

Now the real fun begins. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-timer or a seasoned visitor, the best way to approach a perfect day on Governors Island is to just explore. Stroll around the perimeter to take in the views and sea breezes. Put out a blanket for a picnic on the Parade Grounds, with the Manhattan skyline poking up in the distance. Check out the truly cool historic sites. The best day will involve a combination of all three.

Even though the island is very easily navigated by foot, you can also set yourself up with a bike rental. There are two Citi Bike docks, or opt to rent one (or a surrey, or a scooter, or a tandem bike) from Blazing Saddles. Since there are no cars, this is a rare NY opportunity to cruise without feeling like you’re gambling with your life. 

The Hills offer even more killer views | Julienne Schaer

For history buffs, there’s Fort Jay, an 18th-century military fortification that was the city’s last line of defense from invading redcoats. You can also explore Castle Williams, a defensive battery-turned-military-prison that housed captured Confederate officers during the Civil War. There’s row upon row of historic homes that housed officers and their families that have been preserved or repurposed into art galleries or installations. The best part? Everything’s free. There’s even a nifty app courtesy of Urban Archive you can download that makes for a fantastic free guide.

Next, climb to the top of “The Hills” -- while not a reality show about being young and ambitious in mid-2000s Los Angeles, it is still a stunning feat of engineering. Made from buried subway cars, the 70-foot-high vista provides a 360-degree view of New York Harbor so stunning that it could even melt a jaded Manhattanite’s heart.

After, stroll down to the Hammock Grove and take a nice little lie down in the sun. There’s no gimmick here: As advertised, this is a field full of hammocks all for your enjoyment, chilling idly with a view of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

Governors has had this outdoor dining thing on lock for years | Radhika Chalasani

The island is also a huge dining destination

In recent years, Governors Island has blossomed into a destination for delicious meals with epic views. There’s a smattering of the best food trucks in the city -- the island was host to the Vendy Awards through last year, after all -- and permanent stands slinging everything from Jamaican fusion to fresh seafood. And, of course, there’s plenty of beer, wine, and cocktails to keep you hydrated. 

Threes Brewing has an outpost in one of the island’s main food and dining areas, Liggett’s Terrace. They’ve been serving up their fantastic beers alongside burgers from their food partners the Meat Hook, and even though this is only their second season on the island, they already feel at home out there. 

“We think it’s an awesome spot in NYC, a real treasure,” says Anna Selver-Kassell, VP of hospitality for Threes. “I also feel like everyone who’s visiting the island is happy to be there, so from a hospitality perspective it’s just a great crowd to serve.”

“I know it sounds crazy, but Governors Island almost feels like being on a Caribbean Island,” says Dennis Hatzinger, chef de cuisine at Island Oyster. “We’ve got so much open outdoor space that it makes it easy to have that meal with ample social distancing. It makes for some seriously relaxed vibes.”

Even though a lot of dining is only set up to operate Fridays through Sundays, there’s never a day on the island where you can’t get a bite to eat or a cold drink (depending on the weather situation). If there’s one place in particular you’re dying to visit, make sure you check ahead on vendors’ social media accounts for announcements or service changes.

Don't feel like leaving? Stay the night. | Collective Retreats

Don’t want to leave? Book a campsite. 

If you’d like to pitch a tent and enjoy the great outdoors without driving hours outside the city, you might be happy to know there is an alternative option that doesn’t involve illegally starting a campfire in Prospect Park. You can stay on the island overnight by booking with Collective Retreats, a “glamping” installation that swaps out pup tents for air-conditioned yurts and Danish furniture. 

Instead of packing a cooler with hot dogs, you can let their on-site restaurant do the cooking for you before helping yourself to the communal s’more pantry for grilling around the firepit. It’s probably the only way you’ll wake up to an up-close and personal view of the Statue of Liberty that won’t involve a long explanation to the Park Service.

MORE:  But if you DO want to drive outside NY, here are the best day trips

Zach Mack is the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in Manhattan’s East Village and Taco Vista on Governors Island. He’s been writing about beer since Thrillist let him back in 2013, and it’s been all uphill from there. He’s also a Certified Cicerone®, if you’re into that sort of thing!