Tourist Day: Visit Astonishing Governors Island!

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By William Beavers
No summer in the city should be complete without a visit to Governors Island and, happily, it just reopened to the public on May 23.  From now until September 24, when Governors Island will close for the season, it is the great new playground for people of all ages.

Governors Island is the city’s newest public open space. It’s as if the city acquired a vast new leisure space roughly equivalent to Central Park in size, only this one is surrounded by water and lays just 800 yards off the tip of Manhattan in New York Harbor.

How to Get There:
In Manhattan, take #4 or #5 to Bowling Green, R to Whitehall Street or #1 to South Ferry. Then take the $2 round trip ($1 seniors) ferry ride from 10 South Street.  Or take a ferry from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6.  Click here for more details. Both the Manhattan ferry and the Island are wheelchair accessible.

gov island mapFerry from Manhattan:
Ferry service is provided from Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street on the corner of South and Whitehall Streets in Lower Manhattan (next to the Staten Island ferry terminal).

  • Weekdays: 10 AM, 11 AM, Noon, 1 PM, 2 PM, 3 PM and 4 PM.  Weekends, Memorial and Labor Days: 10 AM, 11 AM, 11:30 AM, Noon, 12:30 PM, 1 PM, 1:30 PM, 2 PM, 2:30 PM, 3 PM, 3:30 PM, 4 PM, 4:30 PM, 5 PM and 5:30 PM.

Ferry returning to Manhattan:

  • On Weekdays, service is provided hourly on the half hour (:30) starting at 10:30 AM until 4:30 PM, and are followed by 5 PM ferry and last ferry at 6 PM. On Weekends, starting at 11:30 AM, ferries depart for Manhattan every 30 minutes until the weekend closing time at 7 PM.

Weekend Only Ferry Service from Brooklyn:

  • Ferry service is provided from Brooklyn Bridge Park’s East River Pier 6 at the end of Atlantic Avenue. This service only operates weekends, Memorial Day and Labor Day during the summer. It is best characterized as “load and leave” and generally runs every 25 minutes. Ferry service to the island runs from 11 AM to 5:30 PM.

Weekend Only Ferry Service Returning to Brooklyn:

  • Starting about 11:15 AM, there is load and leave service every 25 minutes until the island closes at 7 PM.

What to Do:

Castle Williams -Image from

Castle Williams -Image from

There’s so much to do! Nap in a hammock, ride a bike around the island’s 2.2 mile periphery, or cool your heels with the kids at the new play fountain near central Liggett Hall. There are Revolutionary War-era fortifications, a district of historic houses, and dozens of arts and cultural exhibits.

This year again the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council will offer a full slate of activities. The Arts Center at Governors Island (Building 110) features 20 studios for visual artists, two rehearsal spaces, and a gallery space. During their island residencies, artists develop their practice and create new works, drawing inspiration from the unique location, as well as the community of fellow artists-in-residence.

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One interdisciplinary work, for instance, to be called “Fall of the Rebel Angels: X” will be based on the work of Italian Renaissance master Peter Paul Rubens. This season’s events will also include the NYC Unicycle Festival, the Volkwagen Traffic Jam, and the Jazz Age Lawn Party’s 10th anniversary. Members of the local affiliate of International PEN will also present writers’ workshops and readings. click here for the extensive Governors Island calendar of events

Restored Liggett Hall, which lays like an elegant, brick breastwork midway across the island, serves as the portal between north and south, between the old island and the newly landscaped grounds.

On the north side is the 92-acre Historic District, which consists of an impressive collection of 19th and early 20th century buildings originally built for the armed forces that occupied the island for almost 200 years. These are set in a park-like landscape with mature trees and broad vistas of the island and the Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines. Here you will find the Parade Ground, Fort Day and Castle Williams, the latter both part of a system of forts designed and constructed in the early 19th century to protect New York City from British naval attack.

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Also on the north side here are many of the island’s food concessions, some with vegan and gluten-free options. Click here for a list of Governors Island food concessions.

Once you pass through Liggett Arch, you’ll come upon Liggett Terrace, this year with a fun, new display of play fountains for kids of all ages, which includes 90 programmable water jets. Beyond are more than 30 acres of newly landscaped grounds.

If you bear through the middle of Hammock Grove you’ll soon find yourself cresting the hill with all of the harbor and Statue of Liberty laid out before you. From Hammock Grove you move into the Play Lawn with its numerous baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Just beyond this is the last, uncompleted portion of the island known as The Hills.

History of the park:

For sheer monumentality of the undertaking, Governors Island can probably only be compared to what Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux did to the center of Manhattan more than a century ago. For more on the history of Governors Island and its recent restoration click here.

And to think this was a rundown former Army and Coast Guard base, a virtual ghost town, when it was transferred to the city in 2003. In 2006 an international design competition selected Dutch architectural firm West 8, and by 2010 a master plan for the island’s restoration was in place. To execute that plan, $260 million is being spent.

Now, along with the High Line, and the newly funded but as yet unbuilt Pier 55 on the West Side, Governors Island represents perhaps the brightest star in a constellation of new 21st century public spaces for New York City.

Still to come:

Opening in 2016, The Hills will consist of four separate knolls — Grassy Hill, Slide Hill, Discovery Hill, and Outlook Hill — from 25 to 80 feet high, which will afford visitors never-before-seen panoramic views of the harbor and Lady Liberty.

William Beavers is a New York writer and author of the “New York City Culture Catalog” (Abrams/Alliance for the Arts). Contact email:

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