Roosevelt Island: What to Do After Taking the Tram
Just like a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, kids think taking the Roosevelt Island Tram is an adventure in and of itself. (That's why the tram is on our list of 100 Things to Do With Your Kids in NY Before They Grow Up, again just like the ferry.)
Although it was closed for nine months in 2010 while it underwent extensive renovations, the tram's back up and as exciting as ever. It departs every 15 minutes from Second Avenue and 59th Street. In chillier weather, heat lamps keep you toasty as you wait for it to arrive. Once on board, the tram takes passengers high above the East River, peaking at 250 feet, all for the cost of one MetroCard swipe. (You can even use your unlimited card.) The views of Manhattan’s East Side, the East River and the Queensboro Bridge are spectacular. But as fun as it is, at approximately three-minutes in length, it doesn't equal a day trip.
However, once you arrive, you can certainly make a day of it. My family and I recently spent some time on Roosevelt Island and we found plenty of cool things to do.
Exploring the island is a breeze. It's a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll. The almost totally flat terrain is easy to tackle on foot and while pushing a stroller. It's a great way to get a peek at everyday life on the island.
There's also a cute red bus that traverses the island (25 cents per person, kids under 5 ride free). If you're bold enough to cram your bikes or scooters onto the often crowded tram, they're also great ways to get around since there's little traffic on the island, and the waterfront promenade offers gorgeous river views.
A good place to start is the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Visitor Center, which is housed in a small kiosk just north of the tram station. It's staffed by island residents who are happy to share their knowledge, answer questions and hand you a free map.
Blackwell House is a short walk away. An unpretentious clapboard farmhouse built circa 1800, it's the island's oldest surviving building. My kids noticed how out of place it looked sandwiched between the fairly bleak, built-in-the '70s middle-income housing complexes.
Walking down Main Street, I flashbacked to my '70s childhood. The island seems to belong to a simpler time. (I mean that as a compliment!) The Chinese restaurant, China 1 Kitchen, reminded me of the pre-Szechuan food scene, when Chinese eateries had no specified region. And the Trellis diner, which is wildly popular with locals, also features a simple menu and low-key vibe. There’s even a small video store, which seems like a bit of a relic in the age of Netflix and streaming.
About a mile from the tram is an island must-see: the Tom Otterness installation The Marriage of Money and Real Estate. The artist—who's also behind those whimsical figures in the 14th Street and Eighth Avenue subway station, as well as many other public art installations in the city—placed his signature cartoonish bronze creatures in the river! It's fun to spy them peeking out of the water.
It's about a two-mile trek to the northern tip of the island. If you make it there, you'll find a restored lighthouse from 1872. You can only look at the exterior of this 50-foot landmark since visitors aren't allowed inside, which was a bit of a letdown.
My family's favorite discovery was the island's abundance of playgrounds, basketball courts and ball fields. We saw loads of local kids using these facilities, and they were always willing to let my children join in. We noticed public grills in many of the parks. With a big Gristede’s located mid-island, visitors can buy everything they need for a spontaneous barbecue in the summer.
We didn't bring our bathing suits but wished that we had when we came across Sportspark and its Olympic-style indoor pool, which offers recreational swimming sessions to the public for a modest fee. (You can see the schedule here. There's also a Ping Pong room with six tables, and free lessons are offered periodically. If you're willing to spend big bucks, The Roosevelt Island Racquet Club allows you to rent a court or take a lesson, but it will run you $100 or more.
And of course, no matter how you spend your day on Roosevelt Island, you always end with that awesome tram ride back home.