Although Governors Island tends to get all of the attention, there's another isle off Manhattan where families can go for great views, picnicking and relaxing under the sun: Randall's Island. Located in the East River and bordered by Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, the isle has added some awesome new attractions since we originally posted about it back in 2012, including a renovated playground, fresh programs at the Urban Farm and new public art installations.
Though not as bucolic as Governors Island—the Hell Gate and RFK Bridges cut right through it so you never forget you're in the city—Randall's Island offers lots of fun for families. Plus it's not just a summer destination, it's open year-round. From farming to horseback riding, mini golf to cycling, gardening to picnicking, here are the top 10 things to do on Randall's Island with kids.
Randall’s Island boasts more than 60 sports fields, which account for over half of all fields in Manhattan! (Even though it's located in the East River, it's considered part of Manhattan.) You'll find fields for baseball and softball, lacrosse, soccer, rugby and football, though many require a permit for use. The isle is also home to Sportime NY, a state-of-the-art tennis complex, and Randall's Island Golf & Sports Center, which offers mini golf and batting cages. There's also the 5,000-seat Icahn Stadium, which hosts local, national and international track and field events, even Olympic training and trials.
Hit the New Playground
The long rundown Scylla Playground was completely renovated in 2013. It's now spacious and colorful, with two play structures, swings and a spray shower. This is a great spot for photo ops, too. You can snap pics of your kids swinging with the historic Hell Gate Bridge in the background.
Check out an Urban Farm
Right next to Scylla Playground is the Urban Farm, an interactive fruit and vegetable garden that's open to the public. You'll spy berries, eggplants, watermelons and tomatoes, rice patties (the only ones in NYC!), a fun gourd tunnel to walk through and even chickens. Urban Farm offers hands-on programs where kids can help with the planting, maintenance, composting and harvesting. It also offers field trips, workshops and other programs for school and camp groups.
Explore the Gardens
There are lovely landscaped areas and themed gardens throughout the isle maintained by the Randall’s Island Park Alliance, a wonderful nonprofit that's helped spearhead many of the recent additions on the isle. On its website, you can find out what's in bloom; learn about the different gardens (there are native wildflower meadows, a rock garden and an apple orchard, to name a few); and find out how to volunteer.
Go Bird-Watching, Fishing or Just Enjoy Nature
Randall's Island is home to freshwater and tidal wetlands, an urban forest and 4½ miles of coastal upland habitat. So keep your eyes peeled for migrating birds, go fishing or just marvel at the beauty of nature.
Try Horseback Riding
The New York City Riding Academy is open from May through October, and offers riding lessons and a very flexible summer camp—you can schedule a day, a week or the entire summer. Visit the website for details and registration information.
Randall's Island is the perfect place for neophyte cyclists to improve their skills. Currently, there are almost eight miles of car-free bicycle paths throughout the isle and along the waterfront, and more are in the works. New in 2015: Blazing Saddles is offering bike rentals on the isle.
See Public Art
Every year from May through November, Randall’s Island hosts a new edition of FLOW, a series of site-specific artworks along its shoreline created by participants in the Bronx Museum’s Artists in the Marketplace program. The pieces tend to be funky, diverse and sometimes even interactive.
Bring your own lunch and picnic on the open grassy lawns, or lounge by the water and enjoy views of East Harlem, Astoria or the South Bronx, depending on where you're sitting. There are also designated barbeque areas if you're in a grilling mood. It’s best to pack your own meal, though, since food trucks are scarce and the sole restaurant is the Courtside Cafe in the Sportime tennis center.
Attend a Festival or Special Event
There's always something interesting happening on Randall’s Island, like seasonal festivals, live music, art exhibitions and sporting events, and many are FREE. So be sure to check the calendar to see what's going on, though remember, not all events are kid-friendly. You probably don't want to bring your preschooler to the annual Electric Zoo.
Things to Know Before You Go
Where to go when you need to go: Bathrooms are located at Sunken Meadow, Wards Meadow, Hell Gate and Bronx Shore Fields. There are also public restrooms available in Sportime and Icahn Stadium.
Bring your own food: Food trucks are rare and the sole restaurant is the Courtside Cafe in the Sportime tennis center.
Bring your own water, too: I don't recall ever seeing water fountains.
Wear sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes: You're going to be spending a lot of time running around outside.
Download a map: You probably won't need it as there's lots of signage on the isle but just in case, here's a map.
Bring your camera: There are all kinds of cool photo ops.
Randall's Island is open every day year-round. If you're driving, Randall’s Island is easily accessible from Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx via the RFK Bridge. The M35 bus on 125th Street also goes to the isle. In addition, you can walk or bike to Randall's Island via the 103rd Street Footbridge. Another pedestrian bridge connecting the island to the South Bronx is still in the works. Check the website for complete directions.
Find more seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.
This post was originally published in July 2012.