New York is a city of islands. Many of them, like Governors Island, City Island, Randall's Island, and even the infamous Rikers Island, get lots of attention, while low-key Roosevelt Island manages to slip under the radar. It’s time to get cozy with this narrow, 2-mile long sliver of land in the East River nestled between Manhattan and Queens.
The Roosevelt Island Tram is a familiar sight for many New Yorkers, and the aerial ride alone is great fun for kids, but what about when you disembark on the isle? Over 11,000 people call this peaceful community home. The vibe is urban, but there are open spaces perfect for rambling. Self-contained Roosevelt Island has its own school, newspaper, and library. My family and I found plenty of cool things to keep us entertained and we've pulled together our top picks for things to do on the isle.
The Roosevelt Island Tram peaks at 250 feet and offers stunning views. Photo by m01229 via Flickr.
1. The journey to Roosevelt Island is part of the fun, thanks to the 3-minute aerial tram ride. The wheelchair-accessible Roosevelt Island Tramway departs from Second Avenue and 59th Street and takes passengers high above the East River, peaking at 250 feet, all for the cost of one MetroCard swipe. The views of Manhattan’s East Side, the East River, and the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge are spectacular. Let the kids stay up late to ride it at night for twinkling, light-studded views.
2. Start at the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Visitor Center just north of the tram station, where the staff will answer questions and provide you with a free map.
Visit the statue of the man himself! Photo by MO1229 via Flickr
3. Fly a kite at the four-acre Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park located on the southernmost tip of the island. The park is open every day except Tuesday. It's the first memorial dedicated to the former president in his home state. Designed by Louis Kahn, the park's granite monument looks like a Greek Temple without a roof, with excerpts of FDR’s "Four Freedoms" speech carved on its walls.
4. Stop in for a class or story time at the Roosevelt Island Music & Play Station where your little ones can dance, sing, and explore.
5. Gawk at the The Marriage of Real Estate and Money installation from Tom Otterness as it peeks out of the river in the iconic sculptor's signature whimsical bronze form.
6. Pedal the waterfront with your bike or scooter (yes, you can take it on the tram) promenade to be treated to views of the United Nations and Manhattan skyline.
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Get creative at the isle's Imagination Playground. Photo by Daniela Velasco for Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
7. Build with the giant blue blocks at the David Rockwell-designed Imagination Playground near the FDR Memorial on select summer weekends.
8. Try a drop-in yoga class on the lawn at Four Freedoms Park.
9. Peek into the abandoned former Smallpox Hospital for a taste of this island’s haunted side.
10. Refuel with a treat from the Katchkie Farm's bright green food truck, near Four Freedoms Park, open weekends from 12-4pm. You can also score eats from one of the many food trucks that have started popping up on the isle, including Wafels & Dinges and Kimchi Taco.
11. Or grab some fresh fruit to go from the farmers’ market held each Saturday, rain or shine, at Motorgate Plaza (during fall and winter months) and Good Shepherd Plaza (during spring and summer months).
Take a stroll along the promenade to see the gorgeous cherry blossoms. By photo by Shinya Suzuki via Flickr
12. Head to the promenade each spring when it's awash in cherry blossoms.
Visit the pop-up library on the weekends. Photo courtesy of the NYPL
13. Gather at the park for story time with the Pop-Up Library program on Saturdays and Sundays. Families are encouraged to listen to a story and explore a curated collection of books.
14. Hit the basketball courts or ball fields when the kids tire of the many playgrounds (is that possible?).
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Splash around or work on your backstroke at Sportspark pool. Photo courtesy of RIOC
15. Swim at the Olympic-sized indoor pool at Sportspark that offers children's programs and open swim for a modest fee. Landlubbers can hit the six-table ping-pong room.
16. Catch a live performance at the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance.
17. Hop aboard the cute red bus that traverses the island without paying a cent.
18. Get a dose of history with a visit to the historic Blackwell House, a clapboard farmhouse built circa 1800 and the island's oldest building.
19. On July Fourth, catch the Macy's fireworks from Four Freedoms Park.
20. Hit the children's room at the island's branch of the New York Public Library, which offers a host of public programming.
Take in a movie under the stars with the help of the isle's Summer Movie Series. Photo courtesy of RIOC
21. Bring a blanket on select summer Friday and Saturday nights for the outdoor Summer Movie Series at Southpoint Park.
22. Take a selfie in front of the island's 50-foot lighthouse, an NYC landmark. Just don't try to climb it.
23. Hop on the ferry to explore destinations like Astoria and Long Island City.
24. Or fill up on classic Chinese favorites at China 1 Kitchen. It reminds me of the neighborhood Chinese restaurants from my '70s childhood. But you can't go wrong with a slice of pizza from Piccola Trattoria either.
25. With Halloween on the horizon, the annual children's costume parade might be a good excuse to finally head over to explore Roosevelt Island.
And of course, no matter how you spend your day on Roosevelt Island, you can look forward to that awesome tram ride back home.
This article was first published in April 2011 but has been updated for 2019.