Governors Island opens to the public for its summer season on May 1 this year—nearly a month earlier than ever before—and its season, which runs through October 1, promises plenty of family-friendly fun.
The opening of Governors Island is an event we anticipate every year as the island seemingly reinvents itself with new attractions annually in addition to returning favorites. While there's nothing quite as big as last year's opening of The Hills, there are a few noteworthy additions to the isle in 2017, including a new zip line, and its calendar is, as always, jam-packed with family-friendly events like the Figment arts fest.
Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids, plus important visitor tips.
This 172-acre oasis was once home to the U.S. Army and Coast Guard and is full of quaint 19th-century houses, grassy hills, and traffic-free bike paths. It's just a seven-minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan, but if you stand in a spot where the city skyline is out of view, you feel as if you've been transported to 1800s New England. In addition to being a fantastic place for families to relax and explore, the isle hosts lots of cool FREE festivals, and features awesome activities such as the Children's Museum of the Arts Free Art Island Outpost, no-cost mini golf, the city's first adventure playground, and so much more.
Tap into your sense of adventure
The folks at New York Carousel, who operate attractions like the SeaGlass Carousel, Fantasy Forest Amusement Park in Queens, Staten Island Fun Park, and more kid-friendly attractions, are coming to Governors Island this summer with the opening of Adventures at GI in the Western Development Zone of the island. Among the attractions are a climbing wall, maze, and a zip line spanning 300 feet. Note: There's no set open date yet.
Check out a cool, FREE exhibit
Governors Island has a long partnership with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, who offers open gallery space for visitors to see its artists in residence. There will be a display from the Sculptors Guild on weekends and the HoloCenter transforms a trio of former officers' quarters with light-based installations. If you've got a "Fearless Girl" on your hands, consider checking out the New-York Historical Society's teen-curated exhibit NYC and the Women's Suffrage Movement, which runs weekends from July 8-October 1.
The Liggett Terrace climbing playground is always a popular spot. Photo by Bruce Monroe via Flickr.
Play and get wet in Liggett Terrace
A staple since 2014, Liggett Terrace features climbing structures and swings, Hammock Grove, and a large Play Lawn. We love them all. They're all back, along with three play fountains boasting 90 water jets located in the hedge maze so be sure to pack the bathing suits. FREE
The design-fueled mini golf course from the Figment arts collective changes its look every year. Photo by Anthony Collins via Flickr.
The creative folks at the Figment arts collective design this annual staple, the only FREE miniature golf course in the city. It changes every year and always features wildly innovative holes that are usually fashioned out of recycled materials. New York City has the Beat, the theme for 2017, debuts at the Figment Festival the weekend of June 3-4. Having hit Figment's courses in years past, I want to note that the holes work better as interactive art than as mini golf. They're visually striking but difficult to play. Plus many kids wander around, doing holes out of order. In other words, don't expect serious game play. There are usually 12 holes total. Open June 3-late August. FREE
Go bike riding
The isle features multiple miles of flat, car-free cycling, which makes it perfect for kids. Indeed, you can cycle the island's entire perimeter. You can bring your bike on the ferry or rent one on the island from Blazing Saddles or Citi Bike, which added two kiosks in 2016. Free Bike Mornings are back and allow visitors to borrow a bike for FREE for up to one hour every weekday between 10am and noon.
A new dock will allow for kayaking on weekends, beginning in June. Free rentals provided by the Downtown Boathouse.
Get creative with the Children's Museum of the Arts
The downtown institution runs a Free Art Island Outpost from 11am-3pm every Saturday and Sunday, plus Memorial Day and Labor Day, outside building 14 in Nolan Park. In recent years, projects have included communal murals, finger puppets, and playing with Flubber. FREE
No adults allowed at the Adventure Playground.
Enjoy the Adventure Playground
A major addition in 2016 was play:groundNYC. It's back again this season, from May 6 through October 1. Parents take note: You'll be sitting on the sidelines while your kids romp in the 50,000-square-foot creative space, turning recycled materials (OK, some would call it junk!) into playthings limited only by their imagination. We visited several times last year and were impressed. Be forewarned: You'll be hard pressed to get your kids to leave! It's open for FREE to the public on weekends only. It hosts a weekday summer camp, as well as school groups at other times.
Check out a cool castle and a fort
Castle Williams, royal as it sounds, actually served as a military prison. You can take a guided tour of the landmark, as well as Fort Jay across the isle, courtesy of the National Park Service. Kids can even earn Junior Ranger badges at the sites. The NPS offers lots of other programs, many of which are kid-friendly, so check the calendar to see what piques your family's interest.
Catch-and-release fishing is allowed in designated areas along New York Harbor. Kids can fish without a license but adults ages 16 and older need a valid NY State fishing license. Licenses are inexpensive, but they're not sold on the island. Click here for info on obtaining one. FREE for kids
Commune with nature
There are lush lawns and beautiful trees everywhere you look. However, if you really want to get your nature fix, GrowNYC operates an urban farm with hands-on programming on weekends. Meanwhile, Earth Matter offers composting lessons and face time with its menagerie of animals.
Build your oyster knowledge
The Billion Oyster Project and the New York Harbor School, which is located on the island, join forces to educate the public on the importance of oysters in our estuary in a season-long exhibition in Nolan Park. If you want to get hands-on and help out, there will be volunteer days throughout the season, too.
Or learn about birds
The New York Audubon Society will operate daily family-friendly programming, ranging from bird walks to bird-inspired arts and crafts. Families can learn how to create bird-friendly spaces in our urban environment and learn all about the namesake bird during July's Tern Festival.
Slide Hill offers four mega slides and great views over 10 acres of parkland.
Play on The Hills and Slide Hill
Created from recycled fill materials, The Hills now rise above the isle offering visitors a panoramic view of New York Harbor. Not-to-be-missed: Slide Hill, which offers the city's longest slide at 57-feet and three more fun ones. Don't be shy—make sure you take a whirl with your kids!
Seriously. You don't always have to be doing something. Hang out in the hammocks, Adirondack chairs, oversize swings or at the tables. Or bring your own picnic and dine alfresco on the grass. You can also pick up great grub from the excellent food vendors like Red Olive Food Truck, The Pocketful, El Carrito Rojo, Cheech A Cini’s Trattoria, Yankee Doodle Dandy’s, The Half Shell Fish Fry & Clam Bake, and kid-pleasers like the Brooklyn Popcorn Truck, Blue Marble Ice Cream, and Mr. Softee. There will be a pair of beer gardens on the isle this season and Island Oyster opens near Soisson's Landing in early summer, serving mixed drinks and sustainable summer seafood fare. You can find the complete list of food vendors on the website. Keep in mind that most are only open on weekends and holiday Mondays.
Attend an awesome FREE event
There are so many cool happenings at Governors Island, we can't possibly list them all. (Happily, the Governors Island calendar does.) We've highlighted some of our favorite annual celebrations for families below:
NYC Holi Hai – Sunday, May 6
On the island's opening weekend, celebrate the coming of spring and the diversity of our city by joining in this fest near the ball fields. A special kids area engages youngsters in the action, which celebrates love and togetherness.
Family Festival – Sunday, May 28
Craft puppets, write tall tales with the Story Pirates, catch performances by Mario the Magician and make masterpieces with the Children's Museum of the Arts. Note: The Figment mini-golf course and Interactive Sculpture Garden won't yet be installed, but there's still plenty to do. FREE
Figment Festival – Saturday, June 3-Sunday June 4
This is one of our top annual festivals. Although this scrappy arts fest isn't aimed at families, it's kid-friendly and engaging. In years past, my child has danced in a G-rated outdoor rave, scored a free costume, participated in various art projects and spent about an hour frolicking in a tent filled with rose petals. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own art—of any kind. This is also the weekend the mini-golf course and the Interactive Sculpture Garden debut. Warning: Catch an early ferry! It gets super-crowded later in the day. FREE
Vintage Bus Bash – Saturday, July 8-Sunday, July 9
All aboard four vintage buses, which make the journey from the New York Transit Museum to spend a weekend on Governors Island. You'll be able to climb aboard (fare free!) 1940-50s era transportation.
City of Water Day – Saturday, July 15
Another one of our top family fests, City of Water Day celebrates NYC's wonderful waterfront with boat tours, fishing, a fair, and more. My daughter and I have gone three times now and always loved it. Note: If you want to take any of the no-cost boat tours, you'll need to register online in advance. FREE
New York City Poetry Festival – Saturday, July 29-Sunday, July 30
The Poetry Society of New York celebrates verse with more than 60 poetry organizations and 250 poets on three stages, plus vendors and a beer garden. But the main attraction for families is the mini Children’s Poetry Festival, complete with writing workshops and games, and an all-kids stage. FREE
NYC Unicycle Festival – Saturday, September 2-Sunday, September 3
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus founded this offbeat fest, where kids can marvel at unicycle basketball and hockey, races, obstacle courses, and even learn to ride one. FREE
Things to Know Before You Go
Where to go when you need to go: There are lots of Porta-Potties on the isle. However, if you must use a traditional bathroom, you'll find regular flush toilets in Building 110 at Soissons Landing (right by the Manhattan ferry dock) as well as trailers at Liggett Terrace and near Slide Hill.
Bring a refillable water bottle: You can refill your bottle (and save some cash!) or thermos at Liggett Terrace, near Yankee Pier, Slide Hill, and Soissons Landing.
Bring your own food: Yes there are wonderful food vendors, but they're not cheap and the lines are often super long. If you can, bring your own picnic.
Arrive at least 15 minutes before your weekend ferry departs: Or better yet, a half hour. Lines are always long, especially on weekend afternoons when you need to pay for tickets.
Wear sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable walking shoes: You're going to be spending a lot of time running around outside.
Even though the isle is open seven days a week, many attractions are not: Food vendors and many special programs only take place on weekends so if you're going on a weekday, make sure you check the calendar to confirm what's going on.
Take time to explore: Even if you go for a specific event or have an itinerary in mind, there are so many wonderful things on the isle, it's best to have a flexible schedule. Many buildings house artisans and boutiques, art installations or other programs. Since the isle is totally walkable, it's ideal for exploring and there are cool discoveries to be found in every nook and cranny.
Download the map: Honestly, you probably won't need it as there are maps and signage on the isle, but it can't hurt to have.
Keep an eye out for bikes: While there are no cars on the isle, there are a ton of cyclists. Most are careful, especially since there are so many children wandering around. But remind your kids that when they're walking on the streets, bikes may come flying their way.
Governors Island is open seven days a week from Monday, May 1-Sunday, October 1, 10am-6pm on weekdays and 10am-7pm on weekends. Ferries run every day to and from Governors Island from lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn ferry only runs on Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays.
The cost is $2 round-trip for adults on weekdays and weekend afternoons, free for children under age 13, and free to all on weekend mornings. IDNYC holders also snag a free ride at all times. You can buy ferry tickets in person at the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan or at Pier 6 in Brooklyn as well as in advance online. (Note: The Brooklyn ferry departs from Pier 1 during the month of May only due to construction.) A season pass is also available for purchase online. The East River Ferry also stops at Governors Island on weekends but costs more.
Plus, a new option in 2017: The South Brooklyn Ferry will operate from Red Hook on weekends beginning June 1 as part of the citywide ferry service.
Photos by Shira Kronzon except where noted.
This article first published in June 2010 but is updated annually.