Governors Island opens to the public for its summer season each Memorial Day weekend. It's an event we anticipate every year. The island seemingly reinvents itself with new attractions annually in addition to returning family-friendly favorites. The most noteworthy addition in 2016 is the opening of The Hills, though there have been plenty of other fun additions, too.
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 like the Figment arts fest, 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.
Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids, plus important visitor tips.
Play and get wet in Liggett Terrace
In 2014, Governors Island unveiled Liggett Terrace featuring climbing structures and swings, Hammock Grove and a large Play Lawn, and we loved them all. They're all back, along with three play fountains boasting 90 water jets located in the hedge maze. Be sure to pack the bathing suits.
My daughter loves the climbing structures on the isle
You've got to arrive early to snag a hammock: Some visitors relax in them all day!
Play mini golf
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. "Mini is the New Big" is the theme of the 2016 course, which debuts at the Figment Festival the weekend of June 3-5. Having hit Figment's courses in years past, I want to note that the holes work better as interactive art installations 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 will be 12 holes total. Open June 3-August 26. FREE
Play a mini golf with a view on Governors Island
Explore the Interactive Sculpture Garden and other ongoing art exhibits
Figment is also behind Governors Island's annual Sculpture Garden on the Parade Ground. You can check out designs for the brand-new works, which are all interactive in some way. Open June 10-August 26. Of course, there will be lots of other art installations on the island throughout the summer. All of these exhibits are FREE
"Achilles," a life-size giraffe made out of plywood triangles, was one of the pieces in the 2014 Figment Interactive Sculpture Garden
Commune with nature
There are lush lawns and beautiful trees everywhere you look. However, if you really want to get your nature fix, GrowNYC is operating an urban farm with hands-on programming on weekends. Meanwhile, Earth Matter offers composting lessons and face time with its menagerie of animals.
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 allow visitors to borrow a bike for FREE for up to one hour every weekday between 10am and noon.
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, my kid has done lots of projects, including helping to paint a communal mural, fashioning finger puppets and playing with Flubber. FREE
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 inexpensive but they're not sold on the island. Click here for info on obtaining one. FREE for kids
Enjoy the Adventure Playground
A major addition in 2016 is play:groundNYC, but parents take note: You'll be sitting on the sidelines while your kids romp in the creative space, turning recycled materials (OK, some would call it junk!) into playthings limited only by their imagination. We've visited a few times already and are impressed. Be forewarned, you'll be hard pressed to get your kids to leave!
Hang out on the "beach"
Formerly known as Water Taxi Beach, the re-christened Governors Club is a man-made beach with sand to play in, picnic tables to lounge at, bar food (and beer) to buy, and a stage. While the venue hosts adults-only concerts at night, it's kid-friendly during the day and a great place to take a break and grab a snack. It's open on weekends and holiday Mondays.
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.
Frolic in the "Tree" House
The old Figment-installed tree house was retired after the 2015 season. In its place, you'll find a new, ground-level structure dubbed FELIX where kids can let their imaginations run wild. The current tree house was designed by a team of 12 architecture students.
Play on The Hills
Created from recycled fill materials, The Hills now rise above the isle offering visitors a panoramic view of New York Harbor. A not-to-be missed feature is Slide Hill, which offers the city's longest slide at 57-feet! 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, including Thai and Vietnamese fusion from Top Chef finalist Lisa Fernandes' Sweet Chili, Carl's Steaks, El Paso Taco, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Deli N' Dogz and more. 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.
- Opening Weekend Family Festival – Sunday, May 29
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 – Friday, June 3-Sunday June 5
This is one of our top 25 annual festivals and frankly, it's my personal favorite. In 2016, it adds an extra day of fun to the mix kicking off on Friday. Although this scrappy arts fest isn't aimed at families, it's kid-friendly and super-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. For an idea of just how fun and funky Figment is, check out our slide show from 2011. 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
- City of Water Day – Saturday, July 16
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. We even enjoyed free sails on the the Clearwater Sloop and the Schooner Pioneer! Note: If you want to take any of the no-cost boat tours, you'll need to register online in advance. FREE
- Come Out & Play Field Day and Family Day – Saturday, July 9
This annual interactive event is like a big collaborative all-ages play date. Try new games or fresh takes on old standards, all of which connect through the theme of time travel. You can even submit your own game ideas. FREE
- New York City Poetry Festival – Saturday, July 30-Sunday, July 31
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 – Thursday, September 1-Sunday, September 4
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 a trailers at Liggett Terrace and near Slide Hill.
Bring a refillable water bottle: Last summer the isle finally added water fountains! You can refill your bottle 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 and comfortable walking shoes: You're going to be spending a lot of time running around outside.
Bring your camera: There are all kinds of cool photo ops.
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 Saturday, May 28-Sunday, September 25, 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. A season pass is also available for purchase online. The East River Ferry also stops at Governors Island on weekends but costs more.
Find more great seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.
This post originally published in June 2010.