Governors Island in 2021: Best Things To Do With Kids
Following a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the countdown is on to Governors Island's opening day! The slice of green space heaven in New York Harbor opens to the public on Saturday, May 1, 2021, bringing with it 172 acres of parkland to explore and providing weary New Yorkers a summer staycation destination. The public season runs through Sunday, October 31.
The opening of Governors Island is an event we anticipate annually, and this season is no exception. Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids, plus important visitor tips—such as ferry schedules and where to score FREE biking and kayaking.
Editor's note: While we are trying to promote safer activities that occur outdoors or with social distancing guidelines in place, please keep your family and others safe by always wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. Some pictures in this post were taken before the pandemic.
The Best Things to Do on Governors Island
Check Out a Cool Castle and a Fort
2021 update: Both historic buildings are currently shuttered with no reopening date.
Castle Williams, royal as it sounds, actually served as a military prison. Embark on a self-guided tour of the landmark's exterior, as well as Fort Jay across the isle, and be sure to check The National Park Service calendar to see what programming piques your family's interest.
No grown-ups are allowed in The Yard!
Enjoy The Yard
The adventure playground known as The Yard is back again this season and is open on weekends from noon-4pm. Parents sit on the sidelines while 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 and were impressed. Be forewarned: You'll be hard pressed to get your kids to leave!
The only way to spend the night on Governors Island is in the luxury tent city.
Collective Governors Island returns with its tent city in the island's Western Development Zone, where you'll sleep in high-quality tents or self-contained luxury (and air conditioned rooms) under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty. Choose from double-occupancy tents with shared restrooms, premium tents with an en suite bathroom, or the new "Outlook Shelters, which have spa-like bathrooms and private terraces. Prices are steep but keep your eye out for occasional specials. If you don't want to spring for an overnight stay, check out the digs on a weekend afternoon when the on-site bar/restaurant is open to the public and lawn games are free for all.
Get some amazing views of New York Harbor when you make it to the top of Climb Wallz at Adventures on GI.
Adventures at GI in the Western Development Zone—run by the same group that operates beloved kid-friendly NYC attractions like the SeaGlass Carousel and Fantasy Forest Amusement Park in Queens—allows visitors to tackle the climbing wall, fly across the zip line, get lost in the maze, and try their luck at mini golf.
The Liggett Terrace climbing playground is always a popular spot. Photo by Matt NIghswander
Play and Get Wet in Liggett Terrace
A staple since 2014, Liggett Terrace features climbing structures and swings, the Hammock Grove, and a large Play Lawn. We love them all, along with three play fountains boasting 90 water jets located in the hedge maze, so be sure to pack the bathing suits. FREE
Rent a bike or bring your own and spend the day cruising around the island. Photo by Timothy Schenck
The isle features six 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. Free Bike Mornings on Governors Island allows visitors to borrow a Blazing Saddles bike for FREE for up to 1 hour every weekday between 10am and noon.
See Cool, FREE Exhibits
Governors Island continues to be a seasonal home for innovative public arts programming. The former officers' quarters in Nolan Park house several different organizations with a diverse array of exhibits. Read about them all or wander through and see where the day takes you. Most programs run weekends-only.
Cruise the harbor in a FREE kayak rental.
The Downtown Boathouse has run a FREE kayaking program in the past. Governors Island promises its return after taking 2020 off. Stay tuned to the Downtown Boathouse site for updates as the season nears.
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
Get your hands dirty with GrowNYC.
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 season-long educational weekend workshops. If you want to get hands-on and help out, there will be volunteer days throughout the summer, too.
Learn About Birds
The New York Audubon Society operates family-friendly programming, ranging from bird walks to bird-inspired arts and crafts. You can also borrow binoculars to explore the island's winged inhabitants on your own. Families can learn how to create bird-friendly spaces in our urban environment.
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 slides to glide down. Don't be shy—make sure you take a whirl with your kids!
Explore a Volcano
No, the island hasn't grown any new geological features since last season. But thanks to the the New York Virtual Volcano Observatory, you can safely learn about volcanoes, magma, and their history in our region. Combining the work of area scientists, plus VR, a volcano sound gallery, and kid-friendly activities, you'll leave an expert...and have fun in the process.
Tackle Climate Change
Visit The Climate Museum to learn about clean energy, green design, and the young leaders of the climate change movement.
Governors Island offers acres and acres of beautiful green space to explore and enjoy. Photo by Julienne Schaer
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 on the island.
Things to Know Before You Go to Governors Island
Where to go when you need to go: There are lots of port-a-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!) 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're visiting on a weekday, beware that the options are much more limited. If you can, bring your own picnic.
Arrive at least 30 minutes before your weekend ferry departs: Ferries once again require reservations, which can be made in advance on the Governors Island website.
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. Though, truth be told, weekdays offer a quiet respite from the city!
Take time to explore: Even if you go for a specific event or have an itinerary in mind, there are so many wonderful things to do, 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.
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 beginning Saturday, May 1, 2021, from 10am-6pm on weekdays and 10am-7pm on weekends and holiday Mondays, July 5 included. Ferries run every day to and from Governors Island from lower Manhattan. New in 2021: A pair of departure points serve the Brooklyn waterfront with weekend service, departing from Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 6 and the Red Hook/Atlantic Basin Ferry terminal. Don't forget to book your ferry reservation in advance for 2021 service.
The cost is $3 round-trip for adults on weekdays and weekend afternoons, FREE for children under age 13, and FREE to all on weekend mornings. IDNYC holders, NYCHA residents, seniors, and members of the military ride for free, too. The NYC Ferry also stops at Governors Island on weekends.
Photos courtesy of Governors Island unless otherwise noted
This article first published in June 2010 and is updated annually.