Governors Island 2019: Playgrounds, Camping, Art, and Adventure
Governors Island opens to the public on May 1 this year and its season, which again runs through October 31, promises plenty of family-friendly programming, plus the return of spectacular overnight accommodations, increased ferry service, and even more time to play: Summer Friday and Saturday nights feature extended hours, so you'll be able to blow bedtime and stay and play well after dark!
The opening of Governors Island is an event we anticipate annually, as the island seemingly reinvents itself with new attractions and old favorites, like The Yard, return. Plus, every year the island's jam-packed events calendar is stocked with inventive new family-friendly programming.
Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids this year, plus important visitor tips—such as ferry schedules, and where to score free biking and kayaking.
What's New on Governors Island in 2019
No adults allowed at The Yard.
Enjoy The Yard—Indoors or Outside
The adventure playground known as The Yard is back again this season and is open on weekends. 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 Yard hosts a weekday summer camp, and a new-in-2019 partnership with the Student Conservation Association brings the fun indoors at Nolan Park, with educational activities for children encouraging learning through play.
See cool, FREE exhibits
Governors Island continues to be a seasonal home for innovative public arts programming. The HoloCenter transforms former officers' quarters into light-based installations, the School of the Visual Arts presents site-specific installations all season, and graduate students from Syracuse University's MFA program reach beyond the classroom to create an evolving exhibition inspired by Governors Island's nature and history. Art Force 5, a program from Alfred University, presents a season-long comic book exhibit (superhero- and cape-crafting workshops included), as well as a tile-painting program for adults in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. For more public arts programming on Governors Island this summer, bookmark the official calendar.
Explore a volcano
No, the island hasn't grown any new geological features since last season. But thanks to the the City Volcano Lab 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
Two new exhibits in Nolan Park help open our eyes to the reality of climate change and offer steps everyday New Yorkers can take to aid the environment. Visit The Climate Museum to learn about clean energy, green design, and the young leaders of the climate change movement. Nearby, the Human Impacts Institute/Climate Reality House presents a multi-tiered educational approach meant to spark visitors' interest in helping the environment.
Study STEM topics
On Colonels Row, STEM Kids NYC spends its weekends inspiring visitors with hands-on projects ranging from kite making (and flying!) to slime mixing and app building. Lest you think this fun is kids-only, be advised its age range is 5-105, so parents can learn something, too.
Attend an awesome FREE event
There are so many cool happenings at Governors Island, we can't possibly list them all. While a few of our favorites have moved off the island for 2019 (such as Figment Festival and City of Water Day) or aren't returning (the formerly-annual Family Fun Day), there's still plenty to do, including the following special weekend events you'll want to note on your calendar now:
Saturday, May 4
Show your love for the Gov by pitching in at this (hopefully) annual volunteer day. Guests can get a little dirty helping gardeners prepare the green space for the upcoming season, then enjoy the fruits of their labor with thank-you discounts at island vendors, a celebration with treats and giveaways, and kid-friendly activities at the event headquarters on Colonels Row. Advance registration is required. FREE
Sunday, June 23
Be sure to wear your dancing shoes for this day-long celebration of the folk scene. More than 70 performers flood the island, taking up residence on the porches of the historic homes and filling the air with old-timey sounds. A banjo parade, dance lessons, and a stage of kid-friendly beats are all on tap. FREE
New York City Poetry Festival
Saturday, July 27-Sunday, July 28
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, August 31-Sunday, September 1
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 a one-wheeler. FREE
More of the Best Things to Do on Governors Island
The only way to spend the night on Governors Island is in the luxury tent city.
Plan a sleepover
Collective Governors Island returns with its tent city in the island's Western Development Zone, where you'll sleep in high-quality tents under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty. Choose from double-occupancy tents with shared restrooms, or premium tents with an en suite bathroom. Prices are steep, but New Yorkers can snag half-off rooms ($75) some nights. If that's still too steep for a home away from home, 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.
Tap into your sense of adventure
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—returns to Governors in 2019. You'll again be able to tackle the climbing wall, fly across the zip line, get lost in the maze, and try your luck at mini-golf.
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, the Hammock Grove, and a large Play Lawn. We love them all, and they're all back for 2019, 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.
Go bike riding
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. New in 2019, Blazing Saddles offers not just pedal cars but scooters and balance bikes. Free Bike Mornings on Governors Island allow visitors to borrow a bike for FREE for up to one hour every weekday between 10am and noon.
Cruise the harbor for free with a kayak rental.
Offered on Saturdays from June 15-September 14, you can get out on the water with free kayak rentals provided by the Downtown Boathouse. Instruction and all safety equipment is included.
Get creative with the Children's Museum of the Arts
The downtown institution runs a Free Art Island Outpost from 11am-5pm every Saturday and Sunday, plus Memorial Day and Labor Day, in Nolan Park. In recent years, projects have included communal murals, finger puppets, and playing with Flubber. FREE
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. Inspired by artist Maria Mattingly, of the SWALE floating forest, a new SWALE House opens on the island, offering visitors a chance to dig into soil samples from across the five boroughs, learn about edible plants, and provide more educational workshops where you're sure to get at least a little dirty.
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.
Or learn about birds
The New York Audubon Society operates weekend-only, 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!
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. New additions in 2019 include Joe Coffee, Neapolitan Express, Makina Café (Ethiopian and Eritrean eats), Perros Y Vainas (Venezuelan fare), Melt Bakery, and People's Pops. Parents will appreciate Threes Brewing's new outpost, and island-inspired brew. Old favorites like Little Eva's, Island Oyster and Taco Vista all return.
Things to Know Before You Go
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!) 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're visiting on the weekdays, be aware that the options are much more limited. 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. 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 from Wednesday, May 1-Thursday, October 31, 10am-6pm on weekdays and 10am-7pm on weekends. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the island is open until 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Ferries run every day to and from Governors Island from lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn ferry only runs on Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday Mondays. In June, a new ferry will be added to the Manhattan route, increasing weekend service to every 20 minutes and upping capacity by 1,000 riders an hour.
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 ride for free, too. 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 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.