Lesser Known Islands of New York

One of the benefits of living in Manhattan is that you are never far from the water. From the sea to a garden pond, I feel instantly relaxed as soon as I am in the presence of some sort of body of water, and I love walking alongside the rivers either side of Manhattan as often as possible. In the waters surrounding this little strip of skyscrapers are a multitude of islands, the most famous probably being Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands. However, I’d like to tell you about some of the lesser visited islands, because they also offer much to see and do, and you won’t be competing with the tourist crowds!

First up; Governor’s Island. This is a fairly popular summer spot for New Yorkers looking for some peace and quiet. A mere 5 minutes’ free ferry ride from either Manhattan or Brooklyn, it was a former US Army post, and it has a fascinating history that can be explored through the beautiful homes and buildings that have been left behind, now all uninhabited. From a Greek Revival brick mansion that used to be the home of the commanding officer to the impressive, colossal barracks that are the largest in the US and were built in the 1920s, the island has some amazing architecture that has been incredibly well preserved. There are churches, old hospitals, a gorgeous tree shaded lawn surrounded by Victorian clapboard houses that were for the higher up officers and their families, as well as Castle Williams, the 1811 fort built to protect Manhattan island from invaders. Most of these buildings are now given over to art installations, and you can explore the empty rooms and peer through dusty windows, imagining what life must have been like here in the heyday of the island’s usage, filled with soldiers, their wives and families. Aside from the historical architecture, there are also miles of promenades around the island from which there are fantastic views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and there is also a man made mini beach complete with palm trees for those wanting to soak up some sun!

Next up is Roosevelt Island. A tiny slither of an island between Manhattan and Queens, it is accessible by subway, but the best way to get there is via the cable car that runs alongside the Queensboro bridge at 59th street and 2nd avenue. The trip takes around ten minutes and provides fantastic views across the rooftops of Manhattan, down either side of the East River, taking in Brooklyn Bridge and Queens, and also of the construction of the beautiful ironwork that makes up the Queensboro bridge. When you get off the cable car, you find yourself on a peaceful little residential enclave, where the grass verges are clean and neat, the apartment buildings are shiny and new, and there is hardly a person in sight. Roosevelt Island used to be home to a mental asylum, whose buildings have now been converted into luxury apartments, but nowadays it is solely given over to apartment buildings. The majority of these are post 1960s, but there is also some beautiful historic architecture to be found, such as the old asylum buildings, an old farmhouse, a lighthouse, and a large Victorian church. The views across to Manhattan or to Queens are unrivalled, and it is a wonderful breath of fresh air just a stone’s throw from all the action. I’d be very tempted to move there myself if I was going to be living in Manhattan permanently – getting a cable car to work would certainly be quite the adventure!

Lastly, there’s City Island. City Island is an old fishing village in the Bronx that is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. It’s a little slice of New England in New York City, and is filled with fantastic Victorian homes, fish restaurants and quaint little shops. All roads lead to the beach – it’s barely half a mile wide – and the smell of fresh, salty sea air is wonderful. Eastchester Bay lies between City Island and Manhattan, and through the masts of the many boats bobbing out on the water, you can see the hazy tips of the skyscrapers in the distance. I was lucky enough to be invited into the home of a City Island family, and from them I learned about the history of the island and how tight knit its residents are. Most homes were built by fishermen in the 1800s and have been handed down through the generations. Born and bred City Islanders rarely leave and are known as ‘clamdiggers’. Non City Island natives are called ‘musselsuckers’! Each street has its own little section of beach, and these are private; access is by key only. This helps to foster a real community spirit, and neighbours regularly socialise with one another. It’s such a lovely place, with a true seaside village feel, and yet it’s just minutes from a subway station and overlooks Manhattan. The Hamptons eat your heart out; City Island is where it’s at! For a great overview of life on the island, watch the film City Island; it’s excellent!

I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour!


  1. I did enjoy this whistlestop tour. How wonderful! This is just the sort of off-the-beaten-path venture that I love to take, Rachel. Thank you for sharing this and enlightening me to even more places to explore.

  2. Thank you for your lovely tour of the islands. I did not know such places existed a real fascinating place.

    Will you miss it when you come home?

    1. You are welcome Jo!

      I will, very much, especially certain favourite places. However, I’m looking forward to having London at my fingertips again and there is so much I want to do back in London that I am not anticipating being too bereft. If I wasn’t going to be living in London I think I’d definitely be worried about missing it more than I currently am.

  3. Governors Island is so lovely, but I haven’t had a chance to visit the others! I’m amazed you feel so close to the water here — I’m always shocked to see water because New York feels so far from the sea.

    Hm, but this may be attributable to the fact that we used to take family vacations where we would drive for three days to get to the sea. The sea always feels far away to me. (Alas!)

    1. It’s gorgeous isn’t it? I went back again after we went and found the beach! My roommate wasn’t lying!

      I feel closer than I do in London, that’s for sure! But I can see why people wouldn’t. THREE DAYS?! Goodness me. You poor thing! It takes me an hour and a half to get to the sea at home and I think that’s a long trip! But then I’m English, and anything that takes longer than half an hour is an epic journey!

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