It’s easy to forget when you’re surrounded by traffic, but New York is a city of islands. Some of those are among the most recognizable islands in the world, so it’s unsurprising that New York’s smaller gems can get overshadowed. But if you feel jaded by the city, here are five New York City islands that are worth your attention, and maybe a little of your time.
For many years off-limits to the public, Governors Island was a military base used by the Army and Coast Guard (and still boasts historic buildings and an old fort). The island returned to city control in 2003, and now houses an arts center and the New York Harbor School, where aquaculture and seamanship are actual subjects.
Currently closed for the season, in May Governor’s Island will again become a carless paradise accessible only by ferry, where you can laze on the grass, hire a bike, or play artistic mini golf. Ferries leave from the Battery Maritime Building in lower Manhattan, or on weekends from Pier 6 at the end of Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Roosevelt Island is that long, narrow island you can see on the East River between Manhattan and Queens, spanned by the Queensboro Bridge. Renamed in 1973, it was formerly known as Welfare Island and housed prisons, psychiatric facilities, and hospitals. Now only a couple of hospitals remain, and the island is valued by residents for its beautiful views and relaxed feel.
Roosevelt Island is a fairly quiet place, although it does feature a lighthouse and a ruined smallpox hospital. It’s accessible by the Roosevelt Island bridge from Queens, the F train, and by tram from Manhattan—and if you haven’t done the ride, you should, because the views are spectacular.
In the East River between three boroughs, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens, Randalls Island was originally two islands, before the channel between them was filled in during the 1960s. Randalls Island today has excellent recreational facilities, including playing fields and a small stadium, but for many years it has been used for all kinds of purposes—a wastewater treatment plant, a State Police station, a fire academy, and several homeless shelters. The city’s psychiatric facilities also moved here from Roosevelt Island. Officially it’s part of Manhattan, and you can get there by the Triborough Bridge from Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens. Confusingly, Randalls Island is also home to the summer Governor’s Ball music festival.
Not a place you’d want to visit, necessarily, but fascinating nonetheless. The infamous and notoriously violent jail island that often features on Law and Order, Rikers Island actually boasts a staggering ten jails that can hold up to 15,000 prisoners. It’s a jail, not a prison, which means it holds defendants who were refused or couldn’t make bail, as well as prisoners serving short sentences. Just off LaGuardia Airport—there’s a runway less than 300 feet away—and connected to Queens by the Rikers Island Bridge, Rikers Island has a Queens zip code but is technically part of the Bronx.
It’s not all violence at Rikers, though. The most popular class in the jail’s education program? Fashion theory.
Broad Channel Island
Broad Channel is the only island in Jamaica Bay, Queens, on which people live. It’s home to a small, picturesque neighborhood with a population of about 3,000, with its own tiny elementary school, P.S. 47. Like all the islands in Jamaica Bay, it’s part of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where you can surround yourself with nature, birdwatch, go looking for turtles and horseshoe crabs, and generally forget you’re in NYC at all.
It’s accessible by the Cross Bay Parkway, which runs across the island to the Rockaways, and the A train.
If any of these interest you, it may be time to plan an adventure! Be sure to book a Luxor Limo for your next NYC island-hopping adventure.