Five Borough Bucket List

#FiveBoroughBucketList #62: Go to Governors Island

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Summertime in New York City means going outside. It’s not warm here for most of the year, so when the temperature finally goes up and the sun finally comes out, you have to make the most of the beautiful weather. One of the most popular spots in New York during the summer is Governors Island. This 172-acre island is open from May till October 31st, and it is only accessible by ferry.
Confession time: for the longest time, I thought that “Governors Island” had its name because it’s where the governor of New York lives. Yes, I figured Andrew Cuomo travels here each day, and he’s really cool to let people come to his island to visit.
Sigh.
Way back in 1524, the island was found by a dude named Giovanni da Verrazzano (you know the bridge? It’s named after him), but it was originally called Paggank (Island of Nuts) by the Native Americans. The island became the landing place of the first settlers in New Netherland, and it is considered to be the birthplace of New York.
Governors Island got its current name back before the Revolutionary War. The British named the island “Governors Island” and reserved it “for the benefit and accommodation of His Majesty’s Governors.” AKA, this island was to be used for the King’s governors. A long history continued, with the island being a key part of battles during the Revolutionary War. Later, it was used for military housing for members of the Coast Guard and Army. You can check out more of the history of Governors Island here.
Today, Governors Island is an official New York State Park. Getting there is super easy – head down to South Ferry (accessible off a few different subways) and take a 5 minute ferry ride over. The ferry runs at different times during the season, and if you go before a certain time it’s a free ride.
Once you get onto Governors Island, I suggest grabbing a map (suggested donation is $1) and wandering around. There are bike rentals available, or you can just walk it.
The first thing I spotted was Castle Williams. This big circular fort was built between 1807 and 1811, and it was one part of the harbor’s defensive system that includes Fort Jay, South Battery, Castle Clinton, Fort Gibson, and Fort Wood.
Castle Williams wasn’t really needed as a fort after the 1830s, so the building was used as barracks for new troops. After, the US Army remodeled it to use it as a prison during the Civil War and the first half of the 20th century.
During your visit to Governors Island, you’re free to walk through the Castle and the courtyard. The building design is really cool, and there are different markers set up so you can read more about the history of the Castle.
Like I mentioned, Governors Island was once used as a residential spot before it was abandoned. The majority of the buildings still remain, including Post Hospital. I thought back to the Ellis Island tour I went on, but unfortunately, Governors Island doesn’t offer tours of the abandoned hospital.
As I was walking around the island, I stumbled on the New York Harbor School. That’s right – a school is located on Governors Island! New York Harbor School is a public high school, and its curriculum attempts to relate to water in every way possible.
Imagine taking a ferry to get to school!
Now that Governors Island has become a big tourist destination, there are more things to do during your visit.
I spotted a zip line course and a big maze. There are also a bunch of playgrounds for kids.
Governors Island is also home to NYC’s longest slide. The sign had an age restriction, so unfortunately I didn’t get to take a ride down.
Looking for food on Governors Island? Liggett Terrace features a full food court with a bunch of different food trucks and places to sit. There are also vending machines all over the place, and there are even fountains to refill your water bottle!
I grabbed a gyro and walked back to the other end of the island to have lunch with a view. The food prices are pretty reasonable, especially when you consider that you’re in a NY park.
Walking around Governors Island, you’ll see many rows of houses. Some of them are open for tours, so I hopped inside to see one.
I was expecting some old, classic building. This looked pretty much like every other home I’ve ever been in. Still interesting to see, but nothing too crazy.
Outside of the traditional homes, there are two historic houses on Governors Island that are definitely worth looking at. One is Governor’s House, a home built back in 1813. No, a governor didn’t live there (what is it with this name?), but the house was used as a residence by the commanding officer of the official Island guardhouse.
The other historic home is the Admiral’s House. Built in 1843, this house was the Commanding Officer’s Quarters during the late 1870s. It later became a U.S. Coast Guard base and headquarters for the Third Coast Guard District and Atlantic Area Command.
One of the most unique parts of Governors Island is Hammock Grove. Right in the heart of the island is a set of hammocks, perfect for an afternoon nap.
I pulled out my book and took a seat. This is the life…
Based on its position, Governors Island offers some of the best views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. The Hills is a new section of the island, where you get a pretty sweet view of the area.
One of the art pieces on display right now is “Cabin” by Rachel Whiteread. Yes, I thought this was a real cabin when I looked at it on the map. No, it isn’t. But, just imagine living in this teeny little shack with that view behind you.
On my way back to the ferry, I passed by the Urban Farm and Teaching Garden. I wasn’t that interested in it, but I figured I’d stop in to take some pictures for my mom, who loves to garden.
The Teaching Garden is a 21,000 square foot urban farm that teaches kids how to plant, water, harvest, and cook vegetables, herbs, and fruits.
GrowNYC created the teaching garden, with field trips offered throughout the school year and for summer camps.
There are a number of different classes held at the Garden. During my visit, they were hosting lessons on composting.
The Urban Garden is incredible! I was glad I stopped in – all I could think was how beautiful it was.
In addition to the plants, the Teaching Garden has several farm animals. There are chickens…
And goats!
This little guy is Peas.
You can learn more about the Teaching Garden here.
After spending a few hours on Governors Island, I hopped on the ferry to head home. I was really surprised with how cool the island was – I had no idea what to expect, and I ended up having a great time exploring everything. If you’re looking for a way to spend the day, I highly recommend adding Governors Island to your NYC bucket list!

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