Roosevelt Island: Best things to do on this hidden NY gem

Nestled between the Long Island City, Queens, waterfront and the east side of Manhattan, Roosevelt Island is very much a hidden gem of New York City.

At just two miles long and one street wide, the destination is often overlooked even by locals. If you ask most New Yorkers to find it on a map, chances are they won’t be able to spot it. But the Roosevelt Island Tramway and the island’s stunning views of the Manhattan skyline are well-known on Instagram.

The mostly residential neighborhood also boasts gorgeous parks that offer an idyllic afternoon break from the bustling streets of Manhattan. Here are the best things to do when you travel here:

Getting there

While the F subway train has a stop on Roosevelt Island, we highly recommended that you travel via the Roosevelt Island Tramway or NYC Ferry.

The Roosevelt Island Tramway departs from the Upper East Side of Manhattan (East 59th Street and 2nd Avenue) every 15 minutes daily from 6 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. and you can ride using a Metrocard swipe. Make sure to grab a spot by the windows on the north side of the cable car for a stunning view down the East River, and have your camera ready. (The trip only lasts about five minutes.)

The NYC Ferry stops on Roosevelt Island on its way to and from Queens and Manhattan. But stay on until the Wall Street stop to guarantee you get the most out of this luxurious experience of boating down the East River, without paying a high price.

While the NYC Ferry does not accept Metrocards, a one-way ticket is only $2.75. If you download the NYC Ferry app, you can buy a digital ticket through your phone and view real-time ferry arrival and departure times.

If you want to bike around Roosevelt Island — which is a great way to see it — you’ll have to bring your own. Both the tram and the ferry allow riders to bring bikes on board.

The Roosevelt Island Bridge, which connects Roosevelt Island to Astoria, Queens, is another option for walking, biking or driving to the island. Stick to street parking for lower prices, but know that it can be hard to find space during the weekends.

The scenic routes

Four Freedoms Park, a park and memorial built in honor of President Franklin Roosevelt, is located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.

Its beautiful architecture was designed by the late Louis I. Kahn, one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century. He was well known for his work on the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The park offers gorgeous views of the East Side of Manhattan as well as Queens, making it the perfect Instagram spot. While admission is free, the park is closed to visitors on Tuesdays.

Right outside the Four Freedoms Park you can see the “Renwick Ruins,” the remains of the Smallpox Hospital built in 1856 as a place to contain smallpox patients. Before becoming a residential neighborhood, New York City built eight hospitals and “asylums” on Roosevelt Island, including this one.

It wasn’t until the 1900s that these institutions were abandoned, and Roosevelt Island was leased to the state of New York to become one of the city’s first affordable housing projects.

If you’re into history, this walking guide includes some great spots that link back to Roosevelt Island’s past. One site to check out is the Octagon Tower. Now a luxury residential complex, the original tower was built in 1839 as part of the New York Lunatic Asylum, one of the first treatment institutions in America for the mentally ill.

If you head south from the Four Freedoms Park, you’ll come across the newly built Cornell Tech campus. It spans 12 acres and features a lot of public green space.

While you’re there, pop into The Cafe at Cornell Tech, located on 2 West Loop Road. It’s a great rest stop for a cup of tea or coffee, or if you want to cool off on a warm day. (Plus, they have free wifi.)

At the northernmost tip of the island is the Blackwell Island Light.

Built in 1872 by inmates living in the penitentiary that was on the island, today it’s a relaxing, intimate spot.

Take a seat on the seawall and you can hang your feet over the water. There are picnic tables and lots of grassy areas, making it a great place for a game of Frisbee or a nap.

Stopping for lunch

If eating outside isn’t your thing, the locally-owned Nisi is a great place to hang out. Located in the middle of Roosevelt Island on Main Street, eating there is a great way to get a feel for the community and chat with some locals.

Some other dining options include classic burgers and beer at Riverwalk Bar & Grill or tasty yet inexpensive Japanese food at Fuji East.

Before you depart on your Roosevelt Island day trip, check to see if there are any seasonal events taking place. The community loves hosting events from outdoor movie screenings to chamber music performances at the Good Shepherd Community Center.

Roosevelt Island Tramway, E 59th St & 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022 / 300 Main Street New York, NY 10044, +1 (212) 832-0383

NYC Ferry, E. Main St. off of Tram Plaza, New York, NY 10044

Four Freedoms Park, 1 FDR Four Freedoms Park, New York, NY 10044, +1 (212) 204-8831

Octagon Tower, 888 Main Street, New York, NY 10044, +1 (888) 581-8370

Cornell Tech Campus and The Cafe at Cornell Tech, 2 West Loop, New York, NY 10044

Wholesome Factory, 530 Main Street, New York, NY 10044, +1 (212) 207-1912

Nisi, 549 Main Street, New York, NY 10044, +1 (212) 752-1517

Riverwalk Bar & Grill, 425 Main Street, New York, NY 10044, +1 (917) 522-6715

Fuji East, 455 Main Street, New York, NY 10044, +1 (212) 583-1688