Just a few meters from Manhattan, on the other side of the East River, lies a small gem in the middle of a concrete jungle. Enjoy solitude and peace from the noise, people, cars and chaos of New York City’s hectic urban sprawl. Roosevelt Island has tons of green space, a super hip hotel, and a wonderful sightseeing tram ride with breathtaking views of Manhattan and the East River. The small, 2-mile long, sliver-shaped island has about 18,000 residents, 3.5 miles of flat biking and hiking trails, restaurants, and many parks.
History of Roosevelt Island
Due to its checkered history over the years, it has not always been known as a popular spot. Currently, the island has been called Roosevelt Island since 1973 in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt several name and was once known as “Welfare Island”. Originally used by Native Americans to raise pigs, it was later occupied by the disgraced British Captain John Manning after he ceded New York to the Dutch in 1664. The island was inherited and later inherited so that in 1686 it became known as Blackwell’s Island due to a marriage. The island was then home to an insane asylum, a prison, and a smallpox hospital. In the 1920s, the city reformed the island and began establishing hospitals. Today the island is a quiet residential area with businesses supporting the locals. A newly opened Cornell University Tech campus and good public transportation add to the island’s charm. At the northern tip is a large five-star rehabilitation center designed to help patients recover.
1. Ride the Roosevelt Tram
Getting to the island is quick, easy and affordable. Hop on the Roosevelt Island Tram and soar 250 feet across the East River for a quick 4-minute ride—only $2.75 each way. Board at 59th and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan or invite on the island. You can’t miss the big red streetcar with a capacity for 120 people as it runs next to the Queensboro Bridge!
Pro Tip: The local people refer to the bridge as the 59th Street Bridge, which is not the official name of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.
2. Bike tour around the island
Consider renting a Citibike to explore the flat island with ease. I rented a bike and rode the entire 3.5 mile bike trail in under an hour! There are two well-placed bike charging stations that allow boarding and alighting centrally next to public transport. I pondered where I wanted to return to and enjoyed a grab-and-go lunch on one of the many benches overlooking Manhattan. It’s a piece of cake because you can’t get lost on this small island. It’s less than a football field wide!
Pro Tip: If you decide to walk and get tired, there is a free red bus every 15 minutes that circles the island with many hop-on, hop-off stops.
3. Public bus, subway and public ferry
If the tram isn’t your first choice for getting to the island, there are many ways to use public transport, which is easy and affordable. You can easily board the Q102 public bus, which travels to the island and makes a complete circuit from Queens every 20 minutes. Or for a faster, more direct route from Queens or Manhattan, take the F train and get off in the middle of the island. Most transportation points provide access to the free Red Bus, Citibike, public bus, or tram stops. You can also take an Uber or taxi and drive across the bridge from Astoria – a small quaint neighborhood in Queens. There is also access to the NYC Ferry for a very affordable East River cruise to and from the island. Whichever form of public transport you choose, accessing the island couldn’t be easier.
4. Where to eat
Although the island is small, it offers a wide variety of dining options. The trendiest place to eat is Graduate New York. Dine at the hip 18th-floor rooftop bar, The Panorama Room, with breathtaking views, or at the American Lobby Restaurant. If that’s not your speed, there are several local restaurants in the center of the island. In a place like this, my first choice is undoubtedly to grab food from one of the grocery stores and have an amazing impromptu picnic on a bench with the majestic skyline as a backdrop.
Pro Tip: Grill up something tasty at the free public grills near Octagon Park, Home of the former insane asylum.
5. Visit the parks of Roosevelt Island
This tiny island has at least 12 parks with walking paths, green spaces, park benches, and areas for stretching and running. The two most popular parks are Lighthouse Park at the north end and FDR Four Freedom State Park at the south end. Take the free red bus to either park from anywhere on the island.
Be sure to visit us The Girl Puzzle Exhibition at Lighthouse Park. It’s a fascinating story about an investigative reporter, Nellie Bly, in the late 19th century. Bly sheds light on the horrific conditions at the mental asylum by posing as a patient and then writing a scathing synopsis.
Pro Tip: Stop by and tour the island’s Last Chance Canadian Geese Sanctuary along the FDR walkway and see the cute goslings.
6. Play tennis or pickleball
Make a stop at the Roosevelt Island Racquet Club and hit some balls. If you forgot your tennis racket, the club lets out “loan players”. Showers and towels are available for a small fee. Behind the club, the town offers two free pickleball courts. Bring your own paddles! Call first to reserve the tennis courts. Be a friendly visitor and donate a can of tennis balls when you “borrow” a rental tennis racket.
Pro Tip: Look out for large yellow vent pipes on sidewalks. Roosevelt Island is the only US city to use an automated vacuum trash system, moving 5.8 tons of trash daily. Residents throw their rubbish into bins and it is vacuumed below street level into a central facility. No noisy garbage trucks here!
7. The Blackwell House
Immerse yourself in history as you walk around the island and visit the historic home of the Blackwells, the island’s former owners in the late 18th century. Admission is free. Learn how the island changed its name from Manning to Blackwell.
8. Smallpox Hospital
Visit the grounds of the country’s first smallpox hospital. When smallpox spread to New York City in the 18th century, patients were directed to isolate themselves at that location on the island to receive treatment. After the smallpox vaccine was developed, the hospital was closed. The ruins are currently being repaired and will hopefully be open to visitors in the future. At night, the ‘upward lighting’ creates a spooky scene, illuminating the ivy-covered stone building.