New York: City of Islands

As the song says, Manhattan is an “isle of joy.” But it’s not alone. New York City is an archipelago. The Big Apple’s five boroughs contain more than their fair share of land masses—as many as 40—surrounded by water. Some are small, others are substantial. Here’s a concise tour of the most accessible. Our advice? Be adventurous and visit them all.


It’s easy to romanticize these two islands in New York Harbor, and impossible to speak of one without reference to the other. For many immigrants to this nation, the Statue of Liberty and the immigration station on Ellis Island were their introduction to the promised land. As witnesses to the past, Liberty and Ellis are beyond symbolic; as destinations, their proximity unites them. The same ferry from Lower Manhattan goes to both. Fascinating museums on each island preserve and explain the history, and there are photo ops galore. But emotions run deeper than any pretty postcard view.   


Contrary to its name, Coney Island in Brooklyn is not an island. But, as an oceanfront residential and amusement area, it has all the attributes of one, and is famed for its sandy beach, boardwalk, Cyclone roller-coaster, the New York Aquarium and Nathan’s Famous hot dogs. The minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team plays here, and the Ford Amphitheater stages concerts, such as Boyz II Men on Aug. 22, 2019. From Manhattan, the nearest thing New York City has to a family resort is the last stop on the F, D, N and Q subway trains.


The outer borough is as easy to get to as a 25-minute ferry ride from the Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan. Moreover, the ride across New York Harbor is free. Once they disembark at the St. George Terminal on Staten Island, bargain shoppers make a beeline for Empire Outlets, while culture vultures head to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden for art exhibitions and the serenity found in the Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Also on the island, Historic Richmond Town is a living museum from NYC’s 17th-century past.


Getting to Roosevelt Island in the East River is a trip—when you take NYC’s only aerial tramway from E. 59th St. and Second Ave. in Manhattan. Shutterbugs can’t get enough of the unexpected city views. The Four Freedoms Park, a state park on the southern tip of the island and within sight of the United Nations, contains a grassy expanse, two alleys of trees and a waterfront promenade: all leading to sculptor Jo Davidson’s monumental bronze portrait head of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the island’s namesake, set within a granite alcove.


When New Yorkers feel the urge to escape to Cape Cod, they head instead to City Island in the Bronx, less than an hour’s drive from Midtown Manhattan. Here, you can catch a breeze strolling the low-key enclave’s 1.5-mile length; sit on a dock and dip your toes in Long Island Sound; or rent a boat from Jack’s Bait & Tackle. Restaurant names, like City Island Lobster House, The Original Crab Shanty and Sammy’s Shrimp Box, leave little to the imagination: Fresh seafood, often with an Italian accent, rules. Arties serves its clambake heaping and hot.



Situated in New York Harbor between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the former military base opened to the public in 2005, and since then has been a work in progress. Site-specific, long-term artworks flourish, like Rachel Whiteread’s installation, “Cabin,” which sits atop Discovery Hill in stark contrast to Lower Manhattan in the distance. Children revel in Slide Hill and its four slides, including NYC’s longest. Governors Island also welcomes special events, like the Jazz Age Lawn Party, held Aug. 24 and 25, 2019. Pack a picnic and dress likes it’s the Roaring ’20s.



Most of this island in the East River between Northern Manhattan and Queens is one big recreational park, with miles of walking, biking and running paths; a tennis center; and baseball, softball, soccer, rugby, lacrosse and football fields. The vast green expanse of Randall’s Island Park is also a cultural destination, where Cirque du Soleil has pitched its Big Top and the mammoth Frieze contemporary art fair takes place every spring. Next up: The park experiences a youthquake when it hosts the Electric Zoo music festival, Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, 2019.

Francis Lewis
About the author

Francis serves as the New York executive editor for Where. G...