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Best Things to do on a Visit to NYC’s Roosevelt Island, a Vacation Right in the City

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As we are coming off quarantine in New York City, I will be writing a series of posts focusing on exploring my home city (and finding local souvenirs of course!)

To feel like you are on vacation right in the heart of Manhattan, you only need to hop a quick tram ride to Roosevelt Island. I was shocked to learn this finger shaped island in the East River is actually a part of Manhattan proper.

I’ve read other “things to do on Roosevelt Island” listicles and to be honest, their bloated recommendations (listing up to 11 so called attractions!) are often a stretch. So we are going to stick to the top five here.

Roosevelt Island isn’t really a full day trip unless you fall asleep on one of the lush lawns (totally possible). But that’s part of the allure– there is just enough to do here to entice you off the Manhattan mainland for a couple of hours, without having to plan your entire day around a visit.

And the riding the tram alone always makes the trip worthwhile for me.

Take the Tram to Roosevelt Island from East 59th Street

Riding the Roosevelt Island tram is as close to an adventure as you’ll get in Manhattan.
Views from the Roosevelt Island tram ride.

Since New York City began shutting down, I’ve been seeking alternative means of transport around the city. I don’t feel safe yet in enclosed spaces for lengthy rides on the potentially crowded subway or city buses.

The Roosevelt Island Tram, though, is not only safe during these times but also a pure joy to ride.

You enter the tram on 59th and First and can use your subway card. Trams are way less crowded than other transport these days and the ride is a very quick 3 minutes.

The Roosevelt Island tram is positively thrilling– it feels as close to an adventure as you an get in Manhattan. Watch traffic below as you ride 3100 feet or in the air or gaze out either side at the spectacular views of the East River.

Once you land on Roosevelt Island, you need to decide which direction to head in. At only a few miles across, the island is easily navigable on foot, but also fun to bike (or scooter as we did).

Visit a Lighthouse Right in Manhattan

I recommend heading directly to my favorite Roosevelt Island attraction, the lighthouse.

You have to see the lighthouse if only for the sheer novelty of it– it’s kind of astounding to think this structure, dating back to 1872, once helped sailors navigate the waters of the East river.

The lighthouse is my pick for the best place to have a picnic on Roosevelt Island. There is a perfectly positioned picnic table with views of the lighthouse and Manhattan.

And you’ll want to pack a picnic anyway because there aren’t any notable eateries on the island (sadly, there is not even an ice cream parlor).

Visit the Ruins of an a SmallPox Hospital

Now admittedly, on my most recent visit to Roosvelt Island, the sight of the small pox hospital hit a little too close to home.

With the smallpox epidemic sweeping the country (and world) in the 19th century, New York city patients were treated and quarantined away in a Gothic styled hospital on Roosevelt Island (then known as Blackwell’s Island).

All that is left of the smallpox hospital now is a well-preserved ruin, designated an official “landmarked ruin” and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The ruin is gated off so you can only view it from a distance. The stillness of the area is haunting, even more so given our most recent experience with quarantines.

The only movement you’ll see here is the grass rustling in the wind (there always seems to be a wind here) and the geese scouring the edges of the lawn.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park

Right after passing the small pox hospital ruins, you’ll come across the gated entrance to the FDR Four Freedoms Park. Plan to lock up your bike or scooter here, because they are not allowed on the park grounds (even if you walk them).

Enjoy the vanishing point tree line and walk to the tip of the island to view the granite rock barrier framing the edge. The staircase leading up to the park is often decorated for special causes (and makes a great Instagram photo op).

Walk or Ride the Perimeter for Views and Art

While you can easily walk the perimeter of Roosevelt Island, it’s more fun to ride on a bike or scooter. While taking in views of Manhattan, you can also check out the art installations along and even in the water.

We laid down a blanket and enjoyed some beverages.

Visit the Roosevelt Island Gift Shop for a Unique NYC Souvenir

The Roosevelt Island gift shop is conveniently (and picturesequly) located right off the tram, in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge. Check hours for opening times.

The gift shop on Roosevelt Island.
Souvenirs from the Roosevelt Island gift shop.
Only on Roosevelt Island can you buy this unique tram souvenir.

Have you been to Roosevelt Island? What’s your favorite thing to do?

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