For too long, Roosevelt Island has lived in the shadow of the New York City island, Manhattan, but that’s all about to change thanks to a new ferry stop and Cornell Tech’s recently opened campus. This two-mile-long (3.2 kilometers) stretch was once the home of prisons and insane asylums but now boasts an aerial adventure, a contemporary art gallery, and much more. Discover the best things to see and do on Roosevelt Island, New York City.
Conceived in the ’70s and opened in 2012, Four Freedoms Park was well worth the wait. This FDR-dedicated memorial located on the island’s southern tip features a striking granite deck, events ranging from kite flying to readings to yoga, and stunning views of Midtown Manhattan.
Full disclosure: Roosevelt Island comes with a somewhat spooky backstory, a key point of which can still be observed—from a distance. Opened in 1856, the island’s Smallpox Hospital, where patients infected with the contagious disease were once quarantined, now stands in ruins. However, the off-limits attraction is still viewable from behind a fence, with only the colony of feral cats that has taken over the building allowed to pass.
The Roosevelt Island Tram is consistently credited as one of New York’s most underrated attractions, and for good reason. For just a swipe of your MetroCard, this decades-old institution whisks you through the air on a journey from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, providing bird’s-eye views of the East River and city skyline and a commute that’s both efficient and enjoyable—really.
To see some of the best contemporary art around, you’ll have to take to the sea. Or, rather, the East River, where RIVAA, or the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association, exhibits works by some 35 artist members alongside international guest artists. Whether you’re interested in photography, painting, or live music, you’ll find your fix at RIVAA.
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We know, we know: we’re meant to be discussing Roosevelt Island, but we couldn’t help but notice the panorama! From Roosevelt Island’s west side, you’re afforded a front-row view of Manhattan’s Midtown and Upper East Side, not to mention one of the most famous skylines in the world. So, snap away—the island will understand.
If you find yourself in Lighthouse Par at the northeast tip of the island (about a 20-minute walk from the tram), look out for Blackwell Island Lighthouse. The 1872-built Gothic Revival structure, which has the honor of being on the National Register of Historic Places and a New York City Landmark, used to light a neighboring insane asylum and now provides a picturesque backdrop for locals relaxing on the lawn.
As you can likely tell by now, Roosevelt Island is a perfect balance of old and new. No place exemplifies this point better than The Octagon, a mid-19th-century structure which was converted into high-end housing in 2006. Even richer than the building’s current tenants is its history. For example, Charles Dickens wrote about its stately main staircase, and multiple fires affected its façade. Also, a hospital once operated on-site.
History buffs won’t want to miss the bragging rights that come with a visit to Blackwell House. The 1796-built clapboard farmhouse, the sixth-oldest house in New York City, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Today, once the original site undergoes renovations, it will be used as a community center, allowing visitors to make history their home.