Roosevelt Island Guide: Planning Your Visit

USA, New York City, Aerial photograph of Roosevelt Island in the East River

 

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Roosevelt Island, only two miles long and 800 feet wide at its widest point, is a curious little sliver of Manhattan that sits isolated in the East River. It's where the city once kept prisoners and quarantined highly contagious smallpox patients; now it's packed with apartment buildings, like the rest of New York City, although people visit the narrow holm often to take in its fascinating history—and the noteworthy views of Manhattan and Queens across the water, of course.

Roosevelt Island is one of the few places in New York City that's actually quite fun to get to. A tram will deliver you to and from the island, offering up unobstructed looks of the city along the route. A unique day trip awaits in this secluded haven, so plan your trip with the best of Roosevelt Island's restaurants, events, and attractions in mind.

A Bit of History

In 1973, the island off Manhattan's shore was named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a New York state native) as an honor, even though its longstanding "Welfare Island" reputation wasn't always worthy of such an important figure's association.

Throughout the 19th century, this is where New York City's undesirables were housed. There was a penitentiary and a hospital to serve the needs of its inmates, a lunatic asylum, a workhouse to hold those convicted of lesser crimes, and a smallpox hospital. A lighthouse, named the Blackwell Island Light, was built by convicts and still stands today.

The future of the island started looking promising during the second half of the 20th century, when the United Nations headquarters opened nearby and many dignitaries took up residence there to be close to work. Prestigious architect firms began erecting apartment buildings for more than 20,000 residents. A park, named the Frank D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, was designated for recreation. Later, the tram came, followed by a subway station. Now, the island is home to a Cornell tech campus, a slew of art museums and studios, and green space aplenty boasting a coveted community feel just a short jaunt from the bustling city.

Manhattan view from Roosevelt Island.
Toshi Sasaki / Getty Images

Things to Do

Roosevelt Island is brimming with culture, present in every art gallery, museum, park, and restaurant you come by. In the summer, the locals put on a rollicking Roosevelt Island Day celebration complete with carnivals rides, live music, food, and city-wide beautification projects. The warm-weather season is flanked by a cherry blossom festival in the spring, a Halloween parade in the fall. It's also where Manhattanites escape for a peaceful Christmas tree lighting ceremony and to watch fireworks on July Fourth.

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: On the southern tip of Roosevelt Island is a memorial to the late president, its name inspired by his famous 1941 speech. The park was also the last work of Louis I. Kahn, a famous 20th-century architect. The park comprises four acres of free-to-roam green space, featuring granite pillars with parts of the speech inscribed on them throughout. Many visit for the excellent view of the United Nations building across the river. Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park hosts a plethora of events—lectures, film screenings, festivals, concerts, and more—in the summer.
  • Blackwell Island Lighthouse: On the other end of the island, at the most northern stretch, is a 50-foot-high lighthouse built by prisoners in 1872. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places and is surrounded by a picnic-popular, panoramic view-providing park.
  • Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association: Also known as Rivaa, this gallery shows the work of local and international guest artists. Painters, sculptors, computer artists, graphic designers, ceramists, and installation artists all exhibit their masterpieces here. It's open daily Wednesday through Sunday.

What to Eat and Drink

While it isn't what one would call a culinary destination in itself, there is a growing restaurant scene on Roosevelt Island. Most of the eateries are congregated on Main Street, and provide an eclectic mix of dining options. Popular spots include Fuji East Japanese Bistro, a sleek-but-inexpensive sushi house with more than 70 different rolls on offer, and Nisi, the distinctly all-glass Greek haunt where all the locals like to hang out.

For more of a market experience, Bread & Butter has everything you could want: sandwiches, salads, burgers, pizza, or soup. You can eat there or take it to the park. Another place to pick up snacks is Wholesome Factory, a grocery and deli (steps away from the tram) known for its superior omelets.

The Roosevelt Island Cable Car
Chris Tobin / Getty Images

Getting There

The tiny island is located in the middle of the East River, parallel to Manhattan's East 46th to 85th Streets. From Queens, you can get there via the Roosevelt Island Bridge—this is the only way to walk or drive onto the island. Its entrance is at Vernon Boulevard and Main Street in Astoria.

From Manhattan, take the Roosevelt Island Tramway from East 59th Street and Second Avenue. It costs $2.75 each way (the price of a metro ride) and can be paid with a regular MetroCard. Students with tram permits ride free and senior citizens and people with disabilities receive a reduced fare (usually $1.35). The views are spectacular, but note that the tram only runs Sunday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Friday and Saturday from 6 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., including on holidays. Try to avoid riding during rush hour (7 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 8 p.m.) as many Roosevelt Island residents commute into the city for work.

Those who aren't keen to ride the tram can instead take the F-Train from Manhattan or Queens, or travel by NYC Ferry, whose Astoria line connects Astoria, Long Island City, East 34th Street, and Wall Street to East Main Street on Roosevelt Island, just east of the tram station. Tickets, again, are the same price as the subway.

Another easy mode of transport from Queens is the Q102 bus line, which operates between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m., stopping every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends.

Money Saving Tips

  • With Roosevelt Island being accessible by tram, metro, ferry, and bus — all the price of a standard subway ride — and the town itself offering free access to a constantly circulating red bus, you shouldn't have to spend a fortune on getting to or around the island.
  • There's rarely a shortage of free art to entertain in this New York City oasis, between the annual Figment NYC event in June, the Fall for Arts Festival in September, and the host of free galleries that crop up throughout the year.
  • Whereas you'd pay a pretty penny to get a good view of New York City in other parts of town, Roosevelt Island offers unlimited, free views from its ample green spaces: the island's west side, Four Freedoms Park, and the space that surrounds the lighthouse, not to mention from the tram.
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