A Family-Friendly Guide to Roosevelt Island, NYC

Roosevelt Island Tramway

Hey guys! About a month ago I confessed that our family had never visited Governor’s Island. After some research, we quickly learned that we needed to add it to our travel list. I shared everything I learned about Governor’s Island and wholeheartedly endorsed it for other families and promised to share more info after we make our visit this summer.

I’m ending March with another must visit New York gem of an island — Roosevelt Island! As I like to do, I’ll start you off with a little bit of history.

A brief history of Roosevelt Island

In the early 19th century, New York City had become a major commercial hub in the United States. Unfortunately, crime, poverty, and public mental health issues were also becoming more prevalent.

In an effort to combat these challenges NYC decided to buy all the islands around Manhattan. The idea behind this plan was to build Cities of Asylums on them in order to relocate and rehabilitate NYC’s undesirables.

The City of New York purchased Roosevelt Island from the Blackwell family in 1828 for $32,000. Within a few years, a penitentiary and lunatic asylum opened up on the island and in 1856 the nation’s first hospital to treat Smallpox was opened.

Fast forward to the early 1900s and the island had become home to over a dozen different institutions. In 1921, the island was given the name Welfare Island because of the many different institutions now housed there.

Unfortunately, at about the same time, the island went through a very dark period. A series of scandals, inmate overcrowding, riots, and escapes rocked the city. How ironic for a place originally known as “nice island”.

Redevelopment of
Roosevelt Island

During a ceremony in 1973, Governor Rockefeller and Mayor Lindsay renamed Welfare Island in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Redevelopment of the island began in 1975 and in 1984 New York State (NYS) established the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to operate, maintain, and further develop the island. NYS has control of the island until the year 2068.

Source: For more detailed history on Roosevelt Island click here.

Where is it?

This narrow island can be found in NYC’s East River nestled between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens. The island is about 2 miles long with a width of about 800 feet. In all, it’s about 147 acres and is within the jurisdiction of Manhattan.

Getting to Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island Tramway

There are many ways to get to Roosevelt Island but traveling via the tram is the way your family should choose to get there. It’s fun AND the 360-degree views of the city are spectacular. Here are some things and fun facts to know about the tram:

  • The tramway opened on May 17, 1976.
  • It is the FIRST tram to be used for mass transit.
  • It provides access to the island from Midtown Manhattan via 60th Street and 2nd Ave.
  • A Metrocard is required to ride it.
  • The fare is the same as subways and buses.
  • There are 2 cabins and each one holds 110 people.
  • The tram’s highest elevation is at 250 feet.
  • It takes about 3-4 minutes for the tram to cross the East River.
  • Tramway operates from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 6 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, making trips every 15 minutes.
  • The tram is wheelchair accessible and bikes are allowed.

Please note that service dogs can travel on the tram. All other dogs cannot ride the tram unless they are secured in a proper carrier.


Island residents and tourists can opt to take the F train. Check out the F train route or the MTA website for more information.


The island is also accessible by taking the Q102. This bus operates between Queens and Roosevelt Island. Check out the bus route here.

Additionally, the “Red Bus” provides FREE shuttle service throughout the island.


Visit the island via the NYC Ferry’s Astoria Route. The ferry also stops in Astoria, Long Island City, East 34th Street, and Wall Street. Look up route and schedule information here.


Unlike Governor’s Island, you can drive to Roosevelt Island. Just take the Roosevelt Island Bridge which is accessible via 36th Avenue and Vernon Blvd. in Queens.

If you decide to take your car then you should know that there are two parking options. Longer term parking is available at the Motorgate Parking Garage. Drivers can access the garage via the first right-hand turn after coming across the Roosevelt Island Bridge and is directly above the Gristedes supermarket.

They open 24 hours a day and are pretty affordable when compared to other parking garage options throughout New York City.

You can also park at metered short-term parking on Main Street.

Things To Do On Roosevelt Island

Now that we learned a little bit of the island’s history and how to get there, let’s check out a few of the fun things to do with your family on the island.

Stop by the Roosevelt Island Visitor Center when you exit the tram. Pick up a free map and buy a few souvenirs there.

Four Freedoms Park

Pic of Four Freedoms Park
Photo: Dezeen

1 FDR Four Freedoms Park

Go kite flying with the kiddos or simply walk through the beautiful Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. You can find this 4-acre park on the southernmost tip of the island.

This memorial was dedicated to the former president in his home state. Excerpts of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech is carved on the walls of the granite monument in the park.

Men of every creed and every race, wherever they lived in the world” were entitled to “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Go Bike Riding

Ride your bikes along the promenade and enjoy the beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline.

Tip: Bikes are allowed on the tram and the train.

Go for a swim

But not in the East River (Joke). Work on your backstroke at the Olympic-sized indoor pool at Sportspark. Open swimming is available for a nominal fee.

If swimming is not your thing you can shoot some hoops at the basketball courts or play some ping-pong at any of the six Olympic-sized tables.

Children’s programs and fitness classes are also available at this recreational facility. Be sure to check out their website for more info before heading there.

South Point Park

Roosevelt Island, New York

Enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan and Queens from this 7-acre park located between Cornell Tech and FDR Four Freedoms Park. This park is also great for having a picnic and taking pictures of the Strecker Lab and Smallpox Hospital which are not accessible to the public.

Blackwell House

500 Main Street New York, NY 10044

Make your way to this colonial style house built for the Blackwell family in 1796. The house has been refurbished and is currently being used as a community center. It is designated as a landmark in both a New York City and Nationally.

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

Marvel and gawk at this beautiful 50-foot NYC landmark located at the northern end of the island. It was built in 1872 by inmates of the penitentiary with stone taken from the island. This is one of those Instagram worthy spots.

AND you can picnic or fire up any of the available grills at the surrounding Lighthouse Park.

Please note that picnic areas and grills are available on a first come, first served basis. The park is open from dawn until 10 P.M.

Public Library

524 Main Street New York, NY 10044

Drop into the Roosevelt Island library and enjoy from an array of public events such as Art talks, 16mm film nights, and book discussions.

The Octagon

This was the original location of the Lunatic Asylum. After being exposed for the horrific treatment of its patients by journalist Nelly Bly in 1887 it was converted into the Metropolitan Hospital. It stayed open until 1955 when it fell into disrepair and went unused for 50 years.

During the island’s redevelopment in 2006, the Octagon was refurbished as the lobby of a luxury residential building. Visitors can enter to see the original rotunda and visit the gallery next door.


Don’t tell anyone else but on the 4th of July the island is a great place to catch the Macy’s Fireworks show.

Roosevelt Island’s Special Events

Cherry Blossom Festival

There are many spots to check out the beautiful cherry blossoms throughout NYC. However, the cherry blossom festival on Roosevelt Island is very special and is highly anticipated every year. In 2019 it’s scheduled for Saturday, April 13th. It’s FREE so be sure to put it on your calendar.

Figment Art Festival

This is a FREE annual participatory weekend art festival that showcases art and encourages participants to play, dance, sing, create, engage, and explore the surroundings. This year it will take place on June 1 and 2nd, 2019.

Summer Movie Series

Bring a blanket on select summer Friday and Saturday nights for the outdoor Summer Movie Series at Firefighters Field, across from the tram. These are always great to do with the family and/or friends.

This year’s movie series begins on Friday, June 21, 2019. Movies have not yet been announced.

Halloween Parade

Dress the kids in their Halloween best so they can take part in this annual spooky parade towards the end of October.

Haunted Island 5k, 10k Run

Imagine the island being overrun by scary things like Walkers from The Walking Dead. Rick Grimes where are you?

Cool after party and Halloween themed spread are great reasons to go for a run on the island in October.

Have you visited Roosevelt Island? Did you enjoy it? Which of the sites did you visit? Please comment below.

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