What to Do on Roosevelt Island

What to Do on Roosevelt Island


Roosevelt Island, the 2-mile-long strip of land between Manhattan and Queens, has more to offer families other than housing. The island houses many NYC historical sites, including a lighthouse and an old asylum, and makes for a great family day trip.

This 2-mile-long strip of land nestled between Manhattan and Queens is a residential gem that is only a few minutes from Midtown Manhattan. The kids will love taking the 4-minute tram ride over the East River to Roosevelt Island to spend the afternoon exploring its numerous parks, taking in the amazing city views, and learning about historical sights.  

To really get a taste of the island life, let your kid’s bring their bikes or scooters so they can ride around freely as the island is mostly car-free. While Roosevelt Island—named in 1973 by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt—can be walked on both sides of the river, it has one main road: Main Street, which runs through the middle of the island where cars and the Red Bus, free transportation around the island, drive up and down. 

biking on roosevelt island

Roosevelt island is ideal for kids to ride on their bikes and scooters.

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Year-Round Fun

The Tram

If you are coming from Manhattan you can take the aerial Roosevelt Island Tramway on East 59th Street and Second Avenue. With one swipe of a Metrocard (including a free transfer to the subway or MTA buses) the tram climbs to 250 feet above the East River and travels on the north side of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. The 4-minute ride provides amazing views of the river and the city and should be experienced day and night.

Adjacent to the tram station on the island is the Roosevelt Island Visitor Center, where you can buy souvenirs, historical books about the island, and maps.


The Lighthouse and Light House Park

On the northernmost point of the island sits the Lighthouse. Completed in 1872 under supervising architect James Renwick Jr., the Lighthouse was built of stone quarried on the island by convict labor from the Penitentiary. It stands 50 feet tall and is surrounded by the East River.

roosevelt island lighthouse

The Lighthouse was designated a New York City landmark in 1975.

The Lighthouse Park includes grills and tables where you can have a picnic while the kids run around the park or ride around on their bikes or scooters. The views of Manhattan from this park are well worth the ride or walk.

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After visiting the Lighthouse, head south toward the Octagon. The site, first built in 1839, was originally the administrative center and main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum. In 1843, Charles Dickens visited the asylum and wrote about the mad people cowering in the hallways, and in 1887, Nellie Bly committed herself to the asylum for 10 days to write an expose about the horrible conditions. The asylum was converted into the Metropolitan Hospital in 1894 and remained open until 1955 when it became an abandoned building.

In 2006, the Octagon Gallery reopened as the lobby entrance of a 500-unit residential luxury apartment building and home to a rotating art exhibit curated by the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association. Residents and visitors enter the building’s original rotunda, framed by a spiral staircase, to experience the RIVAA exhibits.

The park surrounding the building has grills where residents and visitors can barbecue and have picnics. In the spring and summer, it’s better to get there early to snag a spot.

aerial view of roosevelt island

An aerial view of Roosevelt Island


The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park

The 4-acre park, which opened in late 2012, is located on the southernmost tip of the island. It pays tribute to the 32nd President, and celebrates the four freedoms that Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of in his 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

As you approach the memorial, you must pass between double rows of trees that narrow and frame the triangular courtyard, which contains a bust of FDR, sculpted in 1933 by Jo Davidson.

The Four Freedoms Park Conservancy offers free public guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 1pm, weather permitting. The park hosts events April-October, including yoga in the park, reading forums, walking tours, and playgroups for toddlers. View the park’s calendar for more information.

It’s approximately a 15-minute walk from the tram and is free to the public. The park is open Wednesday-Monday from 9am-5pm from Oct. 1-March 31, and 9am-7pm from April 1-Sept. 30.

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Annual Events

Roosevelt Island’s diverse community is family-friendly and hosts many events. The most notable:

Ongoing: Every Saturday, for the past 20 years, residents and visitors can buy fresh produce, cakes, breads, and olives at the Roosevelt Island Farmers Market under the Roosevelt Island Bridge ramp. It’s open early morning until late afternoon and never misses a date due to inclement weather.

Spring: Visit the Cherry Blossom Festival. Roosevelt Island has several hundred cherry blossom trees that line the walkways on the East River. If you are looking to get that perfect family picture, this is the time to do it.

roosevelt island tram
Courtesy Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation

The Roosevelt Island Tramway takes visitors from Midtown to Roosevelt Island in four minutes.

 Select Fridays or Saturdays throughout the summer you can enjoy Roosevelt Island Summer Outdoor Movie Series at Firefighters Field. Bring a blanket or chairs and watch a movie under the stars. 

October: Bring your kids to the annual Halloween parade. Families start gathering at Blackwell House and then kids in cute costumes march down Main Street toward Capobianco Field where there are a ton of activities for the whole family. In the event of bad weather, the party moves indoors to P.S./I.S. 217.


Getting there from Manhattan

Aerial Tramway: Take the Tram at East 59th Street and Second Avenue Station. Exit at Tramway Station on Roosevelt Island.

Subway: The F train stops on Roosevelt Island, but check before heading out for possible delays.

Ferry: Starting Aug. 29, 2017 visitors can also reach the island by taking the NYC Ferry on the Astoria Line.

By Car: Take the 59th Street Bridge (Upper Level) to 21st Street. Take 21st Street to 36th Avenue. Make left onto 36th Avenue. Continue to Roosevelt Island via the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

Main photo: The view walking up the steps onto the tree-lined Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Photos courtesy Vanessa Petit unless otherwise noted

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