Situated right in the East River between Manhattan and Queens is a sliver of land called Roosevelt Island.
What used to be an island full of hospitals, asylums, and prisons, has turned into one of the top spots to visit during a trip to New York City.
Today, you will find parks, viewpoints, walking paths, cherry blossoms, and the famous Roosevelt Island tramway on the island.
This guide will go over some of the top Roosevelt Island things to do during your time exploring NYC.
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1) History & Background
I always like to include a short history section about places in NYC since so much has changed in the city over time (and Roosevelt Island is no exception).
- While originally occupied by the Canarsie Indians and called Varckens Island, the island was eventually owned by a family from Queens – the Blackwell family. The name of the island was then changed to Blackwell’s Island.
- In the early 1800’s the Blackwell family sold the island to the city of New York. The first building that the city built was a penitentiary – Blackwell Island’s Penitentiary.
- Over the years, the prisoners worked to break up rock on the island’s quarry. These rocks were used to then build other structures on the island such as the church, lighthouse, and smallpox hospital.
- The smallpox hospital was built in 1856 and it is where the city sent the sick. After the severity of smallpox tamed down, it was converted into the New York Training School for nurses.
- There was also an asylum built on the northern part of the island, which originally had inmates from the prison supervising patients for many years. The asylum was later shut down in 1895.
- In 1929, the name of the island was changed to Welfare Island to better portray the island (for whatever it was worth).
- One of the bright spots that was built on the island in 1939 was the Goldwater Memorial Hospital – a hospital built for the chronically ill patients. After some of the other institutions closed down, it was essentially just this and another hospital that occupied the island for years.
- It was then in 1969, that the island was leased to the state of New York. This is when the name changed to Roosevelt Island as the island began to be developed.
Today, the island is full of life, and has a much different feel from its eerie history. While you can still see some of these original buildings, much has been re-developed to what you see today.
2) The Roosevelt Island Tram
While you can get to the island by subway (F line), car (from Queens), bus (Q102 from Queens), and ferry (Astoria line), the best way to get there is by tram.
The Roosevelt Island tram was built in 1976, and was the first tram in the country used for urban transport.
The two famous red trams run back and forth from 60th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan to the southern end of Roosevelt Island.
Along the quick ride, riders will be able to enjoy views of the East River, Queensboro Bridge, NYC skyline and Roosevelt Island.
Below are some helpful things to know about the tram:
Roosevelt Tram Hours
- 6:00AM – 2:00AM (Sunday to Thursday)
- 6:00AM – 3:30AM (Friday & Saturday)
How Much Does it Cost to Ride the Roosevelt Island Tram?
The tram costs $2.90 (same price as a subway/bus fare). This is the one way cost, so you will need to pay the fare both going and leaving from the island.
Note that subway/bus transfer rules do apply. So, if you happen to take a subway up to the tram, you will not need to pay an additional $2.90.
How Long is the Tram Ride to Roosevelt Island?
The Roosevelt Island tram takes just 4 minutes to get from one station to the next.
How Often Does the Roosevelt Island Run?
Depending on rush hour schedules, the tram runs every 7 – 15 minutes. So, you should not need to wait too long in order to make your way over.
3) How Do You Get Around
Once you arrive, you will be able to choose from several things to do on Roosevelt Island.
In order to get around, you can opt for a few main options:
Walk: for the most part, you will probably be walking to the attractions on Roosevelt Island. There is a walking path that encircles the island, in addition to some main streets in the middle of the island.
Citi Bike: if you want to ride around the island, that is possible too. There are a few Citi Bike stations to grab a bike from. These include locations right next to the tram and one on the southern end of the island (see map for locations).
Bus: there are two busses that run on Roosevelt Island – the Red Bus (which is free!), and the Q102, which encircles the island and connects with Queens.
4) Roosevelt Island Map
Before diving into all the various Roosevelt Island things to do, I wanted to include a map. This should give you a better sense of where everything is located in relation to one another.
The island is just 1.5 miles long and 1/8 of a mile wide, so it shouldn’t take long to get from one place to the next.
5) Roosevelt Island Things To Do
Now that you have some background on Roosevelt Island and how to get there, let’s dive into some of the top things to do on Roosevelt Island.
I have set up this list in a way for you to do a self guided walking tour in this specific order. The route will take you northbound from the tramway, before looping back around the waterfront and heading to the southern tip of the island.
If you don’t want to see all the sites, no worries at all! Simply pick & choose those that work best for you.
Be sure to also check out some of the other top things to do in New York City during a visit!
Since the island used to be owned by the Blackwell family, you can imagine that they had a house there too.
The Blackwell House was built all the way back in 1796 and stands as the sixth oldest farmhouse in all of New York City.
Today visitors have the chance to check out this historical house from the inside and the outside. Within the house you will find various artifacts and exhibitions of the island’s rich history.
If you are into the art scene, then RIVAA is for you. It stands for the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association, and is a nonprofit organization on the island.
There you will find a gallery, where shows are put together throughout the year. To see a full list of upcoming events, check out the RIVAA website.
Chapel of the Good Shepard
Located in the heart of Roosevelt Island is the Chapel of the Good Shepard.
The chapel was built back in 1889 by Frederick Clarke Withers to provide a place of worship for those in the various institutions on the island.
Today the chapel stands as a community center for the residents of Roosevelt Island. You may also find an open air market along the surrounding brickwork of the chapel.
As you head further northbound on Roosevelt Island, you will come across what is known as the Octagon.
This was actually the original entrance to the mental asylum that was built on the island. While the hospital is no longer there, the Octagon has gone through some renovations over the years and still stands tall.
Today, the Octagon serves as the lobby for the adjoining apartment buildings built right next to it.
So, if you are looking for an apartment on Roosevelt Island, and want to walk through a historical landmark each day, the Octagon may be for you.
While the southern tip of Roosevelt Island has the more famous park (more on that soon), the northern tip of the island has a park too.
Lighthouse Park makes up a large greenery filled open area with plenty of trees and surrounding nature.
It is the perfect spot to take a seat, relax, and enjoy the view of the nearby lighthouse before continuing on with your day.
Roosevelt Island Lighthouse
Speaking of the lighthouse, that is what you will find at the northernmost point of Roosevelt Island.
The lighthouse was built back in 1872 by James Renwick Jr, and stands at 50 feet tall!
If you remember from earlier, this was one of the structures that was built by inmates using the rock quarry from the island.
The lighthouse was operational until the 1940’s and it has been restored as recently as 2022.
As you walk along the western side of Roosevelt Island, you will get some great views of the Manhattan skyline on the other side of the East River.
One of the more interesting lookout spots is at Ship Peer, which is essentially a piece of boat artwork jutting out over the water.
This used to be a boat landing area back in the day, so it makes sense that a ship was built here to resemble its history.
Tom Otterness Sculptures
Continuing along the riverfront, you will begin to see a set of three sculptures built out on the water.
These sculptures are called The Marriage of Money and Real Estate, which were put there in 1996.
The sculptures were installed to depict the wealth inequality of New York City, and stand on small platforms on the riverside.
Perhaps my favorite lookout spot on the Roosevelt Island waterfront is at Eleanor’s Pier.
Just north of the Queensboro Bridge, you will find a wooden deck with chairs, tables, and benches, where you can enjoy the view.
The bridge with the Upper East Side Manhattan skyline out in front of you, is a hard viewpoint to beat.
It is also a great spot for sunset too if you make it out that late!
While it may seem surprising, there is actually a hotel on Roosevelt Island called the Graduate (one of the top hotels in NYC with a view).
At the Graduate, you will also find one of the best bars with a view of NYC – The Panorama Room.
It is an indoor/outdoor bar and makes for the perfect spot on the island to grab a drink and get that elevated view from above. Be sure to make reservations ahead of time!
If staying at the hotel is of interest to you, feel free to make a booking here.
What may be even more surprising, is that Roosevelt Island is home to a graduate program college campus – Cornell Tech.
You will find the several buildings of Cornell Tech just south of the Queensboro Bridge, including the Emma & Georgina Bloomberg Center, the Tata Innovation Center, and the Verizon Executive Education Center.
Feel free to just walk through the campus area taking in the beautiful architecture that houses it all.
Just south of the campus, is an open field area that is slightly elevated over the campus.
As I was wandering around, I happened to head up to the middle of the area, where I was able to take in some beautiful views of the surroundings.
You will get some great views of the campus, Queensboro Bridge, and Manhattan skyline from there.
Just before entering the southernmost area of Roosevelt Island, you will come across Southpoint Park.
Instead of walking along the river, you can instead walk along the few pathways within the park itself.
In the park you will find plenty of flowers and plants grown throughout in addition to some other structures.
Some of these include the FDR Hope Memorial, the Strecker Memorial Laboratory, and the Smallpox Memorial Hospital (more on those last two next).
The park also has some public restrooms, which is good to know just in case.
Strecker Memorial Laboratory
While many of the original institution buildings were taken down over the years, there are a couple that are still there.
One of those is the Strecker Memorial Laboratory, which served as a place to conduct pathological and bacteriological research.
It was actually the first lab of its kind at the time in the country!
While it is no longer in use today, the lab produced some important work over the years. It now is used by the NYC transit authority as a power conversion station.
Smallpox Memorial Hospital
Another one of the original buildings on the island is the Smallpox Memorial Hospital.
The hospital certainly has a sad history behind it, as those with the smallpox disease were sent there as a way to quarantine from the rest of the NYC population.
It later closed once a vaccine was created, and then was used as the New York Training School for nurses.
Today just some of the main walls of the structure are intact, covered with vines & greenery.
Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Last but not least is the Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park located on the southernmost tip of the island.
The park of course serves as a memorial for Franklin D Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945.
The name comes from the four freedoms that he mentioned in a speech – freedom of speech & expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Within the park you will find an open field of grass with two rows of tree covered pathways on either side.
Directly in the middle is a large monument of Franklin D Roosevelt.
Head on over the southernmost tip to see the monument and some unobstructed views looking down the East River.
Bonus: Cherry Blossoms
I can’t go over the best Roosevelt Island things to do without touching on cherry blossoms.
If you happen to visit the park in the springtime, you will get the chance to see some cherry tree blooms all along the western waterfront walkway.
Learn More | Roosevelt Island Cherry Blossoms
There are two main cherry blossoms that bloom here – the white/lighter pink Yoshino trees and the darker pink Kwanzan trees.
Usually the Yoshinos bloom in mid April, with the Kwanzans coming in a couple weeks after.
It is one of my favorite places to see cherry blossoms in NYC, so be sure to head on over if your trip lines up.
6) Where to Eat
Now that you have a pretty good idea of the best things to do on Roosevelt Island, you may also be wondering where to eat on the island too.
Below is a list of some of the top rated restaurant spots, when going about a day there.
- Anything At All
- Granny Annie’s Bar & Kitchen
- Fuji East Japanese Bistro
- Piccolo Trattoria Ristorante Pizzeria
- Wholesome Taqueria
- Wholesome Factory
- ME Mediterranean Eatery
- Zhongzhong Noodles
- China 1 Kitchen
7) Is Roosevelt Island Worth Visiting?
While Roosevelt Island is not on most New York itineraries, I definitely do believe it is worth the visit.
Spending a couple hours taking the tram, walking the waterfront, enjoying the views, and hanging out at the parks, is a perfect addition to a day.
You can easily add it onto a day exploring some Upper Manhattan highlights such as Central Park and the Met.
Getting to experience that tram and those views will not be something you regret during your time in NYC.
That wraps up a guide to the top Roosevelt Island things to do. If you have any questions or comments, be sure to add them in below.
Have fun out there and safe travels!