Admit it, you’ve never been to Roosevelt Island.
Dutch settlers first built homes here as early as 1639. Reporter Nellie Bly gained international fame by spending ‘Ten Days in a Mad-House‘ here in 1887. Hollywood seductress Mae West was sentenced in 1927 to ten days in prison here for performing ‘Sex‘ on Broadway.
Criminals, debtors, small-pox victims, and those declared mentally unstable were all exiled here in the past. In the 1970s it was home to a grand experiment in affordable housing for New York City. Today it is the only place in NYC where you can ride a Sky Tram with your MetroCard.
Despite all these amazing facts, you’ve still likely never visited Roosevelt Island. No need to hang your head in shame, you are not alone. Please allow the guides of DIY Travelers to show you and all the other first timers what everyone has been missing.
Manhattan’s Second Island
Unless you currently live on Roosevelt Island, it is entirely possible you had no idea it even existed before reading this article. The island isn’t commonly visited by tourists and even most New Yorkers are unfamiliar with it.
While it is the second most populated island in the Borough of Manhattan, it’s approximately 11,000 inhabitants leave it a very small brother to it’s much bigger sibling. At only 2 miles in length and less than 800 feet wide, it’s easy to explore the entire island on foot in just a few hours.
So why should you visit this small island in the East River where no one else goes? Simply put, it is like nowhere else in Manhattan.
The Biggest Little Island in NYC
One minute you are surrounded by towering skyscrapers and tight-packed crowds at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street. The next you are lifted 250 feet above the East River by the Roosevelt Island Tramway. For the price of a subway ride, you are treated to a 15 minute aerial tour above Midtown Manhattan. During the tram ride, you are likely to take the first of many amazing photos only possible on Roosevelt Island.
Once the tram has landed, take a few minutes to get your bearings and adjust to the slower stride of the island. The constant breakneck pace of Manhattan life is completely absent here. Instead you are greeted by open spaces and tree lined walkways.
Right outside the tram station is the Visitor Center Kiosk run by the local historical society. Originally built in 1909, this ornate Kiosk was one of five used as entrances for a trolley system connecting Manhattan and Queens with stops on Roosevelt Island. It was relocated here in 2005. The Kiosk is a great place to ask directions from a friendly local and pick up a paper map.
Picture Perfect Roosevelt Island
From the Kiosk, you can catch the Red Bus for a free ride to other points of interest on the island. However, I would suggest you leave the bus for later and instead walk across the street to the shoreline. Here the wonder of Roosevelt Island will take your breath away. Looking back across the East River, you will be treated to a panoramic view of Manhattan’s skyline in all it’s glory.
The Queensboro Bridge towering above you, the river before you, and the city filling the horizon. Many of the great iconic pictures of NYC were shot here. The island is the perfect vantage point to catch the sun rising or setting over the city. Trust me, the best photo you will ever take of Manhattan will be taken from Roosevelt Island.
The island parallels Manhattan from 46th to 85th street. This creates a photographer’s dreamland with unobstructed views of Midtown and the Upper East Side. Head to the south end of the island to capture stunning images of the United Nations building and U Thant Island.
Cross to the west side of the island for stunning views of Queens and Long Island City’s skyline. From here you’ll have an amazing vantage point to photograph the historic Pepsi-Cola sign in Gantry Plaza State Park.
While you can spend days creating stunning panoramic images, photography isn’t the only thing to do on the island. In Part 2 of our series, we’ll explore the sights and landmarks of Roosevelt Island you should visit.
This article is part of a DIY Travelers ongoing series, Places You’ve Never Been, in which we explore overlooked and seldom visited locations nearby major tourists destinations.