Home Destinations 9 Fantastic Things To Roosevelt Island-Experience The Charm

9 Fantastic Things To Roosevelt Island-Experience The Charm

by Tayebah Malik
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Escape the urban chaos and discover the lesser-known charm of Roosevelt Island, a fascinating enclave nestled in the East River. With a new ferry stop and the bustling Cornell Tech campus, this 2-mile stretch is blooming into a captivating attraction. Leave behind the city’s hustle as you indulge in the delights of parks, arts, and picture-perfect moments that will make your Instagram sparkle. As I stepped onto the island for the first time, I was instantly captivated by its serene ambiance and the promise of adventure around every corner. From the mystique of the abandoned Smallpox Hospital to the modern allure of Cornell Tech, each step on Roosevelt Island promises a unique and unforgettable experience. So, buckle up and get ready because I am going to give a comprehensive guide to the things to do at Roosevelt Island where adventure and allure await at every corner.

About The Past Of Roosevelt Island 

Once known as Blackwell’s Island, this land area located off the shore of Manhattan was historically host to various facilities such as a penitentiary, workhouses, almshouses, an asylum, and numerous hospitals from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. In the latter half of the 20th century, the island’s future brightened with the opening of the United Nations headquarters nearby, attracting dignitaries who chose to reside there for the convenience of proximity to work. Renowned architectural firms constructed apartment buildings to accommodate more than 20,000 residents, and the Frank D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was established as a recreational space. Subsequently, transportation options improved with the introduction of a tram and a subway station. Presently, the island is home to a Cornell tech campus, an array of art museums and studios, and ample green spaces, fostering a close-knit community atmosphere just a short distance from the bustling city.

Things To Do On Roosevelt Island-Experience The Charm

What is there to do on Roosevelt Island?”  The question will automatically come to your mind when you are planning a trip to Roosevelt Island, New York City. Roosevelt Island, with its rich history and captivating allure, offers a plethora of exciting activities and attractions that promise to make your visit truly unforgettable. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an avid explorer, or simply looking for a fun-filled day out, the island has something for everyone. Here I have given you the most enchanting Roosevelt Island activities with sharing my personal experience in this alluring place. 

The Octagon 


The apartment block complex we see today was once the primary entrance to the historic New York City Lunatic Asylum, originally constructed in 1834, marking it as one of the nation’s early mental health facilities. In 2006, the building underwent a remarkable transformation, being converted into residential units, and it is now famously known as the Octagon Tower. What sets this structure apart is its remarkable commitment to sustainability, as it utilizes advanced solar panels and fuel cells for power generation. In fact, the Octagon Tower proudly holds the distinction of being the first residential building ever to be powered by a 400-kW fuel cell, as reported by Green Building Elements. This forward-thinking approach leads to a substantial annual reduction of approximately 790 metric tons of carbon emissions, making it a shining example of environmentally conscious architecture.

Smallpox Hospital


Roosevelt Island holds an intriguing and somewhat eerie history, with a particular point of interest that remains visible from a distance. Inaugurated in 1856, the island was once home to the Smallpox Hospital, also referred to as the Ruin, where patients afflicted with the highly contagious disease were once quarantined. Today, the hospital lies in ruins, its faded remnants serving as a haunting reminder of its past. Although exploring the ruins is prohibited due to safety concerns, one can still catch a compelling glimpse of the weathered structure from beyond the protective fence. Interestingly, the only inhabitants allowed access to this off-limits attraction.

The Blackwell House


Constructed in 1796, the Blackwell House once served as the residence of James Blackwell. Interestingly, his stepfather, Captain John Manning, gained control of the island after the English seized it from the Dutch in 1666, leading to the island being called Manning Island. However, upon inheriting the island, James Blackwell renamed it Blackwell Island, a name it retained for more than a century. Subsequently, the city of New York acquired the cottage and repurposed it to house the wardens overseeing the island’s almshouse, hospitals, and penitentiary. The historical significance of the Blackwell House was acknowledged in 1972 when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Presently, the house is undergoing a restoration process with the aim of transforming it into a community center, a remarkable endeavor that will solidify its status as New York City’s sixth-oldest farmhouse.

The Graduate Hotel


If you find yourself craving a snack, why not consider dining at the Graduate Hotel? As the sole hotel on Roosevelt Island, the Graduate pays homage to the island’s captivating history. Inside, you’ll find a corridor on the first floor adorned with photographs of the Roosevelt family, while each guest room features a copy of FDR’s iconic “Four Freedoms Speech.” The hotel’s design, masterfully crafted by the esteemed international firm Snøhetta, ensures unobstructed views of both Manhattan and Queens. A haven of modernity and brightness, the Graduate Hotel stands as the solitary accommodation option on the island. Offering guests a delightful culinary experience, the hotel’s restaurant, Anything At All, is the perfect spot to savor a delectable meal. To top it off, you can head to the rooftop bar, the Panorama Room, where you can indulge in a delicious cocktail while basking in the breathtaking 360-degree views of the captivating New York City skyline.

Bicycle Around The Island


Consider the convenience of renting a Citibike to effortlessly explore the flat expanse of the island. I personally rented a bike and leisurely completed the 3.5-mile bike path in under an hour! The island boasts two strategically located bike-loading stations, conveniently situated near mass transportation hubs, making it easy to hop on and off as you, please. As you pedal around, you can mentally mark the spots you’d like to return to and even treat yourself to a delightful take-out lunch while seated on one of the numerous benches, gazing towards the magnificent Manhattan skyline. What’s truly fantastic is that you can’t possibly get lost on this compact island, as it spans less than the width of a football field! 

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park

Situated at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, the construction of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park commenced on March 29th, 2010, following the original design by architect Louis I. Kahn. Staying within budget, the park’s construction was successfully completed in September 2012, and it opened its gates to the public in October of the same year. Visitors can make a stop at this captivating park to enjoy the breathtaking views of the Manhattan and Queens skylines. The park’s inauguration was celebrated with a dedicated ceremony, graced by notable figures such as Bill Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, and Michael Bloomberg. On this momentous occasion, Cuomo officially designated the Four Freedoms Park as a New York State Park. With its elegant beauty, the park boasts 120 Linden trees, a triangular lawn extending 340 feet in length, an open plaza spanning 60 square feet, and a remarkable bronze casting of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Strecker Laboratory


Designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, Strecker Laboratory was originally established in 1892, serving as the first laboratory in the United States dedicated solely to pathological and bacteriological research. Over the years, it became a pivotal training ground for numerous doctors who would go on to make significant contributions to laboratory sciences during the first half of the 20th century. Despite falling into a state of disrepair, along with many other historic structures on Roosevelt Island, the laboratory was recognized as a historic landmark in 1972. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that a comprehensive restoration effort was undertaken, bringing the building back to its nearly pristine condition seen today. Currently, the building has found a new purpose, acting as a power conversion station for the subway lines that traverse beneath the island. 

The Roosevelt Island Tram


The Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway offers a truly awe-inspiring panorama of the Manhattan skyline. As it traverses over the East River, it reaches an impressive peak height of 250 feet above the water! To fully relish the experience, the timing of your tram ride can significantly influence your enjoyment, considering it also serves as a regular means of transportation for the island’s residents. While the tram operates throughout the day, visitors seeking the best views, right next to the windows, may find it more enjoyable during quieter periods when crowds are minimal. Weekdays, especially during morning and evening rush hours, witness increased usage by commuters heading to and from work. As a result, these specific hours tend to be busier, primarily from Monday to Friday. To optimize your experience and marvel at the breathtaking sights, consider planning your tram ride during off-peak times.

Main Street Theater And Dance Alliance


Get ready to showcase your dance moves and don your required dance outfit as you head over to Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance. This fantastic establishment offers an array of dance classes and engaging theater and music programs for individuals of all ages and backgrounds. For the little ones, there are dance class options like ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, breakdancing, and capoeira, ensuring a dynamic and fun-filled learning experience. But don’t think it’s just for the kids! Adults can also join in the fun and excitement by enrolling in belly dancing, ballroom, or even a dance workshop that combines various dancing techniques. If dancing isn’t your cup of tea, no worries! You can still participate in adult fitness classes, such as fitness sculpt, Pilates, and Zumba. 


Bottom Line 

In conclusion, Roosevelt Island is a hidden gem waiting to be explored, offering an array of captivating experiences for visitors of all ages. From historic landmarks like the Smallpox Hospital and the Strecker Laboratory to the modern allure of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park and the Octagon Tower, the island holds a treasure trove of attractions. So, put on your dancing shoes and rent a Citibike to pedal effortlessly around the island, taking in the breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline from the Roosevelt Island Tram. With Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance offering dance classes and fitness programs, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Embrace the charm of Roosevelt Island and discover the endless “Things to do Roosevelt Island” that await at every turn, promising an unforgettable and fulfilling journey.

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