Roosevelt Island: A Hidden Gem For Urban Explorers

Wed, Jul 26, 2017

Roosevelt-Island-Cable-Car-TramEver notice that narrow island in the middle of the East River? That’s Roosevelt Island, and it’s a seriously underrated part of NYC.

It’s so close, so interesting, and yet tourists and New Yorkers alike don’t even bother putting it on their lists of places to visit. It’s a shame, because Roosevelt Island is filled with quirks, beauty, and glances into New York City’s history. From its abandoned hospital to its cat sanctuary, Roosevelt Island has a draw for every type of person.

If you’ve never considered a visit, that will change today. Read on to find out what makes Roosevelt Island such a one-of-a-kind entity in an already extraordinary city.


The ride to Roosevelt Island alone is enough to convince you that

  1. This place is special, and
  1. You should definitely spend a day here to see what else there is to explore.

While, yes, you could drive or take the subway, the only real way to get to Roosevelt Island is by tram. Yes, tram! The Roosevelt Island Tramway operates regularly and only costs a single Metro Card swipe. The nostalgic red cable cars are suspended midair for the short 3-minute ride across the East River, offering a unique commute and incredible views of the city skyline.

Pretty awesome, right? It only gets better once you’re back on the ground. Here are some of Roosevelt’s coolest attractions.


Crumbling, empty buildings are not typically the first on a list of must-see sites, but Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital is a major exception.

The deserted hospital is not only eerily intriguing, it’s an official New York City Landmark! You can find it on the National Register of Historic Places. This is easily understood once you learn about the hospital’s history: in the 1800’s, NYC was infected with an outbreak of smallpox. The disease was so contagious and deadly that this hospital was built for smallpox sufferers only, and specifically built on an island to keep the sick away from the general population.

Even if you aren’t into checking out ominous, abandoned places, a visit to the Smallpox Hospital certainly gives you a firsthand look into an important part of the city’s history, and that alone is worth the visit.


At the very tip top of Roosevelt Island is the gorgeous gothic Blackwell Island Lighthouse. Built way back in 1872, the Blackwell Island Lighthouse’s job was supposedly to light up the New York City Insane Asylum for boats. Today, the lighthouse – like the Smallpox Hospital – is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of Roosevelt Island’s most popular spots.


We all have that crazy cat lady friend, right? (Or maybe that’s you!)

You’ll absolutely want to bring them with you to Roosevelt Island.

Near the abandoned hospital is the infamous Roosevelt Island cat sanctuary, home to dozens of feral cats with an interesting backstory. Sadly, people used to use Roosevelt Island as a place to get rid of their unwanted pets, but compassionate people spun that negative into a positive and began caring for animals, turning Roosevelt Island into a cat haven.

The felines of Roosevelt Island are beloved by the island’s residents, as well as tourists, and are taken care of by the Wildlife Freedom Foundation. If you fall in love with one of the cats, you might even be able to adopt it! Contact the Wildlife Freedom Foundation for more information on volunteering, adopting, or simply to learn more about the Roosevelt Island’s animal life.


You can find some of the city’s lesser-known, but epically beautiful parks on Roosevelt Island.

You already know about Lighthouse Park, home to the Black Island Lighthouse. It’s a wonderfully tranquil spot that offers romantic views of Manhattan and the East River – in fact, if it weren’t for the view, you’d hardly remember you were in New York City!

All the way on the other side of the island lies Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. This 4-acre park is one of the NYC’s newer parks – it only opened in 2012! Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park hosts the first ever FDR memorial in New York, featuring a huge bust of the president alongside beautiful architecture that both history and art buffs will adore. Overall, it’s a perfect spot to grill, picnic, or just relax. Be sure to stay for the summer sunset party!

There are numerous sports fields and playgrounds across the area. Also worth visiting is the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, a private garden club that opens its doors to the public during the weekend for those who’d like to see what flowers and greens the people of Roosevelt Island are growing. Pictures and picnics are welcome, picking plants is not!

We hope you enjoy your first trip to the wonderful Roosevelt Island!

Tags: Things To Do In NYC