It seems almost a miracle that in the decade since Governors Island was handed over to the people of New York, it has remained a cool, artsy destination for families without ever crossing the line to commercial or crass. This season, families can take a free ferry ride over from the Battery Maritime Building or Brooklyn Bridge Park every Saturday, Sunday and holiday Monday from May 26 through September 30. (Fridays are off-limits this year while Parks crews renovate 30 more acres for next summer.) Once you get there, spend the day enjoying the rolling green hills, Victorian houses and magnificent views, or kick it up a notch with these kid-friendly festivals and activities. For more information on island events, go to govisland.com.
Attend opening weekend festivities
Celebrate the seasonal reopening of Governors Island at the Family Festival on Memorial Day weekend (Sat May 26 noon--4pm; free). Kids can enjoy arts-and-crafts activities, face painting, bike-helmet fittings, and performances by Astrograss, The Maybelles and Arm of the Sea Theater. Foodie families should also check out the 5 Boro PicNYC (Sat May 26, Sun May 26 11:30am--4:30pm; $35, children under 12 free with a paying adult). Expect live music, a taco competition, a grilled-cheese cook-off, food from more than 20 stations, including Jimmy's No. 43 and Van Leeuwen ice cream, and free-flowing beer for parents.
Enjoy some grub
Kids can build castles in the sand while snacking on burgers at Water Taxi Beach, or try Jamaican treats, sandwiches, gourmet muffins and ice cream from vendors scattered across Governors Island. In addition to opening weekend's 5 Boro PicNYC, the island plays host to two other big food festivals this summer. BBQ fans can get sloppy at Cook Out NYC in July (Sat July 7, Sun July 8 at noon; $40--$45, children under 12 free with a paying adult) and big-time carnivores won't want to miss Pig Fest III on Labor Day weekend (Sat Sept 1 11:30am--4pm; $40--$70, children under 12 free with a paying adult), when 20 top chefs get creative with pork.
Indoor and outdoor art exhibits add an extra sheen of wonder to the island all summer long. Particularly intriguing for kids: live glassblowing exhibits by artists from the Corning Museum of Glass (June 30--July 29: Sat, Sun 11am--6:30pm; free); the Tamimiami Pixiliation Project, inspired by a Mark di Suvero sculpture, where kids can learn about pixilation and animate their own bodies (Sat July 14 11am--3pm; free); and children's workshops by the Trisha Brown Dance Company (Sun June 24, Sun July 1 at 1pm; free). Or stop by the Children's Museum of the Arts outpost every Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 3pm for free art projects, including painting, drawing and large-scale sculptures.
Go back in time
This summer, for the first time ever, visitors can get a look at the interior and roof of Castle Williams, the island's 200-year-old sandstone fort. Park rangers will give guided tours, or you can explore it on your own and imagine what New York looked like during the War of 1812. To jump back to yet another era, visit the island on Civil War Weekend (Sat Aug 11, Sun Aug 12 10am--4pm; free), when costumed actors will roam the island demonstrating old weapons and talking about daily life in 1863. Not into war stories? Cheer on the Gotham Base Ball Club, who play ball using 19th-century rules, equipment and uniforms. They'll challenge other retro teams on six Saturdays throughout the summer (Sat May 26, June 2, 16, July 14, 28 and Aug 25 noon--4pm).
Always one of the most popular attractions on the island, the free artist-designed Figment Mini Golf Course will appear on the Parade Ground like a Seussian dream during the Figment Festival (Sat June 9, Sun June 10 10am--6pm) and remain through September 23. This year's theme is Arcade—expect clever riffs on asteroids and whack-a-moles. July 14 is a particularly excellent day for play, with two special events: Try your hand at fishing or take a free boat tour as part of the City of Water Day Festival; if dodgeball is more your thing, check out the organized games at Come Out & Play Field Day. And of course, the car-free island is always a haven for family biking; bring your own wheels on the ferry, or rent some at Bike and Roll (bike rentals are free on holiday Mondays).
Attend a kooky festival
Some of the quirkiest festivals in the city this summer take place on Governors Island. Watch men and women on a single wheel play basketball and perform all kinds of crazy stunts at the NYC Unicycle Festival (Sat Sept 1, Sun Sept 2 at noon; free) or dress like extras in The Great Gatsby and learn to dance the Charleston at the Jazz Age Lawn Party (Sat Aug 18, Sun Aug 19 11am--5pm; $15, children under 12 free).