Yes, New York is definitely an exciting place! There is so much to do and to see that it’s hard to decide which New York attractions to include on your bucket list.
The reason why I am saying this is because I too was overwhelmed at first. We loved the buzz and the hustle of Manhattan. But we knew that as some point we also needed something completely different. This is why the abandoned Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island was the perfect day trip destination for us.
The Abandoned Smallpox Hospital: A Very Different New York Experience
We had such a wonderful time there that I may even say that it has been one of our most favourite New York experiences. The abandoned Smallpox Hospital is a quiet place, I guess you already figured that one out. But there are more reasons why we think it should be on your list of New York things to do. It is cheap, easy to do, free of crowds, quite extraordinary, and full of delightful unexpected surprises.
Follow us as we recount in word, picture and video the different stages of our day trip to Roosevelt Island. At the end of this article you may agree that this is the perfect alternative attraction to add to your itinerary too.
By the way, if you have less time than us in the city, you may want to check out this very useful guide: One Day in New York by our friends over at Our Escape Clause.
Starting Point at Historic South Street Seaport
Taking the ferry to Roosevelt Island from Manhattan was one of the simplest things to do while in New York.
Not only that: It was also a cheap way of experiencing the East River with its many bridges, and a great way to take in these iconic skyline views that you really want to have when visiting New York.
We got on at South Street Seaport on the southern tip of Manhattan at the end of Fulton Street. South Street Seaport is fairly new entertainment space with beautiful converted buildings and some brand-new port-side outdoor areas. It is one of the oldest parts of New York, the place where the famous Dutch West India Company opened its first pier.
Today, there are plenty of shops and restaurants to explore at South Street Seaport. Since we were there early, this part of the city was still half asleep, but we know from friends that from midday on office workers from the nearby financial district will flood the area to enjoy their lunch breaks.
Finding the ferry to the Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island on Pier 11 was not difficult at all, the tickets easily purchased right by the pier. The fare is not included in the weekly subway pass (if you have one), but it’s cheap, so we didn’t mind buying extra tickets for the ride.
Taking the Ferry to Roosevelt Island
The small ferry swiftly travelled up the East River. Even though it was right in the middle of summer, a beautiful day with clear skies, it wasn’t busy at all. We switched from the lower deck to the open upper deck to feel the wind and see the views of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
We couldn’t have asked for a better position to take in the views of the iconic New York skyline. Brooklyn Bridge, the red brick high-rises of Alphabet City, the Empire State Building, hospitals and generation stations, parks, and shiny new office buildings – we couldn’t get enough of the views.
No commentary of course, but the way the buildings including the abandoned Smallpox Hospital rolled from right to left in front of our eyes was somehow magical.
There is indeed a strange beauty in the way the skyscrapers and high-rises and office towers stand together to make up this complete picture of Manhattan. We were definitely fascinated, but little did we know that Roosevelt Island itself would also be a perfect place to see the Manhattan skyline.
Exploring the Attractions on Roosevelt Island
We got off the ferry just below Queensboro Bridge which crosses the island but doesn’t actually access the island.
If you were to take the car to Roosevelt Island (which I wouldn’t recommend), there is just Roosevelt Island Bridge from the Brooklyn side to get you there. This may be the reason why Roosevelt is so quiet and peaceful despite its proximity to bustling Manhattan.
We came to see the abandoned Smallpox Hospital on the island. But there are quite a few other things you can visit too, some of them quite surprising. There are wild geese, for example, which live happily on the island right in the middle of New York City.
On our way south to the hospital ruin we also came past the Wildlife Freedom Foundation Cat Sanctuary. A sheltered place where a couple of furry friends were sleeping peacefully in the shaded area.
Cornell Tech has recently opened a campus on Roosevelt Island, a great pit stop on this very hot day to have some cool drinks in the air-conditioned cafeteria. Historic buildings and sunburnt lawns created a stark contrast to the modern city on the other side of the river.
The Abandoned Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island
After a couple of minutes’ walk we finally arrived the Smallpox Hospital. The mid-19th century building comes with Gothic windows, turrets and walls clad in ivy. A perfect destination for anyone who enjoys exploring the history of abandoned buildings.
Smallpox used to be a very dangerous and highly contagious disease, hence the isolated island location of the hospital.
After serving its original purpose as a smallpox hospital, the building was later used as a training facility and dormitory for nurses. It was abandoned by the 1950’s and stripped off everything that could have been of value.
All that is left today is a shell with gaping holes that hides behind a tall protective fence. It is not much, but the fantastic Gothic rival architecture of the hospital is still worth the trip.
Just behind the abandoned hospital we found the last attraction of the day, the Four Freedoms Park. The trees here turn a golden yellow in autumn – must be also a great place come the end of summer!
Where the tip of the island split the river in two, we could make out some more fantastic views, smell the refreshing water with a hint of oyster. Roosevelt’s words about the right for freedom was chiseled in eternal stone.
Flying High on the Roosevelt Island Tramway
We had seen what we had come for and now it was time to return to Manhattan for more adventures. As said earlier, there are no bridges connecting Roosevelt Island with Manhattan.
However, there is the wonderful historic Roosevelt Island Tramway which is a great experience and highly recommended. What’s even better: If you have a subway pass, you will find that the tram is included in the daily or weekly fare.
The Tramway operates frequently and the wait isn’t long at all. It travels on a set of cables, high above Queensboro Bridge. First leaving you on eye-level with the cars and the cabs, then going even higher until you can see the steel beams that hold the bridge.
Needless to say, the views are fantastic. You can see the bridge, the East River, all the way to Brooklyn Bridge. But you also look deep down into the broad avenues that cut through the tall Manhattan buildings like canyons.
It feels like flying, and maybe it’s even better – soundless, smooth, like a drone. A great New York experience quite off the beaten path!
Out Unforgettable Day Trip to Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island
We had a great experience with our trip to Roosevelt Island. It combines some great views with unusual perspectives on a city that never sleeps. Yet, it is also wonderfully quiet and relaxed, perfect for those hot NY summer days. Best of all, with costs of just a few dollars we had a great day out without breaking the bank.
The combination of a ferry ride, a crowd-free park, and the historic Roosevelt Ferry Tramway made this one of our most favourite New York City experiences!
We planned this trip with the aid of: