The greatest New York City sightseeing trip you could imagine is absolutely free: the Staten Island ferry. The views of the city’s skyline and East River bridges, the Statue of Liberty, and blazing sunsets are as enchanting as any on a paid cruise or other tour.
At the foot of Manhattan, adjacent to Battery Park, is the Whitehall Terminal, renovated in 2005, where passengers take the ferry that crosses the harbor’s 5.2 miles in about 25 minutes to the handsome St. George Terminal (also 2005) on Staten Island, the least known of the city’s five boroughs.
You won’t be alone. The ferries carry about 65,000 passengers a day. Not to worry. There is a ferry either every half-hour or hour from each side. Good views abound.
Most of your fellow passengers are Staten Island residents simply using the city-owned ferry service to get to and from work and home. The capacious fleet comprises eight ferries, all with multiple decks, several with great open-air platforms. The rule is, the higher you climb once aboard, the quieter it is.
How to Get the Best NYC Skyline Snapshots
Stay in the back as you travel outbound, and you are rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the downtown Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge once the ferry pulls out of the terminal. The twin towers are gone, but in their place is the soaring new One World Trade Center.
Move over to the right side with the other tourists to snap Lady Liberty as the voyage continues. The ferries move at a good clip but they are not high-speed vessels, so you’ve got time. And you’ve got the ride back to catch other sights, like Governor’s Island, once a military post dating back to the Revolutionary War, now a seasonal park; and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Tips and Secrets from a Staten Island Commuter
- Sunset trips are gorgeous – and packed with tour groups.
- “The ferry at night is also beautiful and I’d highly recommend it.”
- A secret spot: go outside the ferry terminal on Staten Island and head right (towards the SI Yankees ballpark); there is an upstairs deck on this promenade area. “There are amazing views from here. Walking along down to the SI 9/11 memorial is also cool.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s one of New York City’s most beloved attractions.
- The views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty are fabulous.
- It’s the cheapest thrill this expensive destination provides.
- Good for sightseers and families.
What I love about the Staten Island ferry is its populist history. Passenger fares were a nickel each way at the ferry’s inception in 1905, rose to a quarter during the 1970s fiscal crisis and were abolished in 1997 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Some called it a gift to island residents, who voted for him in droves.)
No Autos on Ferries; Bikes Allowed
Cars were carried by the thousands on the ferries until Sept.11, 2001. The ferries served as an escape from the devastation that day; and in subsequent days it was used to carry emergency equipment and military tanks. When it resumed regular service, cars were no longer allowed because it would have been impossible to search them. The only vehicles permitted now? Bicycles! Also free!
There is no entertainment on board, but street performers outside the entrance to the Whitehall Terminal can be sensational. One break dancer introduced himself to a crowd recently by saying: “Ladies and Gentlemen, have no fear, I am unarmed.”
Finally, know that the ghost of Walt Whitman still hovers over the harbor, even though “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was about a different, now defunct ferry:
Flood-tide below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face
…And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to
me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
- The closet subway stops to the Manhattan ferry terminal are Bowling Green (4 or 5 trains) and Whitehall Street (R). The South Ferry subway station on the 1 train was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy; no word on when it will be reopened. Buses that stop closest are the M5, M15 and M20.
- Ferries run every half-hour seven days a week, every hour after 1 am weeknights. Check schedule for holiday hours. The waiting room at St. George is intermittently closed between 1:00 am and 4:30 a.m. Schedules are posted online and in the terminals.
- You cannot “book” a place in advance nor can you be sure which of the bright orange ferries are in operation on a given day.
- The ferries do NOT turn around approaching a dock. You board on one end, leave via the other. Hold on – it can be bumpy.
- Newer ferries have a good snack bar; there are loads of snack choices in the terminals. On Tuesdays and Fridays there is a small farmers market in the Whitehall Terminal.