Nestled in the Long Island Sound just off the eastern shore of the Bronx, City Island is one of New York City’s most singular neighborhoods. Since being settled by Europeans in the mid-17th century, City Island has over time been home to communities of oyster fishermen, sea captains and boat builders. These days, about 4,500 “clamdiggers” (those born on the island) and “mussel-suckers” (those not) live on the island year round, and although the days of shipbuilding and oyster fishing are long gone, the island retains a unique nautical vibe thanks to its relative isolation from the rest of the city (only one bridge connects City Island to the mainland) and its numerous marinas, yacht clubs and seafood restaurants.
It’s impossible to be too far away from anything on City Island. At just 1.5 miles long by .5 miles across, it is easily walkable from end-to-end. The City Island Nautical Museum (190 Fordham St.) is an ideal first stop. Here you can learn more about the island’s compellingly unique history and grab a walking map to guide you past some of the island’s other points of interest. The museum building, which served as the island’s elementary school from 1898 to 1975, has two large, airy exhibit spaces chock-full of relics of the island’s maritime history (think wooden skiffs, antique navigation equipment, and photos of the eight America’s Cup yacht contenders built on the island), and another in progress. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of the museum’s knowledgeable volunteers, for whom the institution is a labor of love. The museum is open from 1pm to 5pm Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment, and admission is free.
Just around the corner from the museum on the water you’ll find Pelham Cemetery (73 Early St.), another worthwhile stop on your self-guided tour. With its serene setting and some of the best views on the island, on a sunny day the historic Pelham Cemetery can be downright cheerful, and a peaceful place to stroll as you enjoy the sea breeze and read the carved tombstone inscriptions. Established in the 1880s, but home to even older graves, Pelham Cemetery is also the final resting place of veterans from the Civil War and virtually every war fought in by the U.S. since. Leaving the cemetery, make sure to wander up King Avenue for a glimpse of some of the island’s best-preserved Victorian homes.
A number of independent antique and secondhand stores and galleries cluster along City Island Avenue not far from the intersection of Fordham Street, but Corona’s Hidden Treasures (329 City Island Ave.) perhaps best reflects the island’s nautical history. Its windows display handmade wooden models of fishing vessels and sailboats, and inside you’ll find more ephemera from the sea, as well as handcrafted souvenirs to bring home from your trip. The shop is only open on weekends or by appointment, and is a worthy stop on any treasure hunt.
City Island has no public beaches, but this nautical island is not lacking in marinas. Stop by Jack’s Bait and Tackle (551 City Island Ave.), family-owned since 1945, where you can rent a four-person fiberglass fishing boat or charter one of Jack’s larger cruisers for a fishing expedition or party cruise with views of the Manhattan skyline. Jack’s offers full or half-day charters as well as day or evening cruises, and the helpful owners will teach you everything you need to know about your vessel before you set sail. Boating season runs May through November.
At some point during your explorations, hunger will set in. Not surprisingly, seafood restaurants abound on City Island. If it’s the full-on summertime seafood on the cheap vibe you’re looking for, then head to Johnny’s Famous Reef (2 City Island Ave.), at the southernmost tip of City Island. Here you’ll encounter massive platters of fried seafood (try the scallops) and frozen alcoholic beverages (order a tray of piña coladas). Eat at the picnic tables on the deck overlooking the water, or retreat inside to enjoy the convivial air of a maritime cafeteria circa 1950. Just make sure to bring enough cash (entrees are around $10), since Johnny doesn’t accept credit cards.
For dessert, head to island favorite Lickety Split Ice Cream (295 City Island Ave.), which serves frozen treats from a tiny wooden house located on one of City Island Avenue’s most picturesque stretches. Lickety Split has outdoor seating, or you can bring your cone just next door to the restful Hawkins Park (City Island Ave. between Fordham St. and Hawkins St.), where shaded wooden benches surround a peaceful lawn decorated with statues of dolphins and seals. At the rear of the park you’ll also find a notable memorial raised “In honor of the boys of City Island who served in the World War.”
Transportation Details:To get to City Island, take an uptown 6 train to the end of the line, Pelham Bay Park (about a 50 minute ride from midtown Manhattan). Catch a BX29 bus to City Island in the plaza just in front of the station. Buses run approximately every 20 minutes from 4:30am to midnight. If you plan to visit City Island between April and December, consider riding the historic City Island Trolley, a free trolley service that runs on the first Friday of every month from 5:30pm to 9:30pm, for an unforgettable jaunt. The trolley departs from the Pelham Bay Park station every half-hour, making stops at The Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx and continuing on to City Island.