Summer Fun

New England Vibes on City Island

Enjoy a seaside village without leaving New York City. What Should We Do?! editor and City Island longtimer offers an insider tour of the quaint isle.

Photo by Shutterstock

City Island is more reminiscent of a quiet Northeast fishing village than a part of New York City’s bustling northernmost borough. That’s what makes it so special and why I’ve been visiting the isle since I was a child. Now, with family living on City Island, it’s become a second home for my family as well.

City Island is 1.5 miles long and just half a mile wide, which means you can take in the entire island in one day. Getting there is easy enough, too. If you’re not driving, take the 6 train to the last stop (Pelham Bay Park), then the Bx29 bus to City Island. If it’s the first Friday evening of the month, opt for the free City Island Seaside Trolley, departing every hour on the half hour from 5:30–9:30 p.m. You’ll make a stop at the historic Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum before heading to the island.

Cross over the City Island Bridge (currently under construction, but open) and hop off the bus at the first stop, Kilroe Street, so you can meander along City Island Avenue and take in the beautiful architecture, starting with 610 City Island Avenue off of Kilroe. The grand house is a nod to the island’s nautical history, with polished wood siding and a beautiful figurehead mounted on an upstairs dormer, resembling the prow of a ship.

Make your way one block south to Archie’s Tap & Table, a newer addition the island. Archie’s serves up reinvented American classics (the Archie Burger is particularly delightful) and craft beer, but try the oven-roasted halibut with mustard seed, sunchokes, asparagus, preserved lemon, and fennel if you’re really craving seafood. The restaurant is along the main avenue and does not have water views, though in warmer months, the front opens up completely, allowing for sidewalk seating and plenty of people-watching.

Continue south a few blocks to the heart of the island. Stop in Early Ruth Antiques, just across the street from the City Island Library, to browse an intriguing collection of art, toys, statues, and other finds in the small, cluttered shop. Next, head east on Fordham Street to the City Island Nautical Museum. For a nominal entrance fee, you can explore and learn about the island’s rich nautical history and the people who shaped it. Browse vintage photos and memorabilia from yesteryear, including artifacts from the island’s first schoolhouse, built in 1838.

By now, you’re probably ready for a treat, so head back to the main avenue and on to Lickety Split Ice Cream. This adorable outdoor spot is perfect for keeping cool on a hot summer day. Enjoy a classic chocolate cone next door in Hawkins Park, a lovely shaded place to sit, adjacent to the vintage ice cream shack.

Across the street and just south of Lickety Split is Kaleidoscope Gallery, where you’ll find an array of children’s toys and games, City Island memorabilia and souvenirs, artwork, handcrafted jewelry, and more. It’s comfortable, casually organized, and somehow familiar—just what you’d expect from a local shop on a sleepy isle.

Burn off the ice cream sugar high with the kids a few blocks south at Ambrosini Field. Here you’ll find a nautical-themed playground, baseball field, and (weather permitting) spray fountain to keep cool.

Tuckered out? Stroll back north along City Island Avenue to one of my favorite spots, The Black Whale. I know it’s City Island and you may instantly think seafood is all there is, but this cozy, rustic restaurant offers way more. The Starving Artist is my favorite pasta dish, with white beans, tomatoes, spinach, and fresh mozzarella, and the grilled chicken croissant with caramelized onions, apple slices, and Brie is absolutely mouthwatering. If you’re craving a taste of the sea, though, the seared sesame-crusted tuna dish with a tasty ginger-orange sauce is light and delicious. For dessert, my family loves the hot fudge fondue—a platter of seasonal fruits, marshmallows, and morsels of pound cake served with a pot of glorious hot melted fudge and long-stemmed “pokers” for dipping. Expect messy hands and faces. If the weather is nice, dining outdoors is the way to go; the backyard garden’s soft lighting and array of ornaments, decorative birdcages, and other knickknacks make a perfect backdrop for your meal.

It’s time to check out more of the beautiful Victorian architecture on the isle to walk off your full belly. The homes are all lovely, but make your way to 65 Schofield Street. This is the oldest house on the island, built in 1840, and it was recently given landmark status. It has been restored in simplistic beauty, with a wide front porch, detailed columns, white picket fence, and colorful tulips dotting the lush green lawn. Meander to the end of the street for pretty water views before making your way back to the main avenue.

On the corner of Schofield and City Island Avenue, you’ll find 239 Play!, a curio store filled with vintage toys and other oddities. Maybe you’ll unearth a treasure from your childhood days; I know I usually do. Just up the block is Starving Artist Studio & Gallery, a quirky spot that’s hard to define: I’d call it an art gallery–meets–performance venue–meets coffeehouse. It’s a great place to catch intimate live music performances, plus you can score some handcrafted jewelry and crafts while enjoying a cup of coffee. Interesting, for sure!

Finish up your day with a stroll down to Belden Point, the newest green space at the very tip of the island. The street-end plaza was completed last year and is now a beautiful place to take in stunning, unobstructed views of the Long Island Sound. The plaza is sandwiched between two supercasual seafood haunts, Johnny’s Reef Restaurant and Tony’s Pier Restaurant. Both offer cafeteria-style dining and either broiled or battered and deep-fried seafood options. These no-frills spots are where to go for quick and less expensive seafood (plus beer, cocktails, and frozen drinks) with sweeping water views. Johnny’s has a massive outdoor area with signature blue picnic tables overlooking the Sound. Tony’s was completely rebuilt after a fire engulfed the restaurant during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Its outdoor seating area isn’t as large as Johnny’s, but the views are still unobstructed.

After your marine-themed day, head back to the bustling streets of NYC on the Bx29 to the Pelham Bay Park 6 train. Like a buccaneer’s buried loot, City Island is a crown jewel in NYC—an easygoing, throwback respite from city living. Not a lot has changed over the years and that, my friends, is the real treasure.