Travel Guide: City Island
City Island, the Seaport of the Bronx, is what you would get if you crossed a New England seaside village with the Bronx. There are city busses, a post office, a branch of the New York Public Library and city trash cans on the sidewalks. But there are also rambling Shingle-style mansions, boat and fishing supply stores and more seafood restaurants per mile than probably anywhere else within New York City limits. The population is under 5,000 and it's a strange place to visit in the summer when everything is (mostly) open—in the off-season it feels downright post-apocalyptic.
City Island is fully accessible by public transit—depending on where you're coming from, it might take a while but trust me it's worth it! Take the 6 train all the way to the end of the line, to the Pelham Bay Park stop in the Bronx. Catch the Bx29 bus right outside of the train station, and that will take you to City Island in just a few minutes. You can get off at the northern end, just over the bridge (a newer, less charming bridge opened in 2017), or ride the bus all the way to the southern end and walk back. The island is only 1.5 miles long and half a mile wide, but you can take the Bx29 while you're on the island too (or use a car service).
WHAT TO DO:
The City Island Nautical Museum is open every Saturday and Sunday from 1-5pm and admission is only $5. Stop here first and learn about the island's rich nautical history from boat races to sail making. When I first visited back in 2014, three out of the four people working there were named Barbara.
Pelham Cemetery is on the eastern shore of the island and it was established in the 1880s. There are older gravestones within its grounds, including well-known Pelham families, early settlers, and veterans of every war since the Civil War. There are a few entrances to the cemetery—including the main one with its beautiful archway—that are always locked, but keep looking until you find the one that is open (I didn't know this the first time I visited, but I figured it out on my second City Island trip).
A recently new addition to City Island, the people that bring tiny treasures to the Brooklyn Flea under the name dAN's Parents House opened a brick-and-mortar store in a crumbling, 150-year-old house on City Island Avenue (seen above before the restoration). I could have spent hours combing through their rooms filled with nostalgia, especially the drawers filled with vintage McDonald's toys and other intriguing little things.
Unfortunately this antique shop was closed on our most recent visit—a sign was posted that they had just stepped out for coffee but there was no indication that they planned on returning anytime soon. I've only been lucky enough to catch this store open once in the several times I've visited City Island, but what I saw made an impression—especially the 6-foot-tall, sombrero-wearing hot dog statue (which is still there if anyone wants to get me an early birthday present).
I'm not a rabid Wes Anderson fan, but I never pass up the opportunity to visit a famous New York filming location. This 1896 Shingle-style, sea captain's dream house is located on 21 Tier Street, and doubled as the Tenenbaums' summer home on Eagle's Island.
While not technically located on City Island, the Bartow-Pell Mansion is a good place to start your day in the Bronx before you head to the nearby island. Finished in 1842, the Bartow-Pell Mansion is a Greek Revival house is now part of Pelham Bay Park. The house opened as a museum in 1946 and guided or self-guided tours are offered Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon until 4pm for $8. There's even a small family cemetery located on the property, although it was damaged in March when a tree fell on it during a storm.
WHAT TO EAT:
I've never been to City Island early enough for breakfast, but I've kicked off several visits with meals at the City Island Diner. This classic diner, popular with locals, is also where Jerry Seinfeld took Ricky Gervais on an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
I don't eat seafood and a place where the ordering procedure is unclear is my personal hell, but I still can't help but love Johnny's Reef, located at the southern tip of City Island. They've been serving gut-busting baskets of fried everything (shrimp, onion rings, mozzarella sticks, clams, etc.) for 70 years—and I bet the seagulls have been swarming around their outdoor patio in quantities straight out of The Birds for just about as long.
If it's oppressively hot, like it often is when I visit City Island, Lickety Split is a great place to cool down with a generous scoop of ice cream and/or an iced coffee. They also have a (very small) restroom, which is never something I take for granted on all-day adventures.
While I can't vouch for any of these personally—and I'm also the worst person to ask about seafood restaurants—City Island's main industry now is undoubtedly food. There are several to choose from along City Island Avenue and there's stiff competition if you choose a restaurant like I do, by its signage.
See all of my individual posts on City Island here.