New York City, NY

New York City's Best Freebie - The Staten Island Ferry

William "Dollar Bill" Mersey

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the ferry en routeNeeraj Verma/Pixabay

While New York City can be a really expensive place to live in or visit, there is one attraction that costs nothing — and is actually a wonderful perk for city dwellers and visitors alike. And that freebie is a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

New York is comprised of 5 Boros: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As you can probably guess, Staten Island actually is an island — which lies 5.4 miles due south of the tip of Manhattan (also an island).

Before 1817, enterprising sailors piloted sailboats to and from both islands for a fee — a 16-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt being one of them. But in 1817, an official ferry was commissioned to carry riders back and forth — and thus, the official era of the Staten Island Ferry’s existence began. And it’s been going ever since, with an annual ridership of 24 million passengers (though I’m sure that number went way down in the past year).

The reason the ferry is so popular with tourists and some New Yorkers (like yours truly) stems from the fact that it passes very close to the Statue of Liberty, provides an incredible view of Lower Manhattan whether leaving from or coming to the Downtown area, is a very scenic boat ride throughout, and of course, is free-of-charge.
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downtown Manhattan from the ferryBrian Emmerling/Pixbay

Why the ferry is free is an interesting story unto itself. From its inception, and straight through to 1997, the ferry was not free to ride. By 1990, the price had risen to 50 cents for a round-trip voyage.

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View of the Statue of Liberty from the ferryAvi Werde/Unsplash

While not a hefty charge even for the time, Staten Islanders revolted and held a referendum to secede from the city of New York. Rudy Giuliani (then-Mayor) owed his 3% margin of victory in the previous election in great part to his 80% plurality in the boro of Staten Island. He needed the boro to stay a part of New York to ensure his next victory and prevailed upon the City Council to eliminate the ferry’s fare as an olive branch to keep Staten part of New York City. It worked. Staten Islanders commuted to Manhattan free-of-charge, and Rudy was re-elected.

Yes, I know. Rudy Giuliani has gone off the rails in recent times — at least in the eyes of some observers. But if you come to New York for a visit and are pleasantly pleased by one of our best — and definitely cheapest — attractions, you have Rudy to thank.

I myself, ride the ferry frequently as one of my go-to excursions for fresh air and a little country feel. And more than a few couples find the ride romantic after dark.

It really is one of the Big Apple’s treasures — and one not to be missed if you come to New York. If you see one of the locals stepping off the boat while wheeling his bicycle down the ramp? Say hi! It might be me.

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