From Singapore to New York, these cities are home to urban islands.
Beyond the well-known city islands you may already know of, including New York’s Roosevelt Island or Paris’ Île de la Cité, are a slew of urban isles close to major metropolitan areas. Whether it’s a castle-topped island mere minutes from the center of Marseille or the floating islands you’ll find near the Peruvian city of Puno, we’ve got the lowdown on ten urban escapes that may surprise you.
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A fun fact: Singapore is surrounded by over 50 islands, many of which have rich histories (Kusu Island, with its colorful shrines and temples, is a case in point). However, Pulau Ubin, a ten-minute boat ride from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal, is the one we suggest putting at the top of your hit list. Home to one of Singapore’s last kampongs (villages), it’s a wildlife-filled urban retreat best explored on a bicycle. We suggest checking out the Chek Jawa wetlands, where you’ll find everything from carpet anemones to mangrove-dwelling fiddler crabs.
WHERE: Puno, Peru
Now for something completely different. Head to the city of Puno, near the border between Peru and Bolivia and perched on the banks of Lake Titicaca, to check out some of the world’s weirdest islands. The islands in question are home to the Uru, indigenous Bolivians who have lived on the lake for over 4,000 years, building houses on islands made from reeds. The islands are true feats of engineering; new layers of reeds are constantly added to replace disintegrating layers at the bottom, and the islands must be strong enough to support houses, watchtowers, and schools.
WHERE: Marseille, France
A fortress-topped island just a five-minute boat ride from the center of Marseille, Château d’If is part of the Calanques National Park. It’s a wildflower-blanketed paradise that was first inhabited in 1516 when King Francis I built a castle here. Years later, the island was transformed into a prison, famous inmates of which included José Custodio Faria, who had a starring role in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte-Cristo. Highlights include graffiti scratched onto the fortress’s walls by inmates in the early 1900s and the views of Marseille’s old town from the island’s walkways.
WHERE: San Francisco, California
One of the world’s most famous prisons, Alcatraz’s history begins long before its prison was used to house America’s most fearsome criminals. One of its first structures was the first lighthouse built on America’s Pacific shores before a military battery was built in the 1850s. Between 1934 and 1963, it served as a federal prison, housing dangerous inmates such as Al Capone, George (“Machine Gun”) Kelly, and Robert Stroud, AKA the Birdman of Alcatraz. After checking out the former prison’s undeniably eerie interior, take the time to explore its gardens, created and maintained by former guards and prisoners and filled with thousands of plant species, including vast swathes of purple bearded irises and bright yellow calendulas.
WHERE: Zurich, Switzerland
This chunk of land in the center of Lake Zurich has been owned by the Einsiedeln Abbey (an explosion of baroque architecture in Zurich’s city center) since 965 AD. Visit this tiny island (albeit the largest in landlocked Switzerland) to explore medieval churches and the ruins of various Roman temples and to wander through the vineyard (used to make Einsiedeln Abbey’s wine). When hunger strikes, head to the island’s restaurant, Haus zu den zwei Rabenv, to sample its specialty: Fischchnusperli (battered fish).
WHERE: Long Island, New York
Once a gritty manufacturing hub, Long Island, to the east of New York City and officially part of the New York metropolitan area, is now one of the city’s hippest ‘hoods. It’s another destination with a rich history–various presidents, poets, and actors once had homes here, and many of them (including the mansion once owned by President Theodore Roosevelt) is open to the public. The island’s spruced-up beaches include Coopers Beach, with its sculpted sand dunes and swanky mansions set back from the sand, and the wonderfully wild Wades Beach, a protected area with creeks, oak woodlands, and freshwater marshes.
WHERE: Boston, Massachusetts
An essential stop-off for history buffs, Georges Island’s main attraction is Fort Warren, a spectacular military structure built at the start of the civil war. Built almost entirely from granite, the fort took two decades to build, and life for its residents was tough–visitors can still see the rainwater cisterns used to collect drinking water. We suggest signing up for one of the ranger-led tours or pausing for a picnic – the area around the fort is filled with wildflowers, wild grasses, and sumac, and many of the chestnut, elm and maple trees are over 100 years old.
WHERE: Prague, Czech Republic
Connected to Prague’s Lesser Town area (Malá Strana) by an elegant stone bridge, Kampa Island has more than a passing resemblance to the Italian city of Venice. It’s an artificial island that was first referred to in the 12th century when its largest structure was a monastery. Today, its highlights include the Kampa Museum, where you’ll find the largest collection of Central European modern art (don’t miss the row of glowing penguins in the museum’s gardens) and its network of canals–hop on a boat tour for the best views of its historic buildings, including several mills.
WHERE: Vancouver, Canada
A 20-minute ferry ride from west Vancouver takes you to Bowen Island, a forested paradise known for its heritage buildings, hiking trails, and museums. To learn about its history, check out the Bowen Island Museum, founded in 1967 by passionate locals keen to provide an insight into “Happy Isle.” The island’s network of trails includes one which weaves up the side of Mount Gardner (a great spot from which to soak up views of Howe Sound) and another that loops around the pine tree-fringed Killarney Lake. Can’t bear to leave? Rent one of the self-catering properties–we recommend the cute wooden cottages at Wildwood Cabins, where you can start the day with a group yoga session.
WHERE: Budapest, Hungary
Wedged between Buda and Pest in the Danube River and connected to both by bridges, Margaret Island is a tranquil oasis in the center of Hungary’s capital. Make a beeline for the Japanese Garden, with its water features and statues (including Sitting Girl by legendary Czech sculptor Imre Csikász), before exploring its numerous historical buildings, which include St Michael’s Chapel and the Water Tower, built in 1911–head to the top of the tower for fantastic 360-degree views over the city.
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