As two of the most popular attractions in New York City, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are probably on your must-see list — and they should be — but how can you make the best of your visit to these historic landmarks? There’s a lot to experience at each place, plus a few guidelines for guests, so I’ve rounded up a list of do’s and don’ts to help make your trip a breeze.
I’ll also share what you can do at each site and answer a couple frequently asked questions. Consider this your how-to resource for exploring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as told to you by a local NYC tour guide.
But first, a note about COVID-19.
Reopening update (as of 9/4/2020): The Statue of Liberty began its phased reopening July 20, and the grounds of the National Park Service site are open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. At a glance, here are the two most important things you need to know for right now:
- The Statue of Liberty Museum theater and Pedestal remain temporarily closed.
- Now is a great time for locals to visit the statue since it’s not crowded and there’s no wait.
We visited right after the opening (wearing face masks, of course) and enjoyed this beautiful view of a quiet and calm Lady Liberty with the skyline in the background.
While the pedestal wasn’t yet open, as mentioned above, we still had a wonderful time exploring Liberty Island.
Staff are taking COVID-19 safety seriously. There are a few food vendors set up with hand-sanitizing stations nearby. Public restrooms are available, and personnel are regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces. As you can see in the photo below, everyone is wearing masks.
As you might expect, the ferry ride over wasn’t crowded. A few guests were up top, enjoying the breeze and the views, capturing photos and videos to treasure for later.
That’s what we did. No matter how many times we take this trip, it’s always one to remember.
Lines aren’t long right now. They’re orderly and allow for 6 feet of distance between groups. From what we saw, people were following the recommended social distancing guidelines.
As of Aug. 24, 2020, Ellis Island and the National Museum of Immigration are now open as well. The Statue of Liberty Museum, which was previously closed due to the coronavirus, has reopened as well.
A note about tours: Our express tour of the Statue of Liberty is currently operating. Like all our experiences, this tour is running with the safety guidelines of the World Tourism Travel Council. Our full tour with access to the Statue of Liberty pedestal isn’t running at this time since the pedestal remains closed. Check our Statue of Liberty tours page for the latest updates as we continue to monitor this situation.
While you can’t see all the things we highlight in this article until later in New York’s phased reopening, many of these tips will still help you plan your trip, whenever you decide to visit.
So without further ado, here’s your travel guide to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Starting Your Visit: Battery Park and Castle Clinton
A trip to Liberty and Ellis islands starts before you even get on the boat. When you get to Battery Park, walk around the open gardens and spend some time investigating Castle Clinton — a historic fort from the War of 1812. Over the years, it’s been used as a theater, an aquarium, and the first immigration station in the country.
You might also see street performers and acrobats, so feel free to watch them as well. Be aware, though, that they’ll expect a tip if you enjoyed the show.
Visiting Liberty Island
Once you board the ferry, have your camera ready for spectacular views of New York Harbor. When you disembark on Liberty Island, you’ll have a chance for up-close shots of Lady Liberty herself, from the tip of her torch to her size-879 shoe.
Of course, there’s more to do on Liberty Island than just walk around and look at the statue. The island also includes a 26,000-square-foot museum that visitors can explore for no additional fee.
A trip on top of the pedestal (also for no additional charge) offers sweeping views of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, but reservations must be made in advance. And for a true bird’s eye experience, it’s still possible to climb the statue’s 154 stairs to the crown.
Visiting Ellis Island
While you’re here, don’t miss Ellis Island, a site that’s truly part of the fabric of New York City history — and American history, for that matter.
At 3 million visitors a year, Ellis Island is one of the most popular destinations in the National Park Service, thanks in part to the Immigration Museum. Even if you don’t consider yourself a museum person, this is a place I’d recommend to anyone, especially if you’ve never been to Ellis Island before.
Inside the museum, visitors can browse ledgers that date back more than 100 years, searching for the signatures of their ancestors. The museum also frequently features rotating exhibits, and they include a complimentary audio tour with each ticket.
Other “Do’s” for Your Visit
Keeping track of millions of visitors every year is no easy task. As such, visitors must go through security and be mindful of certain rules and regulations when visiting. Follow these steps to make things stress-free and easy. Both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are busy tourist attractions, but with a little advance planning, you’ll be ready to have a wonderful visit.
Arrive early to buy or pick up your tickets or check in with your tour company.
Always, always, always budget ample time to travel in NYC, wherever and whenever you’re leaving. Manhattan traffic is notoriously unpredictable, especially around bridges and tunnels if you’re staying outside the island. Subway service can also be inconsistent on weekends and during rush hour.
Additionally, there are typically long lines to board the ferry at Castle Clinton that sometimes wrap around Battery Park as early as 7:45 a.m. So to reduce stress and skip the hassle, plan some extra time for your travel. Trust me on this one.
When packing or heading out for the day of your visit, check the forecast and be prepared for all sorts of weather. NYC in the summer can be wonderful, but rain showers can blow in at a moment’s notice. In the winter, temperatures can hover near freezing, and snow and wind are common.
Also keep in mind that you may be on your feet for extended periods of time and will be going back and forth both inside and outside, so comfortable, closed-toed shoes are a must. Just imagine standing in wet sandals for six hours.
Bring sunscreen in the summer.
Summer temperatures in NYC can rise to the mid- and upper-90s, and you’ll be under direct sunlight at times. Sunscreen with an appropriate SPF rating is essential. However, be sure to bring a squeeze bottle rather than the nozzle spray type, as those will be confiscated at security.
Several tour companies, including ours, collect guests at Castle Clinton. Keep your eyes peeled for our company’s signature orange flags and paddles. Once you check in, make sure you stay with your tour guide. Guides train to give you the best experience possible, and you don’t want to miss any crucial information.
Book your tickets for Lady Liberty’s crown well in advance.
For those who want to view Manhattan from the inside of the iconic crown, I can tell you it’s a fantastic way to experience the statue and see New York Harbor. But be warned: The wait list is long — 6-9 months long.
If that’s not an option for you, consider reserving tickets at no additional charge for pedestal access. You’ll get a beautiful view of the city from there as well.
Liberty and Ellis Islands: What You Shouldn’t Do
Don’t feed the animals.
Pigeons and squirrels abound at Castle Clinton. Yes, they may be adorable, but for their health and safety (and yours, too), please do not feed them. Same goes for the geese on Liberty Island.
Don’t bring weapons.
The National Park Service’s list mentions items like firearms, pepper spray and “dual-use items that could be dangerous.” This basically includes anything sharp. It’s best to leave scissors, knitting needles, and your uncle’s ninja stars at home.
If you are unsure about whether to bring an item or not, it’s better not to bring it. Getting held up by security is not fun, and can impact the quality and amount of time you spend at Liberty or Ellis Island.
Don’t fall for scams.
Although we’d like to think otherwise, there are still people in NYC (and any city) that don’t act with the best intentions. There is only one official way to get to the Statue and Ellis Island: the Statue Cruises ferry that leaves from Battery Park. Almost a dozen other companies offer cruises around New York Harbor, but those will not drop you off at the Statue or Ellis Island.
Avoid street vendors, too, as they don’t sell genuine tickets.
Don’t bring oversized packages or bags.
The National Park Service’s list specifically mentions “large packages, suitcases, carry-on luggage, and other large parcels.” These aren’t allowed on the ferry or on Liberty and Ellis islands. You can rent a locker for $2 after the first security checkpoint on Liberty Island, but they aren’t huge. While they can fit a small backpack or purse, leave the big stuff at the hotel.
If you must bring luggage, a large bag, or packages with you because you’re headed straight to the airport after your visit, consider placing your items in off-site storage for a fee.
Know Before You Go
You’ve got the basic info for a great trip, but here are a couple more things you should know about.
How long does it take?
Many factors can influence the amount of time you spend on the islands, including security and ferry lines. Without proper planning, many people end their visit much later than expected, so make sure to leave plenty of time to see everything without feeling rushed.
At a minimum, you should budget two hours for the Statue of Liberty and an additional hour if you plan to visit Ellis Island as well.
Is Ellis Island on the same island as the Statue of Liberty?
This is a common question, and the short answer is “no.”
The Statue of Liberty sits on the appropriately named Liberty Island, which is right next to Ellis Island. Not only is Liberty Island a different island, it’s in a different state — it technically sits in New Jersey waters.
The Experience of a Lifetime
Visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people. They are powerful symbols not just for New York City but the entire United States. Experts estimate almost half of all Americans can trace their roots back through Ellis Island. And the Statue of Liberty stands as an enduring symbol of freedom and hope for all who have gazed upon her since she debuted in 1886.
Without a doubt, they are two of the most important sights in the city, helping make New York one of the best places in the world to see and explore.