I grew up living in Northern New Jersey and could see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in the Manhattan skyline from the windows of my high school. I’d been to the World Trade Center several times as a child to take in the sights from the observation deck.
During my first trip back to New York after the attack on 9/11, I remember driving on the New Jersey Turnpike and looking toward Manhattan. This was a drive I’d been on countless times before. I knew there was something missing. A huge empty space.
September 11th means something different to everyone. We’ve talked about visiting the museum and memorial on previous trips but Sharon just didn’t want to go – she’s not ready. While I was traveling with my father on my most recent trip to New York, we had a free day and both decided that we wanted to go.
I’m not going write a review or give you thoughts about my visit. My feelings are very personal and I think that everyone has the right to experience the location without being told how to feel. What I will do is give you some tips and hints that I discovered during our visit that hopefully will help you plan your time there.
Things to know
The location is split up into two separate areas. There is the 9/11 Memorial which is the outside area which includes the park, waterfall and reflecting pools. This area does not need any ticket or admittance fee. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is the area located underground and holds the exhibits and displays. You can buy tickets online if you know your plans in advance. I’d suggest this as it will keep you from having to queue outside before entering. There are discounted tickets for seniors and veterans. Active duty and Retired U.S. Military are admitted for no charge. We arrived about 20 minutes before our ticketed time but had no issues in entering right away.
How to get there
Getting to the location is very easy using the subway. Since we were staying near Columbus Circle it was easy to catch a train and exit at the Chambers St. stop. I’d recommend using an app such as Google Maps to tell you which train to take. This helps because it lists the train line and destination (that’s how you know you are getting on the correct train). It also shows the stops along the way and even when the train is due to arrive. The one caveat is that, unfortunately, the New York subway doesn’t run as efficiently as in other cities like the London Underground or Tokyo subway. In New York, it’s always a guess as to when the next train is coming.
After getting off the train at Chambers St., there is signage for which way to exit the platform for the 9/11 Memorial but the signs sort of stop when the time comes to figure out which set of stairs to take. We just picked one and it was easy enough to find our bearings once we got to street level. One of the first things we saw was the Freedom Tower. It was a short walk from there to the entrance to the museum.
You can also take an taxi/Uber/Lyft to get to the Memorial from your hotel. However, traffic in Lower Manhattan is usually horrible and there is a lot of construction in the area so it’s probably not your best choice.
Self Guided and Guided tour options
The museum does offer a self-guided audio tour. The least expensive version is a free app which you can download to your phone or tablet from Apple or Android. The whole tour downloads so you don’t need to have reception in the museum to use it. I had forgotten about this before arriving but was able to download it right at the tour desk on the upper level. The person at the tour desk watched to make sure it downloaded correctly. I didn’t bring headphones but they were able to sell me a cheap pair for $2. My dad has the new iPhone with no headphone jack and had left his bluetooth headphones at home. He had to rent the tour on a iPod-like device for $7 and leave his drivers license as a deposit.
The tour is narrated by Robert DeNiro and is very well done. It gives some information and leads you from area to area. It doesn’t lead you to specific items (except for a few iconic displays) but instead lets you look around and explore on your own. There are also several guided tours of both the memorial and the museum. They take 45-60 minutes and cost $15-$20. I’m not one for being led around in a large group so we didn’t sign up for one. You can purchase this with your ticket ahead of time or they were taking sign ups the day we were there. Even on an day that was not crowded, the tours did seem to be selling out for the afternoon time slots, so book in advance if that is your type of thing.
Entering and Touring the Museum
You have to go through airport-style security to enter the museum, including taking off your shoes and belt. They also do not allow large bags or backpacks in the museum so leave them at your hotel. The information desk, tour desk, restrooms and coat check are one level down from the entrance level; this is where the tour starts. It was a bit confusing on where to start the audio tour. There is one display on the top floor that is talked about and then you need to walk all the way down to the exhibit levels for the next stop. We kept looking for the next area so walked past most of these displays. In retrospect, you can listen to the opening, take your time walking down and reading and then restart when you get down to the main level. I know that sounds a little confusing but it makes more sense when you are there.
The audio tour takes you from area to area and give some background. We followed the tour to the entrance to the Historical Exhibition. This is located in the original footprint of the North Tower. This, by far, is the most intense area of the museum. The audio tour says that if you have time, to enter the exhibit and yes, if I only had a limited amount of time, I would go to this display first. It is the most important part of the museum to see, IMHO. There were way too many displays to see in the time we had. They rightfully prohibit photography and usage of cell phones in this and several other areas of the museum. Unlike other places, most people were respectful of the rules but the staff also would remind those who were not.
Per the website:
Photography, videography, and audio recording is prohibited in the following Memorial Museum areas:
• Security screening area (ground floor entrance inside the Museum Pavilion)
• September 11, 2001 (the historical exhibition), except whereas otherwise posted
• In Memoriam (the memorial exhibition)
• Auditorium (second floor inside the Museum Pavilion)
• Rebirth at Ground Zero (film presentation)
• South Tower Gallery (interstitial space).
Cellular phones must be silenced, and not used for placing calls, while visitors are in the Memorial Museum’s Exhibition Spaces. Phone calls can be made from the Concourse Lobby level and from the Museum Pavilion’s auditorium level (2nd floor). If visitors are using a Smartphone with an audio component to provide information, they must use personal headphones, or keep the device silent, while in the Exhibition Spaces.
We finished making our way around following the tour in about 2-1/2 hours. There was still more to see but it is a very intense experience and that was enough time for us. Some of the displays are very emotional and the museum does suggest using discretion if bringing younger children (their age suggestion is 10 years).
There is a gift shop which sells all types of items related to your visit. They did provide my dad a discount for being a veteran.
From there, we headed outside to the Memorial. We had an early time to enter the museum so didn’t really walk around the outside when we got there.
The 9/11 Memorial is more the thing that will come to mind when you think of the site. The iconic reflecting pools and waterfall were the first things to reopen and are the location of the remembrance ceremonies on 9/11. The size and scope of them is impossible to capture just standing there. We silently walked around for a while and then decided to call it a day.
I was thinking about how back in 2002 , I saw that empty space in the Manhattan skyline. That space was made very real when seeing the Memorial. It was right in front of me. A deep hole. However, when I left I didn’t feel a sense of loss or emptiness. There was a remembrance of what happened but also a sense of renewal. That in the face of the worst, we can be the people that we hope we are. I’m very glad my dad and I were able to visit.