Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and the One World Observatory in NYC: Everything You Need to Know
Nothing has changed New York (and really, the world) like the events of September 11, 2001.
I’ll be honest, I was kind of dreading visiting the memorial and museum (I’ve avoided it during my last few trips to New York), but it finally seemed like the time.
So on my last day in NYC, I planned to spend the morning before my flight down at Ground Zero to visit the 9/11 Memorial and see the surrounding sights.
Here’s how I spent my morning at the World Trade Center:
Things to Do Near the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
Since we were staying at the New York EDITION near Madison Square Park, we took the R train (yellow) south to the Cortlandt St station.
When we came up from the subway, we were in the Oculus. The Oculus is a hub of transportation options including at least 10 subway lines and the PATH Train to New Jersey.
It’s really something to see. Besides being a transportation hub, it’s also a fairly large mall with the most notable store probably being the Apple Store. Whether you’re there to shop or not, it’s hard not to spend at least a few minutes with your head looking up in awe.
Completed in 2016, the Oculus is supposed to resemble a dove being released from a child’s hands.
The first place I wanted to head was to the One World Observatory on top of the new One World Trade Center (also called the Freedom Tower).
Tickets have timed entry, and I’d made reservations for the first time slot (9AM) earlier that morning. We arrived in the area with a bit of time to pass so we exited the Oculus and wandered around the 9/11 Memorial. They actually have it roped off until about 9AM, but once you can get closer you can see all of the names etched into the base and look over the edge into what looks like a disappearing waterfall.
One World Observatory
There was a line of people outside the street entrance to the One World Trade Center by 9AM (there’s also an entrance to the observatory down in the Oculus) and we moved pretty quickly down the escalators and through airport style security.
I’ve written a full post comparing the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock and One World Observatory here with all of the details of the experience, but here’s the gist:
Pretty much as soon as we cleared security, we turned the corner and were loaded on the elevators. Since this is such a modern building, they really have the infrastructure set up to move the crowds.
And of all of the elevator rides I’ve taken to the top of skyscrapers (quite a few now), this is by far the best from a technology and entertainment point of view. As soon as the doors close and you start moving, all three walls and the ceiling come to life with video projections of what this part of Manhattan looked like starting with the original Natives and then the first European settlers. And as you go up, you move forward in time and it shows the growth of the city.
This is really where you’ll see the only reference to the Twin Towers. You see them slowly being built, blocking most of the view, and then suddenly in 2001 they’re gone.
The video lasts as long as the elevator ride (less than a minute) and moves quickly. It was captivating enough to make me forget that I was in a metal box speeding up 102 stories.
Once you exit the elevator, you enter a long room where everyone from all of the elevators comes and lines up. There are panels along the wall and they start a presentation about NYC’s ever changing skyline using videos and graphics until at the most climactic moment, the panels are raised to reveal floor to ceiling windows. It’s a showstopper.
From there everyone files through a checkpoint where they distribute the One World Explorers (iPads with a digital skyline guide) to the people who already paid for them and try to upsell the ones who didn’t.
*Note about the One World Explorers: I didn’t pay extra for one, but I watched several groups use them and I think if you’re completely new to the city and don’t know the geography or any of the landmarks, they’re probably helpful. But they seemed a little clunky and looked like they gave the general area of specific buildings, but you still had to hunt around a bit to identify them. I ended up helping some people find certain places that were showing up on the screen but weren’t super obvious to them.
And then from there you’ve got as long as you want to enjoy the 360 degree views around the 102nd floor.
Don’t miss seeing one of the City Pulse presentations. There are two tour guides/city ambassadors on the floor at all times and they take turns doing the presentations and are also on hand to answer questions and engage with you
We saw the first one of the day and it was a GREAT overview of the city (geographically and culturally). It would be a perfect first day activity for someone who’s never been to NYC before. And I think each presentation throughout the day is a little different.
There’s also a gift shop, coffee shop, and cafe on the floor.
There are a handful of different ticket packages, but I think it’s best to just go with general admission ($38/adult, $36/senior, $32/child 6-12) and make your reservations in advance.
Overall, I was pretty impressed by the whole experience. I’ve been making it a habit lately to go up to the top of really tall buildings ; ) so I have a lot to compare this too and it’s just so well done. Plus the view of that part of NYC is unmatched.
A strong recommendation though: Definitely do the observatory BEFORE you go through the 9/11 Museum. The museum is highly emotional and I think there are a lot of fears and irrational thoughts that could make the reverse order not so fun.
Okay, where to even begin?
First of all, like so many attractions nowadays, you need a timed ticket to enter. Meaning at high capacity times you might not be able to just show up, buy a ticket and enter. It was a little after 10AM when we arrived and there was a huge line at the ticket office, but I was able to buy tickets on my phone with an immediate entry time.
Now onto the next thing…maybe I’m the only person who didn’t know this, but maybe you didn’t either. I assumed that the “memorial” part of this area was just the footprints of the two towers that you can see from ground level and that the museum was located in a building nearby. But the museum is actually mostly located underground around the excavation site from the two towers.
If you’ve ever seen the early stages of a skyscraper being built, you know how deep underground it actually goes. So when you enter the museum, you immediately go down a story or two on an escalator
So anyways, all of this to say that I didn’t realize that the museum was actually underground in what is left of the two towers. It gives the whole experience an even more sobering feeling than if you were just walking through exhibits in a newly constructed building.
So what’s it like going through the memorial and museum? Well, pretty rough. On the spectrum of raw emotional experiences, I’d put it up there with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
A lot of sniffling and crying, but also plenty of small children in strollers completely oblivious to what they were seeing, teenagers learning about the events that took place before they were born without much emotion. Both Americans and visitors from other countries. Audio tours offered in almost a dozen languages.
So much of the memorial is wide open in the underground excavation space, but there is an enclosed, traditional museum in the footprint of one of the towers. That’s where you’ll want to spend the bulk of your time, but I’ll warn you…it is overwhelming. And I think at some point there’s a numbness that sets in and you’re not really able to absorb much more. So if you want to make sure you make it through the entire museum (including everything about the aftermath, the attackers, and the war it set in motion-plus the whole section about the 1993 bombing) then you’ll need to pace yourself.
Another interesting observation: Partly because of my job and partly because of strong personal interest, I go through a LOT of history museums. I realized after spending about two hours here, that unlike after I visit most other history museums, I really didn’t learn anything new here.
And it has to be because I lived through it. It’s the first time that I’ve had the personal experience of going through a museum that’s about “history” that I lived. Usually it takes decades or even generations before events become “history” and are viewed through that lens, but the magnitude here seems to have hastened it.
So as someone in her mid thirties, it was an interesting experience for me. Usually I’m seeing and learning about things that happened well before I was born, but if you’re over the age of 30 or so, you probably have your own vivid memories of 9/11 and the aftermath.
I remember watching GMA before school with my mom when they interrupted programming to show the developing story. And sitting there watching live while the second plane crashed. Watching the towers fall. And coming home from school and turning on the TV for months and months to see updates about the rescues, when the rescues turned to recovery, the interviews with survivors and family members, the clean up, the war, the debate about rebuilding, the tributes and specials played every year.
If you watched this all unfold live, even on television, every day, I would say visiting the museum and memorial is definitely an emotionally exhausting experience. Well worth it, and I think it’s an important experience for every visitor to NYC. 9/11 changed the world, but maybe nowhere more than New York.
I just happened to time this perfectly by accident, but every Friday from 11AM to 7PM (April through October) on Fulton Street (just outside the Oculus) is a brand of Smorgasburg, the ultra popular food truck rally that originated in Brooklyn. 20+ of the city’s best local food trucks set up shop and you’ll find a huge variety of cuisines represented.
We had brisket quesatacos (a taco where they melt the cheese into the tortilla right on the grill), and they were divine.
If your schedule is flexible, I would definitely plan to visit on a Friday so you can check out Smorgasburg.
Other Things to Do in Lower Manhattan
Statue of Liberty
Want to read more about New York City?
MET vs MoMA vs Guggenheim: Here’s How NYC’s Top Art Museums Rank
Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock vs One World Observatory
Spend the Day along NYC’s High Line: Chelsea Market, The Whitney & Hudson Yards
Visiting NYC for the First Time