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Day Trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island 

By Joanne Colella

Soon enough, students, teachers and families will be heading back for the first day of school. If you’re looking for a fun and fascinating day trip to wrap up the last of your summer vacation time – or for an outing at any other time of year – don’t overlook an educational excursion that many New York/New Jersey area residents often take for granted: the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island.

The iconic Lady Liberty, with her torch held high above New York Harbor, has been recognized around the world as a symbol of freedom since her dedication in 1886 as a gift from France. Nearby Ellis Island is celebrated as the historic gateway to America for more than 12 million immigrants, beginning in 1892. Together, the two sites, managed by the National Park System, attract more than 3 million visitors each year from throughout the country and the globe.

Situated in the middle of New York Harbor, Liberty Island and Ellis Island are familiar sights from the shores of both New York and New Jersey, although they actually lie closer to the Garden State. They are easily accessible by a quick ferry ride from either Battery Park in NYC or Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

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For Jersey drivers, the New Jersey departure point is decidedly more convenient, offering the advantage of having parking lots available for a nominal fee. The Jersey City location also boasts the picturesque Liberty State Park itself, with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, a 2-mile promenade, picnic area, outdoor performance area and the moving Empty Sky 9/11 Memorial, the official state memorial to honor the memory of all 749 people from New Jersey who lost their lives at the World Trade Center. Close by is the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, where immigrants who had been processed at Ellis Island boarded trains that took them to their new American homes. Check out the departure signs at the end of each track to see the destinations, many of them familiar towns along the Jersey Shore.

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A number of tourism outfits promote ferry trips to the Statue of Liberty, but not all of them actually allow the chance to disembark, instead merely taking passengers around the islands to view them from the water. The officially sanctioned ferry service is operated by Statue Cruises (StatueCruises.com), with boats that run regularly throughout the day and allow passengers to visit each island, as well as refreshment stands onboard. All tickets include round trip ferry service from either New York or New Jersey, ferry service from island to island, entry to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, free self-guided audio tours, and access to the Statue of Liberty grounds and interactive information center. Additional options are available that provide access to the Statue of Liberty Pedestal and Museum, to the crown of the statue, or to a Hard Hat Tour on Ellis Island that shows buildings such as the old hospital, morgue, contagious disease wards, offices, housing and more. Tickets can be purchased online, with reserved times often booked well in advance for those wishing to climb the steep stairs to the pedestal or crown or go on the Hard Hat Tour.

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The museum inside the pedestal of the magnificent statue tells the story of its design and construction, as well as restoration projects that took place in later years. Proclaimed as the eighth wonder of the world at the time, the statue was inspired in 1865 by an era of nationalism, prosperity and new technology after the end of the Civil War, the abolishment of slavery, and the approaching centennial celebration of the United States. She was named “Liberty Enlightening the World” and became the face of America.

Perhaps more fascinating, particularly for the 100 million Americans who can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who passed through its doors, is the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. They came in waves by the shipload – some to escape religious persecution or political upheaval, others to seek employment or to reconnect with family members, and still others to pursue new adventures or forge new beginnings.

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island nyc

There are three floors of exhibits at the Immigration Museum. Guests have a choice of three self-guided tours of varying lengths and details that take them, step by step, through the immigrants’ experience as they were processed. Permanent and temporary exhibits display photos, artifacts and personal possessions brought from distant homelands. There is information about the overall history of immigration to the U.S., a restored dormitory room and the enormous Registry Room in the building’s Great Hall. Outside, in back of the main building and overlooking the harbor, is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, which is inscribed with seemingly endless rows of names – representing just a fraction of the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island.

A visit to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is a stirring experience that brings history to life and draws cultures together. Often considered by some as “just” a classroom field trip or a tourist attraction, it can generate surprising reactions from adults who have lived in the figurative shadow of the statue all their lives but never took the opportunity to go. Before it’s time to head back to school, you may want to consider a day trip back to your family roots.

For more information, visit nps.gov/stli and nps.gov/elis.

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