Things to Do in NYC: Ellis Island

How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Ellis Island

••• Photo credit: Thinkstock Image / Stockbyte / Getty Images

The Statue of Liberty is firmly fixed on any "musts" list for NYC visitors, but neighboring attraction Ellis Island–a former federal immigration station that now serves as a national museum of immigration–is often overshadowed by the colossal statue in the harbor. This historic isle, however, fresh from a May 2015 expansion, is not to be overlooked, with its enriching insight into the nation's long and fascinating immigrant story.

Besides, the ferry ride ticket you'll purchase to get you to Lady Liberty (on nearby Liberty Island), also includes a stop at Ellis Island (the two islands comprise the same national park). Make a day of it and make the most of it, with this handy guide to all you need to know about maximizing your visit to Ellis Island:

What's the Backstory Behind Ellis Island?

Ellis Island served as the nation's biggest and busiest immigration station between 1892 and 1924, and before its ultimate closure in 1954, more than 12 million immigrants arriving to the U.S. by ship from around the globe were processed here, as their first stop on their way to a new life in America. It is estimated that 40 percent of the nation's population today can trace their ancestry back through Ellis Island. The island became part of Statue of Liberty national park in 1965, and the main building and processing center was opened as a museum, after 30 years of abandonment, in 1990.

Where is Ellis Island Located?

Ellis Island, at 27.5 acres, sits at the mouth of the Hudson River in New York Harbor.

What Can I Expect to See When Visiting Ellis Island?

Plan on at least a couple of hours to explore the three-floor Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration (formerly the Ellis Island Immigration Museum), set within the island's main building, where the American immigrant story is recounted through numerous galleries lined with artifacts, photographs, and multimedia exhibits.

Following an expansion in May 2015, the nation's official immigration museum now comprehensively chronicles the American immigration story from the colonial era in the 1600s through to today, covering the pre- and post-Ellis Island eras.

Visitors enter the museum in the building's historic Baggage Room, where they can experience the interactive "World Migration Globe" (installed in May 2015), which traces migration patterns throughout human history. The globe is part of the completed Peopling of America Center, which also added a post-Ellis Island wing in May 2015, “The Journey: New Eras of Immigration," depicting immigration from 1954, when Ellis Island closed, through to modern times.

Look, too, for the pre-Ellis Island galleries, "Journeys: The Peopling of America, 1550s–1890," which opened in 2011. This exhibit, highlighting graphics and audio stories, documents the story of America's earliest arrivals, including Native Americans, colonists, and slaves, through to the 1892 opening of Ellis Island.

The centerpiece of the museum is the Registry Room, or the "Great Hall," on the second floor, with its vaulted, tiled ceiling, which served as the historic heart of Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants were processed.

Numerous additional exhibition rooms share stories of the immigrants that passed through here in Ellis Island's heyday, through photos, text, memorabilia, and listening stations.

Also of interest is the free screening of the 35-minute-long Ellis Island documentary, Island of Hope, Island of Tears. For children, there's a dedicated kids' exhibit that debuted in 2012, as well as a junior ranger program. Also, look for a gift shop and museum store selling books and assorted souvenirs.

In the "American Family Immigration History Center," visitors can search the ship manifests to see if one of the 22 million passengers that arrived in the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924 was their ancestors (you can also search through them online).

Other buildings on the island (mostly old medical facilities) have not been restored and are closed to the public, though there are limited guided tours of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex available, for an additional fee (see below).

(Note: Due to water damage sustained from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, some sections of the museum are still not reopened, with some of the artifacts from the collection in storage, as restoration work is completed.)

Are Any Guided Tours Available?

Yes, free 30-minute ranger-guided walking tours through Ellis Island's historic halls are available, which depart from the information desk at the top of the hour (tickets are not required). There are also free, self-guided audio tours available in multiple languages (there's a kids' version, too).

Additionally, on the south side of Ellis Island, guided, 90-minute hard hat tours can be booked to visit sections of the Ellis Island Hospital Complex, with its staff housing, autopsy room, laundry, kitchen, and more, as well as an art exhibit, "Unframed–Ellis Island," by renowned artist JR. Tickets are $25 and are only available for guests ages 13 and over (book in advance on Statue Cruises website).

Is There Anywhere to Buy Food or Drinks on Ellis Island?

Yes, there is the Ellis Island Café, which has an "emphasis on organic ingredients and many heart-healthy options," according to the website.

How Do I Purchase Tickets?

There is no admission fee to access Ellis Island or neighboring Liberty Island (site of the Statue of Liberty). However, there is a fee for the mandatory ferry transportation provided by Statue Cruises, which offers exclusive access to both islands on the same circuit ($18/adults; $9/kids; ages 3 and younger are free).

Note that advance booking for the ferry, offering timed ticketing, is highly recommended to avoid what can be several-hour-long wait times at the ferry terminal. Tickets can be booked online at statuecruises.com, or by phone at 877/523-9849 or 201/604-2800. Otherwise, ferry tickets are sold daily at Castle Clinton Monument, in Battery Park (in the Financial District).

How Do I Get to the Ferry for Liberty Island and Ellis Island?  

Ellis Island is located in New York Harbor, and is solely accessible via a ticketed ferry ride with Statue Cruises. (The ferry also stops off at neighboring Liberty Island, site of the Statue of Liberty.) Manhattan's ferry terminal for Liberty Island is located at the Castle Clinton Monument in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Downtown Manhattan. (There is also another ferry terminal with Ellis Island access at Liberty State Park in New Jersey).

Ferry schedules can be reviewed at statuecruises.com. Note that all ferry passengers will be subject to airport-style screening prior to boarding.

How Long Should I Allow for My Visit?

If you're planning on visiting both the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, be prepared to set aside the greater part of your day for your visit. Wait times to board the ferry at Battery Park can be over 90 minutes during peak season (April through September, and holidays). Get an early start, and don't schedule firm plans the same afternoon, as you may be surprised at how  much time a visit here can end up consuming.

More Information:

For further information, visit the National Park Service's Ellis Island website at nps.gov/elis/index.htm. There, you can review opening hours (exact ferry schedules are listed on the Statue Cruises' website); related fees; and directions to Battery Park. Ferry tickets can be booked online at statuecruises.com; by phone (877/523-9849 or 201/604-2800); or in person at the Battery Park ferry terminal. If you still have questions about your park visit, you can contact the National Park Service at 212/363-3200 or e-mail them here.