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How to Visit Ellis Island and the Immigration Museum in New York

Reserve some time during your visit to the Statue of Liberty to visit the neighboring Ellis Island, known as "the island of hope and tears".

Isabel Catalán

Isabel Catalán

8 min read

How to Visit Ellis Island and the Immigration Museum in New York

View of Ellis Island | ©Andi M

Just 10 minutes by ferry from the Statue of Liberty (more info on tickets, here) is Ellis Island, the famous gateway to the United States that millions of immigrants crossed in search of a better life in America and that you have seen so many times in the movies.

Visiting places like the Immigration Museum, The Great Hall, The Wall of Honor or the Ellis Island Hospital you can learn more about a very interesting chapter in the history of the United States and the names and stories of those who helped build the country. In this post we review some of the most outstanding places to see in Ellis Island. Take note!

1. Visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Ellis Island Immigration Museum| ©Lenny Spiro
Ellis Island Immigration Museum| ©Lenny Spiro

Entering the Immigration Museum is the most important part of a visit to Ellis Island. The building is located on the north side of the island and is divided into several floors covering the phenomenon of immigration to the United States throughout different historical periods up to the present day.

In order to serve so many people, this enormous immigration center was built and divided into several floors that served different functions within the immigration process. Today they look very different from how they looked more than a century ago, but walking through its halls it is easy to imagine the bustle, chaos and confusion that many foreigners felt within these walls when they disembarked at Ellis Island after a long ocean voyage.

What to See at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum

  • Second floor As soon as you enter the Immigration Museum you will see the first floor where the Baggage Room is located, the space where new arrivals checked in their belongings upon disembarking. In fact, here you can see a lot of old suitcases with which people used to travel to Ellis Island. It is a very curious thing to see, especially if we compare it with our current luggage, lighter and easier to carry than back then.

  • Second floor: On the second floor is located the most striking space of the visit, The Registry Room (also known as "The Great Hall") and The Hearing Room, the two rooms where the medical checkup and the legal interview that determined the entry or expulsion of these immigrants from the United States took place, the most crucial moment of their trip!

  • Third floor: Finally, on the third floor was The Dormitory Room, the place where immigrants who were temporarily detained for various reasons spent the night. The dormitory had a capacity for about 300 people who slept on bunk beds that could be raised to convert this space into a waiting room for the rest of the day.

How much time do I need to see the Immigration Museum?

As you can see, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is quite large and discovering it in detail can take several hours if you are very interested in the subject. However, remember that the last ferry to Battery Park and Liberty State Park leaves at 5:15 PM so keep an eye on the clock.

Practical Information

  • Address: Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, NY 10004.
  • Directions: By ferry from Battery Park or Liberty State Park.
  • Hours: Open daily Monday through Sunday from 9:30 AM to 4:45 PM. Closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
  • Price: From 20€.

Reserve the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Tour

2. Be amazed by the size of The Great Hall

Ellis Island Great Hall| ©Mark
Ellis Island Great Hall| ©Mark

Inside the Immigration Museum, one of the most famous spaces that you have surely seen in the movies on a multitude of occasions is this huge room located on the second floor of the Immigration Museum called The Great Hall. This is where the new arrivals to Ellis Island were gathered so that the authorities could proceed with their medical inspection and legal registration in order to verify that they met all the requirements to enter the country.

Nowadays it is only a large empty room where silence reigns today, but in its time it used to receive 5,000 people daily who impatiently waited here for their turn to be examined. Only 1% of the immigrants were denied access.

Precisely one of those foreigners who came to the United States in pursuit of their dreams, the Spanish architect Rafael Gustavino, was commissioned to rebuild the entrance and the vaults of The Great Hall.

Book a ferry cruise to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

3. Marvel at the Immigration Museum's exhibits

Ellis Island Immigration Museum exhibit| ©Lotte Meijer
Ellis Island Immigration Museum exhibit| ©Lotte Meijer

The exhibits at the Immigration Museum will give you the necessary context to understand the importance of the immigration phenomenon in the United States and its impact on the country's present.

During the visit I recommend that you do not overlook them and spend some time with them because all the exhibits are presented in a didactic and entertaining way with explanatory panels, infographics, videos and photographs. Whether you go with children or if you are not a fan of museums, I assure you that you will have a very entertaining time.

Sections of the Immigration Museum

  • In the first section is the Journeys: the Peopling of America 1550-1890 exhibit that addresses immigration from colonial times to Ellis Island Customs House.

  • In the second section through The Ellis Island Experience 1890- 1954 is the stage of the great waves of immigration to the country through the exhibitions "Peak Immigration Years" and "Through America's Gate". You will see what the admission process was like, the requirements to be met and their role in the construction of what is now America.

  • In the last section Journeys: New Eras of Immigration 1945-Present, the phenomenon of immigration in recent times is addressed and it is very curious to compare it with the old method seeing the enormous differences in the process.

  • There is also a room dedicated to the Restoring a Landmark exhibit that tells the story of the building itself.

Book a private tour of Ellis Island

4. The collections of the Immigration Museum

Ellis Island Immigration Museum Collection| ©David Cornforth
Ellis Island Immigration Museum Collection| ©David Cornforth

Something that will catch your eye during your visit to Ellis Island is the collections housed at the Immigration Museum about the events that took place here a little over a century ago.

Strolling through its halls you will see a multitude of real personal items that these people brought with them from their countries of origin (such as photographs, letters, passports, inspection cards, boat tickets, suitcases, etc.) that help us to reconstruct their stories and understand the multicultural roots of the United States from the very place where it all began. It is a fascinating experience not to be missed!

The most impressive collections:

  • Treasures From Home: because of the emotional content this exhibit presents as it is made up of many of the objects that these families brought with them from their home countries and to which they attached a personal value great enough not to leave behind: bibles and prayer books, family documents and photographs, china, traditional costumes, and much more. All of these things were donated to the National Park Service by the families who came to the country.

  • Silent Voices: which explains the period following the closing of Ellis Island as an Immigration Center in 1954. A period of abandonment that was immortalized by the cameras of many photographers before restoration work began in the 1980s. To see inside the exhibit some of the original furniture and fixtures in the same condition as they were found before the building's rehabilitation as if time had stood still is a sight to behold.

5. Meet The Wall of Honor

Ellis Island Wall of Honor| ©Nicola's Picture
Ellis Island Wall of Honor| ©Nicola's Picture

Outside the Immigration Museum and overlooking the Lower Manhattan skyline you will find the so-called Wall of Honor, a memorial where the names of thousands of immigrants who came to Ellis Island looking for a better future and who contributed to build the United States are engraved.

The curious thing is that The Wall of Honor is not a finished memorial, because on its walls the descendants of those immigrants can still pay tribute to their ancestors by adding their names in exchange for a donation to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.

Take some time to take some pictures of the beautiful scenery from here and to look up the name of one of your ancestors if you know they emigrated to America. Perhaps their name is mixed in with many famous people who did so in their time such as writer Isaac Asimov, actor Bela Lugosi or painter Max Ernst.

6. Search for your ancestors in the Ellis Island archives

Ellis Island Records| ©Antxoa
Ellis Island Records| ©Antxoa

If you know that one of your relatives emigrated to the United States in the past, in addition to reviewing The Great Wall, you can take advantage of your visit to Ellis Island to look through the documents and perhaps find their name in the database of The American Family Immigration History Center.

You'll find it on the second floor of the Immigration Museum and it has a whopping 65 million records of immigrant arrivals stored in the Ellis Island archives.

In case you're looking for a clue to learn more about your family tree, this might be the place to start your research! However, you can also access the database online through The Statue of Liberty - Ellis Island Foundation website.

7. Delve into the ghostly Ellis Island Hospital

Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital| ©Allison Meier
Abandoned Ellis Island Hospital| ©Allison Meier

In the southern part of the island and in front of the Immigration Museum is located the Ellis Island Hospital, the place to which the immigrants who suffered symptoms of having some disease were sent after undergoing a quick medical checkup in The Great Hall. In fact, it is estimated that at least 10% of all immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island ended up in this hospital.

Today, the building is abandoned and in a half-ruinous state but you can visit it by taking a guided tour known as the Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour. During the tour you wear a hard hat to protect you from the environment and a guide takes you through the different departments and rooms that are open to the public. You will be able to see the laundry, the infectious and contagious diseases wing, the kitchens, the morgue and the autopsy room, among other things.

Besides being quite an interesting visit, it has an original and different touch due to the fact that the hospital is abandoned. So if you like the idea, I highly recommend it!

Practical Info from the "Ellis Island Hard Hat Tour".

  • Price: from $68 for adult admission.
  • Duration: approximately 90 minutes.
  • The Ellis Island Hospital tour is conducted with an expert guide.

8. Enjoy the sights of Ellis Island

Lower Manhattan from Ellis Island| ©Reinhard
Lower Manhattan from Ellis Island| ©Reinhard

Take advantage of your visit to Ellis Island to enjoy from another perspective the views of New York that you will have from this enclave located on the Hudson River. You will be able to add to your collection a lot of new photos of your trip and especially of this exciting visit.

Pay attention to your surroundings and get your camera ready because during the tour of Ellis Island you will be able to contemplate:

  • The Statue of Liberty with "Lady Liberty" rising imposingly to the south with her torch illuminating the world.

  • The Lower Manhattan skyline filled with skyscrapers including the One World Observatory.

  • Liberty State Park in New Jersey and Battery Park in Manhattan.

  • Governor's Island National Monument and Park.

  • The Hudson River in all its splendor.