Located just off the coast of New Jersey in New York Harbor, between the southern tip of Manhattan and Liberty Island, Ellis Island has been a major American landmark for well over a century now. Famous as the arrival point for tens of millions of immigrants to the United States, Ellis Island remains a destination today for visitors from all over the world who want to learn more about the history of this special place and its role in the shaping of a nation.
History of Ellis Island
In the early 1890s, the United States government decided to begin administering immigration policy at the federal level. This move necessitated the construction of a facility capable of handling the large number of immigrants that were arriving every day in America in search of new lives. Thus, in 1892 just such a facility was opened on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Until yet another change in American immigration policy in 1954, Ellis Island would serve as the entry point to America for some 12 million immigrants from across the world.
Today, Ellis Island is a major historical landmark telling the story of a remarkable period of time in America’s growth and development. It is operated by the National Park Service and, together with its island neighbor, the Statue of Liberty, comprises Statue of Liberty National Monument, one of the United States of America’s most iconic attractions.
What’s at Ellis Island
For most visitors to Ellis Island, the centerpiece of their experience is the chance to explore the National Museum of Immigration. This remarkable museum is found within the walls of the same building that was once the primary location responsible for processing the paperwork of those people arriving in America for the first time. Now it’s here that over roughly three million people per year learn all about what it was like to go through that set of life-changing circumstances.
Another feature well worth your time—especially if you know or believe a family member might have once passed through Ellis Island—is the American Family Immigration History Center. Located on the first floor of the National Museum of Immigration (and typically open between the hours of 10:00am and 3:30pm), the American Family Immigration History Center contains a treasure trove of immigration documents, including ship manifests, passenger lists, historic artifacts, and more.
Large as it looms in American History, Ellis Island is a pretty small place where the focus is squarely on illuminating the past. As a result, the only food and drink to be found here tends to be of the concession stand variety. There are also actually similar food options available on the Statue Cruises ferry that takes you to and from the attraction, too. Likewise, you’ll find souvenirs for sale both on Ellis Island and your ferry transportation.
Tips for Visiting Ellis Island
- Ellis Island is included on several money saving tourist passes including the New York Pass, NY Explorer Pass, Sightseeing Pass, TurboPass, NYC CityPASS and New York C3 in a combination with the Statue of Liberty. Note that its not included in the Sightseeing Flex Pass (it is included with the Sightseeing Day Pass)
- There are two ways to travel to Ellis Island: you can either catch the Ellis Island Ferry at Manhattan’s Battery Park, or at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Regardless of which route you take, be advised that the only legitimate ferry service provider to Ellis Island is Statue Cruises.
- Your trip to Ellis Island isn’t the world’s longest boat ride, but it is a boat ride nonetheless, and it’s a good idea to prepare accordingly. Layers are always a great call when on the open water (to help you adjust to variable temperatures), and if it’s particularly warm or sunny, bringing along some sunscreen never hurts.
- Ellis Island offers guests a complimentary audio tour (and it’s available in 12 different languages). Just be sure to pick it up when you arrive, just inside the “main entrance” of the National Museum of Immigration. For those visiting Ellis Island with small children, you’ll want to inquire about their “family-friendly” audio guide option.
- Outside food and drink is permitted at Ellis Island, so if you’re feeling adventurous—and the weather cooperates—consider bringing supplies for a picnic. The grounds here are a terrific spot to unwind over a bite to eat while taking in the beautiful setting. It’ll make for a great time, plus you’re liable to save some money by skipping the concession stand.
- Everything you’ll encounter at Ellis Island is self-guided, meaning you have a lot of flexibility when planning your visit. However, this also means that the Ellis Island experience will vary greatly from group to group. A basic walk through and around the site could take you a couple hours, but if you’re desiring to dig even deeper, be certain and budget your time accordingly. Ellis Island is the sort of place it’s easy to spend an entire day exploring.