The Statue of Liberty is one of the most popular tourist destinations in New York City–nearly four million people visit every year. It’s obviously a must-see on any visitors list, but standing in line and waiting for audio guides can seriously slow down your day.
Find out what there is to do at Liberty Island, and skip the audio guide with this self-guided tour. We’ll get you in, out, and around the island in 60-to-120 minutes.
How to Visit the Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is one of the most visited attractions in New York City. Many visitors choose to view the statue from Battery Park or Battery Park City. Some visitors choose to take a tourist boat near the statue but don’t disembark on Liberty Island. Yet, if you want to see the statue up close, you’ll need to buy a ferry ticket from Statue Cruises, the only ferry service that has permission to take visitors directly to Liberty Island.
Stop 1. Castle Clinton Monument
Time: 5 minutes
Your journey starts at the round structure that New Yorkers generally refer to as, “The place where you buy tickets for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.”
Which is probably why you’re here.
But if you’re waiting for the ticket booth to open up, check out the small museum that details this structure’s history.
Built as a castle to defend New York Harbor in the War of 1812, Castle Clinton (named after Mayor and Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton–not Bill or Hillary) never saw much action as the harbor was never attacked by the British.
The battery was quickly turned into a beer garden and concert hall–the next natural progression, right?
Castle Clinton has also been home to the city’s first immigration depot (before Ellis Island) and the New York Aquarium.
Now it is where you can pick up tickets for Statue Cruises. There is a small museum located just inside the monument’s entryway if you enter from the park side. Here you can get a glimpse of how the structure has changed throughout the years. You probably don’t need to spend more than five minutes here.
Head to the line for the security check and ferry (see here for time estimations).
Stop 2. Statue Cruises Ferry
Time: 10-15 minutes
After you go through security check, you’ll be able to board one of the many ferries that shuttle thousands of passengers to Liberty Island every month.
Head to the second deck (if you go up two flights of stars, you’ve gone too far!) and all the way to the front. Sometimes you need to walk through the interior section on the ferry on the second deck to get all the way to the front of the boat. The smaller ferries force you to walk around the outside. This will be the best spot to get views of the New York Harbor.
It’s also a great place to do your best “I’m the king of the world” Titanic impression.
As the ferry pulls away from Manhattan, look back at that skyline. You can see the new One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It’s 1,776-feet tall, a nod to the year 1776–the year American became a nation.
You’ll see Jersey City on the right-hand side of the ship (starboard). The giant clock is the Colgate clock. Built in 1924, it sits in the same location where the Colgate-Palmolive headquarters once stood.
On the left-hand side (port), you can see Brooklyn. As the ferry approaches Liberty Island, you can look back toward Manhattan for great views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
Speaking of bridges, the long one ahead of you on the left-hand side of the ship is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It’s the longest suspension bridge in the Americas, and it connects Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with Staten Island.
As the ferry approaches the statue, you’ll want to be on the starboard side of the ship. This will give you the best views of Lady Liberty. If it gets too crowded, don’t fret: You’ll get the same exact view when the ferry pulls away from Liberty Island.
Stop 3. Liberty Island Grounds & Pathway Around the Statue of Liberty
Time: 30 minutes
Once the ferry starts to pull around to the ferry dock, you’ll want to head downstairs to get in line to deboard. As soon as your feet cross the threshold between the wood of the dock and the concrete of dry land, you’ll see a stone wall ahead on your right.
Here you have two choices:
- Keep walking straight and grab an audio guide
- Bear right for a self-guided tour of the grounds using this guide and the placards
We recommend option #2! The audio guides are slightly confusing to use and don’t make the best use of information sometimes. You would be on Liberty Island for hours if you were to get through everything in the audio guide. They are free with your ferry ticket, though. So grab one if you want to listen to some of the audio at various placards.
The placards surrounding Liberty Island tell the story of the island before the statue was built and how the statue was built. You’ll also get some great photos here, so grab your selfie stick.
Save time by reading the placards ahead of time in our exclusive self-guided Statue of Liberty Tour for only $4!
Or, take about 25 minutes to read each placard (5 minutes per placard).
4. Statuettes of the Builders
Time: 10 minutes
Once you come to the other side of the statue, you’ll see a wooden dock on your right. You can get some amazing photos of the Manhattan skyline from here.
Instead of walking all the way around the island, bear left here and walk toward the statue. There is a small, shaded path that leads to the statue’s base. Here you’ll find five statuettes. These tell the story of the men and women who transformed the statue into a symbol of freedom.
Face the statues. Start with the statue on the far left. Now look at the next statue to the right.
Frederic August Bartholdi was a French sculptor and the artist who created the Statue of Liberty. In the 1850s Bartholdi had spend a good amount of time travelling through Egypt, studying the famous colossal statues.
Being an artist, he had a bit of an ego. He wanted to create a colossal statue that would sit next to the famous ones he had been studying. He came up with an idea for a colossal statue of a woman that France would pay for to sit on an island in the Suez Canal.
Yet the one caveat was that France would pay $250,000 for the statue, but the recipient country would need to foot the $100,000 bill for a pedestal for the statue to stand upon.
Egypt didn’t have that kind of cash, so the project was scrapped; Bartholdi was bummed to say the least.
Enter the man in the first statue on the left Édouard de Laboulaye was an activist, abolitionist, and French politician. In 1865 he was very excited by something the US had done: abolish slavery. He held a dinner party one night, where he was excitedly speaking to his guests about this momentous occasion.
He passionately expressed to guests that he wished there was a way they could commemorate the US’s abolition of slavery, 100 years of freedom from England, and for choosing democracy. The only problem was that he couldn’t just hand the United States a plaque that said, “Great job on getting rid of slavery, y’all.”
See, he had friends who maybe didn’t believe slavery was such a bad thing after all. And he couldn’t very well just slap them in the face with such a gift. Nope, this gift needed to be full of symbolism; that way, his non-so-abolitionist friends could have an easy out and pretend that this massive gift wasn’t about what everybody knew it was all about.
Guess who was at that party?
Bartholdi practically jumps out of his chair. “Hey, guys! I have this statue. It practically builds itself. It would be the perfect way to commemorate the friendship between our two nations.”
And so the statue was back on again.
Bartholdi comes up with this idea to create an exterior shell for the statue that’s made of thin copper. He hires an architect named Eugene Viollet-le-Duc to help him out with the construction. Viollet-le-Duc suggests filling the shell with sand to anchor the copper to the pedestal.
Which would have been a pretty bad idea.
Luckily for Bartholdi, another famous architect comes along and saves the day.
You might recognize the statue the third statuette is holding.
Gustav Eiffel (as in builder of the Eiffel Tower) suggested that Bartholdi build an Eiffel Tower inside the statue to act as her skeleton. He did this before he’d even built the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Does this mean America has the first Eiffel tower? Don’t tell your Parisian friends…
While the French are working off their derrieres off in order to finish this statue for the centennial of America’s independence, Americans are having some cash flow issues coming up with their portion of the payments.
The same deal that the French gave Egypt went for America too. France would pay for the statue if the recipient country paid for the pedestal.
But we had just come out of our Civil War. We were in the middle of Reconstruction. We definitely didn’t have $100,000 for a statue pedestal.
The very wealthy citizens of New York City were tapped for donations. Their response? “We feel that a statue like this would oppress the poor people of New York City and make them feel even worse about themselves.”
The project was saved by the man in the statuette next to Eiffel.
Joseph Pulitzer (another recognizable name) ran a paper called The World. His readership was the working classes, and he knew that his readership would increase if he made the wealthy people of NYC look like total fools.
He told his readers how the city’s wealthy residents knew how this statue could empower the poor people of New York. He reminded them how New York’s elite wanted to keep the poor repressed. He then made a plea for the statue.
He asked everyone of his readers to donate money to the pedestal. But that they shouldn’t feel as though they needed to donate $100,000. Instead, he urged them to donate whatever they could spare. 5 cents, 10 cents, a penny. The amount wasn’t significant. What was significant was that they gave something.
He then made a promise that every person who donated money for the statue would get their names printed in his paper.
So people donated. They received more than half of the money they needed for the pedestal through the donations of Pulitzer’s readers. Most of the donations were only 5 cents or 10 cents.
Never underestimate the power of offering someone a chance to get in the papers.
The final statue is of Emma Lazarus, the poet who wrote the famous poem that connected the immigrant population to the statue, “The New Colossus”. Her story is probably one of the most beautiful and powerful, but we’ll learn about her in the museum.
For now, if you have a ticket with pedestal or crown access, head into the white security tent. If you have a backpack, drawstring bag, food, or a laptop on you, you’ll need to check them in a locker for $2.
It generally only takes a few minutes to reach the inside of the museum.
Check out more on our exclusive self-guided Statue of Liberty Tour for only $4!
Stop 5. Pedestal Museum
Stop 6. Pedestal Viewing Platform