What to expect when visiting the 9/11 Memorial

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Those of us over age 25 remember the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center like it was yesterday. The Twin Towers, the explosions, the towers collapsing and the devastation left behind: all left imprints in our minds we can not erase. But, it helps to know what to expect when visiting the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

For many (myself included), visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum is on the “must do” list when going to New York City. But, it helps to plan ahead, both for the museum visit and for our hearts. Like the many veterans of World War II who visit Pearl Harbor to reflect, we do the same at One World Trade Center, the 9/11 Memorial and the Museum.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting the 9/11 Memorial for the first time. I wanted to visit, but I was also afraid of the raw emotions I might feel.

I explained this to my husband. He knew we weren’t going to be tourists visiting a museum, but “survivors,” dealing with the past. And I didn’t even know anyone harmed in the attacks. I was just gripped with fear for months back in 2001, like many Americans.

I normally include tips for visiting after describing a museum or attraction, but this isn’t a typical museum. So, I’m starting with the tips.

Tips for visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

If you remember the events of 9/11, take a little time to prepare yourself for what to expect when you visit the 9/11 Memorial.

First, expect the emotions to come, and know that others feel exactly like you do.

Second, plan a quiet lunch or a stroll through the nearby parks after your visit. You probably won’t feel like doing anything super energetic. BUT, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Just give yourself a little time to let the thoughts settle before getting back to vacation mode. We strolled through Columbus Park in Chinatown before catching the subway back to Midtown — a quiet time of reflection.

Third, purchase tickets in advance for the one hour guided tour of the museum. Guides take you through the museum sharing facts about each piece included and its significance in the events of 9/11. Buy tickets in advance as few are available same day. I recommend these skip-the-line tickets from Get Your Guide for the museum and self-guided tour.

Fourth, consider whether to visit with the kids or not. I am glad I visited without my daughter. She wasn’t born until 2004 and has no real understanding of 9/11 beyond what she learned in textbooks. Because this was such an emotional experience for me, I’m glad Ellie wasn’t with us.

Fifth, if you are taking the kids, use the youth and families programming available to help kids understand what they are seeing and feeling. The youth and families programming also helps adults share their memories in a productive way.

About the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

You might have many questions about visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I hope these answers help you prepare for your visit.

Is Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial the same thing?

Reflection pool at the Nine Eleven Memorial in New York City
Photo Credit: Silverstein Properties Inc.

Ground Zero typically refers to the physical place where the World Trade Center was bombed.

Today, the grounds surrounding the museum are known formally as the National September 11 Memorial, created to remember and honor the people killed in the 9/11 terror attacks at the World Trade Center, near Shanksville, PA and at the Pentagon. It also remembers the six people killed in the first World Trade Center bombing back in 1993.

The twin reflecting pools, in the footprints of the North and South Towers, are edged in bronze panels that include the name of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks. At a nearby kiosk, you can look up the name of anyone who was killed to find their name on the panels and pay your respects.

The Survivor Tree, a pear tree that somehow survived the attacks despite being burned and battered at Ground Zero, stands in the Memorial park, a testimony to survival and resilience. Park benches set near other trees planted in the Memorial park give visitors a place to sit and reflect. The trees add softness and life to the massive Memorial structures.

These Memorial grounds are free to visit. You do not need a ticket to visit Ground Zero, aka the National September 11 Memorial.

What is the 9/11 Memorial Museum?

Inside the Nine Eleven Museum, where some of the original structure is preserved
Photo Credit: Silverstein Properties Inc.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum preserves the story of 9/11 and presents the history of the World Trade Center in a thoughtful and respectful way. It’s divided into three exhibitions:

  • The historical exhibition tells the story of the World Trade Center — what happened on 9/11, before and after 9/11, including the events at the Pentagon and the story of Flight 93.
  • The memorial exhibition, titled “In Memoriam,” remembers those who died in the attacks in 2001 and in 1993. Some elements of this exhibition might be hard for young children to understand — so consider that when visiting.
  • Foundation Hall is massive — and gives visitors a chance to see the surviving slurry wall from the foundation of the World Trade Center and the Last Column — which stands 36 feet high and is covered with mementos and other items placed there by the ironworkers, rescue workers and others.

Of all the artifacts and exhibits, my favorite was “Trying To Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning,” by artist Spencer Finch. The wall of 2,983 blue squares, each a different shade of blue to represent each individual who died in the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks, helped me grasp how enormous the loss but also offered a sense of peace. It brought me to tears and allowed me that one moment to really let it all sink in — the hate, the loss, and the healing. (My photo does not do it justice!)

Memorial Wall at the Nine Eleven museum in New York City
Photo Credit: Silverstein Properties Inc.

One World Trade Center

People in front of reflection pool outside One World Trade Center
Photo Credit: Joe Woolhead

Overlooking the 9/11 Memorial, the Observatory at One World Trade Center is another option for New York visitors. Purchase tickets in advance, choosing the ticket type that best suits your needs. Tickets include a pre-show experience, elevator pod ride to the top of the building, three floors of observatory experience (levels 100-102), the See Forever Theater experience and more.

Now that I made it sound like a typical tourist attraction, it’s unlike anything else you’ll see in the city. While you will learn about New York and the world beyond, this is not the attraction to visit if you want to learn about 9/11. It looks ahead, to the world beyond.

When visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, allow yourself enough time to process the emotions as you visit. Give yourself permission to grieve, but also allow yourself to experience the hope that comes when humanity comes together. After your visit, allow some quiet time — either a quiet lunch or a walk in a park… but then, get back to living. New York, and the world, have not forgotten. But, we have not let that one moment destroy us forever.

And then, enjoy your New York City vacation! There’s so much to see and do in this beautiful city.