Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City with Kids

Almost all of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the about the attacks on September 11, 2001. I had been up all night with an unusually fussy baby, who is now a 14-year old 9th grader. For years it was difficult for her to fathom the toll of that awful day. Year after year we would talk about it, slowly building onto the narrative we supplied her and her brother, born three years after the tragedy. Then a wise history teacher built it into her curriculum, drawing comparisons to colonial Americans and making the kids understand that citizens have long been called upon to act in defense of our country. My daughter was so taken with this approach that we knew it was time for her to see the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

The 9/11 Memorial
Built in the footprints where the twin towers once stood at the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Memorial is made up of two large pools which feature the largest man made waterfalls in the U.S. cascading down their sides. The design, referred to as “Reflecting Absence,” symbolizes the loss of life that day as well as the physical void left by the leveling of the massive pair of buildings that once stood in its place.

Around the top of each pool bronze plates form a commemorative rim listing the names of the 2,983 souls killed in New York City, Arlington, Virginia and Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania as well as the six victims who lost their lives in the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. My family found it impossible to not feel reflective at the sight of all of those names positioned so close to us that it was possible to run your hand over them if you felt so inclined. Many here and there had a single rose wedged in their lettering and we witnessed at least one visitor, a young girl, deposit a bouquet of flowers, laying them carefully across a name. Was it her dad, an uncle, a neighbor? We will never know.

Despite the fact that it was a normal business day in the Big Apple and the area was packed with vehicles and people, the sound heard first and foremost was the rush of water into those pools. It was surreal, the water made such a lonely isolating sound as it dropped making the absence it represented heart wrenching.

911 Memorial New York City - Names and fountain
Reflecting at the 9/11 Memorial, remembering those who are gone.

The 9/11 Museum
You’re bound to experience a roller coaster of emotions as you move from room to room of the 9/11 Museum. The details of the day are laid out through so many touching mediums and visuals; it is breathtaking. Stunning sights like the mangled mess of a fire truck belonging to FDNY Ladder Company 3, the Survivors’ Staircase which served as an escape route for hundreds fleeing 5 World Trade Center, and the Last Column, a 36-feet high column covered in mementos, posters, and other memorial items by iron workers and rescue personnel offer haunting reminders of the devastation.

The Memorial Exhibition really got to me; all of those faces on the walls, many of them just like my co-workers and me. They started the day merely showing up at an office for another day of work. My kids were particularly impressed by the stories of first responders who ran toward the danger as others fled.

911 Museum Memorial Exhibition Gallery
The Memorial Exhibition at the 9/11 Museum commemorates the lives of those who were lost on September 11, 2001.

The Historical Exhibition yielded the most questions from my kids. Filled with artifacts, photos, videos, first-person testimony as well as real-time audio recordings, much of this part of the museum is dedicated to putting visitors right in that day, telling the harrowing stories of what went on not only at the World Trade Center but also the Pentagon and inside the hijacked planes.

I watched my kids closely through much of this exhibit, letting them determine what they would gravitate toward and preparing myself to answer questions that would come. Again they found themselves taken with stories of courage, this time not just those of first responders but also those of civilians who helped each other without any thought for their own safety. “It’s amazing that anyone would do that for someone they don’t know!” my daughter exclaimed. There’s nothing like the hopeful perspective of a child.

As any major event does, it divides life into before and after the event. It only makes sense that the museum lays out the remainder of its historical exhibit this way. I felt like my family left with a complete picture.

Other Poignant Stops You Shouldn’t Miss

The Survivor Tree
Despite the fact that more than 400 new trees were planted around the six acres of Memorial Plaza, there is one in particular that is sure to catch your attention. It’s the Survivor Tree, a Callery Pear tree found burned and broken in the rubble at Ground Zero. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation nursed it back to health and returned it to the area in 2010. The tree stands today as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth. Its gnarled stumps and conflicting smooth and rough surfaces are all at once fascinating, touching, and sad.

Freedom Tower
Standing well over 1,700 feet tall, the Freedom Tower is 104 stories of resilience, resolve, and determination. On the day of our visit, the first residents were moving in. My kids were excited about this news. It was a great conversation starter for me to learn what resilience means to them and the response was heart stopping. “It means getting up when you’ve been knocked down,” my daughter said.

St. Paul’s Chapel
In the wake of 9/11, this tiny 300-year church served as a refuge for rescue workers tending to the World Trade Center site. Many came here for food, shelter and respite. St. Paul’s Chapel had lived in the shadow of the twin towers and yet when they came down, not one head stone in the church yard was damaged nor did one pane of glass break. The chapel maintains a touching exhibit that includes a policeman’s uniform covered with police and firefighter patches sent from all over the world and a tribute altar covered with personal photos of those who were lost.

St. Pauls Chapel in New York City
Lighting a candle at St. Paul’s Chapel in memory of the victims of 9/11.

Things to Consider when visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum

  • Before you visit: Have a conversation with your kids and determine whether they are ready for some of the things they will learn. This museum is not only filled with some stunning and somewhat devastating visuals, it deals with some rather weighty subjects. Make sure your kids are prepared for them.
  • Recommendation: Consider making your visit in stages. Start by bringing really young children to the memorial only. Bring them back to the museum when they are closer to middle school age. Waiting allowed us to have a more meaningful conversation with our kids before and after the experience.
  • Arrive early: Tickets are issued for particular entry times and ticket holders line up early.
  • Allow for time: It will take at least 2-3 hours to experience both the memorial and museum.

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Know Before You Go

  • Opt for walking tours instead of bus tours if you want to eliminate the issue of traffic – just make sure to pack comfortable shoes!
  • If you bring your own ice skates, Bryant Park allows you to ice skate for free in the winter.
  • The Bronx Zoo is pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays.
  • Utilize the New York Subway to travel like a local – it’s also a great way to avoid traffic!

This post was written by Hilton Suggests Team Member, Kristine D. Are you interested in traveling to New York City? Let us know if we can help you with any other recommendations. Tweet us for more great local travel tips!

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