How much would you expect to pay for an iconic boat ride with spectacular views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty? If you want to pay, there are vendors who will allow you to do that, but a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, which delivers those views roughly every 30 minutes (more often during rush hours) throughout every day and night of the year, is entirely free. Twenty-one million people take this trip every year, and most are residents of Staten Island, which may be the borough in New York City most likely to fly under the radar. Whether you take the ferry ride to explore Staten Island as a potential home within the city, are a visitor to NYC looking for fantastic photo ops, or are a New Yorker with the need to experience the sensation of feeling a sea breeze blow past your face as a boat sways under your feet, this bargain experience is not to be missed.
For my trip on the ferry, I began by emerging from the Battery Park subway stop and walking a block or so to the Whitehall Terminal. Redesigned in 2005, the terminal is bright and airy – I particularly like the quotes on the walls by Edna St. Vincent Millay (“We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry”). There aren’t too many places to eat at this terminal, but there are benches and restrooms, and it’s very easy to figure out when the next ferry is coming and from which area you will embark.
Walking onto the ferry, if you are looking for photo ops of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, head up the stairs (the windows on the lower level are foggy) and go outside, to the right of the ferry as you enter. As the ferry pulls away, look behind you for fantastic views of lower Manhattan. If you happen to instead be on the left side of the ferry, you will also get views of the East River and the bridges – most famously, the Brooklyn Bridge – connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn. On the right side of the ferry, however, are the views most people are on the ferry to appreciate.
First you can see Ellis Island, processing center for scores of immigrants entering the United States, now a museum celebrating the immigrant experience and contribution to American life. Continuing on from Ellis Island is the symbol that represents New York, and in a larger sense, the United States, to so many: the Statue of Liberty. A gift from France (its official name is La Liberté éclairant le monde, or Liberty enlightening the world), this statue (actually much closer to New Jersey than to New York!) is described in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem as one that “glows world-side welcome” to immigrants all over the world. Whether that has always been the case or not, it is certainly a noble and aspirational sentiment for this ultimate melting-pot city.
Approaching Staten Island’s St. George ferry terminal, the 5.2 mile, 25 minute ride slows as the boat docks, giving one a great opportunity to photograph the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island. It is almost impossible to catch the next ferry immediately (and you are required to get off the boat and re-enter), so consider having a bite to eat in the terminal. Staten Island is best accessed by car, so without one (and they aren’t allowed on the ferry any more) there isn’t much to do or see outside the terminal itself.
When making the trip back, go to the opposite side of the ferry to see what you missed on the way over. The Staten Island Ferry is featured on so many TV shows and movies (“Sex in the City” and “Working Girl” as examples) that you feel a bit like an extra on a TV or film shoot while feeling the breeze blow your hair with such iconic views to be seen. New York City can be an expensive place, but the Staten Island Ferry is one of the few classic city experiences that only costs you a few hours of your time.