Ellis Island is America's most famous and historically important gateway. Between 1892 and 1924 more than 12 million immigrants passed through this processing station; more than 100 million current Americans are their descendants. Today, the island's Immigration Museum delivers a poignant tribute to the immigrant experience: narratives from historians, immigrants themselves and other sources animate a fascinating collection of personal objects, official documents, photographs and film footage. Purchase tickets online in advance from Statue Cruises to avoid soul-crushingly long queues.
When you arrive, stop in the museum lobby to pick up your free audioguide, which offers rich insights into the exhibits and is also available in a version aimed at children. If you're very short on time, consider skipping the Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550–1890 and New Eras of Immigration exhibits on the 1st floor and focus on the 2nd floor, where you'll find the two most fascinating exhibits. The first, Through America's Gate, examines the step-by-step process faced by the newly arrived – including the chalk-marking of those suspected of illness, a wince-inducing eye examination, and 29 questions – in the beautiful, vaulted Registry Room. The second, Peak Immigration Years: 1880–1924, explores the motives behind the immigrants' journeys and the challenges they faced in beginning their new American lives.
For a history of the rise, fall and resurrection of the building itself, make time for the Restoring a Landmark exhibition on the 3rd floor; its tableaux of trashed desks, chairs and other abandoned possessions are strangely haunting. If you don't feel like carrying around an audioguide, you can always pick up one of the phones in each display area and listen to the affecting recorded memories of actual people who came through Ellis Island, taped in the 1980s.
Another option is the free 35-minute guided tour with a park ranger or volunteer, best booked in advance and also available in American Sign Language. For the complete experience, catch the 35-minute film Island of Hope, Island of Tears, shown throughout the day in one of two theaters. And if you have ancestors who came through Ellis Island, you can look up their ship manifests and immigration records in the American Family Immigration History Center on the 1st floor and get them printed out for display for a fee (the same information is available for online search at home at www.libertyellisfoundation.org).