Ground Zero: Visiting One World Trade Center, The 911 Memorial And Oculus

From high atop One World Trade Center, the New York skyline stretches into the horizon, and iconic sights like the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty look like scenery pieces from a hobby train set, as do the boats that chug along the Hudson River far below.

Rising a symbolic 1,776 feet above lower Manhattan, the 104-story tower officially opened in November 2014 as part of the newly rebuilt World Trade Center complex.

The massive structure, originally dubbed the “Freedom Tower” prior to its renaming in 2009, took nearly a decade to complete after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001.

One World Trade Center

It’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and sixth tallest in the world. Home to high-profile tenants including Moody’s and Condé Nast, the top floors of One World Trade Center ( are occupied by One World Observatory, an exhilarating tourist attraction.

Without divulging spoilers, the 47-second ride aboard one of the observatory’s “Skypods” is a meteoric, ear-popping ascent, and worth doing more than once, as the floor-to-ceiling “view” changes depending on the time of day.

After arriving on the 102nd floor , visitors are given a brief video presentation before a dramatic reveal provides them with their first glimpse of what they came for: unparalleled, panoramic views of the city.

View From Observatory II

“On a clear day, guests are able to see up to 50 miles away,” said Keith Douglas, managing director of One World Observatory. “Some say you can see the curvature of the earth.”

For an additional $15, guests can purchase the One World Explorer iPad experience, an interactive tool that helps identify significant landmarks, along with providing their history and information. And observatory concierges are also available to help visitors better understand what they are looking at.

“When visiting One World Observatory, we invite guests to engage with our Skyline Concierges, who conduct hourly presentations and are always available to help guests locate landmarks, and share their insider’s knowledge about New York City’s rich history, diverse culture and upcoming events to check out while you are in town,” Douglas said.

With paid admission, guests can dine or imbibe high above the city at one of its three eateries which include One Café, a casual food court; One Mix, which offers wine, spirits and small plates with no reservations required, and One Dine, a fine-dining restaurant that accepts reservations.

Being one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, lines for One World Observatory are often considerable, especially during peak vacation times. To shave off some of the expected wait time, purchase tickets online ( ahead of time.

Standard admission starts at $34 per person and goes up to around $67 depending on whether you want to spring for a VIP tour or priority admission, both of which offer express, skip-the-line benefits.

The 9/11 Memorial &Museum

Occupying eight of the 16 acres of the World Trade Center site, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum ( opened to the public on May 21, 2014, and honors the 2,983 victims of the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks, their loved ones, as well as survivors, first responders and rescue workers.

Housing more than 60,000 items in its collection, the museum displays 900 of them to help create a meaningful remembrance of the lives lost, their stories and an understanding of the events that unfolded on September 11 and on Feb. 26, 1993.

911 Entrance

Located within the original World Trade Center site, visitors descend below ground into the dimly lit museum by staircase, passing two steel tridents salvaged from the façade of the North Tower and erected in a sunlit, glass atrium.

It is sobering, evoking at once both tragedy and divinity, a feeling that resonates during much of the two hours it typically takes to experience the museum and its exhibits.

Elevator Motor

For anyone old enough to recall the 9/11 attacks firsthand, going through the museum is a haunting reminder of some of America’s darkest hours.

Among the exhibits is a historical perspective that presents a chronological look at the events of 9/11, a memorial gallery exhibition commemorating the victims of both terrorist attacks, as well as artifacts including airplane fuselage, the “Ladder 3” fire truck, an elevator motor from one of the towers, and a preserved clothing store window with its merchandise still covered in ash.

3 Ladder Truck

Raw and emotional, the experience can be overwhelming.

However, there are also reminders of hope, heroism and the numerous selfless acts performed during and after the attacks.

Survivors Stairs

The Survivors’ Stairs, a remnant of the World Trade Center stairs originally located on Vesey Street, served as a route to safety for many people during the 9/11 attacks. They are permanently housed at the museum and stand as a powerful symbol of the survivors and their stories.

And located in the museum’s cavernous Foundation Hall, is the slurry wall, one of the original World Trade Center’s massive retaining walls that withstood the 9/11 attacks, and now represents determination in its scale and endurance.

Slurry Wall

Outside, on the Memorial Plaza, two enormous pools designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker , entitled “Reflecting Absence,” are set in the footprints of the twin towers. Each pool measures roughly an acre, and has a 30-foot waterfall on all sides, which all but obliterates the city’s noisy din in the rush of water.

It’s both transcendent and aching, as the names of the nearly 3,000 victims are inscribed along the sides. As requested by victims’ loved ones, many of the names are inscribed adjacent or next to friends, relatives or colleagues in what is called “Meaningful Adjacencies,” rather than alphabetical order.

911 Memorial

Each morning a rose is placed on the names of the men, women and children who would have celebrated a birthday, paying them tribute, and allowing visitors to honor them as well.

Among the grove of white oak trees in the museum plaza area stands a Callery pear tree surrounded by a protective, metal barrier.

The “Survivor Tree” as it’s known, was discovered at Ground Zero in October 2001. Burned, severely damaged, but still alive, the tree was removed and rehabilitated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Survivors Tree

In 2010, it was returned to the site. Now healthy and strong, the tree stands as a symbol of rebirth and survival.

As part of a program that began in 2013, seedlings from the Survivor Tree are sent to communities across the world that have endured tragedy as gesture of hope and healing. Past recipients include Boston, Paris, San Bernardino, Orlando and Newtown.

Several guided tours of the museum and memorial are available (, as well as a handful of downloadable audio guide apps that include stories of 9/11 and the recovery at Ground Zero, offer self-guided pathway itineraries, and ahistory guide that’s age-appropriate for children ages 8 to 11.

The Oculus

Newly opened in 2016, the World Trade Center Transportation Hub ( transportation-hub.html), located beneath the Memorial Plaza, with its above-ground “Oculus” is hard to miss, as the white landmark, with its remarkable architecture, juts out distinctively from the ground.

Embraced by some critics, and maligned by others (not unlike the Eiffel Tower, and that seemed to work out alright for Paris), the Oculus is a state-of-the-art hub that serves more than 250,000 commuters daily, and draws millions of visitors from all over the world.

Oculus | Photo Credit: Sarah Lemire

Designed by architect Santiago Calatrava, the Oculus, with its giant, spiny ribs, is meant to evoke the image of a winged dove.

The architecture is undeniably extraordinary, especially on the inside, where the cavernous, main hall feels like a cross between an ethereal cathedral and something out of the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: ASpace Odyssey.”

Oculus I

Measuring at approximately 800,000 square feet, the hub is the most integrated network of pedestrian connections in the city , connecting visitors to 13 different subway lines, the PATH railway system, the Battery Park City Ferry Terminal and the 9/11 Memorial & Museum among other destinations.

The Oculus is also home to the Westfield World Trade Center shopping mall ( westfieldworldtradecenter), which features more than 100 retailers offering everything from fashion and beauty outlets to technology and entertainment.

There are also plenty of eateries, both casual and upscale, with more planned restaurant openings on the horizon.

The 9/11 Ground Zero Tour ( is one option for visitors seeking to experience One World Observatory, the 9/11 Museum &Memorial and the Ground Zero area in a single day.

The 90-minute tours, operated by knowledgeable locals, offer the history of Ground Zero, along with stops at St. Paul’s Chapel and the Firefighters 9/11 Memorial wall.

Tickets also include expedited entry into the 9/11 Museum & Memorial, and admission to One World Observatory starting at $99 for children and $109 for adults. The 9/11 Ground Zero Tour is also available without observatory and museum tickets, and starts at $30 for children and $35 for adults.

Originally Published In Hartford Magazine March 2018