Visiting the United Nations headquarters in New York City is an awesome way to get an up-close look at how the international governing body functions. My boyfriend and I weren’t sure if it was possible to take a UN headquarters tour, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s very visitor-friendly and that there were plenty of same-day tickets still available. If you’re a little bit nerdy or interested in government, this is a great place to visit on your trip to New York City.
How to get to the United Nations headquarters
There is a bus stop for the crosstown M42 line right on the corner south of the headquarters. There aren’t any subway stops in the nearby vicinity, but we took a train to Grand Central Station and walked about half a mile to get to the United Nations Headquarters. The compound is located right on the river on the east side of Manhattan and is easy to spot thanks to the seemingly endless row of flags out front.
How to buy tickets for your UN headquarters tour
I would highly recommend buying your tickets online before you visit. You can still buy same-day tickets on site, but times were limited and it would be a shame to waste a trip out there only to find out that none were available. At the time this post was written, adult tours were $20/person, plus a $2 booking fee, and tours departed every fifteen minutes. Most tours of the UN were in English, but there are also occasional tours conducted in other languages. If you buy your tickets online, you’ll be asked to pick a seat, but it doesn’t matter which ones you choose. It’s a walking tour, so as long as there are enough seats for your whole group you’ll be fine. Guided tours are only available on weekdays, though the lobby and visitor area are open on the weekends. Tickets can be purchased here.
Getting through UN security
When you arrive for your tour, you’ll have to go to the check-in center first. It’s located across from the UN headquarters, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 46th Street. Only the person whose name is on the order is allowed inside to check in. A valid, government-issued photo ID is required. You’ll have your photo taken and be issued a sticker for admission. The other people in your group will get wristbands. It’s a bit of an odd system, because only the ticket purchaser gets their ID checked, but it is what it is.
Once you’ve checked in and gotten your sticker and wristbands, you’ll head back across the street to the UN headquarters building. They have airport style security set up, so your bags will be scanned and you’ll walk through a metal detector. Their website recommends arriving an hour prior to your tour time in order to get through the security process, though it took us less than fifteen minutes the day we visited.
Inside the United Nations complex
After passing through security, you’re admitted to a large plaza with several works of art. If you have time, make sure to check those out. There’s also an international monument to the victims of the slave trade towards the river. The outdoor plaza also offers a pretty view of Queens across the river.
If you have time to kill before or after your tour, you can explore the visitor center. There were two different photo exhibits set up during our visit. One focused on girls around the world and the other was about the Palestinian people, though these rotate regularly.
There is also a viewing window to the United Nations General Assembly room below, which will give you a good peek if it’s in session and you’re unable to visit the room in person.
A meditation room was designed and added as a quiet place to reflect regardless of religion.
The lower level of the visitor center has a café, vending machines, bathrooms, and a gift shop.
Touring the United Nations headquarters
Prior to your tour, you have to check in at the tour desk to receive a timed sticker. The tours depart from a designated meeting place nearby. There were several tours departing at the same time the day we visited, so we all met in a large group and divided into sets of 20 before beginning. Photography is allowed on the tour, so feel free to bring your camera.
The UN Security Council Chamber
I was a little surprised that we got to walk right in to the Security Council chambers and have a seat in the gallery. Of course, if there’s a meeting in session visitors aren’t allowed. Apparently people used to be able to sit in on meetings prior to the September 11th attacks, but after that security was tightened and the general public was no longer allowed to attend. The Security Council room is arguably the most important part of the UN because its decisions are binding, whereas decrees from the general assembly aren’t enforceable. This room was designed by a Norwegian architect and funded by the government of Norway.
The Trusteeship Chamber
This room is mainly used for gatherings these days because the Trusteeship group disbanded in 1994 when it was deemed that its mission was complete.
The Economic and Social Council Chamber
This group oversees the economic and social work of the various UN agencies. It was designed and gifted by Sweden.
The next stop on our UN Headquarters tour was the Disarmament display. It featured exhibits about the UN’s efforts to regulate weapons and work towards disarmament. The statue pictured here was found in the rubble of a church in Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb exploded. The front of it looks normal and suffered very little damage, but the back side was facing the blast and clearly shows the effects of the heat from the blast.
The United Nations General Assembly room
The last stop on our tour was the large hall for the General Assembly. This is where the meetings between all of the delegates are held. I thought the way the seating is assigned was very interesting. The delegates sit in alphabetical order based on the English spelling of their name, but the As don’t always get to be in the front. Prior to each term starting, the Secretary-General draws the name of one country, and they get to sit in the front left facing the podium. The next country alphabetically sits next to them, and the rest fall in line after that, wrapping from Z to A until all of them are seated.
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