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How the World Works: Touring the United Nations Headquarters in NYC

March 28, 2017 - by Ethan Wolff
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New York is not just a world capital—it’s also arguably the capital of the world. On the east side of midtown Manhattan you’ll find the headquarters of the United Nations, celebrating its 71st birthday and open again for public touring. The UN has recently completed a major renovation, returning all five of its buildings to world-class standing. Given the security restrictions of contemporary life, the interiors here are surprisingly accessible. Every weekday, energetic guides lead guests from around the globe through this historic landmark, which is as vital as ever, dealing with the affairs of the entire world.

united nations sustainability

Projections on Sustainable Development Goals and 70th Anniversary of the United Nations. UN Photo/Cia Pak. 

Arriving at the front gate brings the first inkling of an international crossroads, this one met with New York energy. People from dozens of nations can be seen near the entrance, their presence mirrored in the colorful flags that represent each of the 193 UN member states (plus the UN flag), flown in English alphabetical order from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It’s worth noting the key distinction that the United Nations is not the world’s government; instead, it’s an institution where negotiation and compromise can head off, and in many instances solve, some of the planet’s dilemmas.

Inside you can orient yourself with the UN’s newest feature: a free mobile app (search for “UN Visitor Centre – NY” to find it, or use the QR code on the poster when you first come in). The app provides a complete guide to one of the most intriguing elements of the headquarters: the over 65 works of art and architecture gathered from around the world and installed throughout the buildings. Not only will this help inform a visit, it makes a great keepsake, should you want to show the folks back home. The app underscores the way a visit here is as much a visual experience as it is a chance to learn more about “how the world works.”

entry united nations

Many of the works of art reflect aspiration, the hope for peace and a better future for humanity. As such, they’re moving, even as they reflect the distinctive style of a time, a place, and an artist. Spanish artist Jose Vela Zanetti’s mural Mankind's Struggle for a Lasting Peace stretches for 20 yards with an intense and moving survey of human suffering, and human hope.

Most New York tours are canned—the guides cover the same ground in the same way each time. The United Nations is different. Every day the guides have a 15-minute briefing on hot topics, making visits here a more organic experience, adjusted to the latest developments around the world. With group sizes limited to 20 people, you’ll be visiting with an intimate gathering. An impressive number of languages are offered, serving guests who speak Arabic, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.

un security council

You’ll get to enter the chambers of the Security Council, which has the not-so-small job of striving to maintain peace in the world. When you go in you can be forgiven for feeling like a character in a James Bond film. You can see the areas where the translators work, the iconic seats, and the general sense of gravity and grandeur that informs so many of the spaces here. (Many of the places on a U.N. tour are no longer open to audiences, so a UN tour represents a rare opportunity to visit these rooms.

That cinematic feeling is even more intense in the General Assembly, which is like the congress of the United Nations. Every nation is equal here, and there’s a definite thrill to standing in an arena where so much of significance has happened—and continues to happen.

united nations general assembly

The sense of things on a big scale lingers as the tour moves on to the East Corridor of the General Assembly. Here you’ll see some of the city’s only unobstructed views from the west bank of the East River, looking back toward Roosevelt Island, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, and onto the skyline of Queens.

Guides also help visitors to tour through various displays, which help illuminate the U.N.’s mission. You’ll learn about key elements of the organization, like its three pillars of security, development, and human rights. Graphics help relate the UN story, like maps depicting the 16 places in the world where the “Blue Helmets,” or UN Peacekeepers, are deployed. Symbols play a significant role here and guides will help unpack some subtleties, like the partially unfinished ceiling in the General Assembly. (Working toward world peace is an effort never fully completed.)

united nations nyc

Moving through the exhibits you’ll see some startling facts, like a daily military expenditure ticker, which by the afternoon will show a running tally of $22 billion or so. (It’s reset to zero each night at midnight.) You’ll see the disparity in land mine economics: $3 to purchase and $1,000 to remove. There’s a moving collection of artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s somehow all the more devastating for its focus on the aftereffects on household items, plus a statue of a saint, its solid stone charred and mottled despite having stood more than 500 yards from the impact. Touch screens provide additional insight, helping visitors to understand how the practical work is carried out in the field.

danse tanz stamps un

danse stamps un

For a unique souvenir, bring your passport downstairs where the gift shop and visitor café are located. The United Nations headquarters is not actually in the United States or even New York—it’s international territory. You can get your passport embellished with a special U.N. impression. There’s also a U.N. post office with its own set of stamps, another gift you won’t find anywhere else. Drop a note to the folks back home and surprise them with the postmark (it’s 49 cents for a 1-ounce letter to the U.S. and $1.15 for other countries).

Although you’re asked not to record anything, photographs are encouraged. It’s another unexpected element of accessibility, noteworthy in an era where governing bodies are closing themselves off to the public.


Planning Your Visit to the United Nations

United Nations Tour Guides John Gillespie

Guided tours are only offered on weekdays. The U.N. is open to visitors on weekends as well; entry hours are Monday through Friday, 9am-4:30pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am-4:30pm. Visitors are asked to leave the building by 5:30pm.

Allow extra time before tours to go through security. You’ll first need to register with a picture ID across the street from the U.N. at the Visitors Check-in Office, 801 First Ave., at 45th Street. All tours start in the General Assembly building, entrance at First Avenue and 46th Street.

September to December you’ll find the most sessions, although you may also find less access to main rooms at those times. January and February are quieter times at the U.N. (as they are across the city), and in those months the building is closed on the weekends. Tours do not run on about 10 holidays per year. Children under 5 are allowed in the building, but because of security reasons they are not allowed on the tours.

Tickets cost $22 for adults, $15 for seniors (60 and up) and students (13 and up), and $13 for children ages 5 to 12. Advance reservations are recommended, although a limited number of same-day tour tickets are sold on site.

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