Since Oct. 31, when a terrorist drove a truck into people on a bike path along the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, I've been thinking of how our perspective of places can change in a heartbeat. Officials are calling this the second worst terror attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, and it struck in the same neighborhood. Some may avoid this area, thinking it's a risky place to go. If you do, you're missing out and letting fear win over freedom. As a lifelong New Yorker, one of my favorite things to do is watch the sun set over the Hudson River at the tip of Manhattan, see the Statue of Liberty turn to a silhouette on the skyline, and later walk on the dark streets sparkling with lights.
Lower Manhattan is a place of special meaning. It's where the Dutch founded New Amsterdam in the early 1600s, the precursor of Manhattan. It's where millions of immigrants set foot after coming through Ellis Island and starting new lives in America. Over the years, it has been the center of government, Wall Street business, and economic trade. It's also a place of resilience that rebuilt after Sept. 11. This mix of history is seen in the cobbled lanes, graceful architecture, and on the waterfront. Whether you have always lived in or near New York, or are visiting for the first time, you’ll want to spend a day exploring this neighborhood. For starters, I've prepared a short list of historic sites that are all more than a century old. Most are national monuments or landmarks and many are free.
Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street is where George Washington took the oath of office as the first U.S. president. Inside you'll find a visitor center and exhibit of American flags. Federal Hall is a national monument and free to visit. Read more.
Battery Park and Ferries to Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty
"The Battery" dates to the 17th century, when the Dutch set up an artillery battery to defend Lower Manhattan's shoreline from invaders. Today, the area is a 25-acre park overlooking New York Harbor. From Battery Park, set sail for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Statue Cruises is the official ferry operator for these sites and your best bet is to book an all-inclusive ticket in advance. Read more.
Pier A Harbor House
While you're near Battery Park, have a drink at Pier A Harbor House, which was built between 1884 and 1886 and restored a few years ago. I found this place by going on an excursion with a meetup group that hangs out at old New York bars. The elegant building is home to a loud and rowdy bar, so take your drink outdoors—I like the Awoshing White, the only New York wine on the menu—and enjoy the view.
Another remnant of Lower Manhattan's fortified past is Castle Clinton at the southern end of Battery Park, near where the ferries depart for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was built to protect New York Harbor from an invasion by the British in the runup to the War of 1812. Originally called the Southwest Battery and armed with 28 cannons, the fort was later renamed for Dewitt Clinton, who served as mayor of New York City and then governor of New York state. Today, Castle Clinton is a national monument and free to visit. Read more.
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
I saved the best for last. Located at 1 Bowling Green, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is my favorite example of architecture in the area. The Beaux Arts building is a National Historic Landmark and home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the National Archives, and U.S. Southern Bankruptcy Court. Entering the building is free and so is the museum. The interior is marble and there’s a rotunda on the ground floor with the exhibit: "New York to the Nation: Exploring History Through the Holdings of the National Archives."
As you plan your visit, remember my list is just the "tip" of the tip of Manhattan. For a longer list of sites, old and new, visit the official New York City tourism website.
In addition, consider taking a Big Onion walking tour of Lower Manhattan. I've done a few of these tours in different parts of New York City and they are consistently good. Read more about Big Onion's "Lower Manhattan: Forging the Historic Metropolis."