United Nations Headquarters Tour – A Surreal and Educational Experience

It was 11am and we were rushing to the United Nations (UN) Headquarters for our 11.45am guided tour of the premises. Even though most tourists will skip the UN Headquarters in favor of flashier attractions in Manhattan New York City, we decided to visit this iconic structure because of the UN’s important role in world affairs. This is our review of the UN tour.

A Short History of the UN

UN FacadeWhile on our way, I did a quick google search to learn about the history of the United Nations headquarters. The UN was founded in 1945 to promote cooperation and peace between nations. The organization deals with global issues such as climate change, peacekeeping, food production, human rights, and more.

Construction of the New York City headquarters began in 1947 and was completed in 1952. It was designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who was a very prominent figure in the development of modern architectural style.

UN Headquarters Structure

UN MapClick on the pictures to zoom in.

The UN headquarters is made up of four buildings: the General Assembly Building, the Conference Building, the Secretariat Building and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library (see picture above). The General Assembly houses one meeting room chamber, while the Conference Building houses the other three (see chart above). We only visited the General Assembly Building and Conference Building as the other two buildings are not open to the general public.

How to Book the UN Tour

It is really easy to book your tickets in advance online. I highly recommend booking online because if you buy your tickets at the desk, you can only get the tickets for the next available tour – you would not be able to book a tour ahead of time.

1. Visit the UN Tickets site

Go to the UN tickets site and click on the relevant month’s tickets. This will bring you to the ticket vendor Vendini’s website.

2. Choose your Tour Date

3. Choose your Tour Timing

4. Select Your Type of Ticket
Click on “Best Available Seats” and choose the type of tickets based on the visitor’s age. The “Delivery Option” in the dropdown does not matter because your email confirmation will serve as your ticket. Note that there is an additional $2 fee added by the ticket vendor, Vendini. The final ticket prices are below:

Adult – $22
Child (5 to 12) – $13
Student (13+) – $15
Senior (60+) – $15

5. Make Payment

Enter in your credit card details.

6. Check for Email ConfirmationAfterwards, check your inbox to ensure that you received the email confirmation from Vendini. This email will serve as your ticket for the UN tour. Below are some important things to take note for your tour! Check out the links at the bottom of this article for more details.

– You are required to bring your passport for the security check
– Arrive one hour early because you have to go through a security check
– You are required to obtain a security pass from the Visitors Check-in Office across the street before entering the UN.
– After arriving at the UN, walk to the Cashiers Desk at the back of the General Assembly Building Lobby to check-in for your tour.
– Children under 5 year old are not allowed to go for the tour

Arriving at the UN!

General Assembly Building

We arrived at the UN headquarters at about 11.05 am and it felt surreal to see the distinguished buildings in real life.

I was especially in awe of the General Assembly building, which exudes a stately charm with its expansive proportions and iconic dome, complete with flags of member nations lining the building facade. We spent some time trying to spot the Singaporean flag, and much to our delight we did manage to find it! (ok lah cheap thrill)

We quickly proceeded for our security check at the visitors’ entrance (46th Street and 1st Avenue). The security staff checked our passports before allowing us to pass through. Luckily, there were not many people in the queue so we didn’t have to wait for very long.

Note that according to the UN site, visitors are now required to obtain a security pass from the Visitors Check-in Office across the street before entering the UN. We didn’t have to go through this process when we visited in end 2015. Check out the links at the bottom of this article for more details!

After clearing security, we took some photos in the plaza outside the General Assembly Building before entering the building. We walked promptly to the Cashiers Desk at the back of the Lobby to check-in for our tour.

Our Awesome Tour Guide!

Our tour started on the dot at 11.45am, led by a very friendly and knowledgeable European lady. She was very professional during the whole tour and we learned a lot about the UN from her. She also answered the questions from our group patiently. On the whole, it was a very enjoyable tour that lasted about 50 minutes. Below I have listed the main highlights of the tour.

General Assembly Hall

Our first major attraction of the tour was the General Assembly Hall, situated in the General Assembly building. The hall houses the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which is the main policy-making body of the UN.

It felt surreal to step on such hallowed grounds where important international decisions are made. The massive chamber looked majestic with its sloping paneled walls and iconic UN emblem fixed on a gold background of cathedral proportions overlooking the stately marble rostrum. And we were impressed to learn that the seating capacity of the chamber is 1800! We took some quick photos and I had fun pretending to be a delegate engaging in discussion of serious world issues through a translation device (albeit being in a hall full of empty chairs). After a few minutes, we had to quickly leave the chamber as the next group was already coming in.

Trusteeship Council Chamber

Next, our guide brought us to the Conference Building where the three conference chambers are located. First, we visited the Trusteeship Council Chamber, which used to house the UN Trusteeship Council. The council’s role was to ensure that trust territories were governed in the inhabitants’ best interests. However, the council is now inactive (as of 1994) because all the trust territories have achieved independence. Therefore, we learned from our tour guide that the chamber is now used for other purposes.

The chamber was designed by a young Danish architect, Finn Juhl. As I entered the room, I could immediately tell that the ceiling was the central feature of the chamber’s design. Boxes with bright colors are placed between close rows of grilles hanging across the room, against a blue ceiling. This gave the impression of rows of colorful flags hung vertically against a beautiful blue sky.

Economic and Social Council Chamber

The Economic and Social Council Chamber is the meeting room for the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which is responsible for global economic and social issues. It also holds annual meetings with key finance ministers from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) committees.

We learned that this chamber was originally designed by Swedish architect Sven Markelius, and reflected the Swedish artistic style of the 1950s. It underwent a renovation that was completed in 2013, and the newly designed chamber was conceptualized by Swedish artist Ann Edholm. The curtain “Dialogos” in the chamber, with its alternate red and white triangles, is Edholm’s signature design. Edholm’s abstract work offers a contemporary perspective on Markelius’ original design, therefore symbolizing the importance of adapting to change while retaining the core values of openness and democracy.

Security Council Chamber

UN Security Council Chamber Mural (click to enlarge)

Last but not least, we were very excited to tour the Security Council Chamber, where the Security Council makes decisions on issues regarding international security. This is arguably the most prestigious chamber, given the importance of the council’s role.

The chamber was designed by Norwegian architect Arnstein Arneberg, while the majestic oil canvas mural was painted by Per Krohg, a fellow Norwegian artist. I found the chamber to be gorgeous due to the compelling mural that dominated the entire space. The bottom part of the mural is dark and sombre with dragon lairs, war machines, suffering humans, etc. In contrast, the upper part is bright and cheery with celebrations, salvation, and a young couple deeply in love. Therefore, it was clear to me that the painting symbolizes the victory of a bright harmonious world over the forces of evil. The emphatic resurrection of a phoenix from the ashes, right in the middle of the painting, asserts this metaphor.

Human Rights Section

During the human rights section of the tour, I learned from our guide about the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), designed by Brazilian artist Octavio Roth. Essentially, this is a universal standard of fundamental human rights. It was interesting to see the 30 articles written by children and framed on the wall; which I guess is a gesture to mean that these rights are so basic that even a child is able to understand them.

UN Peacekeeping Efforts

Blue HelmetDuring the tour, our guide also highlighted the efforts of the United Nations in global peacekeeping missions. It was pretty cool to see up close the blue helmet and blue beret worn by UN peacekeepers.

Disarmament Stop

Statue of St AgnesOne of the more solemn sections of the tour was the Disarmament Stop, where we saw remnants of the nuclear explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. These included coins, bottles, and most emphatically, the damaged statue of St. Agnes. The guide explained to us that this statue was found in the ruins of Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki after the atomic explosion. It was eerie to stand up close to the charred statue and see the damage that had been inflicted by the horrific nuclear explosion. It was a solemn reminder to me and the rest of our tour group that the world would be a much safer place without nuclear weapons.

Public Concourse

Passport ChopAfter the tour ended, we made our way to the public concourse which has a gift shop (I bought some UN memorabilia here), a bookstore, a Coffee Shop, and even a post office where postcards can be mailed with UN’s very own stamps. We even got our passports chopped with the U.N. stamp here, which was super cool!

UN Art Collection

“Mankind’s Struggle for Lasting Peace” – Jose Vela Zanetti (this is just the centre portion of the mural, which is 18 meters long)

“Ark of Return” – Rodney Leon

“Sphere within Sphere” – Arnaldo Pomodoro

We spotted numerous pieces of beautiful art throughout the United Nations buildings. These are donated by the member nations. One of the more famous art pieces is The Golden Rule mosaic by American artist Norman Rockwell, located on the third floor of the Conference building. The rule is inscripted on the painting, namely: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

I also spotted a tapestry copy of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the Security Council Chamber’s entrance.

I was also very much fascinated by the mural titled Mankind’s Struggle for a Lasting Peace, painted by Spanish artist Jose Vela Zanetti. The huge mural – 18 meters long and about 3.5 metres high – starts at the left with the destruction of a family, before progressing towards the centre where an almighty figure implants a golden emblem of the United Nations, and finally on the right a young child looks on as mankind attempts to reconstruct a war-torn world. For me, this was a very powerful painting which symbolized the horrors of war and the challenges of sustained peace. However, I was gratified to see hope depicted in the painting, as symbolized by the radiant UN emblem and the bright eyed child at the end of the mural.

Finally we exited the General Assembly Building and explored the outdoor compounds. I spotted a shiny golden sphere and walked towards it for a closer look. Peering through the huge cracks, I saw that the sphere’s interior looked like gears of a convoluted machine. This bronze sculpture is known as the Sphere within Sphere and was created by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. He explained that the inner distorted “sphere” represents a fragile and complex world while the outer perfect sphere represents Christianity.

I also walked through the Ark of Return, a sculpture designed by American architect Rodney Leon that commemorates the end of slavery.

Other famous art pieces in the outdoor compound include the Japanese Peace Bell , the Knotted Gun, and even a piece of the Berlin Wall.

UN Headquarters Trivia

View from the UN compounds

It was interesting to know that the laws of USA do not apply in the UN headquarters compound, as it is considered international territory. This is to ensure fairness for all member nations’ delegates in the compound.

The UN has its own security team protecting the premises, and the security staff have similar uniforms as the New York Police Department (NYPD). NYPD is not allowed to enter the headquarters.

Conclusion

I am extremely glad we took the time to go for the UN tour during our short holiday in New York City! In addition to gaining a high-level understanding of the UN system and operations, I was also treated to beautiful works of art. It was breathtaking to visit the four chambers, of which interestingly three were designed by Scandinavian artists. I felt that the UN headquarters is almost a museum in its own right, with a beautiful architectural design and an awesome art collection that has impressive cosmopolitan depth. I highly recommend that you sign up for the United Nations headquarters tour if you happen to be in Manhattan, New York City.

Directions
Take subway 4, 5, 6, 7, or S to Grand Central Station. From the station, walk east on 42nd Street towards 1st Avenue.

United Nations Headquarters
Address: New York, NY 10017, USA
Opening Hours: | Mon to Friday: 9am – 4:30pm | Sat & Sun: 10am – 4.30pm | Closed on PH | Guided Tours on Weekdays only
Phone Number: 1-212-963-TOUR (8687)

UN Tour Useful Links
Guided Tours: http://visit.un.org/content/guided-tours
Opening Hours: http://visit.un.org/content/hours
Directions: http://visit.un.org/content/location
Online Booking: http://visit.un.org/content/tickets
Security: http://visit.un.org/content/security

About Evan

Evan is an idealist who is deeply passionate about life. He loves good food, travelling, reading philosophy, writing, playing music, exercising, and hanging out with loved ones. He is the co-founder of Eat and Travel With Us, a Food and Travel website based in Singapore. The philosophy is simple - to provide the best Food and Travel Guides!

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