Inside the United Nations

Jessica Allen

(Updated 05/22/2015)

Founded in the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations seeks to facilitate cooperation among nations, promote democracy and human rights and end war. When it began in 1945, the UN had 51 member states; today it has 193. The dynamic institution currently oversees nearly 120,000 peacekeepers in 16 operations on four continents, provides vaccinations to 58 percent of the world's children and aids more than 34 million refugees worldwide. Although the UN has offices around the world, its headquarters can be found on First Avenue, between 42nd and 48th Streets, making it a landmark NYC attraction.

The Basics

Every year, more than 1 million people visit United Nations Headquarters, located on 18 acres alongside the East River.

To see the UN, you must purchase advance tickets online for a weekday tour, offered in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic, as well as in other languages (e.g., Japanese, Italian and Swedish) by request. Knowledgeable, personable guides who wear either a UN uniform or the traditional garb of their home countries lead the tours. Do some research before you go and make sure that tours are available in your preferred language on the day you wish to visit.

As part of the tour, you'll see the Security Council Chamber, the Trusteeship Council Chamber and the Economic and Social Council Chamber. You'll also hear how the United Nations deals with such issues as human rights, peace, security and disarmament.

You might also want to reserve a lecture for groups of 20 or more, given by a UN staff expert. He or she will provide insights about a particular UN issue or mission. Got kids? Take the weekly children's tour, geared to children ages 5 to 12, with specially designed kid-friendly components like interactive games and puzzles.

History & Architecture

When the UN began searching for headquarters in the United States, New York City was almost rejected due to the lack of available space. But John D. Rockefeller stepped in with a donation of 18 acres, purchasing the area along the East River for $8.5 million from a developer who dreamed of transforming its slaughterhouses and cattle pens into a futuristic city within a city. Had the UN not been able to find space in New York, it likely would have been located in Philadelphia. The initial campus was completed in 1952 (a library, as well as some office buildings, were added later).

The land on which the UN is located does not belong to the United States; instead, it is considered to be sovereign territory with its own security force, postal service and fire department. Along First Avenue fly the flags of the UN's member nations in English alphabetical order, north to south, from Afghanistan at 48th Street to Zimbabwe at 42nd Street.

A committee of architects designed the UN complex, largely based on a plan by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. It consists of four buildings:

• Secretariat Building: the UN's largest building soars 550 feet and 39 floors into the air. It's home to the UN administration, including the secretary-general's office.

• General Assembly Building: the UN's member delegates meet at this domed, swooping edifice, in a hall that has room to seat more than 1,800 people. History is made throughout the UN, but here it gets debated, voted on and codified.

• Conference Building: this building houses the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.

• Dag Hammarskjöld Library: named after the former UN secretary-general, the library holds a vast archive of 400,000 books; over 80,000 maps; periodicals and publications related to the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN; more than 200 interviews related to the history of the UN; and assorted periodicals, newspapers and documents.

Public Art

Art abounds at the UN, thanks to thousands of gifts from member states over the years, such as tapestries from China, Romania, and Iran, sculpture from Nigeria and Mali, furniture from Oman, and a peace bell from Japan cast from the currency of 60 different countries. In 1955, the Netherlands gave the UN a Foucault pendulum, in which a gold-plated sphere, suspended 75 feet from the ceiling, moves according to earth’s rotation.

Significant elements of the art collection include a stained-glass memorial (1964) by Marc Chagall to those who died in the plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld, and murals by Fernand Léger (1952), the only art in the General Assembly Hall. A mosaic based on a painting by Norman Rockwell depicts people of all ages and ethnicities, along with the legend “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” (1985). For this reason, it's sometimes called the “Golden Rule” mosaic.

Perhaps the most famous of all the artwork displayed on the grounds of the UN, Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Non-Violence (1988) shows a gun whose barrel has been twisted into a knot. Evgeniy Vuchetich’s Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1957), a bronze sculpture of a powerful man using a hammer to transform a sword, was a 1959 gift from the Soviet Union and has a similar message of antiviolence. Along the same lines, the Soviet Union also presented the UN with Good Defeats Evil (1990), by Zurab Tsereteli. This 40-ton sculpture depicts St. George slaying the dragon and is made up of fragments of USS Pershing nuclear missiles and Soviet SS-20 missiles that were destroyed under the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Barbara Hepworth's Single Form (1961–64) was donated in memory of Dag Hammarskjöld. The stone sculpture stands 21 feet high, with a slightly off-center hole; surrounded by water, it is a monument of, and perhaps to, simplicity. Another abstract artwork is Sphere Within a Sphere (1996), by Arnaldo Pomodoro. Parts of this reflective circle have been cut away to reveal a complex geometric interior—a whole other world.

Most recently, the UN debuted a permanent memorial to honor the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Titled Ark of Return, the sculpture is by Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon (also the designer of the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan). The marble artwork has three distinct features: a map that illustrates the scale of the slave trade; a full-size human figure lying supine in a cramped space, giving viewers a visceral idea of the conditions on slave ships; and a triangular reflecting pool that affords an opportunity for quiet contemplation.

Unique Gifts

In addition to selling UN-branded flags, pens, notebooks, magnets, bumper stickers, T-shirts, hats, watches, desk sets and tote bags, the UN Gift Centre, located in the visitor center, offers a bonanza of global goods. Every object, including dolls, toys, sculpture, jewelry, clothes and vases, has been carefully selected based on culture and tradition, labeled with its country of origin. UNICEF and Women's Guild sell handcrafted items at the gift shop as well; purchases from both benefit children around the world. The visitor center also has its own bookstore, with titles written by UN staff, books about the UN, and memoirs, scholarly tomes and novels about the organization's key concerns, including global poverty and nuclear weapons.

The UN issues its own postage stamps, available from the United Nations Postal Administration. In fact, the UN is the only organization in the world (i.e., it’s not a country or a territory) that is allowed to issue stamps. Alas, the US-denomination stamps are only legal when mailed from UN Headquarters in New York. Designed by artists, they illustrate UN accomplishments and goals, or seek to raise awareness about issues such as endangered species and autism. You can even make your very own stamp: the Personalized Stamp Shop will put a photo of you and your family or friends onto an official UN stamp.


Go Green

Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza is named after the UN secretary-general whom John F. Kennedy once called “the greatest statesman of our century.” This long, lovely park on 47th Street, between First and Second Avenues, has benches, steel pavilions, fountains and a year-round weekly greenmarket. One walk through and you might feel as if you've been transported to Paris. But then you'll hear tourists and diplomats chatting in Urdu, Cantonese, Wolof or Russian and remember that you're across the street from the UN.

Sometimes known as Peace Park, Ralph Bunche Park, located at First Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, memorializes a former UN mediator, secretary and diplomat. Within its shady confines the park boasts a few noteworthy features, including Peace Form One (1980), a 50-foot-high stainless steel obelisk by Daniel LaRue Johnson, and a spectacular granite staircase leading to Tudor City, a sedate neighborhood full of Gothic apartment buildings. Pause at the bottom of the staircase and look up—you'll be rewarded with a terrific view of the Chrysler Building.

Cultural Venues

Turtle Bay, the neighborhood surrounding the United Nations, offers a few prominent museums and art societies. Affiliated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Museum of Tolerance New York sponsors exhibits, workshops and training to help people confront racism, bigotry and prejudice, and to learn to embrace diversity and plurality. Established by the government of Spain to promote the Spanish language and Spanish and Hispanic-American culture, Instituto Cervantes holds classes, sponsors lectures and events, and maintains a large library of DVDs, periodicals, books and other materials. For more than a century, Japan Societyhas sought to strengthen and enhance the ties between the United States and Japan through performances, an on-site art gallery, workshops, talks and classes.

Eat! Manger!

Unsurprisingly, the streets near the UN offer dining options for just about every palate and preference. Sip Sak specializes in Turkish food in a casual but elegant dining room. Pescatore does moderately priced Italian, while Crave Fishbar offers super-fresh seafood, including several raw preparations. For a classic American steak house, try The Palm (also known as Palm One) or Palm Too, across the street.

Among the many Japanese restaurants in the area, Sakagura stands out for its enormous selection of sake as well as its location, in the basement of a nondescript office building. Aburiya Kinnosuke is an upscale izakaya (similar to a pub), with an emphasis on robata (a style of grilling). With its popular roof deck, Pampano is a fun place for Mexican food. Socarrat makes many varieties of paella, all rib sticking and tremendously filling.