Docked in the Hudson River, way over on Twelfth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, is the USS Intrepid—an aircraft carrier that served in World War II and the Vietnam War. After it was decommissioned in the 1970s, the ship reopened in 1982 as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Today, visitors to the museum can view up close a variety of military aircraft, the USS Growler submarine and the Enterprise, the prototype space shuttle orbiter that paved the way for an important phase of American space exploration.
The 25,000-ton ship is hard to overlook physically once you’re faced with it, yet a visitor could easily miss the attraction because of its location all the way west in Manhattan—but not if they use our handy guide below.
How to Get There
If you’re up for some walking, take an A, C or E subway train to 42nd Street-Port Authority and then travel on foot to Twelfth Avenue, heading north a few blocks along the way. The walk should take you about 15 minutes. The M42 and M50 crosstown buses can also get you to the museum—they stop much closer than the subway does. For maximum convenience, you can always just take a cab from your starting point.
Pier 86, Twelfth Avenue (West Side Highway) at West 46th Street
We took a tour with Molly, whose knowledge and enthusiasm made it easy to make the most of a couple of hours on the ship (we were not able to cover all the exhibitions in that time; a visit could easily last longer).
This is where visitors enter and get an overview of the ship. It’s where Molly told us about the carrier’s history—including tours of duty in World War II and the Vietnam War, as a recovery vessel for NASA missions and in nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. It’s also where films and exhibitions that give additional context are shown.
Among the more interesting objects on this level: models of the ship during different phases of its service; a Grumman Avenger, a World War II–era torpedo bomber with folding wings; and a ball turret from a torpedo gunner plane. It’s sobering to think about a man balling up into the tiny turret and firing a machine gun from within that space. Those missions were extremely dangerous, and many of the gunners died—others experienced severe hearing loss from the sound of the gun.
In addition to the war artifacts in the Hangar Deck, the space program–related items and exhibitions are absorbing—and, on the whole, much less somber. This is where, among other stories, Molly told the tale of John Young, an astronaut who smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto Gemini 3—the first manned Gemini mission—and shared it with crewmate Gus Grissom. This caused some consternation, as the weightless crumbs from the sandwich could have gotten into the ship’s electronics. Fortunately, the worst consequence was that upon landing, prior to the Intrepid recovering their space capsule, Grissom lost his lunch.
Also on display here: Grissom’s medical prescription for whiskey (more on that later) and a space capsule.
Combat Information Center
This portion of the Intrepid—in the Gallery Deck, up a narrow staircase from the Hangar Deck and unfortunately not accessible to those with mobility issues—is where sailors used radar, sonar and intelligence to guide their decisions. It’s filled with artifacts from the ship’s service in World War II. There’s radar equipment, glass plotting boards on which men wrote backward so their writing would be legible on the other side, a massive 1940s computer in the cryptology room and a squadron ready room where the men would receive briefings right before takeoff. When they had some spare time to relax, they could smoke and play cards in that same room—but they could only get alcohol with a prescription.
Pneumatic tubes, used to ferry messages from one point to another in the ship, are another fascinating sight for those of us used to the ease of the digital age. There’s also an escalator, which brought pilots up to the flight deck so they could conserve energy for their missions.
Aviation enthusiasts will enjoy the chance to see military aircraft not only from the United States but also the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Italy; the deck holds a couple dozen or so of them.
Space Shuttle Pavilion
Stepping from the flight deck into the Space Shuttle Pavilion provides the chance to see the Enterprise, the prototype orbiter that paved the way for America’s space shuttle program.
The thing is massive, and you can see it up close from below and, via a platform, from above. It’s an immersive experience: as you enter the pavilion, you’ll hear taped conversations between Enterprise’s pilots and mission control.
The exhibition provides an overview of the work that went into the space shuttle program—and, later, in getting the Enterprise into the Intrepid Museum. It wasn’t easy.
The USS Growler guided missile submarine is the only attraction of its kind open to the public in America. A peek into the sub is included with general admission, and allows you to see where large crews lived underwater for months at a time—imagining what it might be like to live in a confined space with no sun, among torpedoes—but at least with access to movies and board games.
In spring 2018 the museum opened A View from the Deep, an exhibit about the Growler. The display is free, even for those who haven’t paid museum admission, and digs into the submarine’s role as an armed vessel with nuclear missiles during the Cold War. The exhibit, housed in a separate building on the pier, is fully accessible; the museum made that a priority because the Growler’s shape, size and stairs make it difficult for visitors with disabilities to enter and make their way around.
Visitors to the Intrepid can climb aboard a British Airways Concorde, the supersonic jet that carried VIPs across the Atlantic at record speeds.
• Try to visit the Flight Deck either early or late in the day. It’s reinforced with steel and gets very hot, especially midday in summer.
• Be aware that there’s sometimes a line for the Growler, and it takes a while to get through. Budget your time so you get your chance.
• If you can’t spare too much time at the Intrepid, consider arriving first thing in the morning, before the big crowds arrive. That’ll make for a more efficient visit.
• Hungry? The Intrepid recently opened the Aviator Grill, an on-site restaurant that’s open every day from 10am to 5pm (6pm in summertime).
• For a quick snack elsewhere in the neighborhood, try Underwest Donuts (across the street in a car wash). For something more substantial, consider a stop an avenue over at Gotham West Market. There you'll find the likes of ramen, tapas and tacos.
• The museum hosts public programming all year long, with an especially busy calendar over the summer. Popular events include family sleepovers and summer movie nights on the flight deck (among the highlights: an annual screening of Top Gun, surrounded by real fighter jets). For details, visit intrepidmuseum.org.