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The great harbor of New York and the grand lady who guards it are, after Ground Zero and the Empire State Building, the city’s top must-visit attractions. You’ll follow in the footsteps of the millions of immigrants and visitors who came here before you, their way lighted by the torch and the promise inscribed on the statue’s base: that the “teeming masses yearning to breathe free” would find succor, freedom from persecution, and economic opportunity in this new land.

Every piece of the statue has meaning. The seven rays in the crown represent the seven seas of the world, and the 25 windows there give a nod to the 25 gemstones found on Earth. On the tablet Liberty is holding are inscribed the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. And though it's difficult to see, Liberty is breaking shackles with her right foot.

You will have a fine view of Lady Liberty from the shores of Battery Park, but if you have the time, it’s worth it to board a ferry out to Liberty Island and take the official ranger tour of the monument. The tour includes a small museum on the history of the statue and the chance to stand just feet from the original torch (it had to be replaced in the mid-1980s due to severe water damage). Limited numbers of visitors conclude the tour with a thrilling, exhausting climb up a circular stairway to the crown of the statue (go to the website for more than that and advance reservations). On the way up, you’ll view the intricate metal work that French engineer Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower) created to anchor the statue; it acts like a spring, allowing the “skin” of the structure to adjust to different temperatures and sway up to 3 inches in 50-mph winds. Note: the small, on-site museum is being renovated, with work expected to be completed in 2019.

Some history:

The French connection: Dreamed up at a dinner party of French intellectuals in 1865, the statue was first proposed as a hundredth birthday present from France to the U.S (and as a not-so-subtle jab at France’s then-authoritarian Second Empire). Fundraising woes kept it from being completed in time for that anniversary, but in 1881, after over a decade of begging for money (a lottery finally did the trick), sculptor Auguste Bartholdi was able to finish the massive work.

The battle for the base: Though the statue was completed in 1881, it took another 2 years for the Americans to keep their half of the bargain and create a pedestal for it. Newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer finally stepped in, and in a series of angry editorials condemning the wealthy for not contributing, he convinced thousands of lower-income Americans to send in what they could to get the job done. Thanks to their dimes and nickels, the pedestal was finally built (designed by Richard Morris Hunt), and the statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886.

Crafting the Lady: Repousse, a technique of hammering and shaping thin strips of copper, was used to create Lady Liberty. Though the statue is massive at over 151 feet from base to torch, the “skin” of the piece is just 3/32 of an inch thick. It is thought that the ancient Colossus of Rhodes was built using this method.A key to the symbolism: Every piece of the statue has meaning. The seven rays in the crown represent the seven seas of the world, and the 25 windows there give a nod to the 25 gemstones found on Earth. On the tablet Liberty is holding are inscribed the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. And though it’s difficult to see, Liberty is breaking shackles with her right foot.

Tips for Touring the Statue: If you do want to take the tour—and I recommend it—it’s extremely important to order timed tickets in advance, either by phone or through the website. Some 3,000 visitors take the tour each day, but on certain days, in summer and around the holidays in particular, nearly 15,000 show up and have to be turned away. To go up to the crown must book at least 3 months in advance or risk being turned away. This and the 9/11 Museum and Memorial are the two major New York sites that you really do have to plan ahead for, as often capacity doesn’t keep up with demand.

Those without tickets to the monument can take a ranger-led tour of the island, but the better option may be to simply stay on the ferry, which slows down as it approaches the statue, giving those onboard a good view of Lady Liberty in all of her surprisingly delicate beauty. Spend the time you’ll save to go on to Ellis Island, Liberty’s sister monument, with no entrance quotas. I think Ellis is ultimately the more rewarding of the two.