What to See and Do in Grand Central Station
This post is a guide to Grand Central Station and what you can see and do there, including taking a tour, enjoy some food, and of course, catch a train. While you are in New York, you definitely shouldn’t miss seeing the largest train station in the world, not to mention one of the most beautiful. Head on over to Grand Central Station (it’s actually known formally as Grand Central Terminal) for a little exploration, and see why over twenty million people come to visit this station every year. We have put together this Grand Central Terminal guide with a mini-tour to help familiarize you with this grand space. (en español)
Grand Central Station is located at 42nd Street and Park Avenue (map). The closest subway station is at the terminal itself (and it is called GRAND CENTRAL STATION) and is serviced by 4, 5, 6, and 7 trains as well as the S shuttle train from Times Square – 42nd Street.
Due to its Midtown location, the terminal is located near several popular attractions, including:
- Empire State Building
- Times Square
- Bryant Park
- New York Public Library
- Rockefeller Center
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- United Nations
Hours: 5:00am-2:00am (the subways run to this stop 24 hours a day, but the terminal building itself closes for a few hours each morning.)
This building is chock-full of amazing history, details, and quirks. Whether you see it on the tour or explore on your own, this unique and beautiful piece of New York City should not be missed. There are several ways to tour Grand Central Terminal.
- Free Tours by Foot offers a two-hour tour of Grand Central on Sundays at 10 am and sometimes at 1 pm.
- The Grand Central Partnership offers a free (donations accepted) tour every Friday @ 12:30 pm.
- Grand Central Terminal Tour App – $5 download self-guided tour and visitor guide.
- The Municipal Arts Society offers daily, 75-minute tours of the terminal for $20.
The current Grand Central Terminal was opened on February 2, 1913. Prior to the opening of this beautiful, Beaux-Arts building, there were two previous stations on this site: Grand Central Depot and Grand Central Station. The previous buildings served to unite all of the existing rail lines in New York at the time and to bring them all under one roof. From 1903 to 1913, Grand Central Station was systematically torn down and the current Grand Central Terminal was built in its place.
The architectural firms of Reed and Stem and Warren and Wetmore designed the massive granite building. The station was considered revolutionary in many ways. The station was electric, bi-level and the tracks were below ground. This novel scheme made for more efficient rail traffic and also opened up Park Avenue north of Grand Central, which had previously been covered by rail tracks. Over 150,000 people turned up to celebrate the opening day of Grand Central Terminal, and it had been drawing crowds ever since!
For the most in-depth exploration of this building, sign up for one of our free Grand Central Tours! If you are going to visit on your own, use this as a guide to make sure you hit most of the hotspots. Click here for more detail on the history of Grand Central Terminal.
Start on the outside of the Terminal. Look all the way up to the top of the building where you will see a cluster of sculptures. This collection was designed by Jules Felix-Coutan and depicts Minerva, Mercury and Hercules. This represents Wisdom, Speed, and Strength, according to Roman mythology. When it was unveiled it was the largest sculpture grouping in the world and it was called “The Glory of Commerce.” Though Felix-Coutan designed it, he never actually came to oversee the sculpture’s completion. He explained that he didn’t want to come because he feared that “some of your American architecture might distress me.” (Ouch!) William Bradley of Long Island City, Queens did the actual construction/assembly of the piece.
Just beneath Mercury is the exterior clock of Grand Central. It is the largest piece of Tiffany glass in the world, measuring 14 feet in diameter. (This clock is also the only one that is a part of the station is set to the correct time, but more on that later!)
Look for the eagles perched on the corner of the building. These eagles actually adorned the previous Grand Central Station, which opened in 1869. The eagles have very lifelike and ferocious expressions on their faces. This helps to keep pigeons away. The statue out in front is The Commodore, or Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Commodore was the man that started it all by unifying the railroads at Grand Central Depot. The Vanderbilt family also built the current Grand Central Terminal.
The Main Concourse is the center of activity in the terminal, with people rushing through the massive, 275ft-long space trying to catch their trains. Take a few minutes to stand in the midst of the hustle and bustle to appreciate one of the most beautiful spaces in all of New York. You will probably recognize the Main Concourse from its appearances in dozens of films, from Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” to the animated DreamWorks film” Madagascar”.
Superhero fans should recognize scenes from the Avengers, Superman and the X-men. Check out our Superhero Tour of New York City.
Things to See in the Main Concourse
- The Ceiling – the stunning painted ceiling is one of the best-known parts of Grand Central. It depicts the constellations of the zodiac. Though it is beautiful, the ceiling is not astronomically correct. It is actually backward. This was pointed out by an astute commuter in 1913, but was hastily explained that it was meant to be from the perspective of God looking down, in keeping with medieval artistic traditions. Many think that it was not intentional and that the sketch provided by Columbia astronomer Harold Jacoby for the painting of the ceiling was simply misread and done backward by careless painters.
- The Clock – the four sided clock is possibly the most iconic feature of Grand Central. The clock is made of brass and was cast in Waterbury, Connecticut. It is said that the clock faces are made out of precious opals and that the value of the clock is well over $10 million! The clock has been a long-standing meeting spot for New Yorkers. Also, if you take a look at the clock and then a quick peek at your phone or watch, you will notice that the time on the Grand Central clock is a minute or so ahead. This is on purpose and is consistent with every clock inside the station. The clock helps people to not be late for their trains and prevents safety hazards with people running for trains that are about to pull out of the station. ** Some Fun Clock Trivia: In the movie Madagascar, Melman the giraffe breaks the Grand Central clock while the animals are in the station trying to catch a train to Connecticut. Fortunately, the real clock is in one piece.**
- Ceiling Smudge – while you are in the Main Terminal, look all the way over to Cancer the Crab in the corner. Just past that, where the blue and white meet, there is a small blackish rectangle. Believe it or not, that was once what the entire ceiling looked like. Half a million people or more have passed through Grand Central nearly every day since its opening, and for many years most of them were smoking cigars or cigarettes. The ceiling became coated with thick grime, and it remained there until the station got a massive restoration in 1998. Workers got up on scaffolding with buckets of soap and water and paintbrushes and cleaned away the years of build-up. The one spot was left as a reminder of how much work was done.
- Black Circle – If you look next to Pisces the Fish, you will see a black circle on the ceiling. This is because the Main Concourse was once home to a large American Redstone missile. It was placed there in 1957 to assuage American insecurities after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. The hole was put there so that the nose of the missile could be put into place. It was left as a testament to all of the different eras of history that Grand Central has seen.
- Carvings of acorns and oak leaves – Keep an eye out all throughout the station for carvings of acorns and oak leaves. They are everywhere! That is because Cornelius Vanderbilt chose them as a family symbol. The family motto was “Great oaks from tiny acorns grow”. Vanderbilt was a self-made man and that symbolism resonated with him. There are carvings all over the Terminal; some large, some small. The easiest to spot are on the bottoms of the beautiful 24-carat gold-plated chandeliers, which have 110 light bulbs each!
- The Biltmore Room – The Biltmore Room is also known as “The Kissing Room.” In the height of train travel for long-distance trips, the famous 20th Century Limited train from the west coast arrived at the tracks next to the Biltmore Room. Passengers, sometimes including movie stars and politicians, would exit the train and reunite with their loved ones in the Biltmore Room. There was much hugging and kissing, hence the nickname “The Kissing Room.” While you are in here, check out the back wall. On it, you will see a chalkboard, a relic from the early days of Grand Central. Before automated boards, it was someone’s job to sit there and hand-write the arrivals and departures on the chalkboard. This was no easy task because, in the heyday of Grand Central, there were over 550 departures every weekday. (There are usually 286 today.) That’s a lot to keep up with!
- The Whispering Gallery (right outside the Oyster Bar) – One of the most popular spots in the Terminal, the Whispering Gallery is often crowded with people who have their faces pressed into the corner. This relatively plain-looking space can do something amazing. The gallery transmits sound from corner to corner perfectly, so that you can have a conversation with a friend at the barest whisper and hear each other as though you were standing face to face. This architectural anomaly is caused by the precise arch of the ceiling and the tiled surface. Don’t miss this! Click here for a 45 second YouTube video demonstration.
- The Grand Central Market – Take a few minutes to walk through this gourmet food market, which features favorite New York vendors such as Eli Zabar’s, Li-Lac Chocolates and Murray’s Cheese Shop. The Market is open Monday-Friday from 7am-9pm, Saturday from 10am to 7pm and Sunday from 11am to 6pm.
The Dining Concourse
The Dining Concourse is located in the lower level of the station. If you are looking for a quick and relatively inexpensive bite to eat while visiting, this is a great spot! It has over twenty options, including local favorites such as Shake Shack and Magnolia Bakery.
“Campbell Apartment” Bar
Grand Central’s “hidden” bar can be accessed from the Vanderbilt Avenue side of the station. Despite the name, it was never actually a residence. The Campbell Apartment was the private office of railroad executive John W. Campbell in the 1920’s. Campbell leased this large, 30ft by 60ft space from the Vanderbilt family. He then paid to have the place transformed into a 13th century Florentine Palace. He had a safe built into a faux-fireplace and ordered a Persian rug that took up the entire floor. The rug alone cost $300,000 in the 20’s (as much as $3.5 million today!) Campbell also had a pipe organ installed and bought a grand piano for the office.
In the evenings he used it as a private reception hall, entertaining up to 60 guests and hiring world-class musicians to come and play private recitals. There was a permanent butler on staff named Stackhouse. After Campbell’s death in 1957, the office became a relic of a bygone era and became first a signalman’s office, then a storage space and then finally a small jail for the Transit Police. The Campbell Apartment was restored to its former glory in 1999 and opened as a bar. Drinks are not cheap, but it is a fantastic experience and truly feels as though you have stepped back in time.
The Oyster Bar
The famous Oyster Bar is the only business that remains from the very day that Grand Central opened in 1913. They offer one of the largest seafood menus in the city, with over 25 kinds of fish and over 30 different kinds of oysters. They just underwent a renovation, so stop by and check it out! While you are slurping oysters, be sure to look up and check out the beautiful Gustavino tile ceiling. The Oyster Bar is shown in the current opening of Saturday Night Live, as a background while they are introducing cast members.
Some Things that are there, but You Can’t See…
M42 – M42 is the most closely guarded secret of the station. The room is not shown on any map or blueprint and its existence was not even acknowledged for many years. It contains a massive converter that is responsible for all of the electricity in Grand Central, including the rail tracks. It is such an important room that it was the target of an important German spy mission during World War II. Two Germans were sent to debilitate the rotary motors, which would have cut off the power grid. Because we moved troops by train in the 1940’s, this would have halted troop movement on the Eastern Seaboard and would have been a major setback. The men were arrested before they could carry out their plan, and M42 is still a closely guarded secret.
Track 61– Track 61, a part is Grand Central, is underneath the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. It can be reached by a private elevator car that goes directly from the Presidential Suite down to the platform. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used it often because he disliked being seen in public in his wheelchair. Using this platform made it possible for him to travel out of the public eye. In later years, the platform was a fashionable (if bizarre) event space. Andy Warhol held a party on the platform and a fashion show has been held there. Though it isn’t used regularly anymore it could technically be accessed from the Waldorf Astoria in the event of an emergency if someone needed to get out of New York quickly and discreetly.
Tennis Court – Yes, you read that right! There is a tennis court in Grand Central, added in the 1960’s. It is currently owned by Donald Trump and is called The Vanderbilt Tennis Club. Superstars such as the Williams sisters have played there. Technically it is open to the public, but most people would have a tough time getting a reservation!
The History Channel’s website has more on the secrets of Grand Central Terminal.
Written by Katherine Weatherford
Photography by Ibrahima aka @nycpassion