Grand Central is one of the most iconic buildings in New York City. It has been featured in movies, TV shows, and musicals—yes, that’s right. Musicals, bitches. When it was finished in 1913, it was considered one of the greatest train terminals in the entire world. Today, it’s still one of the largest. It boasts 44 platforms (more than any other train station!) and is still a working station. Take my self-guided tour of Grand Central
Station Terminal to get the most out of your visit to this iconic structure.
Self-Guided Tour of Grand Central Stops:
- Vanderbilt Statue
- Waiting Room
- Great Hall
- Grand Central Clock
- Biltmore Room
- Graybar Passage
- Secret Rooms at Grand Central
- The Chrysler Building
- Grand Central Market
- Food Court
- The Oyster Bar at Grand Central
- MetLife Building
Stop 1: Vanderbilt Statue
Our tour begins outside Grand Central Terminal on East 42nd Street and Park Avenue at Pershing Square. Turn to Grand Central, and take a moment to admire it. Isn’t it wonderful?
Okay, enough. Pull yourself together, people. We’ve got more to see!
Built on the tail-end of the Gilded Age, the architects pulled no stops when it came to intricate detail. Just take a look at that clock. The clock face is the largest ever designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The 48-foot sculpture that encircles the clock is appropriately titled, “Transportation” and was created by French sculptor, Joules-Felix Coutan.
Coutan created the sculpture in France but never came to the United States to see its installation. Because (I shit you not) he thought that American architecture might “distress” him.
Yeah, that happened.
Take a look at the statue on the top of the bridge over Pershing Square. That’s Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who founded the New York Central Railroad (amongst others) and financed Grand Central Terminal.
Notice how I keep saying Grand Central Terminal—and not Station?
That’s because stations are where trains pass through. Terminals are destinations. Deal with it, Stamford, Connecticut.
Cornelius Vanderbilt considered himself a rags-to-riches kind of a guy. He was sort of the Donald Trump of his day. He claimed to have built his empire on his own—from the ground up. Though it was a $100 gift from his mother (nearly $1,900 today) that bought him his first schooner. It was with this schooner that he started the Staten Island Ferry.
During the Goldrush, Vanderbilt pivoted from investing in steamships to railroads.
This building is the third Grand Central in New York City’s history. Let’s head inside, where we’ll talk a little bit about why and how it was built.
Fun Fact: Famous descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt include Anderson Cooper and Timothy Olyphant!
Stop 2: Grand Central Waiting Room
Walk across the crosswalk and inside Grand Central. Head through the exterior and interior doors. When you see the Norwegian food hall on your left, turn to your right.
This is the old waiting room.
It used to be lined with wooden benches and was where passengers waited for trains.
Today, it’s a Norwegian food hall and event space. If you want to rent it out, it costs a whopping $10,000 a day.
If you face the direction you just entered from, you’ll see a flat-screen TV near the entrance. This screen plays images that tell the story of Grand Central. It’s worth a look if you have a few moments to watch. It also provides some solid imagery to the story I’m about to tell.
This is the third incarnation of Grand Central.
The first was Grand Central Depot, built in 1871. The second was an extensive renovation of the original depot between 1899 and 1900.
In 1902, the largest train accident on Manhattan Island took place at Grand Central (thanks to the dark maze of tunnels underneath the streets). The train barns were built out of glass, and conductors were instructed to cut their (coal-powered) motors before entering to reduce soot on the ceiling. The result? Two trains collided in a dark tunnel when they couldn’t hear the other approaching.
Engineers decided that the best way to make the tunnels safer was to rebuild altogether.
So, the old station was replaced by Grand Central we know and love today.
Head further into the terminal, to the next room.
Stop 3: Grand Central Great Hall
This is the Great Hall. I know that because that’s the name of this stop. Take a moment to enjoy it. Isn’t it marvelous?
The Great Hall is the heartbeat of Grand Central and where you can find most of the hustle and bustle.
Every day, more than 750,000 people pass through Grand Central’s Great Hall. That includes tourists, commuters, employees, and shoppers.
If you take a look at the windows, you’ll notice they’re double-paned. You might also notice a person or two passing through one. Yes, I said it. People walk through the windows here.
These are employees of companies in the nearby office towers. To get from building to building, they get to walk through not-so-secret passage ways in GCT.
Keep looking up until your eyes meet the mural on the ceiling. Recognize it? Yup, it’s the zodiac. The stars are lit up by hundreds of little lights. Notice anything wrong with it?
Yes, that’s right, people. The Vanderbilts hired Paul Helleu to design what was expected to be the most impressive mural in New York City at the turn of the century, and on the opening day people be like, “You painted it wrong.”
The Vanderbilt’s response?
“Oh no. Vanderbilts don’t view the zodiac the way mere mortals do. We view it as the gods do. Suck it.”
Okay, that was paraphrased. But you get the idea.
Take a look at Cancer, the crab. Notice anything amiss in that area? There’s a dark patch nearby. Back in the 1990s, GCT went through a massive reconstruction. Passengers had been chain smoking in the Great Hall for almost 100 years, and the ceiling was covered in a layer of soot.
The restoration techs left the dark patch there to show what smoking does to your lungs. Granted, on a cloudy day, it’s hard to find and not much of a PSA.
Now, take a look at Pisces. See the dark circle?
Okay, so bear with me on this one: in the 1950s, there was a missile on display at GCT. No joke.
The American people were starting to get freaked out by Russia and Sputnik (again, sound familiar?) and needed a little reassurance that America had weapons just as big. The government decided that putting a missile on display at Grand Central would prove we had our shit together—just as much as the U.S.S.R.
Lots of tour guides will tell you that the spot is there because the missile was so large it scraped the ceiling. Those tour guides would be liars. Liars, I tell you.
The spot is there thanks to the hardware they used to secure the missile in place. Don’t believe me? Just see for yourself.
Stop 4: Meet Me at the Clock
Now’s a great time to turn to the clock in the middle of the room. This is where people meeting at Grand Central traditionally–well–meet.
Appraisers believe the clock to be worth more than $10 million.
It’s also the centerpiece of the Great Hall and the topper to the information booth.
Take a look around the booth. Do you see a door? Look hard. Still don’t see it? That’s because there’s no doors in this booth. Claustrophobics need not apply.
Employees enter the booth two floors below. There’s even a small room inside the booth in case employees want to take a lunch break or something.
Stop 5: Staircase in the Great Hall
There are two staircases in the room. One leads to the Apple store, the other to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse (please, no. Just don’t).
The staircase that leads up to MJ’s is original to the building. It was modeled after the Grand Staircase at the Paris Opera House, and the marble was imported from Italy.
The staircase that leads up to the Apple Store? That was added years later. According to Grand Central Terminal, the architects designed it just a hair smaller than the other one. Just in case, in 1 million years, archeologists find GCT’s remains, they’ll know it wasn’t built at the same time as the other. Phew.
Stop 6: Campbell Apartment
If you head up the stairs toward Michael Jordan’s, you’ll also get access to a bar and restaurant, the Campbell Apartment. John Campbell was on the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors. He owned private quarters and offices in GCT. The bar is pricey yet pretty cool. It does a great job of transporting visitors back to the days of razzamatazz in the 1920s.
Stop 7: Biltmore Room
Head to the right of the staircase near Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. Keep walking past the stationmaster’s office and the Starbucks.
(You’ll pass by a passenger waiting area that houses a few of the original wooden benches from the original waiting room.)
You’ll eventually end up in the Biltmore Room. Go to the back of the room to the old-school arrivals and departures board.
The Biltmore Room is appropriately named, as the Biltmore Hotel used to be located above the room. The high-end trains from the West Coast would drop passengers off here. Many celebrities would disembark the train here and head right up to the hotel.
This is a great spot to tell you guys a little about some of the red-hot areas of GCT we can’t visit today on our self-guided tour of Grand Central. I know, totally hot spot-block, right?
There’s a track that’s no longer in service at GCT: Track 61.
This was the personal track used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt whenever he would visit New York City. (It’s a tradition for United States Presidents to stay at the nearby Waldorf Astoria.)
FDR (as many people now know) suffered from Polio, a fact that the government liked to keep quiet. They believed that his being in a wheelchair would make him look weak.
To keep his weakened condition under wraps, he would go to great lengths to avoid the public.
FDR’s train would pull into Grand Central to Track 61, where his car would detach from the train. It would coast past Grand Central, under Park Avenue, and to the Waldorf Astoria. There, it would board an elevator that would take the president to the Presidential Suite.
It was the 1940s way of saying to any possible gawkers, “New Pres, who dis?”
During World War II, Grand Central was where most of America’s troupes passed through before they were shipped out to Europe.
Which made GCG a huge target for possible attacks. This is why all maps removed the existence of such a room , and the control room for Grand Central is still, to this day, not located on any map.
(BTW: during WWII, the windows in the Great Hall were blacked out, so the building couldn’t be spotted from planes flying overhead. It took months to scrape off all the paint after the war.)
Yes, there are tennis courts at Grand Central. Yes, you can reserve them. No, you can’t do it last minute. No, they’re not cheap.
Head back into the Great Hall. Head toward the staircase that leads up to the Apple Store. Exit the Great Hall through the exit to the left of the staircase to the Grayson Passage.
Keep walking till you get to the exit to the street. Exit out the doors, cross the street, and head into the Chrysler Building (across the street to a slight right).
Stop 8: Chrysler Building
You can’t take a self-guided tour of Grand Central without visiting the Chrysler Building.
The Chrysler Building is one of the great Art Deco skyscrapers of New York City. It was built by Walter P. Chrysler during an era when the city encouraged builders to go upwards instead of outwards (as Manhattan was running out of space).
The exterior of the building was designed to look like the hubcap of a car. Which I find to be total BS.
Okay, I get it. It has hood ornaments and is made to look like shiny chrome. But it doesn’t really look like a hubcap. So there.
Inside, the lobby is just as splendid.
If you go on Monday through Friday, between 8 AM and 6 PM, you can visit the lobby.
The murals inside were designed to look like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. That’s because the builders believed the Chrysler Building to be just as important as the great wonders of the world, like the pyramids.
I dig it.
Finished in 1930, the Chrysler Building was the tallest building in the world until the Empire State Building was finished in 1931.
Technically, the Chrysler Building went from being the second-tallest, to the tallest, to the second tallest in a matter of months.
During its construction, it was in strict competition with 40 Wall Street for its title to “tallest building in the world”.
Every week, the Chrysler Building would add a floor, and then 40 Wall Street would add a floor. The Chrysler Building would add a floor, then 40 Wall Street would add a floor. This went on for months.
Finally, 40 Wall Street found out that the Chrysler Building was going to stop when it reached 925 feet. So 40 Wall Street stopped at 927 feet. 927 feet. 927 feet. They only gave themselves two feet of wiggle room.
For a few months, 40 Wall Street was the tallest building in the world. Little did they know, the Chrysler Building had a secret trick up their sleeves.
Overnight, the architects of the Chrysler Building hoisted a secret spire through the roof, making the Chrysler the tallest building in the world, clocking in at 1,050 feet. Boom.
The architects of 40 Wall Street were all, “Nuh-uh, you can’t do that.”
The architects of the Chrysler Building were all, “We just did. Deal with it.”
The point was moot a few months later when the Empire State Building was finished, clocking in at 1,454 feet (including its spire!).
Head back into Grand Central, the way you came out.
Stop 9: Graybar Passage
Up next on our self-guided tour of Grand Central is the Graybar Passage. When you get back into Grand Central, head halfway down the hall and look up. Stop when you see a mural. The mural was painted by Edward Trumbull, the same artist who painted the murals in the Chrysler Building. It depicts the history of transportation. No one knows why the only mural is on this one section of vaulted ceiling—and not any of the others.
This passage is called the Graybar Passage, named after the Graybar Building, one of the office towers that bookends Grand Central.
One of the perks of working here is that you can take a commuter train into Grand Central and not worry about braving the elements to get from the train terminal to your work every day.
Head back toward the terminal. When you exit the Graybar Passage, take a left. You’ll see the Grand Central Market on the left-hand side.
Stop 10: Grand Central Market
The Grand Central Market is one of my fave places for shopping for fancy groceries and food items. There’s a Zabar’s inside, which is one of the most famous bakeries in the city. When you’re done exploring, head back into the terminal the way you came.
Head down the escalators.
Stop 11: Grand Central Food Court
The Grand Central Food Court occupies the bottom floor of Grand Central. It houses dozens of grab-and-go food stalls as well as a few full-service restaurants.
Walk straight until you see Shake Shack on your left. See that little booth to your right? Recognize it? It’s part of the information booth upstairs!
Take a left at Shake Shack.
Stop 12: Grand Central Oyster Bar
The Oyster Bar has been a cornerstone of Grand Central for as long as the terminal has been here. They serve up some of the freshest oysters (a NYC staple), best clam chowder, and tastiest martinis in the city. The cavernous rooms are both beautiful and iconic.
Stop 13: Whispering Corner
The corridor outside the Oyster Bar is usually full of visitors facing the corners. No, they’re not in time-out. They’re taking advantage of the Whispering Corner.
There’s a phenomenon that happens here, where if you whisper in one corner, your friends standing in the other corner will hear your voice as if you’re standing right behind them.
The alcoves were designed by a man named Gustavino. The tiles used were lightweight, fire retardant, and loadbearing. No one knows if he knew of the acoustic benefits, but who cares?
It’s said that reporters used to sit in similar alcoves in the Oyster Bar and listen in on politicians’ conversations using the very same method.
Stop 14: Stop Acorns & Oak Leaves
If you head up one of the ramps a little, you’ll see air grates on the walls nearby. These grates are decorated with Acorns and Oak leaves. This was the Vanderbilt family crest. Because, “Out of humble acorns do mighty oaks grow.” Um, yeah.
Head up the ramp. This was the first train station to employ ramps instead of just stairs. A little easier on the knees with the luggage if you ask me.
Go back to the Great Hall. When you get there, head up the escalators. Go through the revolving doors, and head straight past the second set of escalators to the large room near the exit.
Stop 15: Penn Station
Okay, so we’re not at Penn Station. But now is a time as good as any in our self-guided tour of Grand Central to talk about the elephant in the room: the MetLife Insurance Building.
I did y’all a huge solid by bringing you underneath the MetLife, so you wouldn’t need to gaze upon the hideous structure.
This downright fugly building nearly replaced Grand Central Terminal when the historic structure was almost demolished in the 1960s.
Luckily, that (obviously) didn’t happen. Thanks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And Penn Station.
The old Penn Station (once where the new one stands on West 34th Street) was built by president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt in 1911. The brother of impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt, Alexander spent a good amount of time visiting his sister in France.
On one such trip, he saw the train station in Paris, became immediately jealous of the glass-covered platforms and electric trains, and decided to build a similar station in New York City, with tunnels that ran underneath the Hudson from New Jersey.
His homage to the Beaux Arts structure in Paris was demolished in the 1960s. Because the owners wanted to. And back in those days, if you owned a building, you could do whatever you wanted to it. Because…why wouldn’t you?
Up went the new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden that now looks like this. Ew.
New York City residents were infuriated by the demolition of such an iconic, beautiful structure. But what could the do? There were no laws that prevented it.
Grand Central just happened to be the next train station on the chopping block.
Luckily, Jackie O. helped to create the National Historic Preservation Act to protect historic structures. So the owners of Grand Central said, “Okay, we won’t tear down the building. But we’ll maim it beyond recognition.”
To which the Historic Preservation Society said, “Nope. Let’s amend our new act to ensure you can’t change any part of a building that is landmarked.”
So thanks to Penn Station’s demolition, Grand Central is still here in all its glory.
Oh, and by the way—plans are underway to make Penn Station look a little more like the original incarnation.
Thank you so much for taking this self-guided tour of Grand Central with me! I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. Even the bathroom breaks. And Especially the Shake Shack break. (Who said there was a Shake Shack break?!)
Need more inspiration on how to focus only on what you love in NYC? Check out a full list of attractions.
Don’t forget to read a few articles on how to hack New York City, so you can see more, do more, and stress less!