Grand Central Terminal in New York City is more than a train station. It’s a hub of activity with free family friendly holiday events. It’s a gorgeous, restored Beaux Arts building. And it’s a great place to wile away a few hours indoors if it is raining, snowing or just too cold to walk around outside. Read on to learn the secrets of Grand Central Station Terminal.
Updated October 2020
Grand Central in New York is one of three transit hubs in midtown Manhattan. In my opinion, the less said about Penn Station and Port Authority, the better. Grand Central, one of the premiere train stations in United States, is where you can catch a Metro-North Railroad to Westchester or Connecticut, or the 4, 5, and 6 subways and the 42nd Street Shuttle (“S” train) to Times Square. This summer, some Amtrak trains are running to and from Grand Central. In the near future, Long Island Railroad will have trains here to and from Long Island. There are some free things to do in Grand Central Terminal and other things that cost money.
What’s in a Name: Grand Central Station in New York
Just a bit of history. I grew up calling the place, which was then an unsafe and filthy eyesore, Grand Central Station. I picked up this nomenclature from my parents, who used the name THEIR parents used. In 1913, it officially became Grand Central Terminal. If you want to sound like a New Yorker, just call it Grand Central and be done with it.
Grand Central Terminal is actually the third station built in this spot. Cornelius Vanderbilt first built Grand Central Depot in the late 1800s. Grand Central Station replaced it. Then the Beaux-Arts Grand Central Terminal opened in 1913 following the banning of steam locomotives in 1908. Electric trains have been running since 1910. The Vanderbilt family name lives on in and around Grand Central. The change from steam locomotives to electric trains expanded the New York real estate market allowing additional swathes of land to be built on.
Native New Yorkers and visitors alike use the large clock on the main concourse as a meeting place. It’s a handy spot to meet up with your traveling companions. Just across from the clock, there are ticket counters where you can but tickets for a Metro North getaway. But you don’t have to wait on a line. There are also ticket machines, and tickets you can buy on the MTA app.
Grand Central Unique Features
One of the secrets of Grand Central is the Whispering Gallery. The decorative tile ceiling of the dining concourse, near the Grand Central Oyster Bar, creates the Whispering Gallery. Stand in one corner and position someone else in the opposite corner. Even in the din of a bustling train station, you can hear each other whisper.
TravelingMom Tip: Though midtown Manhattan is now quite safe, don’t let your guard down. Don’t let a young child wander away from you to test out the acoustics.
Look up in the main concourse. The zodiac ceiling, restored in 1998, shows constellations. But in reverse. Apparently, painters in the early 20th century placed the plans on the ground and painted the zodiac in reverse. Also, look closely for the dark patch that was left untouched in the restoration. This is from cigarette smoke. Remember when smoking was allowed indoors? Show this to your kids and they may never pick up a cigarette or vape.
Underground Passageway at Grand Central in New York
One of the delights of Grand Central Terminal (aka GCT) is a passageway that opened up about 20 years ago. You can walk underground to 48th Street and Park Avenue or 47th and Madison Avenue, from Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. If you have kids who dream about secret passageways and tunnels, this is an unexpected delight. It is also a good way to get out of the rain.
For grown-ups, the Campbell Bar, formerly the Campbell Apartment, is worth a peek. The speakeasy was never actually an apartment. It was used as an office in the 1920s, and restored as an opulent bar. Enter from Vanderbilt Avenue or by going up the marble staircase of the Main Concourse.
Also look at the lobby of the historic Chrysler Building, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. The rest of the building is off limits.
New Yorkers of a certain age all have a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis story. (I once sat behind her at a Lincoln Center production of “The House of Blue Leaves”. No, she didn’t wear a hat during the show and block my view.) Jackie O was instrumental in working with the Municipal Art Society and saving Grand Central from demolition. Look for the plaque commemorating this feat.
Holiday, Not on Ice
Every year, Grand Central hosts a Holiday Fair in Vanderbilt Hall, once the main waiting room, on the Main Concourse. Open November to Christmas Eve, the Holiday Fair features artisans, craftspeople and local businesses. Just walking through the market can put you in a festive spirit and it is a good place to pick up last minute gifts. Vanderbilt Hall hosts other special events throughout the year.
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Trains, Of Course, at Grand Central in New York
Grand Central sits atop a subway station, so trains are a given.The New York Transit Museum (which is in Brooklyn) has a gallery annex and gift shop in GCT, and the annual Holiday Train Show is on display from November to February. During the holiday season, model trains run through a miniature New York City, including a scale model of Grand Central. The store is also a great source of gifts for train aficionados.
Not Free – But Still Worth a Look
Take a Tour
Learn more about the history of Grand Central in New York with a guided tour. Docent led tours are 75 minutes long and led by The Municipal Art Society of New York. Tours are daily at 12:30 p.m. They cost $30 for adults, $20 for students, seniors, and children under 10. There are also self guided audio tours, daily, for $12; $11 for students, and $10 for seniors and children. Get the tours at the GCT Tours window in the Main Concourse across from Track 30.
Currently tours have been canceled due to COVID-19. You can take the audio tour from the safety of your own cell phone through an app for $4.99. Here’s how.
Can’t make it to the Big Apple? This virtual tour is pretty amazing!
Foodie Delight: Fine Dining – or Casual Eats
The venerable Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, on the lower level, has been cracking open bivalves for over a century. Early in the 20th century, before casual every day, businessmen slung ties over the shoulders before digging into seafood chowder. Now, a more diverse crowd (and women!) eat here, under the Guastavino tile ceiling.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar holds an annual Dutch herring festival every June. The Oyster Bar gets the first herring shipped to the United States. Special Dutch Martinis accompany the Holland herring.
Save yourself a trip to Copenhagen and the frustration of not being able to get a reservation at Noma. The Great Northern Food Hall, off Vanderbilt Hall, brings New Nordic Cuisine from the founder of Noma to midtown Manhattan. The breads and brownies are outstanding. We also love the Grain Bar, with its sweet or savory porridges.
The Lower Level Dining Concourse is an indoor food hall with some of NYC’s greatest hits. The all local stands include sweet treats like Jacques Torres ice cream and Doughnut Plant. Cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery are a must. Shake Shack has burgers and Hale and Hearty has soups that can please any palate or food restriction.
TravelingMom tip: Shake Shack’s legendary lines are somewhat tamed in Grand Central. If you want to try its famous burgers and thick custard shakes, this is the place.
Urbanspace @ Vanderbilt, across the street from Grand Central, has even more local food stands. You can find local Brooklyn artisan foods like Roberta’s Pizza, Red Hook Lobster Pound and Dough (for my money and calories, the best doughnuts in NYC).
Take Out and Gifts at Grand Central in New York
Grand Central Market has averted dinner guest distress when we’ve forgotten to pick up flowers or dessert. You can also get cheese, bread or prepared foods for a picnic in Central Park (a one mile walk). You pay for the convenience, but get high quality goods.
Actually, there are bargains in June. Every Tuesday in June, several of the stalls in Grand Central Market have one item heavily discounted. At Taste of Grand Central Market, you can sample a wide variety of local specialties for very little money. Each full size item is just $2.
Keeping Fit at Grand Central in New York
Vanderbilt Tennis Club has a regulation sized indoor hard court, along with two practice courts. You can rent a racquet or bring your own, and work off those doughnuts. You just need flat soled shoes to play here. Vanderbilt Tennis Club has pros who can teach you how to up your game.
Running to catch a train is another way to stay fit, without spending any money. And, if you don’t want to take a train to get to Grand Central, hop on a CitiBike. Several CitiBike docks surround Grand Central, so you burn a few calories before exploring all the food options.
Shopping at Grand Central in New York
One of the coolest Apple stores is on the upper level, overlooking the Main Concourse. You can buy the latest iPhone here or just pop in to get better Wi-Fi. Another destination store is Beer Table, which has a great selection of beers on tap. You can get growlers to go. There’s also a well-edited variety of stores, like Tumi, Origins and The Art of Shaving.
Have you spent time in Grand Central in New York? What are you favorite things to do?