Grand Central Terminal is a destination, not a pit stop. It's a train station the way St. Patrick's Cathedral is a church or Central Park is a park—its appeal goes way beyond its stated purpose.
The beaux-arts landmark serves the Metro-North commuter line to upstate New York and Connecticut as well as the MTA subway system in the City (bus stops are right outside, and Long Island Rail Road service is on the way, too, if still five to seven years from completion). In all, there are 44 platforms for 67 tracks, along which 700 trains run in and out daily. Add scores of shops, dozens of dining options, a gourmet marketplace, one very fancy bar and, yes, tennis courts, and it's probably bigger than your local suburban mall. And we haven't even mentioned some of the details that make a visit to the terminal an event: the classical music playing in the dining concourse (and monthly concerts there), the "whispering" Guastavino-tile arches, the twinkling stars on the main concourse's brilliant blue ceiling—no wonder they call it "grand."
The terminal standing today has gone through some changes since a train station debuted here in the 19th century. Business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt bought up property for Grand Central Depot in 1869 and planned for the structure to merge the Hudson, Harlem and New Haven lines; due to regulations, new tracks could not be built south of 42nd street. It opened in late 1871, though overcrowding and safety issues quickly outlined the need for improvements; near the end of the century there were additions, modifications and a renaming to Grand Central Station. When a 1902 train accident killed 15 passengers, New York Central Railroad chief engineer William J. Wilgus called for a switch from steam engines to electric ones in his plans for a new two-level terminal.
The reconstruction began in 1903 and ended 10 years later with a grand opening on February 2, 1913, at 12:01am as one of the first all-electric-powered buildings.
The terminal was designated a City landmark in the 1960s, though developers challenged that in the courts and put Grand Central on the brink of demolition. With help from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the station managed to gain national landmark status (in December 1976) and stave off demise. After years of neglect, a major renovation finally took place in the 1990s. Today, Grand Central Terminal has been restored to its original splendor and remains one of the most popular transportation hubs in the world.
How to get there
The 4, 5, 6, 7 and S (42nd Street Shuttle) trains all stop at Grand Central Terminal.
89 E. 42nd St. (at Park Ave.), Manhattan
Shopping: The Apple Store, The Art of Shaving, Beer Table To Go, Central Watch, Kidding Around Toys, O&Co., Vince Camuto, New York Transit Museum Store
Dining: Shake Shack, Magnolia Bakery, Oyster Bar & Restaurant (note its Guastavino tiling), Café Grumpy, Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, Eata Pita, The Campbell (mainly classy cocktails), Cipriani Dolci, Grand Central Market (all of it)
Activities and attractions: Guided/audio/iPhone tours, Whispering Gallery, Holiday Train Show
• Since its opening, Grand Central Terminal has gone by three official names: Grand Central Depot, Grand Central Station and its current moniker.
• Roughly 750,000 people pass through the main concourse daily.
• There are 2,500 stars on the main concourse's zodiac-themed ceiling mural.
• That mural is technically backward—a mirror image of what you'd actually see looking up at the sky.
• You can still see a dark patch on the ceiling, near the crab's claw. Cleaners left the spot in the 1990s to show how dirty it was before restoration.
• An average of 2,000 items are lost each month in the terminal.
• A secret subbasement called M42 contains AC-DC rotary converters that power the terminal and played a crucial role in transporting American soldiers and weapons during World War II. As a result, the site was heavily guarded—and to this day M42 has never shown up on a map or blueprint of Grand Central.
• Track 61, boarded from a secret, abandoned platform, was said to be utilized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take him to straight to the Waldorf Astoria when he was in town. Andy Warhol reputedly used the platform to throw a rowdy party in the 1960s.
• The 20th Century Limited luxury line ran between New York City and Chicago from 1902 to 1967, frequently carrying society types and movie stars. For decades a red carpet was laid out for each departure from Grand Central.
New York Public Library (main branch): Find grand architecture and rotating exhibitions at the biggest public library in the City.
Bryant Park: The park behind the NYPL's main branch has an oversize lawn (which turns into an ice-skating rink in the winter) and seating—not to mention a carousel, ping-pong tables (seasonal) and coffee kiosks—around it.
Rockefeller Center: Things to enjoy at the complex include shopping, dining, ice-skating, WPA murals and a giant Christmas tree, plus tapings and tours at NBC studios.
St. Patrick's Cathedral: The famed 19th-century Gothic cathedral towers above Fifth Avenue.
The Morgan Library and Museum: At this museum and research center in J.P. Morgan's old digs, espy rare books and other printed materials.