Grand Central Terminal is one of NYC’s most popular tourist destinations—21.6 million visitors pass through its doors each year—but it’s also a major commuter hub, with 44 platforms spread out over 48 acres. Only Penn Station serves more passengers each year—and Grand Central is unquestionably a better place to wait for a train.
By the end of 2022, those numbers could rise, if the MTA’s long-awaited East Side Access project—which would bring Long Island Rail Road trains into the terminal—actually finishes as projected.
And unlike Penn Station, Grand Central isn’t a cramped underground warren; its dozens of shops, restaurants, and amenities (including a tennis club and a museum annex) are spread throughout a gorgeous NYC landmark, which is worth visiting even if you’re not taking the Metro-North.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a newbie, this guide—covering how to get there, where to eat, and more—will help you navigate the station with minimal stress.
How to get there
Since Grand Central is smack in the center of Midtown Manhattan, the streets surrounding it are often a hot mess. (Construction on One Vanderbilt next door isn’t making things easier).
To get to or from the terminal, your best bet is public transit: The 4, 5, 6, 7, and Times Square shuttle all stop at the station. That accessibility has helped make the Grand Central stop the second-busiest in the subway system, with more than 46 million commuters passing through in 2017.
Several buses also serve Grand Central, including the M101, M102, M103, M1, M2, M3, M4, Q32, and M42. If you’re traveling from one of New York’s northern suburbs or from Connecticut, you can hop on a Metro-North Train that will go to the heart of Grand Central. There are also two Citi Bike docks right across from the main entrance to the terminal, as well as docks on the surrounding blocks.
Where to stay
The area around Grand Central is chock-a-block full of hotels, with dozens of options for visitors—luxury lodgings, well-established brands, boutique hotels, and even some decent affordable spots. Here’s a selection of some of the best options around.
Grand Hyatt New York: If you want to stay right on top of Grand Central, this four-star hotel is the way to go; it opened adjacent to the terminal in 1919, and got its current glassy look in the 1980s. It’s now home to narly 1,300 rooms, three full-service restaurants, a fitness center, and a business center. Prices start from $175/night, according to TripAdvisor.
The Roosevelt Hotel: Pick this Art Deco gem for a taste of 1920s New York. (For fans of the show Mad Men, the hotel popped up there, too.) It’s located a few blocks north of the terminal at East 45th Street and Madison Avenue, and in addition to its more than 1,000 rooms, it has a rooftop bar with views of Midtown Manhattan. Prices here start at $134/night, on average.
Library Hotel: This hotel on East 41st Street and Madison Avenue is a biliophile’s dream: Its floors are based on the Dewey Decimal System (with themes like literature, philosophy, and the arts), and the rooms on each of those floors are filled with books based on those categories. This hotel is the priciest of the lot with rooms starting at $323 on average.
Pod 39: This hip budget hotel on East 39th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues is part of the popular Pod chainlet. Rooms run the gamut from a “mini-bunk” space that sleeps two in twin bunk beds, to a larger queen pod that sleeps two in a normal bed. Prices here start at $90/night.
What to eat
GCT is has dining options galore between its dining concourse (home to quick bites like Shake Shack and Hale & Hearty), marketplace, fine-dining spots, and food halls (including the Nordic-themed Great Northern). Here are some of your best options, according to our friends at Eater NY:
Grand Central Oyster Bar: “Grand Central Oyster Bar has occupied the subterranean space in Grand Central Station since 1913,” says Eater. “The award-winning space, with its vaulted, tiled ceilings is one of the main attractions here. The smart move is to sit at the bar and order raw oysters. There’s also the famed oyster pan roast, although not everyone is a fan.”
Agern: This Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant is “a solid choice for a posh lunch, with a two-course prix fixe for $38 and three courses for $48 plus tax and tip,” according to Eater. “The prettily-plated fare emphasizes seafood, like a carrot and mussel soup and lobster and barley porridge.”
The Campbell: Tucked away in the balcony area of Grand Central, this opulent space was once the office of railroad executive John Williams Campbell. The bar underwent a renovation in the spring of 2017, which further highlights some of its most stunning features.
The Grand Central Terminal that exists today is actually the third train station to stand at that site—and even this glorious structure was almost lost to history.
But first, a little history: In the mid-19th century, there was a growing need to create a dedicated terminal for the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, the New York and Harlem Railroad, and New York and New Haven Railroad. Railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owned part of the Harlem railroad, pushed for that central station to be located on 42nd Street where a maintenance shed already existed. Construction on Grand Central Depot started in 1869, and wrapped in 1971.
Around the turn of the century, the depot underwent a major expansion, more than doubling in size to accommodate growing crowds and reduce the turnaround time for trains. The expansion wrapped in 1900, and the building was renamed Grand Central Station. But just two years later, a collision that killed 15 people prompted the station’s owners to rethink its design, including equipping it for electric trains (rather than just steam).
Plus, the grand McKim, Mead & White-designed Penn Station was under construction across town, and Grand Central ownership wanted something that could compete. Two architecture firms—Reed & Stern, and Warren & Wetmore—spent the next decade designing the grand Beaux Arts terminal we use today, which opened in 1913. When it debuted, the station had all sorts of amenities including a salon, a barbershop, a shoeshine room, and a telephone room.
But as train use began to decline in the mid-20th century, Grand Central’s owners sought to redevelop the terminal. But the city, reeling from the demolition of the old Penn Station, had recently established the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect other historic structures. The Commission rejected Grand Central’s tower plans, and a protracted legal battle—plus action from civic boosters that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—followed. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the city, protecting the building for years to come. It became a New York City landmark in 1967, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places nine years later.
The building underwent a major renovation in the 1990s, which restored the terminal to its original splendor, including work on the celestial ceiling the reinvigoration of the building’s retail.
The future of Grand Central Terminal
Big changes are coming to Grand Central (and have been in the works for many, many years.) On of those is East Side Access, the MTA’s plan to provide a connection between Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road via plan to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central via Sunnyside Yards. Though it’s currently expected to be complete by the end of 2022, the project has already raced past several deadlines and is over budget.
Aboveground, One Vanderbilt, the 1,400-foot office tower, is sprouting next to the terminal and will bring several improvements to the area, including a new entrance to the terminal along with a pedestrian plaza on Vanderbilt Avenue.
Other Grand Central facts:
- Grand Central’s fourth floor hides a fully-equipped tennis club that’s open to the public. Vanderbilt Tennis—which was once an art studio, and then a CBS recording studio—has one regulation sized indoor hardcourt, one junior court, two practice lanes, and a fitness center.
- At nearly 50 acres, the terminal has the largest basement in the city, stretching from 42nd to 97th street.
- Bathrooms are scarce at Grand Central, and the ones on the Dining Concourse level can be absolutely mobbed. But there is a women’s room near the Station Master’s Office, on the upper level, where lines typically aren’t too bad.
- The New York Transit Museum’s Gallery Annex, located on the main concourse level, is a pleasant diversion if you’re waiting for a train; it has a shop, exhibits, and during the holidays, a cool NYC-centric train show.
- The ticket vending machines closest to the subway exits and entrances (so in the Lexington Passage and the south side of the main concourse) usually have long lines. There are two closer to 43rd Street that are often less crowded.
- Every single lightbulb in GCT is bare—when the Vanderbilt family built it, they wanted to showcase the advent of electricity. Other Vanderbilt hallmarks are oak leaves and acorns scattered throughout the terminal.
- Heading to the airport from the terminal? The NYC airporter offers shuttle service from as little as $16 one way.
- While it’s not part of the main concourse, Urbanspace@Vanderbilt is another great food destination just steps away from GCT, and part of the larger Terminal complex.