NEW YORK – I am competing for space on the stately marble stairs with dozens of other camera-wielding tourists, all of us aiming our lenses at the teeming floor below. It’s like Grand Central around here.
And that, of course, is because it’s Grand Central. Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and there’s plenty to do here even if you don’t have a train or subway to catch. The grand station offers good places to dine and shop, and it’s also a good jumping-off point for a tour of 42nd Street.
The dozens of shops include such un-train-station-like names as Papyrus, Tumi and Vince Camuto. There are also a couple dozen eateries, including Michael Jordan’s Steak House, but my favorite is the one that’s 100 years old, like the train station: Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant.
Eat at the counter or — reservations recommended — a table. If you enjoy oysters, this is the place to consume them, with more than two dozen varieties offered. My own plate of Bluepoints, Malpeques, Fire Islands and Pemaquids was finished off in about 30 seconds. My husband opted for the Shellfish Platter, groaning with 10 assorted oysters, two cherrystone clams, three New Zealand mussels and two jumbo Gulf shrimp — not cheap at $34.95, but fresh and yummy.
Any place with that many food options has to have restrooms, and Grand Central’s are reasonably nice. An attendant cleans constantly and enforces the posted Rules of Conduct: No smoking, no drinking, no bathing, no panhandling, no littering.
The Beaux Arts train station was completed in 1913, and it’s still the nation’s busiest, according to its website, grandcentralterminal.com, which contains more about its history and construction than I have room for here.
Look up at the ceiling. Yes, it’s the celestial Zodiac, painted by French artist Paul Helleu — but it’s a mirror image. Notice the clocks in the station: a 13-foot Tiffany (the world’s largest Tiffany clock) above its 42nd Street entrance and the gold, four-faced one on the information booth in the middle of the huge grand lobby. Jackie Onassis led the effort to keep this station from being destroyed in the ’70s. Take some time to stroll its concourses, noticing the stone carvings above the track numbers. You might get lost in the hive or ramps, but you’ll find your way out.
Done with the terminal? Time to explore 42nd Street, on which the terminal sits. This formerly seedy strip is full of life from end to end.
As you walk out of Grand Central, you’ll see a line of double-decker buses, and they do offer fine, narrated hop-off, hop-on tours (Grayline’s is $99; others vary). But if you want to save money, you can treat yourself to a ride up and down 42nd on a city bus using the same trusty Metro Card you used on the subway. It’s $2.50 a ride, and when you get on the bus you automatically get a free transfer to another bus or to your next subway. You can catch the bus across the street from the terminal.
Go west first. You’ll cross Fifth Avenue, where you’ll see the New York Public Library, which usually contains a good free exhibition (now through June 23: the paintings of Mary Cassatt). Fifth Avenue, of course, is known as a fashion mecca. What two stores bracket it across from the library? Alas, the now-ubiquitous Zara and H&M.
At Sixth Street, you’ll see Bryant Park, former home of New York fashion week and now just a fun green space for New Yorkers to hang out in.
Times Square itself is full of neon fun, and in that area you’ll see many theaters. (Get half-price tickets in the line in the middle of Times Square.) The bus will pass B.B. King’s club and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, too. This isn’t a hop-on, hop-off bus in the tourist sense, but remember that bus tickets are just $2.50 and you’ve got one free transfer, so go explore what you want, then catch the next bus. On weekends, they’re 10 to 15 minutes apart.
When you get to the Hudson River, you’re at the home of Circle Line Tours, which offers various good boat trips around the city. Next to it is the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, which now shows off a space shuttle.
If you’re not getting off to do any of that, you’re allowed to stay on the bus and go back the other way. I suggest remaining on the bus at this point and looking at the other side of 42nd all the way to the East River and the United Nations, at which point you can get off and walk back the four long blocks to Grand Central, exploring some interesting architectural points.
You can walk into the U.N. and buy a $16 tour ticket on weekdays, but only through the end of this month. The U.N. will be closed to visitors from June until 2015 for renovations.
So, walk across the street and mount the steps to Tudor City, noticing the Isaiah 2:4 verse carved into the wall: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. National shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
At the top, you’re at Tudor City, the world’s first high-rise apartment complex of nine scary-looking Neo-Gothic buildings constructed between 1927 and 1932. Almost all the rooms face its western courtyard rather than the East River. Why? Because when Tudor City was built, there was a slaughterhouse back there, and nobody wanted to face it.
Walk west and find the the 1930 News Building (former home of the New York Daily News) between Second and Third streets and the 1921 Bowery Savings Bank Building between Lexington and Park, now a Cipriani event space.
At 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue stands the Chrysler Building, built between 1928 and 1930. At 77 stories, it was the tallest building on earth for a few months, until the Empire State Building (Fifth Avenue and 34th Street) eclipsed it. (The current tallest building in the world is the 163-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.) Pop inside the Chrysler Building. You won’t be allowed to enter the art-deco lobby, but you can take a good look at it.
Pop back out. You’re at Grand Central again, where you can hop a subway. Surely you have somewhere to be.