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Stuart Monk / Shutterstock
Victor Maschek / Shutterstock
Grand Central is not only the world's largest (76 acres) and the nation's busiest railway station—nearly 700,000 commuters and subway riders use it daily—but also one of the world's most magnificent, majestic public spaces. Past the glimmering chandeliers of the waiting room is the jaw-dropping main concourse, 200 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 120 feet (roughly 12 stories) high, modeled after an ancient Roman public bath. In spite of it being completely cavernous, Grand Central manages to evoke a certain sense of warmth rarely found in buildings its size. Overhead, a twinkling fiber-optic map of the constellations covers the robin's egg–blue ceiling. To admire it all with some sense of peace, avoid visiting at rush hour.
To escape the crowds, head up one of the sweeping staircases at either end, where three upscale restaurants occupy the balcony space. Any would make an enjoyable perch from which to survey the concourse, but for a real taste of the station's early
years, head beyond the western staircase to the Campbell Apartment, a clubby cocktail lounge housed in the restored private offices and salon of 1920's tycoon John W. Campbell. Located around and below the main concourse are fantastic shops and eateries—this is, of course, home to the eponymous Grand Central Oyster Bar—making this one of the best, if somewhat labyrinthine, "malls" in the city.
To best admire Grand Central's exquisite Beaux-Arts architecture, start with its ornate south face on East 42nd Street, modeled after a Roman triumphal arch. Crowning the facade's Corinthian columns and 75-foot-high arched windows, a graceful clock keeps time for hurried commuters. In the central window stands an 1869 bronze statue of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built the station to house his railroad empire. Also noteworthy is the 1½-ton, cast-iron bald eagle displaying its 13-foot wingspan atop a ball near the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue.
Grand Central still functions primarily as a railroad station, and might resemble its artless crosstown counterpart, Penn Station, were it not for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's 1975 public information campaign to save it as a landmark. Underground, more than 60 ingeniously integrated railroad tracks carry trains upstate and to Connecticut via Metro-North Commuter Rail. The subway connects here as well. The Municipal Art Society (212/935–3960; www.mas.org/tours) leads an official daily walking tour to explore the 100-year-old terminal's architecture, history, and hidden secrets. Tours begin in the main concourse at 12:30 and last 75 minutes. Tickets ($20) can be purchased in advance online (www.docentour.com/gct) or from the ticket booth in the main concourse.