New York City is a notoriously difficult nut to crack. It’s easy to visit it and get swept up in its energy, but how do you get under the surface? See New York like a New Yorker? Have a truly exclusive New York experience?
Although a wealth of tours offer ways to see the various sides of New York, only a handful allow the uninitiated visitor into some of the city’s most high security, rarefied spaces, like the private presidential train station hidden in Grand Central Terminal’s most secret subbasement.
A Secret Terminal
The secrets of Grand Central Terminal, the world’s largest train station, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday, unfold in two in-depth tours from the Metro-North Railroad and the Municipal Art Society (MAS at mas.org/tours). As the sixth most-visited attraction in the world, according to a study by Travel + Leisure based on government tourism figures and industry reports, a crowd equivalent to the population of San Francisco passes through the station each day now. But that was not always the case.
“In the 1960s, when we received landmark designation, the building was saved, but it looked worse than crap,” said Daniel Brucker, the energetic docent-in-chief tasked with shepherding inquisitive VIPs through Grand Central’s secrets. “Homeless people — around 1,000 a day — crowded the floors, and it looked like a Civil War battlefield.”
Both tours explore Grand Central’s elegant history, which includes pioneering the term “rolling out the red carpet” due to the red carpet used to welcome guests who arrived on luxury long-distance trains. Tour guides tell how the station was returned to glory with the help of crusading New Yorkers, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who pushed the railroad to raise money to clean up the station.
The Metro-North tour explores spaces not open to the public, such as the upper glass walkways and lower levels. Depending on the length of the tour and availability, Brucker will show or tell about the typically off-limits areas, such as the transformer room that Nazi spies tried to infiltrate to sabotage the U.S. war machine during World War II and the private train station built for President Franklin Roosevelt that is still used by the president as emergency egress during his stays in New York.
MSA tours run daily at 12:30 p.m. and are led by volunteer docents trained in the history of the station and in art history. The Metro-North employee tours can be booked by private groups and begin at $1,000, depending on the size of the group and the scope of the tour.
Stage Door Tour
Though the building has remained virtually unchanged since 1932 — even the hydraulics powering the stage elevators are original — the Radio City interactive stage door tour offers a different experience for each visit and for each group, depending on the daily activities in the music hall.
On every tour, groups have the opportunity to meet a Rockette and either view the current stage setup, such as the enormous set now installed for “America’s Got Talent,” or watch part of the current performance from the private viewing booth.
Performers from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles and 98 Degrees to Celine Dion have graced the halls over the years, so in addition to meeting one of the Rockettes, who perform 210 shows during the Christmas season alone, you never know who will be onstage or pass you in the halls during your visit.
A new VIP add-on to the standard interactive stage door tour adds access to spaces not typically included in the walk-through: the rehearsal halls, the dressing rooms or the private apartment of Radio City founder “Roxy” Rothafel. Spaces toured depend on availability at the time of the tour.