During a brisk morning ride on the New York City subway, the average commuter trying to get to work might not even bother looking out of the train window.
But the nonchalant commuter’s loss is the savvy tourist’s gain. You can have an extraordinary tour of New York—complete with panoramic views, music, art and even food—without ever leaving the subway system. And there is no better time to let the trains act as your guide than this fall, when New York observes the subway’s centennial.
Of course, the nickel fare riders paid when the first trains ran on Oct. 27, 1904 is long gone. But at $2, it’s still the cheapest way to get around New York.
The 722-mile lifeline, which carries 7 million people daily, is also relatively safe and clean. “People have an idea that it’s a rat’s nest full of crime,” said Brian J. Cudahy, author of “A Century of Subways” and several other books dealing with New York’s transit history. “None of that is true.”
But it takes a daylong, crisscrossing trip on the trains to understand that, and to take in all the subway has to offer.
If you’re looking for music, you’re most likely to find it in busy midtown Manhattan stations. Some performers are sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and have official “Music Under New York” signs, like the trio of young women who often play classical strings near the turnstiles at the Rockefeller Center stop; others just show up, impromptu, with a guitar, drum or accordion and put on shows in between the noisy trains’ arrivals and departures.
If you need a snack, many stations have newsstands that sell candy, drinks and other goodies. But you can also find the occasional unsanctioned entrepreneur peddling something slightly more exotic, like churros—sweet sticks that taste like doughnuts—sometimes found in stations downtown.
Subway sights—above the subway
For the best views, however, you’ll need to leave Manhattan, where the system is largely underground, to access the elevated lines. Start your trip on an early autumn morning, taking the D train across the Manhattan Bridge, where you’ll be greeted by the sight of its better-known cousin, the Brooklyn Bridge. A 7 a.m. sunrise shimmers over the East River, and looking south through the train windows, you’ll be saluted by the Statue of Liberty, four miles away. To the north is the familiar Manhattan skyline, anchored by the distinctive shapes of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.
But a ride over the East River isn’t the only spectacular view a subway trip offers. Far on the eastern portion of Queens, the A train begins its 31-mile run, but not before passing two of the city’s most interesting landscapes.
First, it takes a 10-minute ride through the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a marshland where swallows and egrets can be spotted along with plants and wildflowers that would commonly be found anywhere but New York.
From there the A train heads to John F. Kennedy International Airport, which displays a continual ballet of arriving and departing aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean-fed Jamaica Bay.
Transferring from the A to the Manhattan-bound L train at the Broadway Junction stop, riders get an aerial view of Brooklyn rooftops as the train winds and twists like a roller coaster on a 50-foot high elevated track. The next two stops offer views of historical Evergreen Cemetery, which boasts the graves of celebrities like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Tony Pastor, the father of vaudeville, and extends for miles of greenery over the borough’s Cypress Hills section to the border of Queens.
Once the L goes back into the tunnel, transfer to the Queens-bound G train at Metropolitan Avenue. At the last stop, Long Island City, change to the Queens-bound No. 7, which also runs above ground. Look for the Citibank skyscraper; at 48 stories, it is the tallest building in Queens. Its green glass exterior acts like a mirror, brightly reflecting sunlight around the neighborhood. Nearby (at Jackson Avenue and Crane Street) you can see a building known as “5 Pointz”; its graffiti-covered walls bear the tags of urban Picassos from around the world.
As the No. 7 continues eastward, passing through the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Woodside, Jackson Heights, Corona and Flushing, it earns its nickname as the “international line.” Here you'll find riders speaking everything from Spanish to Pakistani Urdu to Korean.
Soon the train passes by Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens’ largest public park and home of the Unisphere, the biggest globe in the world. The hollow steel structure, 120 feet tall, was erected for the 1964 World’s Fair.
During baseball season, as the train nears Shea Stadium, it is often filled with Mets fans in their blue caps and “Piazza” jerseys; you’ll also notice low-flying planes here, headed to and from LaGuardia Airport.
The train continues into Flushing and winds up underground, emptying out at the last stop. By now, it’s afternoon; stay on the No. 7 and double back into Manhattan, where you can change to the No. 4 train at Grand Central, the city’s most famous station and one of its busiest. Four subway lines and the Metro North Commuter Railroad (which goes to suburban Westchester, upstate New York and Connecticut) meet here. If you want a glimpse of Grand Central’s famed concourse, with its landmark clock and vaulted ceiling painted to look like a starlit sky, you’ll have to leave the subway system and pay again to enter. Or buy a $4 unlimited pass when you get on so you can leave and come back as many times as you want for 24 hours.
Art and engineering
Back on the uptown or Bronx-bound No. 4 running along Manhattan’s Upper East Side, you’ll find examples of the system’s underground artwork. At the 59th Street station, the underpass displays Elizabeth Murray’s colorful glass mosaic called “Blooming,” which covers the walls with bright red trees, coffee cups and blue backgrounds. Farther up, look for mosaic tile works at 96th, 103rd, 110th and 125th streets on the local line.
In the Bronx, the train eventually emerges aboveground for a view of the familiar blue bleachers at Yankee Stadium at 161st Street and River Avenue. Get off here and wind your way back to Manhattan via a series of transfers that will make you feel like a real New Yorker: Take the D to 145th Street, then head back uptown for just a couple stops, to 168th Street, where you can switch to the downtown No. 1 or 9.
Here an amazing feat of engineering is revealed: A two-track mine tunnel blasted through solid bedrock sits here, one of the deepest sections of the system and part of the first routes that opened 100 years ago.
Around 6 p.m., the window of the southbound No. 1 train from northern Manhattan affords what may be the subway system’s most dramatic view: The sun setting over the Hudson River and behind the hills of New Jersey, with urban Harlem in the foreground. Then the train goes underground again, past the welded-steel throne sculptures at the 116th Street station (Columbia University), the Alice in Wonderland mosaic at 50th Street, and The Return of Spring mural at Times Square.
After a dozen hours in the subway, any tourist would be exhausted, even though the day’s trip was not even half the system. But some people think riding the train is as much fun as reaching any given destination.
“Out of all the subway systems I’ve ridden,” said Trevor Logan, a subway maven who participates often in online chat rooms devoted to transit, “you only get this in New York.”
If You Go
NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY: Free maps are available from manned kiosks near the turnstiles in any station. One ride anywhere in the system for $2, including a free transfer to a bus, or buy a $4 unlimited ride card that allows you to enter and exit as much as you like for 24 hours. For more information, visit www.mta.nyc.ny.us/mta/centennial.htm; the Web site has links to pages about art and music underground.