The ultimate guide to New York’s Penn Station
Where to eat, where to wait, and what to avoid at the much-maligned train station
Around 650,000 commuters pass through Penn Station on a daily basis, making it one of the busiest transit hubs in the city (and in all of North America)—but it’s also one of the most loathed buildings in New York City.
Chances are you’ve been one of those people, and if so, you’ve found yourself in a claustrophobic underground maze—“little more than a rabbit warren,” says the venerable AIA Guide to New York City—lacking in natural light or anything approaching the grandeur of the Penn Station of yore. (Curbed readers even named it one of New York City’s ugliest buildings, a designation we’d have a hard time refuting.)
But even though Penn Station isn’t about to win any architectural awards, it serves its purpose: funneling Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit passengers from point A to point B. While a larger renovation plan for the station is being implemented, we’re stuck with the station in its current form—but traveling through it doesn’t have to be an anxiety-producing experience.
Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a newbie, this guide—covering how to get there, where to eat, and survival tips—will help you navigate the station with minimal stress.
How to get there
Forget cabs, Uber, or any other non-public transit options: The best way to get to Penn Station is via the subway or bus, full stop. (Yes, we know that the subway is often running late or otherwise experiencing hellish conditions; let’s assume best-case scenario here.)
Penn Station is serviced by one large transit hub, through which six subway lines—the A, C, E, 1, 2, and 3—travel. (For the newbies, the A, 2, and 3 are express trains; the C, E, and 1 are local.) The M34 also stops in front of the station, and it’s a Select Bus Service line, to boot.
If you’re traveling to or from an airport, you have several direct options. The Long Island Rail Road runs trains from Jamaica to Penn Station, and NJ Transit does the same from Newark to Penn. If you need to get from LaGuardia to Penn Station, you’re going to have a tougher time; there are public transit options, but then—and only then—is it more reasonable to take a cab.
Where to stay
For a long time, the only hotels near Penn Station were limited to chains, or the 80-year-old New Yorker hotel, an Art Deco icon (you know its bright red “NEW YORKER” sign) that’s been around for longer than the train station’s current iteration. But a new crop of boutique hotels have popped up in the area in recent years; here are some of the better options:
Even Hotel Times Square South: “Times Square South” in this case means a couple of blocks from Penn Station. The wellness-oriented hotel comes with exercise equipment in its rooms. Rates start at $129/night.
Moxy Times Square: The Moxy, which opened in September, ticks all the boxes that you would expect from a brand that calls itself a “boutique-hotel concept for the modern traveler.” Its 612 rooms are small, but relatively affordable (rates begin at $134/night); there are plenty of tech-friendly touches, including free Wi-Fi and charging stations next to each bed; and the hotel is outfitted with amenities like late-night food and drink options and hip communal spaces. It’s just a couple of blocks from Penn, at 36th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Arlo Nomad: Each of the rooms at this micro-hotel, located on 31st Street between Fifth and Madison avenues, is less than 300 square feet, but they don’t scrimp on style. They’re kitted out with luxurious beds, walnut furniture, and swanky fixtures. The hotel also has a bevy of amenities, like a 24-hour “bodega” serving snacks and coffee, along with a lovely rooftop bar.
What to eat
Penn Station isn’t exactly known for being a culinary wonderland, but if you have time to kill and need a quick meal, it does have some options. At least, it does for now; Vornado Realty Trust, the building’s landlord, plans to close many of the options in the LIRR corridor—including Shake Shack and a couple of Starbucks shops—to make way for a new entrance that’s slated to open by the end of 2020. Those closures will begin in April; but in the meantime, here are two of the best spots to eat, from our friends at Eater NY:
Shake Shack (lower concourse, close to the LIRR waiting area): If in need of a quick meal and some booze, then let Shake Shack save the day. Find comfort in the now-classic New York burger with a side of cheese fries and a local beer—or three. (Ed. note: Shake Shack’s breakfast sandwiches are where it’s at.)
The Pennsy (outside of the station, on the corner of 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue): Surprise—there’s a colorful food hall above Penn Station. For vegans, Little Beet has rolls and bowls, and Cinnamon Snail has offbeat sandwiches. But for meat eaters, Pat LaFrieda’s steak sandwich is king and Ribalta’s Neapolitan-style pizza is well-liked.
Aside from those two options, there are several decent chains—Pret a Manger, which can always be counted on for a decent, quick sandwich; Chickpea, which has better-than-you’d-expect falafel; and the Magnolia Bakery, which often doesn’t have a ridiculous line (tip: get the banana pudding)—within the station. Commenters also vouched for Rose’s Pizza, located outside of the station at Penn Plaza, for a quick bite.
The history of Penn Station
Penn Station’s current iteration dates back to 1968, when the train station as we know it opened beneath the then-new Madison Square Garden. Of course, it’s not the first Penn Station; the original train depot was a grand behemoth designed by McKim, Mead & White that took up two city blocks.
It was considered to be largely the work of Charles McKim, who took inspiration from the nascent “city beautiful” movement and Roman architecture to craft a public building the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. The materials alone were sensational: the exterior was covered in pink Milford granite and lined with dozens of Doric columns, while the interior was dripping in marble. There was an enormous concourse modeled after Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, while the soaring steel-festooned waiting room (pictured above) was a grand, airy space. As the late art historian Hillary Ballon put it, “Penn Station did not make you feel comfortable; it made you feel important.”
But nothing gold can stay, and Penn Station’s demise came just 50 years after it opened. The outcry over its demolition—done so because the Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned the station, sold the air rights to the highest bidder—was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and also led to one of legendary archicritic Ada Louise Huxtable’s most enduring burns:
Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tin-horn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
The old Penn Station was gone by 1965, and the one we use today opened three years later. (But you can still see some relics of the old Penn Station in the current building.)
In recent years, Penn Station was in the spotlight thanks to a series of derailments that led Amtrak (which owns the station) to implement much-needed repairs to the Hudson River tunnels connecting New York to New Jersey. The repair work meant closing several tracks to commuters for a few weeks over the summer, and it wrapped in 2017. More track work is in the offing for this summer, and may snarl commutes until it’s complete in the fall.
- Avoid the bathrooms on the main Amtrak concourse at all costs—they’re often the most crowded, and thus most likely to be in less-than-pristine condition. (That’s putting it lightly.) Instead, if nature calls, head to the bathrooms in the NJ Transit mezzanine near the 32nd Street entrance. They’re right behind the Perfumania, and typically less crowded than their Amtrak-adjacent counterparts.
- Need to charge your phone? The Amtrak waiting area has outlets and USB plugs.
- Yes, it’s true: If you’re waiting to catch an Amtrak train, hang out on the Lower Concourse instead of the main waiting area. You’re closer to the tracks, so when your train is (finally) assigned to one, you’re at an advantage over the folks waiting amid the scrum on the upper level. Stake out a spot between tracks 5/6 and 15/16, close to the Hilton Passageway on the Lower Level, and you’ll see a few TVs that have trains and their corresponding track numbers.
- There’s a rather nice wine store on the Lower Concourse between tracks 16 and 17; they’ll provide cups for your ride, if needed, and the selection is pretty good (and, shockingly, not horribly overpriced for being in a train station).
- If you want to store your bags at Penn Station, it’ll cost you; Amtrak offers lockers for $10/bag for 24 hours, and you need to have an Amtrak ticket to do so. Vertoe, an Airbnb-style luggage storage site, has locations nearby (though we can’t personally vouch for those).
- If you need to stock up on travel toiletries or other necessities, skip the pricey Hudson News outposts and head to the Duane Reade near the Seventh Avenue entrance. Even a simple bottle of water is way cheaper than at the newsstands.
- If you’ve shelled out for a ticket on one of Amtrak’s Acela trains, you have access to ClubAcela, a semi-secret lounge with free snacks, Wi-Fi, conference rooms, and other amenities—including, crucially, comfortable chairs.
- The station’s West End Concourse is an airy expanse that has yet to get too crowded (or dirty). If you need to kill some time (and don’t have access to the fancy ClubAcela), it’s your best bet.