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The New York Public Library: What to See on Each Floor

July 23, 2020
The ceiling in Astor Hall of the NYPL

When most people go on vacation, visiting the public library probably isn’t on the itinerary. However, in New York City, even the library is one of the city’s most popular attractions. While New York City has almost 100 branches in its library system, the main branch on Fifth Avenue is without a doubt the most famous, and in my opinion the most attractive.

Featured in movies such as “Ghostbusters,” “Sex and the City,” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” the main branch of the New York Public Library is the second largest public library in the United States (runner-up to the Library of Congress). The outside showcases splendid architecture, and the inside offers a vast array of art exhibits, curated collections, and history that attracts 18 million visitors every year. If you enjoy visiting and learning about sights like this, make sure to check out our New York tours.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about how to plan your visit and what you need to see at New York’s grandest library.

Entering the Main Branch

The facade of the NYPL

The New York Public Library branch on Fifth Avenue is also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, renamed after a wealthy philanthropist who donated more than $100 million dollars in 2008 to help restore it. The library has two entrances, but I suggest coming through the one on Fifth Avenue up the grand marble staircase.

As you walk up the steps, the first things you’ll encounter are the two stone lions to your left and right. They are a trademark of the NYPL and have become its mascot in a sense. They used to be named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after two of the gentlemen who helped establish the library in 1911. In the 1930s, however, the lions were renamed Patience and Fortitude by then-mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He felt those were the two qualities citizens needed to survive the Great Depression.

The First Floor at the NYPL: What to See

Even without a library card, there’s a lot to check out here. Below are some of the best rooms in the library, all found on the first floor.

Astor Hall

The ceiling in Astor Hall of the NYPL

After you walk through the main doors and past security, you’ll immediately enter Astor Hall on the first floor, named after John Jacob Astor, a prominent philanthropist who donated his private collection to help establish the NYPL.

Two grand marble staircases lead up to the second floor, and astute visitors might recognize this as the filmed location in which Carrie Bradshaw was left at the altar by Mr. Big. Although John Astor sadly died on the Titanic when it sank, his legacy lives on in the main lobby of the library.

Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room

Before heading upstairs, you’ll want to take a look in one of the most beautiful rooms in the library. Elegant chandeliers, richly paneled walls, and striking murals make the Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room impossible to miss. Named after the founder of “Reader’s Digest,” this room has issues of more than 200 current magazines and periodicals, and more than 22 foreign and domestic newspapers.

Map Collection

An old map of Manhattan

Located near the bottom of the northern staircase on the first floor is the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal map division, home to one of the largest map collections in the world.

Named for Lionel Pincus, yet another philanthropist, and Princess Firyal, a Jordanian princess, it includes more than 400,000 sheet maps, 22,000 books and atlases dating back to the 1500s, and more than 10,000 maps of NYC alone.

Visitor Theater

It’s not all reading here. The Bartos Education Center, also on the first floor, has a visitor theater with a video series that displays behind-the-scenes footage of the library, its history, and special collections. These videos will help you uncover the library’s Civil War maps, genealogical records, handwritten manuscripts of classic novels, and a lot more.

Other Things to Do on the First Floor

But wait — there’s more. This is also where you’ll find the library gift shop, where you can pick up one of the famous NYPL tote bags.

They also have an Amy’s Bread kiosk, which serves up some of the best coffee, cakes, and cookies you can get in NYC.

Upstairs at the New York Public Library

The Rose Reading Room at the NYPL

Jill Kupin Rose Gallery

Make your way up to the second floor from the Astor Hall staircase, and you’ll immediately come across the Jill Kupin Rose Gallery. This is an ongoing exhibition detailing the library’s history and featuring an array of collections and services. It’s displayed on large wall panels with pictures, texts, objects, and videos.

McGraw Rotunda

The ceiling of the McGraw Rotunda

The McGraw Rotunda is one of the most beautiful rooms in New York City, in my opinion. Don’t forget to look up when you’re there. Framed by Corinthian walnut columns, the rotunda showcases murals by Edward Laning that depict the history of the written word.

Rose Main Reading Room

Study tables in the Rose Main Reading Room at the NYPL

Nearly the length of a football field, this monumental space is split up into two sections illuminated by massive windows and grand chandeliers. With an aesthetic that I like to describe as “Hogwarts-chic,” the Rose Main Reading Room provides an unparalleled environment to study, conduct research, or enjoy a good book.

Most people consider this the main attraction at the New York Public Library, so you definitely don’t want to miss it.

Exploring the Library’s Ground Floor

Winnie the Pooh is a major exhibit at the New York Public LibraryThe Children’s Center at 42nd Street

The library has displays that appeal to people of all ages, but if you really want to impress your kiddos, you might want to check out the Children’s Center on the ground floor, underneath the first floor. To get there, turn right at the entrance, and head down the stairs past the gift shop. The Children’s Center offers a vast collection of books and stories to entertain the whole family for hours.

Kids and adults might also enjoy the library’s famous Winnie the Pooh exhibit, which features the actual stuffed animals that inspired the original Winnie the Pooh story. No touching (they’re behind glass), but they’re awfully cute to look at.

I’m not a librarian, but I can answer some questions for you.

One of the lion statues flanking the New York Public Library

Where is the main branch of the New York Public Library?

The main branch of the New York Public Library is located at 476 Fifth Avenue, between 41st and 42nd streets in Midtown Manhattan. Conveniently, it’s very close to popular landmarks such as Times Square and Grand Central Terminal. Bryant Park is conveniently behind the museum as well.

The easiest way to get here is by taking the 7 train (purple line) and getting off at 5th Avenue or by taking the orange line B, D, F or M trains and getting off at 42nd Street. Explore this area with a New York in a day tour — and listen to some pretty cool stories along the way.

Can you get married at the New York Public Library?

I’m so flattered you would ask! While birthdays, political events, and religious events are not allowed, you can indeed get married at the New York Public Library. Carrie Bradshaw would be proud.

Can you study at the NYPL?

The NYPL is free to enter, and I used to study there occasionally when I was in grad school. The Rose Reading Room is a quiet, peaceful, and inspirational environment to crack open a book or prep to ace an exam.

Take a Look, It’s in a Book

The outside of the NYPL

The New York Public Library isn’t a museum, but it has exhibitions that would make even the Metropolitan Museum of Art jealous. What other library has ancient maps, a Gutenberg Bible, or an annotated copy of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” all under one roof? And best of all, in a city that can be notoriously expensive, the library is completely free.

For more than 100 years it has hosted scholars, academics, students, bibliophiles, poets, and out-of-town visitors just like you. So whether you’re coming to see a rotating exhibit or snap a photo of the beautiful study rooms and galleries, the library is waiting to welcome you inside to write a New York City chapter all your own.