Visiting the New York Public Library (“NYPL”) is one of my favorite free New York City tourist activities. The main branch building, dating back to 1911 (also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building), is glorious to walk through. You’ll recognize scenes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ghostbusters and Spider-Man filmed here.
There is rarely a line at the New York Public Library so you can stop by at any time without advance planning. And unlike a museum, there are only a few things to see, so there is no major time commitment.
The NYPL is also centrally located, with lots to see nearby, including Bryant Park and Grand Central. There are excellent snack options across the street, like the only NYC branch of Angelina for hot chocolate and Parisian pastries. The library is also of course indoors, so it’s great spot to hit on rainy days.
And finally, the NYPL has a fabulous gift shop, filled with surprises for book lovers.
What to see at the New York Public Library Main Branch
Patience and Fortitude
As you walk up to the NYPL Schwarzman building, you’ll notice the stately lions, Patience and Fortitude, keeping guard.
Astor Hall is the main entrance to the library, featuring marble columns, soaring ceilings and a bronze sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena. During the holidays, a huge lighted tree sits here.
Rose Reading Room
This room is what most visitors come to the library to see. Nearly the length of a football field, the Rose Reading Room is the NYPL’s pièce de resistance, the impressive room that sets the standard for what a library should like.
Natural light streams through the arched casement windows. The eighteen tiered chandeliers radiate soft light. The centerpiece of the Rose Reading room is the long oak tables with green reading lamps, arranged in rows. There are over 500 seats here, modernized with power outlets and free high-speed Wi-Fi.
Why the NYPL has Limited Access to the Iconic Rose Reading Room
Only a few years ago, you could enter the Rose reading room at any time, and as long as you were quiet and unobtrusive, no one would question you or bother you. If you came right when the library first opened, as I did, you could even sneak in a few photos around the room before it filled up. It is not possible to take photos like these today.
Note: It may still be possible to photograph the Rose Reading room at the Library’s free monthly after hours cocktail event “The Library After Hours” (most of the photos above were taken then, when no one was in the room to study), however, I have not been recently so I cannot confirm this is still the case.
Now, the Rose reading room is only open to the public for research or quiet study. Bring your text books and sit quietly (you must bring study materials and show them to the attendant).
If you aren’t planning to study, you can still enter the room on a free library tour, but even then you must stay behind the rope and cannot wander around the room. You can take non-flash photos from the back of the room during the tour.
I’d heard about the new Rose Room restrictions so I decided to test it out for myself on a recent visit. I chatted with the library aides stationed at the entrance to the reading room and asked why the rule had changed. Interestingly, there was a specific reason for the new restrictions.
According to the aides, hoardes of Japanese anime fans had been making pilgrimmages to the Rose Reading room (some on specialty tour groups) and disrupting the tranquil atmosphere.
In the popular Japanese manga series “Banana Fisshu,” a beloved main character, Ash Lynx, perishes in a chair (number 378 to be exact) right in the middle of the Rose Reading Room. Since its publication, manga fans hav been visiting the room to pay homage to Ash.
But the fans have not all been discreet. Some of the fans have been incredibly disruptive, not only visiting the chair, but sobbing loudly and leaving roses at the scene. Hence the need to put restrictions in place to ensure the Rose Reading Room served its intended purpose– as a quiet place for study and research.
Pooh and Friends in the Exhibition Hall
The entry to the Exhibition Hall is on the first floor, directly across from the entrance. You do need a timed ticket to enter, however when I went (on a weekday) there was no wait and I was able to get the ticket on the spot and go right in.
As a child I read voraciously so I was thrilled to see many of the originals of my favorite childrens books on display.
But I couldn’t help but make a beeline to see the original Winnie the Pooh and friends stuffed toys. They were all there– Pooh, Piglet, Eyeore, Kanga and Tigger. These are the actual toys once owned and played with by Christopher Robin Milne and later written about by his father, A.A. Milne.
Seeing the well worn and much loved Pooh and friends toys in real life was truly a moving experience and one that I highly recommend for all Pooh fans.
The McGraw rotunda is located on the second floor, and is a show stopper with its vaulted ceiling and dramatic murals (see my video above for more views of this rotunda).
Wander the Halls
It’s almost like on each visit to the NYPL I somehow forget how gorgeous the Schwarzman building is. Walking the hushed stairwells and hallways (look for the ornate lion headed drinking fountain) will instantly wash away your stress. The hallways photograph beautifully too (but remember that there is no flash allowed anywhere in the library).
While you can peek in the small circular windows to some of the research rooms, I would not recommend walking in, even if it appears to be open to the public (I was scolded by a librarian for accidentally walking into a room where the door was half open). If you want to see more rooms, it’s best to sign up for a free guided tour.
Top Library Souvenirs to Shop for in the NYPL Gift Shop
Unsurprisingly, the top souvenir at the NYPL gift shop for awhile was the $30 minature replica of the Rose Room chair, bought by Banana Fish fans to commemorate their beloved character. Over the course of that year, the NYPL gift shop’s revenue doubled (from $2.8 to $5.6 million) all because of sales of the chair.
Other top souvenirs from the NYPL include:
Patience and Fortitude bookends. I absolutely love this souvenir because the bookends serve the actual purpose of holding your books up, they are made to be on display so you can admire them often, and the lions are an iconic symbol of the not only the library, but all of New York City.
Winne the Pooh Related Items. Plush bears and toys, along with special edition books are just a few of the items that make up the display. Where better to buy a Pooh souvenir than from their current residence.
The gift shop is well stocked and you’ll find many other items like Library themed Christmas ornaments and all of the classic children’s books you loved as a child. Check out the video at the top for more gift shop footage.
Have you been to the New York Public Library? Tell us about your favorite souvenir below!