Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
True silence may be impossible to find in New York City, but these spots are as close as you can get.
No matter how much you love the hustle and bustle of the city, sometimes it can wear you down. And as Emily Badger recently pointed out in her excellent piece here on the science of quieter cities, we don’t have ear-lids to block out the noise the way we have eyelids to give our eyes a rest.
True silence is impossible to find in New York City, but there are dozens of places – some of them hidden in plain sight – where you can get a respite from the mad rush of Manhattan’s streets and maybe even hear yourself think. Here are 10 of my favorites.
Garden at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields
Behind the unassuming brick walls adjoining this Episcopal church in Greenwich Village is one of the most sublime outdoor spaces in New York, a meticulously tended yet somehow wild-seeming oasis (above). Yes, you can still hear the faint whoosh of traffic from Hudson Street and the occasional helicopter, but you get the feeling that you are in your own secret garden. It almost feels illicit, but it isn’t. Sit and listen to the birds sing. When you re-emerge onto the street, you will be smiling.
United Nations Meditation Room
Image courtesy United Nations Photo
To reach this one, you have to go through security and into the main building at the UN headquarters. Head toward the Chagall stained glass window at the east side of the public lobby. Next to it you will see a door leading to the Meditation Room. Yes, go ahead and open it. You are allowed. Inside you will find some simple benches, an abstract mural, and a somewhat sinister altar-like stone. This is probably one of the best places in the city to find actual silence. Bonus points: The room is a magnet for wacky conspiracy theories.
Image courtesy Flickr user Payton Chung
Tucked between skyscrapers in Battery Park City, away from the well-traveled biking and walking path along the Hudson, Teardrop Park can be hard to find. (Sunlight for the plantings is actually beamed in by reflecting mirrors.) Make the effort. Check out the 27-foot-high, 167-foot-long rock wall, where water seeps out, creating ice formations in cold weather. And that amazingly tall slide? You’re not too old to go down.
Church of St. John the Baptist and Church of St. Francis of Assisi
The chapel at St. Francis (Sarah Goodyear)
Who would have thought that not one, but two orders of monks could be found within a couple of blocks of Madison Square Garden? The Capuchins run the show at St. John’s on 30th Street. and the Franciscans can be found at St. Francis on 31st. Both churches have sanctuaries, shrines, and peace gardens that are remarkable for the silence they afford in what is one of the most congested and unpleasant parts of town. Many people, some of them down on their luck, come here to find shelter from the city’s brutalities. Everyone sits in complete silence and mutual respect facing the altars and candles, while outside the city grinds on.
The lobby bathroom at the Waldorf-Astoria
All right, so the crowd at the Waldorf isn’t as glam as it would have been back in its glittering heyday. But it’s hard not to feel swank as you go up the stairs and stride across the beautiful Art Deco mosaics. The bathrooms are right off the lobby, and while I can’t speak for conditions in the gents’, I will say that closing the door on your own private lavatory in the ladies’ room – sink included – provides a sweet respite from midtown’s crowds.
Passageway under 1251 Avenue of the Americas
I only recently discovered this underground passageway connecting the N, R, and Q subway station at 49th Street to the main Rockefeller Center complex. You could be anywhere or nowhere. A few anonymous office workers in high heels click past on the marble floors. The occasional conversation echoes and fades away. There is no cell phone service. The hallway just keeps going, like a modernist fever dream.
Unlike the rest of Central Park, which is meant to mimic natural forms, the Conservatory Garden was designed as a formal garden. Its symmetrical pathways and plantings are pleasantly harmonious, and there are several secluded seating areas where you can find privacy and peace. No runners or bicyclists are allowed. Reading should be your most strenuous activity here.
The Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Get away from the throngs gawking at the Temple of Dendur and the crowds in the new Islamic wing. Here, in one of the Met’s many backwaters, you can imagine yourself a Ming Dynasty scholar – the wooden structure surrounding was constructed by Chinese workers using 4th century techniques, and the central garden is based on a famed scholar’s garden in Suzhou, China.
Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library
Image courtesy Flickr user Paul Lowry
Of course, in any search for peace and quiet, a library has to figure somewhere. The Rose Main Reading Room is certainly no secret, but don’t let that stop you from going. Visit for the sheer grandeur of the space, and the sense that the people laboring at its hushed tables might be in the process of creating great things.
All photos by Sarah Goodyear except where noted