How to Go Behind the Scenes at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine, NYC

The south side exterior of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC

Updated: January 2019

At over 120 years old and the largest Cathedral church in the world, St. John the Divine was on my “explore” to-do list for some time.

Over the years, it’s hosted dignitaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Sting held a concert there for the launch of his album “If on a Winter’s Night,” and in 1935, the church was the site of funeral services for Duke Ellington. Over 12,500 mourners in attendance. A few years back, film and television’s elite were there to mourn the passing of actor James Gandolfini.

A Bit of Cathedral History

The Cathedral is a cavernous structure in all its Gothic-ness, and still a work in process—it’s had a few setbacks over the years. In 1941, one week after its consecration, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and everything came to a halt until after the war. A six-alarm fire destroyed a large part of the church in 2001. It did not open again in its entirety until 2008.

In 2019, a fire in the crypt caused millions of dollars in damage. Though the damage was confined to a “single windowless room,” according to the New York Times and, thankfully, no one was injured, valuable oil paintings and other artwork were damaged and soot from the smoke infiltrated the entire cathedral. The Grand organ, an 8,035 pipes

View from the choir area to the main entrance and the Rose window at New York, Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
View from the choir area to the main entrance and the Rose window

Things to do Apart From Worship

The cathedral is an active church where parishioners come seven days a week, (Services Schedule) but it also offers a variety of one-hour tours, one in particular, the “Vertical Tour,” caught my attention. (More information on other tours below.)

“On this adventurous, “behind-the-scenes” tour, you’ll climb a 124-foot spiral staircase to the top of the world’s largest Cathedral. Hear stories about the stained glass windows and sculpture and study the grand architecture of the Cathedral while standing on a buttress. The tour culminates on the roof with a sweeping view of Manhattan.” ~Cathedral of St. John the Divine website.

The vertical tour lives up to its name (thank goodness for my spin classes), taking us up numerous spiral steps leading to little nooks, and walkways along the triforium (a balcony-like arched walkway above the nave) where we could peer down hundreds of feet to the Cathedral floor. We saw the stunning stained-glass windows at eye level. They sure are big up close! The tour wrapped on the roof with a sprawling view of Manhattan.

The spectacular view from one of the many buttresses in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The spectacular view from one of the Cathedral’s many buttresses

An unexpected stop was between the nave’s ceiling and the Cathedral’s roof, which acts as a protective covering over the precious stone architecture below. It makes perfect sense, but I had no idea that it existed. I love finding out little details like that, don’t you?

Highlights of the Cathedral

The Cathedral is very eclectic. Its architecture harkens back to days of old, but there is plenty inside that tips their hat to more modern eras. The stained glass windows, for example, depict the expected saints and other religious scenes, but they also pay homage to people and inventions more recognizable in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

You’ll see imagery of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are next to locomotives and an early version of a television. There’s also a white and gold triptych alter piece that is the last work of artist Keith Haring, and sculptures of Albert Einstein, Susan B. Anthony and Mohandas Gandhi.

These elements are referred to as “Highlights of the Fabric.” The fabric refers to all of the materials that make up St. John the Divine. Some of my favorites include the spectacular 18 foot high, six-feet wide bronze doors weighing three tons. Embellishing the doors are 60 bas-relief panels depicting Old and New Testament on the exterior side with “flowers, birds, and other natural imagery on the interior side.”

Between the Nave ceiling and the Cathedral roof at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Between the Nave ceiling and the Cathedral roof at St. John the Divine – part of the Vertical Tour

You’ll also find two extraordinary centuries-old baroque tapestries, as well as 12 Barberini tapestries; 15th-Century German choir stalls, a firefighter memorial dedicated to the firefighters who lost their lives in 9/11, and 12-foot high menorahs.

For more information on planning your own visit to St. John the Divine see below.

Guided and Self-Guided Tours

Highlights Tour

What: Just what it sounds like. A broad strokes guided tour through the Cathedral where you’ll learn about the Catherdral’s storied history, architecture, and art.

Time: 1 hour

When: Monday through Friday at 11 am and 1 pm.

Tickets: $15/pp and $12 for students and seniors (No need to make a reservation)

Vertical Tour

What: A “behind-the-scenes” tour at the summit of the cathedral. (See above for my take on the tour.)

Time: 1 hour

When: Monday at 10 am; Wednesday at 12 pm; Friday at 12 pm and Saturday 12 pm and 2 pm.

Tickets: $20/pp and $18 for students and seniors (must be at least 12 years old. (Reservation required: online or call 866 811 4111)

Spotlight Tour

What: Catherdral guides curated tours focusing on a special feature of the Cathedral’s architecture, art, and history. For example, a closer look at stained glass or symbolism.

Time: 1 hour

When: Monday at 10 am; Wednesday at 12 pm; Friday at 12 pm and Saturday 12 pm and 2 pm.

Tickets: $18/pp and $15 for students and seniors (must be at least 12 years old. (Reservations needed: more information on what will be spotlighted when online or call 866 811 4111)

How Much Time Should I Give for a visit?

While the tour was only an hour, I photographed the interior for another two using my tripod* to capture images of the main floor. Even with three hours under my belt, I felt as if I only scratched the surface.

St. John the Divine Events


The Cathedral is host to a myriad of events, such as Christmas, Winter Solstice Celebrations and New Year’s Eve concerts (the acoustics are spectacular), as well as other musical events such as Choral, Organ, and Sunday Recital series that run throughout the year.

Blessing of the…

If you have a pet you’ll be happy to know that once a year you can bring yours to a service for the Blessing of the Animals or if you love cycling you can attend the Blessing of the Bicycle which “celebrates the lives of bike riders and cycling in its many forms.

Reading of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri

An annual event, the opening section of the Inferno from Dante Alighieri’s Divine comedy, takes place on the Thursday before Easter. Selected Cantos are read by various distinguished scholars, poets, and reading regulars.

Hours and Admission

For Sightseeing

Monday through Friday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m; Sunday 12:30 pm – 2:30 pm

Self Guided tickets:

Adult: $10/pp; Groups $8/pp; Student and seniors $8 and $6 respectively.

For Worship

Monday through Sunday 9 am – 5 pm


*If you’re a photographer interested in using a tripod to shoot the Cathedral you must first visit the security office on the south side of the property. You’ll need a picture I.D., and they will inspect your tripod to make sure that the legs have rubber ends so they don’t mar the floor. Other than that the staff is pretty accommodating as long as you don’t block high traffic areas.

How to Get There

The church is at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street.

From Times Square it’s an easy subway ride. Take the Red 1 train to 110th street and walk east one block. You can’t miss it. (If you’re coming from the west side of the city, definitely use the subway, it’s faster than a taxi, especially during rush hours.)

Share ride companies such as Uber and Lyft are available in NYC as well as Taxis. I prefer to use taxis in town. A 15-20% tip is customary.

For more information on planning your own visit to St. John the Divine see below.

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12 thoughts on “How to Go Behind the Scenes at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine, NYC

  1. John Rodgers says:

    I find myself drawn to the older churches that are so ornate, intricate and really tall. We have visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and spent a whole day inside. We were lucky to have visited the Paris Notre Dame before the fire damage in 2019. Your pictures of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine are excellent. Thank you for the interesting and informative post.

      • Ludwig says:

        Sorry to have troubled you. I think the trouble is on my end, I am going to do some major cleanup on my machines. Please remove my comments. I want to come back to tell you what a marvelous post you have there.

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