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Experience an Old-Time NYC Commute on a Vintage Subway Train

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There's nothing I love more than authentic experiences, whether I’m on the road or just exploring my own backyard. So naturally I was excited to learn that, once a year, NYC celebrates the holidays by celebrating its history. The MTA pulls still-working, retired subway trains out of hibernation and puts them back into service.

vintage-train-lucille-balljpgEvery Sunday, from now until December 26, anyone with a valid MetroCard can ride one of these trains, as I did this past Sunday. How I didn’t know about this amazing opportunity before this year is beyond me, but I will say this: it’s kind of a good thing. Not many other people, resident or visitor, seemed to know either: there were no more people on the train than I would expect on a normal Sunday afternoon.

After a light brunch at Philip Marie (side note: this is fast becoming my favorite brunch place in the city, so be sure to check it out), my friends and I headed to the F train's 2nd Ave. station, which serves as the starting point for the nostalgic ride. We descended the stairs into the station, and there it was, like a ghost from NYC’s past. More industrial-looking than today’s trains, and painted army green, it stood silently, waiting to start a commute it once performed many times each day, many years ago.

vintage-train-hats.jpgThis particular train was in service from the 30s into the 40s, which is exactly what I wanted. (I'm told they also have trains from the 70s, but I'm less interested in those.) Boarding was like stepping back in time. The seats were made of wicker; the ads (re-creations) were exactly what you would have seen 80 years ago (my favorites were the ones pushing men to always wear hats, and one advising parents to always have young children seated on their laps; if only these were both still common practice...); the roofs were adorned with—are you ready for this?—ceiling fans. Tall people be warned: they are operational and turned on.

vintage-train-kidsjpgNot a single passenger wasn't smiling. In fact, there were a number of enthusiastic folks who actually dressed for the era. As we rode just a few stops, switching cars at each station (each one is different), I imagined what the commute was like back then. What was it like to pay a mere ten cents to ride the train? How brutally hot were the cars during New York City's sweltering summer months? Without being plugged-in to electronics, did random commuters actually chat with each other?

vintage-train-smoking-signjpgBefore I knew it, the train stopped at Rockefeller Center, where my friends and I decided to disembark. The train actually continues into Queens, stopping at the Queens Plaza station along the M line, where it begins its journey back into Manhattan.

There are still two more Sundays left to take advantage of this amazing opportunity, before they’re put back to sleep for another year. Visit the MTA website for the complete schedule. I should also mention that vintage buses are running along the streets of Manhattan, Monday–Friday through December 31. According to the MTA's website, they take a "bit of luck and good timing," but hey, it's worth a shot! Viva nostalgia!

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Joshua Pramis is an online associate editor and resident tech guru at Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter: @joshuapramis

Photos courtesy of Joshua Pramis.

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