Cathedral of St. John the Divine – An Upper West Side Vertical Tour

Inside the massive Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.


The massive, magnificent Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine has long (like: more than a century long) been an integral part of the Morningside Heights community, that mini-neighborhood within the Upper West Side that includes Columbia University. In addition to regular (30 times a week!) Episcopal worship services, St. John's Cathedral provides numerous social services and outreach programs; runs the Cathedral School, one of Manhattan's most sought-after K-8 private schools; and hosts many hugely popular annual events, such as the Blessing of the Animals on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the screening of the classic vampire flick Nosferatu, and the Winter Solstice series of concerts starring the Paul Winter Consort. It's also just a really amazing building, with an interesting history, and dozens of cool things to look at and marvel over both inside and out on the grounds.


Manhattan's St. John's Cathedral and it's colorful stained glass window.

Anyway, we've been to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine countless times over the years, but it wasn't until last December that the folks over at the excellent art, architecture, and design blog CollabCubed clued us in to the Cathedral's "Vertical Tour", in which you climb through the walls, perch ridiculously high out over the floor, and get to climb out onto the Cathedral's roof. After a couple of failed, sold-out attempts to check it out, we finally made it last weekend and, with a couple of caveats, highly recommend what turned out to be a very cool experience.            

Looking up at the stained glass windows of Cathedral of St. John.

Buttress of Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at the Vertical Tour.

Although St. John's Cathedral turns out NOT to be the "world's largest gothic cathedral" (a "fact" which we've been told all of our lives, and have subsequently relayed to countless visitors and New York City newcomers), it is still awesomely enormous, and it's never felt more that way than when we were gingerly peering over the highest balcony out onto the cavernous interior, up there next to the highest stained glass windows. To get to the top you have to climb steep, narrow, winding stairs (which run counterclockwise, as is traditional in churches and cathedrals we learned, a practice begun in Medieval times to discourage right-handed warriors from sword fighting in the stairwells), so sensible shoes and a bit of stamina are definitely required for the Vertical Tour.  

Peace Statue and grounds of St. John's Cathedral in Upper West Side.

In addition to the incredible, birds-eye interior views, the Vertical Tour at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine also offers close-up exterior views of the Cathedral's buttresses; takes you into the granite and limestone building's dark and vaguely spooky "attic" (it never occurred to us that the Cathedral's ceiling is not, in fact, its roof); and then, gloriously, out onto the terraced roof itself, for a spectacular view of the Cathedral's grounds (including the freaky Peace Statue… also: you can play "spot the peacocks" here), Manhattan Valley, and the Upper West Side beyond. 

St. John's Cathedral's Vertical Tour takes visitors to the roof with NYC views.

So what are the caveats? The first 15 minutes or so of our tour were (mis)spent on the Cathedral's floor, as our guide put on her grammar-school-teacher voice and somewhat patronizingly taught us about the stained glass and such. We have zero patience for things like this, but everything completely changes once you enter the wall and start climbing. Also, after weeks of sell-outs, we had only one other person on our tour, which gave us plenty of freedom to move around and take pictures and the like. Had there been the full complement of 20 people on the St. John's Cathedral's Vertical Tour, we fear the experience may have been different. But if you get lucky, this a really fun and different New York City adventure. 

Interior of Cathedral of St. John the Divine with stained glass windows.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine Vertical Tours details 

The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine offers Vertical Tours on Wednesdays at 12:00 noon and on Saturdays at both noon and 2:00. The Vertical Tour last about 90 minutes and costs $15 for adults. The website says you need to bring a flashlight, but you really don't. Definitely don't wear heels, though. For more information about the Vertical Tour as well as the numerous other architecture and "symbolism" tours offered, please see the St. John the Divine website, here.      

Exterior of Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morning Heights of Manhattan.

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