The TWA Hotel: A Trip Back in Time
This quirky hotel at New York's JFK International Airport transports guests back to the heyday of air travel
It is my husband's birthday weekend, and we are standing, awestruck, in the retro-themed TWA Hotel in JFK Airport in New York City. Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen in 1962, the landmark former TWA flight center, lauded by The American Institute of Architects as "one of the grandest examples of mid-20th century modern architecture," is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With a soaring rooftop, it serves as the spacious lobby of this amazing amalgam of hotel and museum, with multiple exhibits, curated by the New York Historical Society, serving as a grand tribute to the era known as "The Golden Age of Flying." When TWA (Trans World Airlines) closed in 2001, the TWA terminal did as well. After being empty for years, it re-opened to the public in May 2019 as the showpiece of the new hotel.
"This is one of the coolest places I've ever seen," my husband says.
We check in with a pleasant reservation clerk, and chat with her about all our possible adventures. We gape at the classic Solari split-flap departure board with authentic original mechanical operation, manufactured in Italy.
Holding hands, we walk through a cherry red carpeted hall with stark white walls and take the elevator to our room, one of 512 guest rooms in the hotel. Wonderful music – Frank Sinatra hits interspersed with the Beatles – is playing at exactly the right volume for my easily annoyed baby boomer ears.
An Amazing Runway View
Our Runway View room (pricey, but worth every penny) with its floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooks the airport runways, where we can watch the jets take off. Mesmerized by our proximity to departing flights, we are amazed by how quiet the room is, thanks to the windows which are the second- thickest in the world. (The windows at the U.S. Embassy in London are thicker.)
Less expensive rooms, still lovely, overlook the iconic TWA flight center. If you want to go for broke, the roughly $1,000 a night (depending on when you're staying) Howard Hughes Presidential Suite has a runway view with a luxurious sitting area.
After plopping on the king-sized bed (supremely comfortable for our slightly arthritic lumbar spines) we decide to stroll through the hotel. There are many nooks and crannies to explore, more than 2,000 TWA artifacts to examine and extol, and several bars to choose from. Photo ops abound around every corner.
We make a lovely leisurely stop at the bar in the Sunken Lounge, where we have drinks ("Vodka is My Co-Pilot" for me and "Mile-High Margarita" for the birthday boy), served with TWA swizzle sticks.
Many Touches of Nostalgia
Do you recall TAB, the well-known diet drink designed to "help us keep tabs on our weight" in the Twiggy era? The hotel has four-foot replicas of TAB cans and an oil painting of what was, growing up, my favorite soda, especially when it was paired with those pink fluffy Hostess Sno-Balls for an after-school snack.
Next, we head to the photo booth (remember those, when the grainy black and white images were four for a dollar?) where we take pictures with goofy grins on our faces. We visit the Twister room, with an oversize spinner, where we play the wall-to-wall version of the retro game that I remember from way back when.
We also check out the display of flight attendant and pilot uniforms spanning from 1945 to 2001. I reach over to touch one particularly pretty one and my husband shoots me a warning look. Chastened, I step back.
The office of Howard Hughes, who was TWA's owner, is recreated with a big desk and many details emblematic of the sixties, as is Saarinen's, complete with drafting table and pieces of graph paper.
We wax nostalgic over a recreation of a 1962 living room with an authentic Barbie dreamhouse and enjoy the hallway lined with vintage posters and large-scale TWA artifacts. There are wonderful plaques and photos with descriptions of airline history, including one with President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy coming down the steps of a plane.
Later, we swim in the heated rooftop Infinity pool from which we get a bird's eye view of the planes taxiing down the runway and taking off. When we turn our heads in the other direction, we can see planes hanging low in the sky getting ready to land. We have glasses of sparkling club soda in the Pool Bar, seated next to a woman who is staying overnight in the hotel before her flight to Dubai the following morning.
"This is one of the coolest places I have ever seen," my husband says, and the woman, much more a world traveler than we are, immediately agrees.
We skip skating on the outdoor Roll-a-Rama because neither of us want to potentially do an ungraceful flop on our well-padded fannies; ignore the huge and sparkling clean hotel gym, (purported to be the world's largest hotel gym) and head back to our room.
The Elegant Connie Cocktail Lounge
When we get hungry, the hotel's restaurant, Michelin starred Chef Jean-George's Paris Café offers excellent options to fill our stomachs with scrumptious and beautifully plated food.
After dinner, we lounge in the lobby, reminiscing. I grew up in Flushing, New York, twenty minutes away from what was originally called Idlewild Airport. When we were little, my friend Felicia's father used to take us to the airport on some special Saturday mornings, where we'd watch the airplanes' comings and goings and imagine all the glamorous places we would someday visit.
Later in the evening, we head for the elegant Connie Cocktail Lounge, which now sits on the tarmac serving drinks and nibbles to visitors who sit on red and tan seats flanked by small white tables. The restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation "Connie" airplane is approximately 116 feet long and 23 feet high, with a wingspan of 150 feet. Five years ago, the propeller-driven, four engine airliner, originally commissioned by Hughes, was restored to its original glory, and is now a favorite spot for visitors.
After breakfast in the self-service food hall the next morning, of course we go to the gift shop, where we splurge on matching red hoodies and a $10 enamel silver pin before we check out.
The hotel is accessible by the Air Train, free within the airport, and a connection between the TWA Hotel and all terminals. If you're in the Jet Blue Terminal, it's an easy elevator ride to the hotel lobby.
Whether you spend a couple of hours meandering, especially if you've got a layover before the next leg of a flight, or you visit it as a stand-alone destination, it's a place you shouldn't miss. Many parts of it are free — you can wander in, check your luggage, and spend an hour or three exploring. Other attractions, such as the Infinity pool and sometimes the Paris Café, require reservations.
Other Options to Revel in The Past
If you're not going to be in New York anytime soon, you can visit the TWA Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. You can look over the many TWA artifacts, housed in glass cases, test your wings, as they say, on an immersive flight simulator, and surround yourself in cockpit simulator panels once used for pilot training purposes.
And if no trip is in sight, you can read author Ann Hood's 2022 book, "Fly Girl: A Memoir," about her years as a TWA stewardess, as they were called back in the days when people still applauded as the plane landed safely. ("We made it!" I remember my fearful flier mother shrieking, on my pre-pubescent trips to Miami Beach.) Hood's memoir beautifully captures the glory of air travel in its heyday.