Up ahead, turrets frame a dome above a grand hall finished in marble, glass, and gold. But this isn’t another European cathedral. You’ve arrived at Belgium’s Antwerp Central Station.
Whether neo-Baroque or contemporary, the world’s most beautiful train stations were designed to make a big impression. Many were constructed during the late 19th century, a golden era when train travel was new, intriguing, and glamorous. Today, stations from every era continue to impress, attracting travelers who aren’t even catching a train.
It’s not surprising that these stations have withstood everything from wars to urban development. Train stations weren’t just transportation hubs; they became symbols of entire empires, as rulers transported their architectural and engineering know-how as far as India and Mozambique. Equally ambitious train routes spanned entire continents; most notably, the luxurious Orient-Express linked Paris to Istanbul’s Art Nouveau Sirkeci Station.
Train travel has since fallen in and out of favor. Recently, the growth of high-speed rail has been accompanied by interest in restoring and building iconic train stations. In London, for instance, workers cleaned 300,000 pounds of dirt from the neo-Gothic red brick façade of St. Pancras and restored 8,000 glass roof panes.
And in Melbourne, a thorough overhaul has converted Southern Cross Station into a cutting-edge landmark whose undulating glass roof also serves a practical purpose: ventilating the train platforms by drawing train exhaust through the pitched domes.
It’s a welcome change after years in which train travel more often took a backseat to cars and planes, particularly in America, where some stations fell into decline or faced the wrecking ball. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was abandoned in 1988, although broken windows and graffiti give its Beaux-Arts exterior an eerie beauty. Perhaps most infamously, New York’s gorgeous Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s, only to be replaced by the current dreary underground station.
New York has wrestled with concepts for a majestic new Penn Station and Madison Square Garden for more than a decade, so far without success. But elsewhere, cities are embracing their train stations. After all, even fliers often arrive via airport trains, which means the station is their introduction to a new destination. Still other travelers appreciate the benefits of a scenic, hassle-free train ride.
You don’t need to show up at the station hours in advance to go through airport-like security. But we recommend arriving early for a more pleasant reason: to take stock of these gorgeous cathedrals to locomotion.