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.
Many residents were initially dismayed by the city’s modern “entrance” when it was unveiled in 2005. The station’s wooden hand-drum-shaped Tsuzumi Gate and glass umbrella-shaped Motenashi Dome were controversial because they clashed with the traditional architecture of this old castle town—one of Japan’s best preserved as it was spared in WWII bombings. But the station has been so popular with tourists and photographers that many skeptics have come around to see the beauty in its sleek modern design.
How to See It: After admiring the futuristic design of the entrance, stop by the ultra-cool fountain out front that displays time like a digital clock.
With the opening of a new terminal in 1992, locals had the inspired idea to convert the original adjacent station into a concourse with a beautiful tropical garden of palm trees reaching toward the steel and glass roof in the center—as well as a nightclub and several cafés. The new station is accessed through the old terminal, where passengers can buy tickets and wait for their trains.
How to See It: Pay your respects at the memorial to victims of the March 11, 2004, bombing. The 36-foot-tall glass cylinder, just outside the station, is inscribed with messages of condolences from the days following the attacks.
Father-son team John and Donald Parkinson contributed to this station’s design, blending the area’s Spanish Colonial heritage with then-contemporary Art Deco styles. The tall white bell tower of the station’s exterior is reminiscent of California’s missions while its main waiting room is sumptuously finished with a painted wood ceiling and multicolored marble inlays on the floor.
How to See It: On a sunny day, you can wait outdoors in the meticulously maintained rose-filled gardens and courtyards with mosaic-tiled fountains.
British architect F. W. Stevens worked with local craftsmen to blend Indian architectural traditions with the Victorian Gothic Revival style. Originally named for Queen Victoria, the Empress of India, the station has endured as a Mumbai landmark—and a vital resource for the three million commuters who use it daily. The turrets and elaborate ornamentation are similar to design elements found on Moghul and Hindu palaces across the subcontinent.
How to See It: Keep your eye out for symbolic details like the figures atop the columns of the entry gates that represent Britain (the lion) and India (the tiger).
While the exterior is certainly beautiful—and brings to mind 19th-century Parisian architecture with its mansard roof and stone façade—it is the front hall that will make you gasp. The walls are covered with 20,000 splendid azulejo tin-glazed ceramic tiles, which took 11 years for artist Jorge Colaço to complete.
How to See It: Zero in on the blue and white tile panels, which depict the history of transportation as well as historic battles and artistic renderings of 14th-century King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster by the city’s cathedral.