As a Midwesterner used to functional but far-from-glamorous Amtrak hubs, I didn’t know I could be wowed by a train station until I visited the Estación de Atocha in Madrid. Struck by the sun streaking in through the curved glass roof and the tropical plants taller than the house I grew up in, I resolved that every time I visited Europe, I’d take time to visit these impressive terminals.
European train stations—such as the classic red-brick St. Pancras in London or the old-meets-ultra-modern Strasbourg-Ville in France—are more than simple transit stops. They’re treasures of the golden era of train travel, architectural wonders, and community hubs where locals and visitors alike shop, eat, and take in live music and art exhibitions. Read on for nine of Europe’s most impressive stations and the short rail trips that give us an excuse to visit them.
Book now: From $16, italotreno.it; raileurope.com
Milano Centrale is massive—twice the size of the city’s Duomo—with 24 platforms that serve approximately 320,000 passengers daily. And with its bombastic, over-the-top sculptures and eclectic mix of architectural styles (including art nouveau and art deco), the exterior looks more like a royal opera house or palace. The station was built between 1912 and 1931, and its original simple design was heavily ornamented at Mussolini’s behest to glorify the Fascist regime.
Ride the rails: Full of Renaissance, baroque, rococo, art nouveau, and neoclassical buildings, Turin is less than an hour from Milan via train. Italy’s first capital and the home of the University of Turin is the Italian version of a charming, down-to-earth college town. Fares start at $16 each way, so it’s worth the trip even if you only stay long enough to see Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait at the Biblioteca Reale.
Book now: From $18, oui.scnf; raileurope.com
In 2007, the stately 19th-century Gare de Strasbourg-Ville and its early 20th-century addition were encased in a shiny glass pod; this time-capsule design leaves the historical building unmodified but protected from the elements. It also allowed for a sizeable expansion at what is now the second largest rail hub in France (La Gare Ville served over 18 million passengers in 2016).
Ride the rails: Grab a high-speed train to La Gare Ville at Paris-Est, and you’ll be in Strasbourg’s Petit-France neighborhood in under two-and-a-half hours. For charming panoramas of the cafés, museums, and shops that were once home to fishermen, tanners, and millers along the riverways, head for Barrage Vauban, a 17th-century dam and pink sandstone bridge that now houses modern art exhibits.
St. Pancras International
Book now: Round-trip from $50, southeasternrailway.co.uk; raileurope.com
The epic red-brick facade of St. Pancras International is eye-catching, even in the hubbub of central London. In true Victorian Gothic fashion, an imposing clock tower competes for attention with rows upon rows of arched windows at this restored 19th-century station. With its 2007 extension, St. Pancras houses 15 train platforms, over 50 shops and restaurants, a five-star hotel, public pianos, and benches made from the 2012 London Olympic rings.
Ride the rails: You could take a Eurostar to anywhere in Europe from St. Pancras, but England’s best-known medieval pilgrimage city is only an hour away. Spend the weekend wandering Canterbury’s narrow cobbled streets and visiting the UNESCO World Heritage–listed cathedral, abbey, and church.
Book now: From $11, belgiantrain.be; raileurope.com
Despite the stream of busy commuters, Antwerpen- Centraal’s main hall feels like a sacred space with its grand staircase, lacy iron-and-glass windows, and shining marble floors. It’s no wonder the station’s nickname is Spoorwegkathedraal (“railroad cathedral”) in Flemish. First opened in 1905, and updated and expanded between 2000 and 2009 to accommodate high-speed trains, the station has 14 platforms on four levels.
Ride the rails: There’s more to Belgium than Brussels and Bruges. Head to nearby Ghent—about an hour away via rail—to climb the city’s dragon-topped belfry, stroll the riverbanks of the Lys, and tour the 12th-century Castle of the Counts.
Helsinki Central Station
Book now: From $10, vr.fi
This 1919 art nouveau train station is used by approximately 200,000 passengers daily, making it Finland’s most-visited building. While the red-brown Finnish granite–clad structure is striking, the two pairs of massive, lantern-carrying statues flanking the main entrance steal the show. A glass and steel roof designed by Esa Piiroinen to protect travelers from the elements was added over the central platforms in 2000.
Ride the rails: A 1.5-hour train ride from Helsinki, Finland’s former capital Turku is a great destination for travelers interested in seeing more of the Finnish coast and archipelago. It’s home to a medieval old town, Scandinavia’s largest surviving castle, and family-friendly theme-, adventure- and waterparks. Book your train tickets in advance to grab one-way saver fares.
Book now: Round-trip from $12.50, renfe.com; raileurope.com
The Spanish capital’s eclectic Atocha station was designed in part by Gustave Eiffel; his influence is most apparent in the train shed’s arched steel-and-glass roof. When traffic at the station outgrew the original 1892 building in the 1980s, an annex with 25 platforms was added, and the old platform area was converted into an atrium full of several thousand tropical plants from around the world.
Ride the rails: A round-trip ticket to Toledo from Atocha is only $12.50, so the 30-minute journey is a reasonable day trip, but it’s worth staying overnight to watch the sun set over the 14th-century San Martin Bridge after a day of exploring. Start at Puerta de la Bisagra, the medieval gate to the old city, and be sure to visit Cristo de la Luz Mosque, Tránsito Synagogue, and the city’s Gothic cathedral.
São Bento Railway Station
Book now: From $9, cp.pt
The eight-track São Bento was completed on the site of a Benedictine monastery in 1916, and the floor-to-ceiling tile friezes in the main hall make it one of Porto’s most popular attractions. The work of Jorge Colaço, nearly 20,000 blue-and-white painted azulejo tiles bring to life pastoral scenes, the history of transport in Portugal, a royal wedding, and the Portuguese “conquest” of Ceuta on the northern coast of Africa.
Ride the rails: The two-hour Linha do Douro route from Porto is the perfect opportunity to explore Portugal’s famous wine region without a renting a car. Disembark at Peso da Regua (listed as Regua), then hike the 2.6 miles to the viewpoint at Santo Antonio do Loureiro for sweeping views of the dramatically terraced vineyards on the slopes of the Douro River or tour the Douro Museum to learn more about the region’s wine-growing heritage. (Due to line construction in 2019, travelers start their journey with a four-minute regional train to Porto’s Campanha station, then change to the Douro Line, part of which will be via bus until further notice.)
Amsterdam Centraal Station
Book now: From $18, ns.nl; raileurope.com
From the great mind of Pierre Cuypers, the man behind the Rijksmuseum, comes this palatial train station. Opened in 1889, the Amsterdam Centraal mixes English, Flemish, French, and Dutch influences into a Gothic/Renaissance revival style complete with turrets and a roof spanning 131 feet. But the building’s support system is perhaps more impressive: 8,687 wooden piles pounded into three man-made islands loft it over the IJ River.
Ride the rails: After a few days in Amsterdam, head to Rotterdam for a change of pace. The trip costs $18 each way, so book an unlimited two-day travel ticket for $25 instead. Only 40 minutes from Amsterdam, this lively but laid-back Dutch port city is known for its eclectic mix of modern architecture, including buildings such as Piet Blom’s famous cube houses and the city’s own angular, solar-panel-covered Centraal Station.
Book now: From $9, scotrail.co.uk; raileurope.com
Somehow cottage-like in spite of its 60-foot clock tower, this two-platform, Queen Anne–style station in Wemyss Bay, Scotland is the last remaining station built by the former Caledonian Railway Company. Dating to 1903, it was once renowned for displays of hanging baskets and potted plants in its glass-canopied waiting areas, but fell into disrepair in the 1970s and ’80s. A group of locals adopted the station from ScotRail in 2009 and have used money raised from a charity bookshop on site and funding from ScotRail to decorate the station inside and out with floral displays.
Ride the rails: From Glasgow, your ticket to fresh air in Wemyss Bay costs about $9. After the hour train ride, hop a 35-minute ferry to the Isle of Bute for golf, fishing, and a taste of Scottish island life.