Great Destinations for Historical Train Buffs

Trains are both a passion and a way of life for a surprising number of people. Some love the modern speed-record shattering kind. Others can’t get enough of the vintage vehicles that were so instrumental in building our modern world. Here’s a selection of train experiences for the latter, whether as working rolling stock, parked forever in museums or simply hinted at in stations of notable history and character.

Weirs Beach, Laconia, NH 03249, USA
This railroad was once part of the Boston & Maine Railroad that brought tourists to Lake Winnipesaukee for summer vacation from the 1890’s to the 1950’s. Today, the railroad offers trips around the lake and comes down from Meredith into Weirs Beach. The scenic ride is 2-hour round trip excursion around the lake in summer. The ride starts at Weirs Beach and returns you to your original location - Weirs Beach. In the fall, there is a Round Trip Fall Foliage Scenic Train Excursion from Weirs Beach on weekends from 9/7 to 10/27 of 2013. These train excursions tour this beautiful area. The lines are long, so try to go at least 30 minutes before departure. The train station is right in the center of Weirs Beach. Info:
100 W Laurel St, Fort Bragg, CA 95437, USA
The Skunk Train (formally the California Western Railroad) dates to the 1880s and cruises between Fort Bragg and Willits, over trestles, through tunnels, and past some amazingly old Redwoods. It is indeed a “tourist attraction” but also a glorious way to travel through beautiful Northern California forests. During Mendocino’s major culinary events--the Beer, Wine & Mushroom Festival in November and the Crab, Wine & Beer Days in January--ride a special express to hunt for for mushrooms with a mycologist or enjoy a Crab Louie with local wines.
39 Wellington Street
While skipping the museum and going straight to the shop isn’t something you hear all too often, it’s something a lot of people do in London, including Londoners themselves. Especially at the London Transport Museum. The museum is full of historical artifacts from the Underground, from old trains to roundels to war posters, and definitely makes for a very interesting couple of hours. But if you are running out of time in London and want a quirky, original souvenir that you won’t find anywhere else, go straight to the shop. There, you will find vintage posters, roundel-everything from mugs, tableware, rugs, bags, t-shirts and other memorabilia, photography books and even, my favorite, blankets in the same fabric as your favorite Tube line. Forget the high-street tourist shops - this is the real deal when it comes to London souvenirs. It’s not the cheapest store in the city, that’s a given. But each item is well worth its price, considering its unique design and overall coolness.
Athens, GA 30601, USA
R.E.M. was one of the top musical acts to make it out of the small town of Athens, Georgia, and arguably out of the whole state. The band made the area famous, especially when they chose a specific photo for the back cover of their 1983 album “Murmur.” This railroad trestle was built as a part of the Georgia Railroad line and has been threatened to be torn down numerous times. But you’ll find students and urban explorers out here any day of the week checking it out and even climbing on it, which I don’t recommend. The trestle is located in the North Oconee River Greenway behind Mama’s Boy restaurant, so after a big brunch, explore the trestle and surrounding parklands.
17155 W 44th Ave, Golden, CO 80403, USA
If you’re into trains (or your kids are) this museum is a ferroequinologist’s (a person who studies trains) paradise. This museum houses over 100 steam and diesel locomotives, passenger cars, and cabooses as well as a G-scale model railroad in its 15-acre rail yard. There is also a restoration facility and working round table that will wow curious minds and train fans.
1 Samuel Spencer Dr, Spencer, NC 28159, USA
Located on the site of what was once Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility, home of most of the buildings standing when the facility was finally closed, including one of the largest remaining still functioning roundhouses and turntables, now the home of a very extensive collection of locomotives and rolling stock several of which are available for riding during 25 minute train rides touring the 57 acre facility, plus a growing collection of other forms of NC transportation, this museum is well worth a visit for trainiacs and non-trainiacs alike. Note: Save your train ride tickets. They can be used for discounts at several local eateries and the full service model railroad store right across the street from the museum, the Little Choo Choo Shop:, which is also the closest model train store to Mocksville. A few blocks from the adjoining the city of Salisbury, NC, a half hour drive from Mocksville, NC, and a few minutes drive from the nearest Amtrak station in downtown Salisbury, it is easy to get to for visitors in the area.
1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101, USA
In the lower level of the Casa Del Balboa building in Balboa Park is one of the world’s largest indoor model railway displays. There are several rooms, where you can see huge displays of trains going through miniature towns and landscapes. Parts of the California railway system is recreated in miniature, including the Southern Pacific-Santa Fe Tehachapi Pass (pictured here). There are different miniature towns representing San Diego and other California cities throughout various point in history, and the railways that went through them at that time period. In another room is the toy train gallery, with four separate lines, miniature scenery, and even a train equipped with a camera in the front, so you can watch a video from the ‘train’s eye view.’ Both kids and adults will enjoy this fantastic model railroad museum.
1001 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203, USA
This Romanesque Revival landmark has become Nashville’s crown jewel. The city’s main train station from 1900 until the 1970s, when railway service was discontinued, the building sat vacant for decades until it was restored to its former glory and reopened as a boutique hotel in 2016. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel retains pieces of the past—including its iconic clock tower, an original arrivals and departures board, and the solid wood staircases—while providing all the comforts of the present. The 125 guest rooms skew contemporary, with soothing tones of gray and neutral walnut, as well as cowhide headboards and custom ironwork lights. By contrast, public spaces veer on the nostalgic: The atrium lobby has painted barrel-vaulted ceilings, 100-year-old stained-glass skylights, bas-relief moldings, and ornate crystal chandeliers. It’s an atmospheric backdrop for the hotel’s “Riffs on the Rails,” a weekly series of live music performances.
89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, USA
Stepping into the enormous main concourse of this landmarked architectural jewel—with its sweeping granite staircases, hulking columns and 38-meter (125-foot) ceilings painted with night-sky constellations—can be a jaw-dropping experience. What’s even more incredible, though, is the sheer number of people who use it as a commuter hub day in and day out (more than 750,000 train and subway passengers every weekday). Wander around the shops, head down to the basement food court for a bite and to marvel at the crowds hurrying by—and if you get jostled, don’t take it personally.
Hatton, Sri Lanka
Train travel in Sri Lanka is like stepping back in time - old locomotives, old tracks, and slow service. But it’s the best way to really see the middle of the country. Some stations like this one in Hatton are really busy - and you have to be prepared to push your way on board. But the locals love to talk to you on the train and will make you feel welcome - even if it is tight circumstances.
Might be one of the most beautiful train stations in the World, Sao Bento Railway Station was opened to the public in 1916 and is well known for its walls covered with 20,000 splendid azulejo ceramic tiles which describe the History of Portugal. It took Jorge Colaço, the artist, 11 years to complete this building. The railway station is located in the Almeida Garret Square, in the centre of the city. I happened to be there on a Saturday rainy morning, while I was looking for a place to hide from the heavy rain. It was quite interesting watching the people’s dynamics, which might look the same in every major Railway station, despite its location. This place is beautiful all year around and probably most hours of the day. Indulge in this beauty and pay attention to the little details.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks