Traveling in Europe by train?
Before you embark on exploring your chosen city, take a moment to savour its first port of call.
Not only packed with passengers, many European railways stations are steeped in rich history, fine architecture and fun trivia, making them a tourist attraction in their own right. Here are the top ten, as chosen by travellers and the media:
Denmark: Copenhagen Central Station
Located in the heart of the Danish capital, this third incarnation of the city’s central station was five years in the making and opened in 1911 to royal acclaim – King Christian X invited around 800 VIP guests while thousands of locals lined the streets to see the spectacle. The building was designed in national Romantic style by architect Henrich Wenck. Indeed, romance has blossomed in this railway station for generations, with the grand clock inside the main entrance a favoured meeting spot for first dates. Why not hop off your train and take a more adventurous ride next door – the station neighbours the city’s famous Tivoli Gardens and amusement park.
Belgium: Antwerp Central Station
Listed by US magazine Newsweek at the world’s fourth greatest train station, the building, with its vast iron and glass train-shed, was completed in 1905. A ten-year renovation project to transform the station from terminus to a high-speed through station finished in 2007. The building achieved international celebrity – or possibly notoriety – in 2009 as the backdrop to a staged flash mob event. Around 200 dancers descended on the station to publicise a new Belgian TV talent show. The subsequent video went viral, showcasing the country’s musical talent and finest example of railway architecture.
Belgium: Liège -Guillemins TGV Station
It may have taken 13 years to finish, but when Belgium’s third city overhauled its railway station it did so in style, employing the talents of renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. And he managed to imprint his individual style without disruption to the 36,000 daily passengers that travel through the station. Opened in 2009, the steel, glass and white concrete construction combines nine tracks and five platforms with exhibition space and its signature arch, standing 32 metres high and 160 metres long. With costs to the tune of 312 million euro, the sleek, futuristic hub offers visitors a memorable welcome and now connects Liège to Brussels, Paris, Aachen, Cologne and Frankfurt.
Croatia: Zagreb Central Station
This grandeur of the building is a throwback to the days when Zagreb was a stop on the Orient Express. The largest station in Croatia, spanning a colossal 186.5 metres long, it is situated on King Tomislav Square in the midst of the city. Inaugurated in 1892, the station’s construction was overseen by the rather efficient Hungarian architect Ferenc Pfaff who finished the neoclassical-style building in just two years. Zagreb offers direct services to major European cities such as Vienna, Budapest, Zurich, Munich, Salzburg, Ljubljana, Sarajevo and Belgrade. Spot the high-speed tilting trains at this station, which make domestic travel services convenient and fast.
Spain: Atocha train station, Madrid
A maze of palm trees, exotic plant species and even a turtle pond; it’s not what you would normally expect before you board your train. This was the vision of architect Rafael Moneo who remodelled the station in the late 1980s from the inaugural 1889 building. The major transport hub in the Spanish capital now lies behind a huge iron and glass panel while the original building was transformed into a concourse with shops, cafés, a nightclub and the unusual 4,000 square metre tropical gardens. A memorial in the station commemorates the 191 victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings – an 11-metre tall tower inscribed with thousands of messages of condolence.
Finland: Central Station, Helsinki
Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen won a competition to design the station that opened in 1919. Clad in local granite, its distinguishing features are the two pairs of imposing statues of figures on either side of the entrance. Known as “the stone men” (Kivimiehet) the figures have become iconic symbols for Finns. A unique feature that fewer people know about is the private waiting lounge exclusively for the use of the President of Finland and official guests. Former President of Finland Kyösti Kallio died at the station in December 1940 after suffering a heart attack. He was returning home to the small town of Nivala after attending farewell ceremonies in the capital for his retirement.
Germany: Leipzig: Leipzig Central Station
This is Europe’s largest railway station when measured by floor area. Covering 83,460 m² there are 24 platforms housed in six iron train sheds hidden behind a 293 metre-long facade. When it opened in 1915 it was mutually owned by Royal Saxon State Railways and the Prussian state railways, complete with two identical dome entrances, one for each company. The building suffered serious bomb damage during World War II when the roof of the concourse collapsed. Following German reunification in 1990, the building underwent extensive refurbishment and now 150,000 passengers travel daily through the station.
France: Gare du Nord, Paris
Situated in the French capital’s 10th arrondissement, the busiest railway station in Europe receives around 190 million travellers per year. The station complex was designed by French architect Jacques Hittorff and built between 1861 and 1864. The Gare du Nord has been used and mentioned in a mixed bag of popular culture, from French films and the book The Da Vinci Code to Hollywood movies including The Bourne Identity, Ocean’s Twelve and the less highbrow Mr Bean’s Holiday. French architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff was handpicked to design the current station complex, which opened for service while still under construction in 1864.
Portugal: Rossio Railway Station, Lisbon
With its prime location in the Portuguese capital’s Rossio Square, a bustling hang out for both locals and tourists, the majestic building could easily be confused for a palace or theatre. Designed by local architect José Luís Monteiro and completed in 1887, its typically Romantic style facade is laced with intricate sculpture, most notably two intertwined horseshoe portals at the entrance. Trains access the station through a 2,600 metre-long tunnel, excavated under the city and considered one of the most important works of Portuguese engineering of the 19th century.
Holland: Central Station, Amsterdam
First opened in 1889, the station was a contentious issue for the city officials before it was even built. Set on the banks of the IJ River – the Amsterdam harbour – many argued its location cut the Dutch capital off from the beauty of its own waterfront. The building rests on three manmade islands supported by over 8,600 wooden pilings. Around 250,000 people pass through the station everyday and the station has been expanded numerous times to cater for the now 1,500 trains that depart and arrive daily. Having undergone recent restoration, the building has now regained much of its original grandeur. Designed by architect PJH. Cuypers, who was also responsible for many of Amsterdam’s neo- Gothic churches, the station was considered a symbol of rejuvenation for the country at the time.
Article sponsored by Eurail Group.
Originally published in The Local (Germany’s News in English)