In Europe's great cities, a station can be a destination in itself. Take a later train and discover these 'railway cathedrals'.
Shiny, renovated St Pancras is one of London's must-see sights, whether you're hopping on a Eurostar to the continent or just treating yourself to a glass of fizz at the champagne bar stretching beside the platforms. Come anytime to stroll open-mouthed around the Barlow train shed, once the world's largest enclosed space and now part of the world's most jaw-dropping railway station.
Gare de Lyon, Paris
Gare de Lyon station remains a wonderful example of belle époque architecture, complete with the astonishingly ornate Le Train Bleu brasserie, surely the finest restaurant in any station anywhere in the world. Check out the nude statues symbolising Navigation, Steam, Electricity and Mechanics perched out front.
Don't be fooled by the modesty of Brussels' Midi Station: the Belgians do grandiose terminals as well as any European country. Prince among them is Antwerp's recently renovated Centraal Station, a marble-and-glass terminus known as the Railway Cathedral. It's hard to know where to look here - at the giant dome, the vaulted ceiling or the dramatically sweeping main staircase. Centraal Station is also home to a diamond gallery with thirty shops, a nod to the city's jewellery-dealing heritage.
Santa Lucia, Venice
Such is the impact of the first view of Venice on exiting this station that some visitors (me included) have been known to walk back into this 1950s station building and stroll out into the sunshine again and again. The magic is instant. Venice suddenly becomes a reality, complete with its car-free soundtrack of vaporetto engines and the shouts of tour groups wandering across the canal quayside. Hot and sticky in summer and usually busy, the station is the gateway to one of the world's wonders, and even though its 1950s halls and platforms are in need of a brush-up it remains one of the continent's best places to pass through by train.
Among the many things that took travellers' breath away when Prague emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in the 1990s was the dramatic entrance to the city. Hlavní nádraží is one of many art nouveau gems in the city, even if its glory is obscured from the rest of town by a main road. The station's lavishly decorated lobby and ornate ceilings create a superb first or last impression, and the terminus is slowly emerging from a major renovation.
Those passionate about the golden age of British engineering (and who isn't?) should tarry a while outside Budapest's palace-like Keleti (eastern) station and admire the statues of James Watt and George Stephenson. These diligent inventors refined and perfected steam engine technology, ushering in the golden age of railways.
Santa Maria Novella, Florence
The kind of place you wait for someone who never turns up, Florence's Santa Maria Novella is a slightly surreal introduction to what is, for most visitors, a few days bingeing on timeless Florentine art, architecture and food. This is a Fascist building, built with Mussolini's approval. Everything from signal boxes to station clocks are resolutely modernist. The platform-side memorial to Jews deported from here to concentration camps is a reminder of the more chilling consequences of Fascist rule in Italy.
When a station has a lounge reserved exclusively for the use of the President you know it's a bit special. Clad in Finnish granite and fronted with iconic statuary, Helsinki's main train station was brightened up in 2000 by the installation of a glass roof.
Porte Dauphine, Paris
You may think that once you've seen the War of the Worlds-style art nouveau subway entrances at Paris' Gare du Nord you can tick that theme off your Impressive Stations list. Think again: go to Porte Dauphine in the distant 16th arrondisement and be astonished not only that Hector Guimard turned his dream-like designs into reality but also that there are only two original examples left on the Metro network. The other, equally worth a look, is at Abbesses in Montmartre.
Visitors to Portugal are often surprised by unexpected and spectacular murals made with blue azulejo tiles, and the wall displays at Porto's São Bento station are so dramatic as to be a tourist attraction on their own. Jorge Colaço's work covers the walls of the station and depicts great scenes from Portugal's history. Grab a bench and let those custard tarts digest while taking in the scene.
This article was first published in August 2009 and was refreshed in June and July 2012.
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