For many, the first glimpse of a new destination occurs as your plane touches down on the tarmac at an anonymous city airport, your first taste of local culture being passport control and the baggage carousel before finding your way to your final port of call. And yet, for those opting for a city break via a civilised rail journey between A to B, chances are you’ll alight in an architectural gem, for Europe has no shortage of beautiful railway stations rich in history, stylish in design and memorable in their own right. We take a look at a few of Europe’s finest…
St Pancras, London
Gateway to the continent, those looking to journey to Paris, Lille, Brussels and beyond by the Eurostar will encounter their first taste of architectural brilliance on arrival at St Pancras. First opened in 1868 in what was originally known as the Barlow Shed, St Pancras is an amazing feat of Victorian engineering and was at its inauguration the world’s largest enclosed space. Today sleek and illustrious by design thanks to a major £800 million renovation project, St Pancras comprises over 14,000 panels – nearly 10,000 square metres – of glass in its impressive roof, together with 300,000 handcrafted Welsh slates. Worthy of a visit for its boutique shopping and famous champagne bar – the longest in Europe – alone!
Often referred to as the ‘Railway Cathedral’ and one of the city’s main landmarks in its own right, Antwerp’s Centraal Station is an architectural joy to behold, its opulent and palatial, neo-Baroque terminus boasting a giant dome, stunning glass and iron vaulted ceiling and sweeping main staircase. Completed in 1905 and extensively renovated in 2007, the station’s lavish interior is decorated in more than 20 types of marble and stone and plays host to more than 30 diamond shops in its diamond gallery, a nod to the city’s longstanding association with these sparkling gems.
It’s not often that you come across a turtle pond in a city train station but those arriving into Madrid’s Atocha station is awash with palm trees, exotic plant species and tropical greenery. When the original Atocha train station was destroyed by fire in the early 1890s, the new building, on which Gustave Eiffel collaborated with its main architect, was created using a glass and iron frame. With a subsequent additional building opened in 1992 to serve the high-speed AVE trains, this glorious structure today plays host not only to its verdant gardens, but also to a nightclub, shops and cafes. There’s also an 11-metre-tall tower serving as a memorial to the 191 victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Few railway stations boast a private waiting lounge for the exclusive use of its country’s leader, yet Helsinki’s Central Station does just that. Opened in 1919, this imposing building, a widely recognised landmark on the Helsinki cityscape, is clad in Finnish granite and is distinctive for its clock tower and two pairs of imposing and iconic statues, known as the ‘stone men’, holding spherical lamps on either side of the entrance. Used by some 200,000 passengers per day, this is Finland’s most-visited building.
São Bento, Porto
Renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful historic stations, São Bento Station impresses both inside and out. A grand stone structure paying homage to the Renaissance architectural style so prevalent in France, its interior is nothing short of spectacular: walls adorned with murals comprising some 20,000 magnificent azulejo tin-glazed ceramic tiles depicting the history of transport and Portugal. Dating back as far as 1916, the most remarkable panels depict King João I and Queen Philippa of Lancaster by the city’s cathedral in 1387, Prince Henry the Navigator conquering Ceuta in Morocco, and a representation of the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez.
And that’s just the start of it! I’ll be uncovering more architectural splendours on a station theme very soon.