The nature of interrailing means that both the first and last thing that you see when you are leaving a town or city is the train station. Often, architects bear this in mind when they are designing and building the stations, as this helps to put the city’s prowess on show from people’s first arrival, and then to make a lasting impression when people leave. Therefore, there are some fantastic stations out there, and in this article, we are going to draw your attention to five stations not to miss as you travel around Europe.
St. Pancras Station – London, United Kingdom
When St. Pancras first opened in 1868, its iron roof was the largest free-spanning structure in the world and is still impressive to behold all these years later. Together, William Barlow’s design, combined with the station’s stunning façade provided by the Midland Grand Hotel, produce what is one of the most recognisable stations in the city. With the focus of London’s railway switching to Euston Station in 1923, the station’s popularity decreased, and the authorities threatened to close the station for good. However thanks to John Betjeman’s campaigning, the Grade I listed building still stands today, demonstrating the formidability of Victorian Gothic architecture. The station is close to the popular landmarks of the British Library and Regent’s Canal, and it also proved pivotal in the transport infrastructure during the London 2012 Olympics, when shuttles connected the centre of London with Stratford International in only seven minutes.
Furthermore, trains from St. Pancras International cross the Channel, bridging the gap between the United Kingdom and the rest of mainland Europe. In just two hours and fifteen minutes, you can find yourself in Paris, while in one hour fifty minutes, you will be stepping out into the streets of the Belgian capital, Brussels. The station was re-opened in 2007 following £800 million worth of repairs and renovation, creating a space with 15 platforms and a coach facility, alongside a shopping centre and public pianos to help make your journey as enjoyable as possible. This has not gone unnoticed and in 2020 St. Pancras was voted Europe’s Most Friendly Railway Station in a Consumer Choice Centre Index.
Be sure not to miss Paul Day’s statue The Meeting Place, which helped to make the station one of the Lonely Planet’s Most Romantic Meeting Places in London, or the two-metre bronze statue dedicated to Betjeman and his efforts in saving the station, which stands above the Arcade concourse.
Lisbon Rossio Station – Lisbon, Portugal
Next up on our list is Lisbon Rossio Station, which was built in the late 1800s following designs drawn up by Jose Luis Monteiro. The ornate horseshoe arch doorways, turrets and pinacols of the Neo-Manueline façade on the north-westerly side are spectacular and give the station an almost fairy tale appearance. Similar to St. Pancras, this station was almost lost as well, with refurbishments ignoring and undermining the station’s original beauty. However, this was addressed in 2007 when renovations restored the station’s charm, subsequently earning it a place in Flavorwire’s list of the most beautiful stations in 2012.
The station is also perfectly located in the heart of the Baixa District of the Portuguese capital, along the route connecting the Praça D. Pedro IV and the Praça dos Restauradores avenue, with the Rossio Plaza only a stone’s throw away as well. The trains run by Comboios de Portugal, connect Lisbon Rossio Station to Sintra, a quintessentially Portuguese town 27 kilometres away, where you can discover the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, a medieval palace that is renowned for its conical chimneys, the busy shopping area of Rua das Padarias, and the church Igreja de Santa Maria.
Gare du Nord – Paris, France
It would be criminal to miss what is the busiest station in Europe, with some 100 million passengers walking through the doors each year. Designed by Jacques Ignace Hittorff and built between 1861 and 1864, the Gare du Nord welcomes those travelling from the UK, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as many locations within France, to the French capital of Paris. On top of this, it has been featured in several famous blockbuster films and series, so see if you can find where Matt Damon was filmed in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum, as well as Rowan Atkinson in Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Scenes from Gossip Girl and Ocean’s Twelve were also captured under the station’s roof, so this is a must-see for film fanatics and star-chasers alike. If geography is more to your liking, then see if you can identify where the statues dedicated to places such as Dunkirk, Lille, Cologne, Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna, Brussels and London are.
Leipzig Hauptbahnhof – Leipzig, Germany
Even though Gare du Nord is the busiest station in Europe, it is not the largest, as that title has been snapped up by Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. Also known as Leipzig Grand Central Terminal, this station is the largest station in Europe by floor size at 83,460 square metres, which is stretched over 24 platforms and lies behind a 293-metre-long façade. The station also houses 140 shops and restaurants over its three floors, which are perfect for the 150,000 daily passengers (54 million a year) that come through the door. Some of these passengers will undoubtedly come from the Central German S-Bahn trains, as all of the lines run through the Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, which was originally opened in 1915, and subsequently restored in the 1950s after Allied bombing during World War II.
Canfranc International Railway Station – Canfranc, Spain
This station built its significance off the back of its role as a station welcoming cross-border trains, and therefore has earned its place on our list! The idea for a station at this location, which sits 1195 metres above sea level, high in the Pyrenees mountains, first came about in 1853, however the station was not opened until 1928. It is a prime example of cooperation between the French and Spanish, however, despite the promise that it brought, the station has been plagued by fire, derailment and war, thus leaving it abandoned. Having said this, it should not be missed!
The station embodies the ideals of a station as a demonstration of engineering and architectural prowess and has 365 windows and 156 doors stretched throughout its 240-metre length. It helped to remove the Pyrenees as an obstacle to travel, in part thanks to the 7.8km Somport Railway Tunnel. As a result, it was a key trade point between Francisco Franco’s government and Nazi Germany, but also for French Jews escaping the Vichy Regime, and religious pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela. More information on the station’s rich history can be discovered on the guided tours, and through staying in the station, as it has been converted into a hotel by architects Joaquín Magrazó and Fernando Used, with financial assistance from the government of Aragon and the Barceló Hotel Group.
There are many more beautiful train stations in Europe with worthy mentions of Antwerp Central Station, Madrid’s Atocha Station and Keleti Station in Budapest.