For those who love travel, train stations symbolize much more than their basic function of funnelling people to and from trains and subways. As the point on the map where a journey begins or ends, railway stations take on a sort of sacred meaning for many travelers. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many of the world’s beautiful railway stations share the classical architectural details of great houses of worship, royal palaces, and courthouses. You’ll surely want to swipe your ticket at these nine cathedrals of train travel, from New York City to Mozambique.
Grand Central Terminal (New York, New York)
Grand Central is the perfect name for this impressive edifice, which you might consider the center of gravity for the rest of Manhattan. The beauty of this Beaux Arts masterpiece somehow surpasses expectation — the domed ceiling of the Great Hall is an improbable shade of blue, somewhere between Tiffany blue and the evening-dusk sky, with gold-painted constellations sprayed across the vast field of color. Marble surfaces, soaring pillars, intricate metal latticework, terrazzo floors — all of that dazzling elegance is at the service of the 750,000 commuters, travelers, and visitors who pass through it daily.
Gare do Oriente (Lisbon, Portugal)
When commissioning a new train station, Santiago Calatrava is apparently the architect to call. In addition to this ethereal Lisbon terminus, built for the Expo ’98 world’s fair, Calatrava is responsible for other stunners like Belgium’s Liège-Guillemins Station, France’s Lyon-Saint-Exupéry, the Mediopadana Station in Italy, and downtown New York’s Oculus transit hub. This glass-and-metal riverside opus in Lisbon provides a pretty dreamy space for rail, metro, and bus travelers alike — and it almost appears light enough to take flight.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Mumbai, India)
This frothy confection of sandstone and limestone was built in 1888 to honor the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, then-colonial ruler of India, and at that time it was dubbed Victoria Terminus Station. A “mash-up of Victorian Italianate Gothic Revival and traditional Indian architecture,” according to Architectural Digest, the station features a grand interior clad in Italian marble. A forest of stone pillars supports magnificent groin-vaulted ceilings and sky-high windowed domes. The resulting ambiance feels more like a house of worship than the usual rushing chaos of transit hubs.
Union Station (Los Angeles, California)
Its proximity to Hollywood and the film industry means that this stunning Spanish colonial station has played roles in several movies, including The Driver, Blade Runner, and Catch Me If You Can. (It also served as the venue for the socially distanced 2021 Academy Awards ceremony.) The generous scale of the station complex — along with soaring wood-raftered ceilings, sunny interior gardens lined by arched walkways, and jewel-toned art deco-style mosaics on the wall and embedded in the terrazzo floors — definitely lends the 1939 station an assured elegance fit for a starring role.
Kanazawa Station (Ishikawa, Japan)
A modern sculptural take on the torii gates that lead to Shinto shrines, the entryway to Kanazawa Station is a horizontal crossbeam that extends past its two upright pillars, which are made of vermillion-painted cypress wood beams twisted to resemble a traditional Noh drum. While the station opened in 1898, it didn’t get this exciting makeover until 2005 — a renovation that also included the construction of a great hall covered with a glass-and-metal roof. At 45 feet tall, the Drum Gate is certainly the most noticeable torii-like gate, but inside, 12 more red gates line the main concourse.
São Bento Railway Station (Porto, Portugal)
Portugal is known for its azulejos, hand-painted ceramic tiles that decorate the interiors and exteriors of buildings all over the country. The tiled murals at São Bento, Porto’s train station, are particularly beautiful examples of a style of azulejo application in which individual tiles are painted to make up part of a larger image. More than 20,000 blue-painted tiles narrate stories of military victories, royal events, and bucolic Portuguese life on the station’s walls, in smaller spaces between and over grand windows, and across the tops of archways. This often makes the wait for a delayed train far more entertaining than usual.
Kuala Lumpur Railway Station (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
This tropical white-and-beige station is a mashup of architectural styles. Arthur Benison Hubback, the British colonial architect who designed it, used a little colonial style, some Moorish and Mughal elements, and a hearty dollop of Asian whimsy in this 1910 building. (For those who long for the golden age of train travel, consider that, in the station’s early days, passengers who had a layover on the train to Singapore could take a refreshing bath in one of the station's private dressing rooms, then a rickshaw ride around town, and still get back in time for the rest of the journey.) In 2001, a more modern hub was built nearby and all intercity trains were diverted there, leaving only commuter trains arriving and leaving the “old” station.
Maputo Railway Station (Maputo, Mozambique)
You may have come to the conclusion that the Portuguese are big fans of rail travel. Our list already includes two stations in Portugal, and this one was built in 1916 when Mozambique was under Portuguese rule. The symmetrical Beaux Arts style of Maputo Railway Station features an arched and pillared main doorway with a large clock above it, topped by a grand copper dome. The two wings of the building, extending on either side, are fronted by tall arched galleries on the first floor and balustrade balconies and verandas on the second level, made of white stone enhanced by a mint green stucco. Inside, a darker green marble prevails, alongside decorative wrought iron work that even extends to the platform area.
Haydarpaşa Railway Station (Istanbul, Turkey)
Chances are pretty good that if you’re a train lover, you may have a soft spot for other romantic forms of transportation like boat travel. If that’s the case, you’ll fall hard for Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa Railway Station, an imposing palatial structure on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Alas, the romance of travel is that's present at the 1909 building now; it closed in 2013, though plans are in place for renovation and restoration of service (or at least historic preservation). Visitors can still walk around the exterior to admire its towers, turrets, stonework, and stained glass. In its heyday, the station was the terminus for the storied Taurus Express and Trans-Asia Express, and passengers could arrive for their train via ferry. One could only imagine getting off the Orient Express from Paris at Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station on the European side of the Bosporus, then boarding a ferry across the water to Haydarpaşa Station on the Asian side to journey on to points east.