Most train stations offer the basic array of fast food, magazine shops, and chintzy gift stores, and many combine those offerings with gorgeous interior architecture. But a few truly stand out: they're places you'd want to stay, rather than pass through. Here are our top seven.
New York's Grand Central Station
Forget trains entirely. Grand Central is a mandatory stop on any NYC itinerary. You've seen the main hall in movies and on TV -- its soaring ceiling depicting the constellations -- but poke around the side passages and you'll find plenty to do: there's a branch of New York's transit museum, plenty of shopping, three upscale restaurants overlooking the main concourse, a gourmet food market, a well-known bar (the Campbell Apartment) tucked into an upper level, the Oyster Bar and a food court in the basement. The Municipal Art Society (tel. 212/935-3960; www.mas.org) offers a walking tour of Grand Central Terminal on Wednesday at 12:30pm, which meets at the information booth on the Grand Concourse. The one thing you can't do in Grand Central is take a long-distance train: the many trains from this station only fan out in a 75 mile radius. All of New York's Amtrak trains leave from miserably depressing Penn Station across town.
Washington's Union Station
Maybe Grand Central does it better, but Union Station did it first, opening in 1988 as a railway-station-slash-shopping-mall. The elegant building was modeled after the Baths of Diocletian and Arch of Constantine in Rome, and the entrance is something to behold, with Ionic colonnades fashioned from white granite, 100 sculptured eagles, and carved fixtures representing Fire, Electricity, Freedom, Imagination, Agriculture, and Mechanics. Inside is the Main Hall, a massive rectangular room with a 96-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, an expanse of white-marble flooring, and a balcony adorned with 36 Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculptures of Roman legionnaires. About 120 retail and food shops on three levels offer a wide array of merchandise, and a nine-screen multiplex delivers entertainment. The shops and restaurants here aren't quite as shiny and expensive as New York's, but there's still plenty to do, especially if you count the National Postal Museum and the brewpub just across the street.
Kansas City's Union Station
There's been a recent movement to revitalize the Midwest's old train stations by turning them into cultural hubs, and Kansas City's is the finest example, anchored as it is by the city's best attraction for kids, Science City. At this multilevel, interactive museum kids can create a personal newspaper front page, bicycle across a tightrope, train as an astronaut, solve a crime, play mini-golf, take a tour through the human body, dig for fossils, explore Kansas City's history, view the stars at a planetarium, catch a movie in a five-story theater, climb aboard vintage trains at the KC Rail Experience exhibit, and more. If you're hungry, there are restaurants, including Harvey House, an homage to old-style railway diners and Lidia's, which is owned by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianch. And yes, Amtrak trains do stop at this station: you can get to Chicago or Los Angeles from here.
London St. Pancras
We're looking a little bit into the future here. London's St. Pancras station has always been a masterpiece of Victorian engineering, with its Gothic front and glass-and-iron ceiling. It puts Euston and Kings Cross, its nearby neighbors, to shame. But it'll be far more interesting in November, when it turns into the terminus for the even-faster-than-ever Eurostar trains to Brussels and Paris, along with plenty of more local lines. (Train times to Paris will be cut down to 2 hours, 15 minutes, Eurostar says.) Taking a page from the Grand Central playbook, the new station will have a farmer's market, shopping arcade with a Marks & Spencer store, a pub, a restaurant -- and a 270-foot-long champagne bar. The Gothic office building out front, meanwhile, will turn back into a hotel sometime in 2009, sealing the station's status as a destination.
Okay. So you have a beautiful old cast-iron-and-glass train station built in 1892, and you've just moved your trains to a new, modern terminal next door. What do you do with the old building? If the answer is "tear it down," you're the idiots responsible for wrecking New York's glorious old Pennsylvania Station and replacing it with the pustule that stands there today. But if the answer is "add shops, a nightclub and stick a replica tropical forest into the middle of the old train hall," you're the Spanish visionaries who made the old Atocha station into the attraction it is today. If you're heading for a train to Seville, Barcelona or Toledo, take some time to stroll through the tropical rain forest, complete with birds and turtles; if that sounds too steamy, you can eat at a restaurant overlooking the palm trees.
Germany has a shopping problem -- or, rather, a problem shopping. For decades, most stores closed in the evenings and on Sundays by law. A new law enacted last November lifted many of those restrictions in Berlin, but panicked off-hours shoppers still turn to the stores in the spanking-new main station in Berlin, which has 80 stores open until 10pm, even on Sundays. Trust me, for Germany, that's radical. The new station is capped by a huge, 80-foot-high glass ceiling, with floors below staggered so that daylight makes it onto individual tracks. Yes, the architecture is similar to other big, glass stations you've seen in Europe, but it beats the cramped halls of many mid-century stations.
Tourists coming to Kyoto for the city's 1,200 years of history will be startled by the postmodern temple to transportation that their bullet train pulls into, topped by a soaring 12-story ceiling. Embedded in this gigantic, airy space are the Isetan department store, the Hotel Granvia, an entire shopping mall and a handful of restaurants. But even without buying anything, you can enjoy the view of Kyoto from the 12th-floor sky deck or watch Kyoto life go by inside from the amazing multi-story staircase tracking the Isetan side of the building. Tokyo train stations may connect to just as many retail options, but none of them have the vast grandeur of this late 20th-century wonder.
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