Before you catch a train, be captured by the beauty, majesty, and history of these unforgettable railroad terminals.
It’s no coincidence that many of America’s great train terminals resemble temples; they pay solemn tribute to Americans’ almost spiritual devotion to conquering space and time through high-speed travel. And while most travelers these days probably time their arrival at the station as close as possible to “all aboard,” lots of terminals—from AMTRAK centers to local depots—will reward you for showing up a little early…or, perhaps, for missing your train.
Grand Central Terminal
WHERE: New York City, New York
If you’re running across the main concourse to catch the 5:30 from Manhattan to New Haven, you—along with the other 21 million who pass through one of the world’s busiest train stations each year—might not pause to admire the majestic green ceiling with its sweeping Zodiac (painted on backwards for some reason). It was all splendidly restored in the 1990s; look closely near the Crab’s claw and you’ll spot a small patch left un-cleaned, thick with 100 years of cigarette, pipe, and train smoke.
INSIDER TIPJust downstairs from the main room, outside the Oyster Bar restaurant, is an arched, tiled “whispering gallery.” Standing in opposite corners, two people can whisper to each other and be heard above the crowd.
WHERE: Chicago, Illinois
The California Zephyr to San Francisco, the Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C., the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, The Texas Eagle to Houston — and of course The City of New Orleans. All of them chug out of Chicago Union Station, preserving the city’s century-plus identity as the carotid artery of America’s rail system. The Great Hall is spanned by a vast vaulted glass ceiling, 219 feet long and 115 feet above the floor.
INSIDER TIPDescending from the Great Hall is the grand staircase where Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness shot it out with Al Capone’s men in “The Untouchables.”
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
If two characters in a TV show are meeting at a train station, chances are they’ll convene at this terminal near LA’s Chinatown, which inside and out looks more like an oversized mission church than a transportation hub. Perhaps America’s homiest big-city train station, it seems to have more chairs than benches, and lots of Southern California sun pouring through the windows.
INSIDER TIPThe station was “cast” as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Miami bank in “Catch Me If You Can” and appeared as a Harrison Ford’s police station in the sci-fi thriller “Blade Runner.”
World Trade Center Station (PATH)
WHERE: New York City, New York
It was predictable that Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s white-ribbed train terminal on the site of New York’s World Trade Center would be alternately praised as visionary and damned as a costly boondoggle. Argue all you want about its $3.74 billion price tag and its efficacy as a terminal—there’s no arguing its glorious statement as an affirmation of life and motion in the middle of one of America’s most solemn sites.
INSIDER TIPCome back at night when the building’s soaring ribs, illuminated against the dark WTC background, resemble the wings of a bird.
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
In the steamy heat of the Washington, DC summer, there’s no better place to cool your heels than the 11-story-high marble expanse of Union Station. And while you sit there munching on your Sbarro’s pizza, take a look behind the shields held by those carved naked warriors lining the mezzanine. Those guys are all anatomically correct, and were actually shield-less until DC’s morals police ordered them to cover up.
INSIDER TIPYou could lay the entire 555-foot Washington Monument inside the station’s main room.
WHERE: Denver, Colorado
The last stop before the Rockies was a pretty dismal one for the past several decades as the once-dramatic station fell into decrepitude. But a citywide redesign contest yielded a glorious example of 21st Century multi-use architecture: Besides restoring the waiting area to its former glory, the city adapted much of the 1914 masterpiece into a hotel/shopping zone.
INSIDER TIPDon’t leave before stepping out back to admire the new glass-and-metal enclosed rail yard, which opens to the wide Colorado sky.
30th Street Station
WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The City of Brotherly Love is home to perhaps America’s most solemn train terminal, its main room dominated by a towering sculpture of an angel lifting the body of a dead soldier. Around the base are inscribed the names of 1,307 Pennsylvania Railroad employees who died in World War II. The grim context lends additional significance to the 10 elongated chandeliers, resembling incense burners as they hang from the coffered ceiling.
INSIDER TIPBecause the station is located across the Schuylkill River from downtown Philadelphia, one step outside the front door provides a panoramic view of the city.
Buffalo Central Terminal
WHERE: Buffalo, New York
Lots of large train terminals are designed in the style of Roman baths; as an unintentional consequence of the city’s decades-long neglect of this 1929 beauty, Buffalo’s Central Terminal actually seems like it may have been standing since the days of the Caesars. The last train pulled out in 1979; since then, through tours and on-site events, civic groups continue to scramble to save this landmark of a bygone era.
INSIDER TIPLocals swear the place is haunted, and ghost tours have become a popular attraction, especially around Halloween.
Ellicott City Station
WHERE: Ellicott City, Maryland
This isn’t the largest train station you’ll ever visit, but it’s certainly the oldest: In fact, this little frame building near downtown Ellicott City, an old manufacturing town, is the oldest standing train station in the U.S. The first trains in from Baltimore, 13 miles east, were drawn by horses; you can still see the old locomotive turntable.
INSIDER TIPThe hills around Ellicott City offer a web of hiking trails; one of the most popular is to the ruins of a once-thriving mill town called Daniels, wiped out by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Santa Fe Station
WHERE: Santa Fe, New Mexico
This small terminal on the outskirts of Santa Fe, now given over to shops and restaurants, most indelibly evokes the pioneer town spirit that marked the expansion of America’s railroads.
INSIDER TIPA short walk from the station area is the Loretto Chapel, with its 1878 “miraculous staircase,” a winding stair that, the convent’s nuns insist, may have been built by St. Joseph the carpenter himself, in answer to their prayers.
Gettysburg Railroad Station
WHERE: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
From its third-story tower, Union soldiers monitored the Civil War’s most infamous North-South battle. On its platform four months later, Abraham Lincoln alighted to deliver the speech that would define not only his Presidency but also the essential elements of what it means to be an American. A plaque marks the battlefield spot where Lincoln spoke, but it is here where generations have quite literally walked in his footsteps.