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With six major train stations including two of the busiest in Europe, it’s time to take a look at all of Paris’ historic “gares” that may – or may not – play a vital role in your French escapes. Airplanes can sometimes be cheaper, but nothing beats the experience and convenience of taking a train from one city to another, especially with so many centrally-located stations in Paris.
From 19th-century beauties to 20th-century marvels, everyone’s got their favorite. I tried to rank them from best (“First Place”) to worst (“Sixth Place”) and highlighted the glowing qualities in each one, whether it be history, beauty, or destinations serviced.
First Place: Gare de Lyon
Best Overall Station
Built for the 1900 World Fair (just like the then-station-now-museum Orsay), the Gare de Lyon maintains its functions as one of the busiest stations in Paris. Recent renovations have spruced the place up, but the soaring halls and sizable clock tower are features that make this place feel downright romantic.
The restaurant “Le Train Bleu” is one of the classier places to eat inside any Parisian train station. Also, the TGV to the south leaves from here, meaning that people are often cheerful, having either returning from a sunny vacation or eagerly anticipating arriving on the Cote d’Azur.
Second Place: Gare du Nord
Notable for: Old-School Charm
This impressive piece of architecture is a beauty in an otherwise not-so-charming part of town. Still, the Gare du Nord will send you, as the name implies, north to destinations like London, Brussels, and Amsterdam, making it a lively international hub. The main hall and the clicking split-flap departure board ooze old-world France, making it one of the most visually appealing ways to enter Paris – at least until you head downstairs to take the Metro or outside to be greeted by less-than-charming sex shops.
Still, you can’t help being enchanted by the Gare du Nord while waiting for the board to change, the letters and numbers whirling until your platform is posted and your next adventure begins.
Third Place: Gare de l’Est
Notable for: Secrets and Mystery
The little sister of the Gare du Nord, the Gare de l’Est is just down the street, is equally as striking, if just a bit smaller. We’re still always confused as to why these two stations are practically next to each other, but with services to the east of France, like Strasbourg, it’s a bit calmer and slightly more imposing than its more international counterpart. The underground shopping mall takes away a bit of the allure, but that doesn’t stop this writer from cutting through the station’s hall from time to time en route to the nearby Canal Saint Martin.
Also below the station are abandoned Nazi bunkers from the 1940s that are off limits to the public, but add a bit of mystery to the station.
Fourth Place: Gare Saint Lazare
Notable for: Artsy Throwback
Located not far from the busy Opera district, the Gare Saint Lazare is the second busiest station in the city, largely servicing areas around Paris to the north including Normandy and Monet’s gardens at Giverny.
Monet, as well as Manet and other artists, famously immortalized the hub in paintings, and even Emile Zola wrote about it. A beauty on the outside, it’s a bit less romantic on the inside with an extensive shopping mall and other amenities housed in the 19th-century building, but it’s a fun way to watch locals during their daily routine (if you don’t get whisked away with the 450,000 daily commuters that ride these rails).
Fifth Place: Gare Montparnasse
Notable for: Wine lovers
The Gare Montparnasse is the Paris’ equivalent of New York’s Penn Station – a modern hub built on the remains of a beautiful old station that just “needed” to be torn down. The monolithic Montparnasse tower on top at least makes it the easiest station in Paris to find, as it’s one of the only skyscrapers in town.
While not a favorite in any capacity for the structure, the station does win points for housing services to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, meaning wine aficionados will be familiar with the locale. It was also the station featured in that iconic photo of a derailed steam engine protruding through the original building’s wall, so it’s paid its dues to history, right?
Sixth Place: Gare d’Austerlitz
Notable for: Still existing
While its name evokes one of Napoleon’s biggest conquests, this 19th-century artifact is anything but triumphant. With local trains that run to places like Tours and Orléans, there’s not much interest for tourists at the Gare d’Austerlitz, but a renovation set to end in 2020 could change all of that. A new high-speed TGV service will be set in place and the area around the station is being revamped, including the part overlooking the adjacent Seine river. Hopefully the facelift will help revitalize this otherwise characterless corner of the Latin Quarter.
Your favorite stations in Paris?
It’s time for you to have your say! What are your favorite (and least favorite) train stations in Paris? Rank them for us in our comments section!
Related article: Planning your trip to Paris and confused about which train station you’ll be using to get out of town? Check out our handy article on Paris train stations by destinations.