Train Connections: Europe’s Best and Europe’s Worst

Cologne Hohenzollern Bridge
Approaching Cologne station via the Hohenzollern Bridge. Photo © hidden europe magazine

Train stations are just like airports. Some are great spots for making connections, others make that change of train (or plane) rather less memorable.

Change trains in Cologne and, even with just a dozen minutes between trains, you have a strong sense of having experienced something of Cologne. The German city’s landmark cathedral towers over the station platforms. And the chances are that, whether upon arriving or leaving Cologne, you’ll cross the River Rhine which flows just east of the station. The trains edge slowly over the Hohenzollern Bridge, a place where a thousand couples have sealed their love by fastening padlocks to the railings. Below is the Rhine, and there are views of Cologne’s handsome Old Town on the west bank.

Changing trains in Cologne thus makes for a perfect interlude in a long journey. And that cathedral is so close to the station that, even with just 20 minutes between trains, you’ll still have time to pack in a quick visit and gaze up into the Gothic recesses of this magnificent building.

Rational, not Renaissance, dominates Florence's SMN station. Photo © EuroCheapo

Rational, not Renaissance, dominates Florence’s SMN station. Photo © EuroCheapo

Venetian variety

While changing trains in Cologne can be a happy occasion, the opposite is true for Venezia Mestre station. It is a natural point to change trains on many European itineraries. Believe us, it can be a dispiriting experience and you’ll not have any sense of having been anywhere near Venice.

Far better, if time allows, to change instead at Venezia Santa Lucia station. That way you’ll cross the Ponte della Libertà (not just once, but twice) and while at Santa Lucia you can pop out to the front of the station and see Venice’s famous Grand Canal.

Architectural surprises

Other cities have perfectly fine stations, but they somehow fail to capture the spirit of the city they serve. We happen to be great fans of Santa Maria Novella (SMN) station in Florence. It is a first-class piece of Italian Rationalist architecture, but if you arrive in Florence with your mind full of heady images from the Florentine Renaissance, then SMN comes as a mighty shock.

Heidelberg packs a similar surprise. New arrivals are on the lookout for castles and all the insignia of Romanticism. But what do they get? Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof is an assertive piece of 1950s architecture — very graceful, and very fit-for-purpose. It is a lovely space, and boasts some very fine details — like the modern sgraffito in the Haupthalle. But it’s not what new arrivals expect of Heidelberg. And it’s inconvenient for the city centre, so anyone changing trains there will hardly catch the spirit of Heidelberg.

The good, the bad and the ugly

There are however other railway stations in the Cologne league. Antwerp Centraal, Madrid Atocha, Limoges and Valencía Nord all boast wonderful architecture (with nothing whatsoever in common), and the location of each is such that you can get a sense of the surrounding city.

As to the worst places in Europe to change trains, well there the choice is endless. Calais-Fréthun and Warsaw Wschodnia compete for a prime place on “the bad list.” And we have not even mentioned Birmingham New Street. It is just plain ugly.

Your favorite stations?

Have a beloved (or not not-so-loved) train station to add to our list? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

About the author

hiddeneurope
About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.
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Cheapo Comments

6 Responses to “Train Connections: Europe’s Best and Europe’s Worst”
  • Brian Robson says:

    Durham Station in the UK has to be one of my favourites. You approach high above the city on a viaduct, giving you a great view of the Castle and Cathedral set on a hill in front of you.

    Never fails to lift my spirits and welcome me back home to the North East.

  • Daniel says:

    Warszawa’s main stations (Zachodnia, Centralna, Wschodnia) were really bad ones, but now they have improved significantly due to renovations that were done before the UEFA EURO 2012.

  • Jonathan King says:

    I had that experience at Santa Lucia in Venice some 40 years ago, as a U.S. student abroad, traveling from capital to capital on a Eurailpass. Hearing only “Venice” (or something like it) being announced, I jumped out of the rail car and ran out the station, to confront a storybook scene of the Grand Canal. I gawked as long as I dared — no more than two or three minutes, tops — then rushed back to the train and went on ahead to Rome, or wherever it was. Perhaps the most vivid mental image of my year abroad, even today!

  • Jon R says:

    I will miss catching trains at European Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station when it ceases being a long distance railway station. The modern front of the station, facing the tram, is not that interesting. However, the old front of the station has both interesting architectural highlights as well as facing the Golden Horn waterfront as in merges into the Bosphorus. For those who visit Istanbul in the next few years when a new long distance station is built several kilometers away and trains glide beneath the Bosphorus, a walk in the Sirkeci area and its waterfront, so near the Hagia Sophia Church/Mosque/Museum, will still be worthwhile.

    Railway station fans should also not miss Asian Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa, which also will be ending its decades-long role as any kind of railway station then. It also commands a great view of the water, with the Old City and its sights visible in the distance.

    At least Sirkeci will have a role in the intercontinental city’s expanded metro system.

  • P. da Rocha says:

    Thanks very much for this very good post! You have not named it, but you should try it: the portuguese train system. Not fast, not high-tech, but very reliable and good to get to know Portugal. After having lived in Germany for almost 30 years, I enjoy traveling on portuguese trains almost every time!

  • A great Article, thank you very much!
    I have learned a lot about the german railway system – and about stations that are special points of interest. Looking forward to more!

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