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.
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.
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.