Here at Query, we adore trains and are glad more attention is being paid these days to railroad infrastructure. From commuter trains to excursions just for the joy of riding the rails, to the express train you take to your ski resort, or the slow ride to exult in fall foliage—or even to get some exercise on a rail bike—we are here to support and uplift our wonderful clanking iron horses on two rails.
Today, we’re focusing on the train stations themselves, those places where you can get out of the weather to wait for your train, or the edifice you gawk at through the window as you pull into the station. Some of these buildings are utilitarian, but others pull out the stops—no pun intended—to impress riders who either linger or chug past.
We appreciate this Amtrak website, Great American Stations, for its focus on the economic development opportunities involved in renovating and sustainably reusing older stations—and we love newer stations, too. Funny thing we noticed along the way: if a train station has the word “union” in its title, it’s usually gorgeous! Turns out that is no accident: a “union station” is one that services more than one railway, so its design benefits from two wallets joining.
Here’s our list of the top 21 (!) stations in the U.S. that we think are the prettiest.
1. Cincinnati Union Terminal | Cincinnati, OH
We adore this Amtrak station’s unusual shape as a semi-circular Art Deco edifice, with an impressive terraced water cascade in front made of concrete and green terrazzo. It was inspired by Helsinki’s Central Station and completed in 1933. An embedded Seth Thomas clock and a grand arch of windows make this a civic masterpiece listed as a National Historic Landmark. Inside is the Cincinnati Museum Center, mosaic murals, an Omnimax theater, and the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center.
This station has a little of Bavaria in Montana, with half-timbered walls and large dormers. It was restored in the 1990s and includes an indoor waiting room, railroad offices and the Stumptown Historical Society. Built for the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1928, it was in continuous use for 60 years and is now an active Amtrak station. The upstairs is leased back to BNSF Railway, the successor to the original rail line. This beautiful station is on the National Register of Historic Places.
3. Union Station | Worcester, MA
This standout station boasts two gleaming white marble towers with spires in this architecturally fascinating building. Completed in 1911, the station’s French-Renaissance style welcomed travelers on the Boston and Albany Railroad (B&A), as well as the New York, New Haven and Hartford and the Boston and Maine railroads. It had to be built to impress since it replaced an 1875 station with a 212-foot clock tower (these towers are a still stately 175 feet). Boarded up and fallen into ruin, the station was rescued to reopen to passengers in July 2000. It hosts trains from Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority commuter rail system.
4. South Station | Boston, MA
This busy place serves Amtrak, the MBTA rapid transit Red Line and the bus rapid transit Silver Line and has a straight-up gorgeous curved facade crowned by a clock with an eagle atop it starting to spread its wings. Opened in 1898, it was originally a union station built for five different rail systems which have since been consolidated or are defunct. A beautiful sight in the middle of downtown, it offers plenty of dining options while you await your ride.
5. Main Street Station | Richmond, VA
This active station hosts Amtrak, Megabus, GRTC and the Pulse, as well as offering bike-share and a connector to the Virginia Capital Trail. Built in 1901, the Second Renaissance Revival-style station was intended to show off the city’s wealth and create civic pride. In 1958, the interstate was built directly adjacent to the architectural gem, affecting views. Over the years, fires and floods have also wreaked havoc, but today it’s still a beautiful historic site with dining, an art gallery and quick access to entertainment nearby.
6. Flagstaff Amtrak Station | Flagstaff, AZ
The train station here was once one of the most important buildings in downtown Flagstaff and still operates as an Amtrak station and visitors center. Built in 1926 for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, this adorable Tudor Revival-style station showcases half-timbering, chimneys, pitched rooflines and gables. Inside, a model railroad entertains with miniature locomotives and a look at Flagstaff’s downtown as it would have looked in the 1920s.
7. World Trade Center Oculus | New York, NY
This modern station designed by Santiago Calatrava is a hub for 12 subway lines and serves the PATH rapid transit system. Inside, dozens of shops and restaurants cater to more than a million people weekly. The Oculus is emotionally significant for many as it was built in alignment with the sun’s solar angles on each September 11, from the time of the first plane’s striking at 8:46 am to the collapse of the second tower at 10:28 am—a central skylight washes the floor with a beam of light, as the website explains.
8. Chicago Union Station | Chicago, IL
This station was originally designed by Daniel Burnham—of New York’s Flatiron Building fame—and completed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White. Its Great Hall is a feat of spectacular design, restored in 2019 for $22 million, with cream and gold arches, statuary and columns, and a gigantic arching skylight. The station is an active one for Amtrak and Metra riders.
9. Denver Union Station | Denver, CO
A beautifully restored Beaux Arts station dating to 1914, this granite building is not only an active train station but a hub of shopping and dining under chandeliers in an impressive grand hall. Many luminaries have visited over the years, including President Taft and the two Roosevelt presidents—at one time, more than 50,000 visitors a day came through the station’s doors, especially during WWII when service members departed. A grand reopening took place in 2014.
10. King Street Station | Seattle, WA
This brick station with a tall tower serves Amtrak and Sounder commuter trains, as well as streetcar and light rail trains. Opened in 1906 for the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway, the National Register station’s distinctive clock tower was inspired by Venice’s St. Mark’s Campanile and at one time was said to be the second largest timepiece on the Pacific Coast. A horrible drop ceiling once hid the lofty hand-carved coffered ceiling in a modernization scheme, replacing chandeliers with fluorescent lights—an outrage that has thankfully been reversed.