Airports in major cities have become so fancy in recent years with their myriad of stores and eateries, spa services, and other novel experiences that killing time while waiting for a flight isn't nearly the chore it used to be.
And while travelers don’t expect that they’ll have to kill nearly as much time waiting for a train as they do for a plane, any amount of time spent in your typical drab and soulless train station is painfully tedious. So when a train station has a little extra something going for it, we tend to take notice – perhaps because we've set the bar so low – but in the case of the following four stations, there’s something special that elevates them from depots to destinations in their own right.
Los Angeles Union Station
In Los Angeles, a city that’s smug about the need for its visitors to drive everywhere, it’s unfortunate and somewhat ironic that this stunning Spanish Revival-Art Deco mash-up of a building will likely go unvisited by many out-of-towners. Yet tens of thousands of commuters pass through here daily via Amtrak, metro and light rail, and Metrolink, quietly enjoying the architecture and what has long been one the station’s most novel attributes, its gardens and courtyards. And if you never get to see the station in person you've likely already caught a piece of it in Speed, Silver Streak, 24, The Closer, and numerous other big and small screen productions filmed on location here.
Union Station D.C.
The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and a slew of other Washington, D.C. buildings took their inspiration from the classic granite architecture of this austere station. Of the three Union Stations in this post, this one comes closest to being a mall, with three floors of restaurants and more than 100 stores. The sheer number and variety of shops at Union Station is enough to qualify it as a worthy shopping destination, but Fantom Comics stands out for being that scrappy business one is just so unlikely to find in a train station. Plus, it has the endearing motto “subculture for the cultured.”
Chicago Union Station
If you’re unfamiliar with the Beaux Arts Great Hall of Union Station, you may recognize its staircase as the focal point of the famously tense rogue baby carriage scene in The Untouchables, and you can see the station during a more recent turn as a backdrop in a charmingly wacky Gagnam Style parody. But if you’re waiting for a train, there are two Chicago culinary classics available at the station that are well worth the subsequent heartburn: The caramel corn from Nuts on Clark and the rib tips, hot links, and chicken wings combo plate ($15) from Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs. Another benefit of killing time here is that unlike many big city train depots, Union Station is convenient to last-minute sightseeing, so if you didn't get a good photo of the Sears Tower during your visit, it’s only two blocks from the station.
Grand Central Terminal
Thousands of travelers pass through Grand Central Terminal to catch a Metro North train or subway and many more graze the food vendors and scores of high-end shops. What I’ll never understand is how even one of those visitors can pass through the terminal’s Main Concourse and forget to look up at the 2,500 stars and zodiac drawings on the ceiling. In the rush to get from here to there, taking a moment to gaze at the ceiling mural is truly one of the great rewards of visiting New York City. And if a tutorial of the terminal packs appeal, you can catch a 75-minute guided tour every day at 12:30 p.m. (Adults $20, $15 children under $10).