7 grand train stations of Paris

CNN  — 

Whatever it is about train stations – the air of anticipation, the sheer romance of travel – Paris’ grand rail terminals have it.

The center of Paris might be just a few miles across, but it’s served by seven major stations, some within spitting distance of each other. All stations serve a different region, with the clue often being in the name.

Gare du Nord connects destinations north of Paris while Gare de Lyon’s lines head in the general direction of France’s third biggest city.

Each station tells a story of the world’s ongoing love affair with train travel. These grand structures were designed to make the best possible first impression on travelers from around the world, often with monumental artworks.

They’re still doing so today. Beyond the usual cafes, boutiques and restaurants, the stations regularly host free art exhibitions and public events.

Here’s our guide to the French capital’s ends of the line.

Even if you don’t have a ticket in hand, it’s worth visiting one of these seven palaces of travel possibility.

1. Gare du Nord

Some Gare du Nord platforms are illuminated with romantic lamps.

Europe’s busiest train station, with some 700,000 people passing through every day, the Gare du Nord has recently been earmarked for a well-deserved makeover.

Inaugurated in 1864, there are nine statues crowning the rooftop facade, each representing destinations outside France, with the figure of Paris in the center.

There are 14 more modest statues lower down, representing French regional cities.

Where to go from here?

This is the Eurostar hub, connecting London (via Paris) with destinations in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and France.

Reached by Metro lines 4 and 5; RER B connects with Charles de Gaulle Airport, Roissy.

Good to know

The station has roles in “Amelie” (2001) and “The Bourne Identity” (2002).

2. Gare Saint-Lazare

In the heart of Paris, steps away from Place de Madeleine, the Paris Opera and the city’s grandest department stores, this is the capital’s second busiest station.

When it opened as a simple wooden structure in 1837 it was the first train station in Paris, but the terminus was soon expanded into its current form.

These days it’s largely a commuter terminus, serving 450,000 passengers a day, but it was once the hub for glamorous ocean liner traffic arriving via Cherbourg.

Travel-inspired artwork – a teetering pile of bronze suitcases, a stack of clocks – liven the main square in front of the entrance.

An enclosed walkway, La Galerie Marie Antoinette, connects the station with the old world splendor of the Hilton Paris Opera Hotel.

Where to go from here?

Gare Saint-Lazare serves the northwest of France. It can be reached by Metro lines 3, 12, 13, and 14.

Good to know

The station has been featured in the work of impressionist painters Edouard Manet and Claude Monet.

In 1998 the Musee d’Orsay and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., put on an exhibition called “Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare.”

3. Gare de l’Est

A five-minute walk from Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est opened in 1849 to serve traffic to Strasbourg, in the east of France.

Its main claim to fame is being home to the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, the privately run luxury travel experience that became a household name through Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Confusingly, there’s more than one Orient Express: both traveled through Gare de l’Est, but the Venice-Simplon Orient Express is the one Christie wrote about.

It stops here on the way to Venice once a week, but the service to Istanbul has sadly been downgraded to once a year.

You’ll know it by its royal blue carriages and upscale dress code (smart casual by day, black tie by night).

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express began in 1919, but the original Orient Express service, which connected Paris with Vienna from 1883 to 2009, was a regular overnight express train.

Where to go from here?

East: Sweeping from France’s eastern cities Reims and Nancy, to Luxembourg, Germany, Poland and all the way to Moscow.

Reached by Metro lines 4, 5, and 7; the RER B from Gare du Nord (a short walk away) connects to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Roissy.

Good to know

Below the station, underneath platforms 4 and 5, lies a secret miniature train set complete with station, tunnels and railway workers.

The Seine Saint-Denis Tourism board organizes occasional tours.

4. Gare de Lyon

Fine dining is the call at Gare de Lyon's Le Train Bleu restaurant.

Built for the World Exposition in 1900, this station is regarded as one of the finest examples of architecture of its era.

Its clock tower is modeled after that of London’s Houses of Parliament, home to the great bell of Big Ben.

It’s probably the prettiest of Paris’s stations. It’s also home to one of the city’s most famous restaurants: Le Train Bleu. Open since 1901, the decor has a grandeur to rival the palace of Versailles.

Painted ceilings, gold leaf and shimmering chandeliers hint at the gilded prices on the menu.

Just below is the Montreux Jazz Cafe, much cheaper and arguably more fun. Between July and August this is one of Paris’s busiest stations, with families complete with dogs, cats and even hamsters in carriers leaving the city to head south.

Where to go from here?

The south of France, southern Germany, Monaco, Switzerland, Italy, Spain.

Metro lines 1 and 14; Air France bus to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Roissy.

Good to know

The Gare d’Orsay was built at the same time as the Gare de Lyon, but unfortunately its platforms proved too short for the modern trains and it was closed in 1939.

It was later turned into the Musee d’Orsay.

5. Gare d’Austerlitz

Napoleon's legacy is intact at Gare d'Austerlitz.

Opened in 1840 as Gare d’Orleans, this station was eventually renamed Gare d’Austerlitz after one of France’s greatest victories during the Battle of Austerlitz in the Napoleonic Wars.

The only operating station beside the Seine, Gare d’Austerlitz offers great views across the river, and is one of only two stations on the Rive Gauche, the left bank.

On the quayside, the turquoise metal entrance from the Metro bridge into the station offers a contrast to the old stone building, and features a statue representing the destination of Orleans.

Where to go from here?

Central and southern France, including Lyon, Grenoble, Nimes, Dijon, Toulon, and, of course, Orleans.

Reached by Metro lines 5 and 10.

Good to know

By sad coincidence, during World War II Gare d’Austerlitz was the terminus from which children were evacuated into the countryside for safety, but it was also where thousands of Jews were carried off to internment camps.

6. Gare de Montparnasse

Looking at the modern glass and steel facade of this station, you’d be hard pushed to believe it was originally opened in 1840 as Gare de l’Ouest.

The original building was torn down in 1969 to make way for the 59-story Tour Montparnasse, one of Paris’s least loved buildings: in 2008, VirtualTourist.com voted it the second-ugliest building in the world.

The views from the top are said to be the best in Paris – the popular joke being that it’s the only spot from which the tower itself cannot be viewed.

Where to go from here?

Western and southwest France, from Brittany past Tours, Aquitaine, all the way to the Pyrenees and northern Spain.

Reached by Metro lines 4, 6, 12, and 13; Air France bus to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Roissy.

Good to know

In 1885, the Granville-Paris Express overshot its stop when arriving at Gare Montparnasse and crashed through the terminal walls.

It’s the subject of this iconic photograph showing the locomotive hanging above the pavement below.

There was one fatality: a female passerby who was killed by falling masonry.

7. Gare de Bercy

Without doubt taking the crown as Paris’ ugliest train station, Gare de Bercy (built in 1977) is also the smallest and the one located in the least glamorous area.

It still has its role to play, however. It specializes in auto-trains, transporting passengers’ vehicles to the south of France.

Working in conjunction with its neighboring station, travelers can drop their cars at Bercy to be taken to their chosen destination, while they take the passenger train from Gare de Lyon.

Where to go from here?

Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Auxerre. Reached by metro lines 6 and 14.

Good to know

This tiny train station is also a major hub for coaches connecting to the rest of Europe. You can get to Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Switzerland and Italy from here.

Paris: Insider Travel Guide

Why spring is the best time to visit Paris

World’s most impressive metro stations

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a freelance travel writer and guidebook author currently based in Paris. She tweets at: @ULemminWoolfrey