Reliving the Romance of Rail Travel at Los Angeles Union Station

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I stood in the central plaza of Los Angeles Union Station and marvelled at the building, an eclectic mix of Art Deco and other architectural styles. I love railway stations. It’s partly the romance of travel, not just the destination but the journey itself. But it’s also the buildings, monuments to the golden age of rail travel. The architects of the great railway stations must have shared the dreams of travellers, designing splendid palaces that rivalled the grandest buildings of their age.

Booking hall
The columns and marble floor of the booking hall at Los Angeles Union Station

Architecture of Los Angeles Union Station

Opened in 1939, Los Angeles Union Station was the last great American railway station. It combined a whole range of architectural styles and cost $11m to build (a very large amount of money in the 1930s). Most of the interior was created in Art Deco and other contemporary fashions. However there are also nostalgic references to the past splendours of California. The exterior was fashioned in the Spanish Mission Revival style, and the inlaid tile flooring recalls a traditional Navajo pattern.

The original ticket office
The original ticket office is now an area for private functions

Some of the station’s original features are long gone. The elegant cocktail lounge is no more, and the original ticket office is now a private function area. But you can walk through the main plaza to the new booking area, admiring the high marble walls, tiled floors and other decorative features as you go. You can sit in the Art Deco seats in the waiting room and wander around the enclosed formal gardens. If you have the time, you can even have your shoes cleaned at the old fashioned shoeshine.

Shoeshine area
You can still use the old fashioned shoeshine area

A Golden Age of Rail Travel

The 1930s were the golden era of rail travel. So much so that the opening of Los Angeles Union Station occasioned a three day extravaganza that attracted almost half a million people. Air travel was not yet common and visitors, including film stars and other celebrities, would arrive by train. The station was their gateway to the city, making the restaurant, the cocktail bar and the gardens as important as the trains themselves. Even when rail travel declined, the romance of the station remained. It later starred as the backdrop to many films, most memorably The Way We Were.

Restaurant
Visiting celebrities and other travellers could dine at the station restaurant

For myself, I could imagine the former grandeur of the station as I walked through the marble halls. I looked at the departures board: I had previously taken the Pacific Surfliner route to Oceanside but now I considered the evocatively named Antelope Valley and Inland Empire lines. The magic of travel to unknown places was still there. I was even more excited when I discovered that you can travel from Los Angeles to New Orleans in an old fashioned sleeper train. It has long been an ambition of mine to take a long distance train trip across the US. Perhaps one day…

Waiting room
Looking towards the waiting room from the formal gardens

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13 thoughts on “Reliving the Romance of Rail Travel at Los Angeles Union Station”

  1. Train travels still holds its romantic appeal and magic doesn’t it? I remember visiting Union Station years ago as a kid and actually taking train trips in the summer to visit relatives in another state. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the beauty that your photos show but I do remember the excitement and anticipation!

  2. Gosh – that architecture is something else! I’ve never travelled the U.S. by train, but might consider it next time I pay a visit. I’d love to read a post about what that’s like, in reality, as I keep hearing mixed reviews.

    1. I’ve only done a couple of short trips by train, but it all seems very efficient. One thing to remember if you do take a train in the US is that you need your passport with you before you can buy a ticket (we had to go back to the hotel for ours!)

  3. Completely agree with you on the beauty of train stations, and now I need to visit the one in Los Angeles. Our local station—Union Station in Washington DC—will soon be even more beautiful because they’re renovating the incredible ceiling and main terminal.

  4. Love the LA station. There are still a few classics around, Grand Central stands out, but Washington D.C. has recently refurbished theirs and Philly has a nice old one. Hope they are preserved for a long time to come.

  5. Betsy Wuebker

    Los Angeles Union Station is such a gorgeous building, and like you, I think it would be easy to imagine arriving and departing during this golden age of cross-country travel. It is just gleaming in your photos, truly representative of what must have seemed like the promised land to many at that time.

  6. Beautiful photos of great architecture, Karen! Like many others, I enjoy the atmospheric stations in so many European cities…it’s neat to see this in the US, as well 🙂 Was the place really empty when you were there?

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About Karen

WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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