Is this Madrid station the most beautiful railway in the world?

Trains are one of the oldest means of land transport and stations are, quite literally, a crossroads. They bring passengers to explore the big cities and transport them to enjoy the remote countryside. During time spent at a train station, however, one cannot say how wonderful it can be, especially when it comes to the most beautiful train station in the world.

Located in the heart of Madrid – and often referred to as Madrid’s ‘iron heart’, Atocha station is arguably the most beautiful railway in the world. Although it has seen many architectural changes throughout its history, it remains, to this day, an amazing part of the city. It is not only its architecture that distinguishes it from all other stations in the world; the features – both living and not – of Atocha’s interior also make it a memorable travel experience for many people.

The incredible story of Atocha, the most beautiful station in the world

Atocha was built in 1851 and was to be the first station in the city of Madrid. This was one of the first major transport hubs, and it was also the cornerstone by which all other railways were built around the city, cementing it together as a permanent structure. Its unique style is inspired by late 19th century ironwork visible in the central nave. This singular, forward-facing feature is often the most memorable part of Atocha’s architecture and is how it is so easily recognizable, even to those unfamiliar with Madrid. However, Central Station didn’t always look like this and had a fairly humble beginning.

Originally, the pre-existing structure was nothing more than a simple wooden train station. More so, the station was originally intended for royalty, thus starting out as a luxury station not open to the public. At that time, Atocha was called Madrid Central Station before train travel had evolved so much that the need arose to make it a major transport hub. Unfortunately, shortly after it was expanded to accommodate larger travel volumes, a fire severely damaged the structure in 1864.

This structural fire was also the catalyst for the iron that can be seen in the architecture of the station today, as iron was able to withstand damage that wood could not. Alberto de Palacio y Elissague was the architect responsible for designing the central nave, who once collaborated with Gustave Eiffel. He was not alone in the architectural enterprise, however; Henri Saint-James, a French engineer at the time, was inspired by the Universal Exhibition in Paris for the iconic iron canopy of Atocha.

During the 1980s, as train travel increased again, Rafael Moneo was the architect responsible for expanding the renovation. This expansion included Puerta de Atocha as well as Atocha-Cercanías, which was also connected to the metro station. The third part of the station is the original 19th century terminal, which still features its classic iron construction even though its tracks are no longer in use.

Related: Architecturally Impressive European Stations Worth Visiting

The tropical garden that grows in Atocha

One of the main features of Atocha today is its beautiful tropical garden. Home to all ranges of exotic plants, this literally brings living and growing space to life. The idea came from Rafael Moneo during the renovation, and it has remained a feature that many people can’t help but explore on their travels through Atocha. Located in the central nave, this massive garden encompasses a space that measures 152 meters in length and rises 27 meters in height. The design of the room echoes that of a greenhouse, with iron and glass to mimic that same atmosphere.

Plants have literally taken over abandoned train tracks and platforms, with more than 7,200 in total, made up of at least 260 different species. Some plants that can be found in the Atocha Tropical Garden include:

  • coconut trees
  • Banana trees
  • breadfruit trees

Upon entering the central nave for the first time, one will notice that it looks more like a tropical forest than an actual station terminal. This is due to the sunlight streaming through the glass atrium, combined with the misting that occurs to keep the plants hydrated. This large botanical garden is like never seen before in a train station and is home to plants from five different continents around the world, according to

A tragic memorial tribute to Atocha

Another defining feature of Atocha is the memorial built to honor the victims who lost their lives in the train station attack in 2004. Following the merciless events of that tragic day, 193 people would ultimately pay the price. To immortalize them and their stories, a cylindrical tribute, standing at a height of 11 meters, would be unveiled by the King and Queen of Spain. Inside the cylinder-shaped building, visitors will find hundreds of condolences, with messages written by Madrid citizens after the attack. It is a humbling and necessary part of Atocha which should be visited with solemnity and respect in mind.

Even those just passing through Madrid will find that Atocha’s research proves that it really is the ‘iron heart’ of the city. From its architecture to the obvious strength of its perseverance, it’s a destination worth adding to one’s itinerary in Spain.

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James H. Wright