No more hanging around on draughty platforms: Germany's train stations have branched out to become a haven for (window) shoppers and diners. And, of course, there are still places to buy snacks and reading materials for the journey.
It's 1997. Do you think all train stations are identical? Think again. Leipzig sets the wheels in motion for a mini-revolution in the train station world: a good 100 years after it first went into operation, the railway station in the Saxon metropolis is reopened as Promenaden Hauptbahnhof, one of the most beautiful shopping centres in Germany, with excellent train connections for local and regional travel. It boasts 142 shops across three floors in Europe's largest terminal station.
Major train stations throughout the nation have now followed suit. There are dozens of shops and restaurants in the Frankfurt am Main and Munich stations. The same goes for Hamburg and Berlin – the railway stations in the two biggest German cities are home to some of the most significant station shopping centres in Europe. Simply boarding or changing trains is a thing of the past.
Shopping before the train departs
In any major city, it's hard to imagine the traditional image of passengers waiting at the train station, collar turned up high, shoulders hunched, hands buried deep in their coat pockets, shivering to death in the mist on a draughty platform with nothing but hazy light from the lanterns. No, today people enjoy the time leading up to boarding their train carriage. Why not turn up at the train station around an hour before departure and do a spot of shopping or have a bite to eat?
A new pair of shoes? After all, you're getting the train to a wedding to celebrate with family. Or maybe you want to have one last meal in a fancy restaurant before travelling home from a business trip or holiday? Well now you can, as train station shopping centres are often home to fine eateries, too. There are also fast-food chains, or you could pick up a bratwurst from the hot dog stand – a German speciality, especially if you're in the bratwurst strongholds of Thuringia or Nuremberg.
Bike hire facilities, pharmacies and hairdressers at the train station
There are just under 30 restaurants offering everything from down-to-earth dishes to fine dining at Leipzig's terminal station alone, which was built more than 100 years ago in a modern, Art Nouveau style and is a tourist attraction in itself. There's something for every taste here – this platitude certainly still holds true. Certain establishments are taken for granted on hectic journeys: fast food consisting of chips, sandwiches and/or burgers and all kinds of takeaway snacks.
But if you have time to kill until your train to Cologne Central Station arrives, you can also sit down to eat a pizza or pasta dish at the Italian bistro, enjoy a buffet at Masala Indian Food or order a feast at the Asian restaurant. There are bakeries, a bar serving beer, an ice cream parlour and a butcher.
No other train station in Germany offers more shopping options than Leipzig with its 85 stores, which include supermarkets, organic grocery stores, a newsagent's, a hair salon, a chemist's, a car hire company, banks, a health food shop, a pharmacy and many more.
Germany's train station shopping centres are the best in Europe
And yet Leipzig's train station attraction is representative of the other train station shopping centres in Germany, which, in comparison to their European counterparts, go above and beyond in terms of passenger comfort, accessibility, the variety of shops and the local and inter-city train and bus connections. According to the European Railway Station Index 2020 by the consumer advocacy group Consumer Choice Center, five German train stations made it to the top ten: Leipzig (third), Munich (fifth), Hamburg (sixth), Berlin (sixth), Frankfurt am Main (ninth).
In terms of passenger figures, Hamburg Central Station came out on top in Germany. The building was opened as a through station in 1906 and is now one of Europe's busiest train stations. There is an almost overwhelming range of shops and eateries here, too. The station boasts 75 shops, including 17 restaurants and a confectioner's shop with lots of sweet treats. The reconstructed historical Promenade Hall is now a combination of a huge shopping centre and a train station concourse.
Grabbing a fresh lunch from the salad bar before departure
Germany's most famous new-build train station, Berlin Central Station designed by Meinhard von Gerkan, also has everything passengers could ever ask for. The 320-metre long and up to 46-metre tall arched glass-roof construction situated near the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate was opened in 2006. It is considered the tallest tower station in Europe with platforms on multiple levels and is home to 33 shops and 30 eateries.
As is the case with other German train stations, you can find pretty much everything you need here, from tobacco products to sportswear to lingerie, flowers, contact lenses, takeaway coffee and a fresh salad bar, right through to places serving two staples of the local diet: Berlin currywurst and doner kebabs – the locals are convinced the latter is a Berlin invention.
No matter whether you are in Bremen, Hanover, Darmstadt, Dresden, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Kiel or Stuttgart, you can buy snacks, souvenirs, enough reading material for long train journeys as well as items for everyday and less-than-everyday use in pretty much every train station. The range of shops is exceptionally broad in the Frankfurt and Munich central stations. The Bavarian metropolis even houses a museum in one of the wings of its main train station: the Children's Museum Munich.
Shop 'til you drop around the clock
Germany's train station shopping centres attract far more shoppers and diners than they do pure commuters and other bus, tram and train passengers. The locals have long since discovered that train stations are great places to shop, as many of the stores are open seven days a week, and some are open all hours. Ultimately, the mantra "the customer is king" applies to businesses operating out of train stations, too.