TPG’s guide to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station

Sep 8, 2020

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Washington D.C.’s Union Station — with its stately Beaux-Arts architecture and inspiring scale — fits seamlessly into landscape of the nation’s capital. Built in 1907 as part of the McMillan plan (the document responsible for the development of many monuments in the city, including the Lincoln Memorial) Union Station has become known as one of the nation’s most popular attractions for tourists and in the public imagination. (It even has starring roles in the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and television classic “The West Wing.”)

Of course, Union Station hasn’t stopped being a functioning transportation hub. It’s the country’s second-busiest Amtrak station, with more than 37 million visitors passing through every year. It also serves the MARC Train Service and VRE (Virginia Railway Express) commuter rails and is the city’s busiest Metro stop.

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Here’s how to find your way around.

(Photo by aisaacson/Twenty20)

Getting There

One of the best perks about traveling from Union Station? Its convenience. Located at 50 Massachusetts Avenue, NE, Union Station is within walking distance of many of the city’s top sites and hotels. It also has direct access to the Metro’s Red Line, with entrances inside the station’s ground and lower levels.

For those with a car, parking is available 24/7 at Union Station Parking Garage next door. (USPG doubles as a hub for bus lines, including BoltBus, Greyhound, Megabus, and Peter Pan.) Taxis and ride-hailing apps are also a cinch—just ask them to drop you off at the front of Union Station’s main hall.

Getting Around

Split into three levels, Union Station is easy for even first-time visitors to navigate. The main level on the ground floor has Amtrak and MARC tracks, as well as entrances for VRE tracks (which are down one floor of stairs) and the Metro. Here, you’ll also find an assortment of retail and dining options that continue on the lower and mezzanine levels.

If you’re looking to grab a bite before your trip, there’s no shortage of options, including Cava, Ladurée, &pizza, and Juice Press. Note that due to the coronavirus pandemic, dining establishments may be temporarily closed or operating with modified hours.

Related: How different credit cards classify dining purchases

(Photo by spencerpa440/Twenty20)


Because of its central location on the East Coast, Union Station is a popular destination all around. Northbound routes include New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, while those traveling south can stop in Richmond, Charlotte, or Raleigh. For a longer trip, consider heading to Cincinnati or Chicago.

Inside Union Station, everything Amtrak related is just past the Main Hall, including ticketing, customer service, baggage check, and a waiting room with spotty Wi-Fi. (Travelers beware that except for ClubAcela — available only to Acela business-class passengers for a fee and United Club Infinite Card holders — the lounges at Union Station are pretty sparse.)

That’s set to change, however. Amtrak aims to modernize its concourse, building a new 10,000-square-foot lounge that will improve passenger flow and boarding. Amtrak also plans to add more bathrooms, create an additional entrance, and increase the structure’s natural light. Work is projected to be complete sometime in 2022.

(Union Station in Washington D.C. Conceptual Design Credit: KGP Design Studio/ Grimshaw)
Union Station in Washington D.C. Conceptual Design. (Photo courtesy of KGP Design Studio/ Grimshaw)

MARC Train Service

The first of the area’s commuter rails, MARC runs between Washington, D.C. and stations in Maryland. Two of its three lines (Camden and Brunswick) operate Monday – Friday only, while the Penn line, which goes to Baltimore, also operates on the weekends. The easiest way to buy tickets is with the CharmPass app or on-site vending machines. You can find the MARC waiting area near Gate A.

VRE (Virginia Railway Express)

VRE is another Monday – Friday commuter rail service that provides transportation from the Northern Virginia suburbs to downtown Washington, D.C. along two lines, Manassas and Fredericksburg. Tickets can be purchased online or at self-service kiosks. If you purchase a Step-Up ticket, it’s also possible to use the Amtrak trains that are listed on VRE’s schedule. You can find the VRE waiting area near Gate G.

Bottom Line

As train travel declined during the middle of the 20th century, Union Station fell into disrepair. Congress passed the Union Station Redevelopment Act in 1981, which helped fund a $160 million restoration. Since then, Union Station has met its fair share of challenges — including an earthquake — but now is improving once again and is poised to meet the demands of 21st-century train travelers through a series of ongoing modernizations.

Featured photo by Mike Kline (notkalvin)/Getty Images.

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