What are the best train journeys in Europe?
This will be a controversial topic to many as what is meant by best – most scenic, most iconic, most popular or most luxurious? This is largely a personal selection, but those discussed will be recognisable to many.
The most scenic:
I will start with one of my absolute favourites – the West Highland Line in Scotland. This trip is considered by many travellers to be the most scenic train journey in the world. The West Highland Line leaves Glasgow and heads west to Crianlarich where it divides to go to Oban or heads north then west ending at Mallaig. This latter is the way to go as travellers will see the Scotland that cannot be seen from road or air. The trains cross the Glenfinnan Viaduct – used in the Harry Potter films for the Hogwarts Express. This is great scenic rail journey that travels north along the west coast, through the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, high up to Rannoch Moor through remote wilderness and on to Fort William and Mallaig. This is a dauntingly beautiful landscape of mountains, deep-sided lochs and heathered moors. Red deer are sometimes seen silhouetted on a skyline or half-hidden in the heather. The train passes some of the smallest, most remote stations on the network – a few buildings, and nothing more for miles around. The trip takes about 5 hours 27 minutes and costs about $50AUD.
Almost any train journey in Spain is worth taking. The trains are high-speed (up to 300kms/h) and very comfortable. The trip from Barcelona to Madrid is a great experience. The train heads south along the coast to Tarragona then west through wonderful scenery to Zaragoza then south west to Madrid. The trip takes just under three hours and costs about $66AUD. This is a great alternative to motorway driving and is part of the Odyssey Traveller Spain and Portugal Tour.
The Glacier Express (GEX) connects the two major Swiss mountain resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz via Andermatt (a mountain village at 1437 metres above sea level) in the central Swiss Alps. The train is not an ‘express’ in terms of being a high-speed train, but rather it provides a one-seat ride for 8 hours for 291 kilometres and omits stops made by local trains. In fact, it is known as the slowest express train in the world, but follows a route with breathtaking and varied panoramic views as it travels through the three cantons of Valais, Uri and Graubünden. It is also said to provide pleasure for the palate also. The Glacier Express is not cheap. The cost of a ticket for the full journey is $234 AUD for second class and $413AUD for first-class. This is where a European rail pass is a huge benefit.
Oslo-Bergen Railway in Norway is a 500 kilometre line that links the Norwegian capital of Oslo with the port city of Bergen. It cuts through Hardangervidda, Northern Europe’s largest mountain plateau, created from a tectonic plate collision more than 400 million years ago and rising to a height of 1,237 metres above sea level. The railway travels through the largely treeless, sub-zero terrain with little sign of human life. The highest station is Finse at 1,222 metres. The remoteness inspired George Lucas to use it as a setting for the ice planet, Hoth, when he filmed Star Wars. This was also where the (ill-fated) South Pole expedition team trained, as it was thought to resemble Antarctica. The incredible terrain is a testament to the perseverance of Norwegian engineers, who had to drill through metamorphic rock (called gneiss) in a monumental construction effort that began in 1876. The service didn’t run until 1909. The train departs Oslo S (Oslo Central) and offers views of the Hallingdalselva River and Hallingdal Valley, as well as the often-frozen Lake Ustevatn. At Myrdal, travellers can take a one-hour detour on the Flåm Railway, which travels down from the mountains at Myrdal station and along a steep valley (the altitude difference is 865.5 metres), with views over Sognefjord, Norway’s deepest and longest fjord at 160 kilometres. The main line terminates about seven hours later at Bergen, whose waterside area of Bryggen was made a World Heritage Site in 1979. The railway offers sleeping compartments for those who want to travel at night. The cost per person on the Oslo-Bergen train is about $106AUD and the Flåm, as an extra, is $63AUD for the round trip.
Another very scenic rail journeys is La Rhune, France. The length is only 4.2 kilometres and the adult fare is about $35AUD. This is a quaintly old-fashioned cog railway that leaves a low mountain pass inland from St-Jean-de-Luz to ascend the westernmost peak of the Pyrenees. All the way up, there are views back over the Basque coast and countryside. Although passengers board in France, at the summit they are greeted by a choice of Spanish bars. The train returns to base, but some travellers prefer to follow the marked footpath (two hours) down slopes grazed by wild ponies.
The most iconic:
Probably the most iconic rail trips in the world is the Orient Express made world famous by Agatha Christie in her novel Murder on the Orient Express and the subsequent films. The Orient Express was created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL) as a long-distance passenger train linking Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul). These were the original endpoints of the service which was simply a normal international railway service whose name became synonymous with intrigue and luxury. It was a showcase of luxury and comfort at a time when much travelling was still rough. Sadly the original service stopped serving Istanbul in 1977 and since then there have been several variations developed. However, on 14 December 2009, the Orient Express ceased to operate and the route disappeared from European timetables – supposedly a victim of high-speed trains and cheap airline tickets. The destination rather than the journey became a thing.
A modern variation of the Orient Express is the Venice Simplon Orient Express. It started in 1982 and provides travellers with a version of the luxury and reminders of the past. Its most famous journey is between London and Venice, though other trips to Istanbul and Berlin have been added. Single and shared suites are what travellers enjoy on this luxurious train, along with excellent chefs. The train has an amazing bar area, a lounge and restaurant class dining car as well. This is a modern version of the original journey. A ticket from Venice to London will cost $4,876AUD and the journey takes 16 hours.
Undoubtedly one of the great train journeys is the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing Russia like a steel ribbon connecting east and west and travelling through the magnificent and seemingly endless steppe. For travellers this is probably the most exciting, the most romantic, the most desired and one of the most scenic train rides to undertake. The Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok is the original Trans-Siberian express route and stretches 9,258km and takes 7 days. Despite being the “true” Trans-Siberian it is not the only route.
Odyssey Traveller offers several guided tours on sections of the Trans-Siberia journey. There is the 22 day guided tour which starts in Vladivostok and ends in Krasnoyarsk in the heart of Siberia. Travellers on this tour spend nights in Vladivostok (Russia’s naval port city on the far eastern coast), Kharabovsk on the Amur River, Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia with a trip to Lake Baikal (the largest, deepest, and oldest freshwater lake in the world), Abakhan (the capital of Khakassia and an archaeological marvel, Krasnoyarsk (4,000 kilometres from Moscow and one of the oldest Siberian towns). This Odyssey Traveller escorted trip is from $13,750AUD.
Another very exciting guided tour on a section of the Trans-Siberia journey is the 21 day tour which starts in Helsinki in Finland and concludes in Irkutsk in Eastern Siberia. Several nights are spent in each of the major stops so travellers can explore the wonderful cities of St Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk and finally Irkutsk. Highlights along the way are a performance in St Petersburg, the political history available in Moscow, the marvellous museums in Yekaterinburg, the giant granite rock formations in the oldest national nature reserve in Russia, Stolby Nature Sanctuary, and Lake Baikal. This Odyssey Traveller trip is also $13,750AUD.
An intriguing rail ride is found on the Rome-Syracuse Railway (Italy) which connects Rome to the ancient Greek capital of Syracuse in Sicily. The trip takes about twelve hours and travels through wonderful countryside, and along the shoreline of Basilicata and Calabria. In order to cross the Strait of Messina to get to the sole of the ‘boot’, the train is driven straight onto a ferry which then crosses the Strait for about 30 minutes. During this time passengers can step onto the deck of the ferry which docks at Messina to continue the journey by rail. The boat-train service was launched in 1899. Syracuse was the birthplace of Archimedes and once equalled Athens in size during the 5th Century BC. There are still Greek ruins there. The cost of travelling on this train-ferry depends on how far ahead the booking is made but on average is $60AUD.
One of my favourite intriguing train trips is the Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway – a water-powered funicular railway joining the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth on the rugged coast of North Devon in southwest England. The two towns of Lynton and Lynmouth are separated by a high cliff, making it hard for people and goods to move between them. In the late 1800s, interest arose in building a funicular or cliff lift to join them. The civil engineer George Croydon Marks played a key role in both its design and construction. The water-powered railway is the highest and steepest gradient of 57% in the world. It opened in 1890 and offers travellers fantastic view of the coast. The cost is about $8 AUD for an adult. In the Cliff Top Café excellent Devon cream teas can be enjoyed and is where I tasted clotted cream for the first time. Oh my! This intriguing rail trip is included in the Odyssey Traveller escorted tour of Devon and Cornwall.
The most popular:
Apart from train journeys mentioned elsewhere in this article, one of the most popular trips chosen by travellers in Europe is the Sweet Switzerland Chocolate Train. Switzerland is famous for its chocolate and its railroads, so put them together and there is The Chocolate Train – an excursion train that operates from Montreux once or twice a week from Spring to Autumn. The train departs Montreux each Wednesday at 8.44 am and returning at 4.15pm., with an additional train on Mondays in July and August. It runs on tracks of the Montreux-Oberland-Bernois Railway (MOB). Coffee and croissants are served on the train, which because of very large windows extending to the top of the train offers travellers excellent views of vineyards and countryside on the way to the medieval cheese making town of Gruyères. In Gruyères, the train pauses for an excursion by bus to a cheese factory and the local castle. Passengers then reboard the train for the trip to Broc, home of the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory, where they watch a multilingual video, observe chocolate production, sample the finished product, and buy Cailler or Nestlé candy bars at factory prices. The train then returns to Montreux, a pleasant resort town on Lac Léman where you can also visit the Castle of Chillon. Travelers with a qualifying Swiss transportation pass will get a discount on the fare of $70AUD per person.
The first regularly scheduled German high-speed ICE trains (Inter City Express) ran on 2 June 1991 from Hamburg-Altona to Munchen and now offer fast, comfortable train trips all much of Europe. These trains travel at 330-363 Km/h. A Euro Global pass or Euro Select pass are the best to use on ICE trains which are the most popular way to travel around Germany as it has almost twice the population density of France so the ICE network is more tightly integrated with pre-existing lines and criss-cross the country linking major centres. Reservations are not essential, but a good idea.
The most luxurious:
The Belmond Royal Scotsman is a luxury train that sweeps travellers into a world of myth, legend, epic battles, heroes, luxury and stunning scenery. The train was first launched in 1985, and after five very successful years and many awards, the original carriages were retired and replaced by a new set of Pullman cars to be renovated by James Park Associates. Lacquer-polished wooden-panels and warm tonal fabrics perfected the Edwardian country-house appeal. En-suite cabins, complete with steamy showers, give unrivalled comfort. The recent addition of the Bamford Haybarn Spa carriage marked a world first in the pursuit of pampering. This is an amazing train and a stunning way to explore beautiful and romantic Scotland. Depending on which journey is selected each day offers candlelit dinners and often a ceilidh, exciting excursions – exploring Glamis Castle, Eilean Donan Castle and the Culloden Battlefield, the chance to revel in Scotland’s whisky heritage with a dram or three at world-class distilleries. There are also opportunities to enjoy clay-pigeon shooting and fishing, or tee-off at championship courses on special golfing itineraries. From ancient strongholds to wild natural wonders, Belmond Royal Scotsman promises a magical trip. The cost of trips varies according to time and destinations and ranges from $7,200AUD to $23,000AUD per person. Trips are sold out years ahead.
Another of the most luxurious rail trips in Europe is one of the newest – the Belmond Grand Hibernian launched in 2016. This is a week-long tour from Dublin to Belfast. The trip visits Cork, Galway and then Belfast. Along the way there are stops at famous Irish landmarks including the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, afternoon tea at the Curraghmore estate and a private tour of the amazing Titanic Museum in Belfast. The trip is more like a cruise with its luxurious facilities. The sleeper carriages accommodate just 40 people in elegant cabins decorated with Celtic knot and tartan-patterned furnishings, marble en-suite bathrooms and staff who wear Donegal tweed uniforms. The whole presentation is that of an elegant Georgian hotel on wheels. The journey can be in two sections – roughly the Irish republic and Northern Ireland. Prices will start from $4,470 AUD per person for the two-night journey and $6,890AUD per person for the four-night journey or $11,350 AUD for the full six nights. The fare is fully inclusive including all meals, drinks, entertainment and excursions.
Another very luxurious train is The Golden Eagle Danube Express. This journey is definitely a luxury cruise on wheels, and is one of the great rail journeys. It boasts the best bar and dining car on wheels, and has very luxurious suites, deluxe and heritage cabins. This train offers 5 to 12 day journeys and covers varied destinations such as Budapest, Zurich, Prague, Vienna, Innsbruck, Venice, Istanbul, Sofia and more. Tickets for this one start from £22,260AUD for Superior Deluxe Class; these journeys also include off-train tours and experiences.
Another luxury rail tour is the El Transcantabrico Clasico, which covers 644 km between León and Ferrol, traversing northern Spain for eight days on the narrow-gauge tracks of the Feve (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha) railway. (“Narrow-gauge”: this means the railway’s track gauge is narrower than the standard 143cms). The El Transcantabrico Clasico route gives passengers a sense of the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela-but with the trappings of first-class travel. From 2020 this tour has been renamed Costa Verde Express and includes new 6 day/5 night itineraries between Bilbao and Gijon. The cost for a Standard Suite per person is about $6,177AUD.
Travel passes or point-to-point tickets
Once you have planned your trip based on how many cities and countries are to be visited over how many days, price the options of point-to-point tickets or rail passes. This requires some research as there are options.
The Eurail Global Pass offers consecutive-day first-class travel in Europe (including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) for 5 days or up to 3 months, depending upon the duration chosen.
The Balkan Flexi Pass (BFP) is a rail pass for unlimited travel in the following countries of south-eastern Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. The BFP is very similar to the Interrail Global Flexi passes as it offers a certain amount of travel days within a period of one month.
If you have narrowed things down to just a couple of big countries, your best bet might be a multiple country pass from RailEurope. You have lots of country combos to choose from.
When considering the cost of hiring a car and driving (which is perhaps stressful, unfamiliar and limited to boring freeways), sourcing and paying for meals and accommodation, having to pack and unpack each day, the ease and convenience of even the most expensive trip sounds very tempting, so safe travels.