See Europe how it was meant to be seen: from the window of a train! From mountain climbs to luxury sleepers, we pick the greatest rail adventures to help you get under the continent's skin...
The journey: Zermatt to St Moritz (290km; seven and a half hours)
We say… Don’t be fooled by its name: the Glacier Express averages 38kph, but who wants to rush when the scenery is this spectacular?
Linking two of Switzerland’s best-loved ski resorts, the route is an opus of snowcapped peaks, rugged valleys, 291 bridges and wild tangles of alpine forest. The view will keep you glued to the train’s panoramic windows – though the traverse of the towering Landwasser viaduct (pictured right) might have you reaching for a second glass of Valais wine.
Top tip: In Zermatt you can extend your trip by taking Europe’s highest cog railway to the summit of Gornergrat (3,089m). The view of the Matterhorn is worth it.
The journey: Diakopto to Kalavrita (22.5km; one hour)
We say… Making delightfully slow work of a wild Peloponnese gorge, this heritage railway – built in 1895 – is one of southern Greece’s final remaining narrow gauge lines.
It starts in the seaside town of Diakopto and weaves up to the mountain town of Kalavrita through hand-carved tunnels and plane-tree forests. En route, you’ll cross 49 bridges in total, as the Vouraikos River roils far below.
Top tip: To visit nearby Olympia’s ancient temples and stadium, take the small train from Katacolon – yet another narrow-gauge survivor.
The journey: Cologne to Mainz (152km; two and a half hours)
We say… The Rhine Valley Line finds its muse just after Bonn, where it starts to tightly hug the waterline. Sure, you could take the high-speed intercity route and save yourself an hour on your journey, but then you’d miss out on the patchwork of vineyards, Koblenz’s hilltop fortress and the legend of Lorelei Rock.
Top tip: Interrail passes are valid on this line – and get you a discount on KD Rhine Line boats.
The journey: London to Folkestone; Calais to Venice (1,636km; 24 hours)
We say… While the final descendent of the real Orient Express met its end in 2009, a US businessman had long since bought up 1920s and ‘30s carriages (many belonging to the original service) and resurrected its route to Venice.
This journey is played out on two heritage trains – the British Pullman on the UK leg and the VSOE between Calais and Venice – and as the mountains and meadows slip by, you can sip martinis in the piano bar, devour lobster in its Étoile du Nord restaurant car and just dream.
Top tip: Though the southbound journey is popular, the northbound experience is just as fabulous – and doesn’t book up so quickly.
The journey: Glasgow to Mallaig (264km; five and a half hours)
We say… After slipping away from Glasgow, the West Highland Line weaves some of Britain’s wildest scenery: to lonely moorlands, forest-bound lochs and crumbling castle ruins.
Up here, you’re more likely to spot red deer than humans – though the Glenfinnan Viaduct is familiar thanks to its cameo in the Harry Potter films. If travelling southwards, sit on the right-hand side of the train for the best views.
The journey: Landquart to Tirano (163km; five hours)
We say… Starting this summer, you get even more bang for your buck on the Bernina Express, as its trans-alpine journey has been extended for around 50km. It now starts (or terminates) at Landquart before looping through the Prättigau mountains and over Zügen Gorge’s sheer-sided ravines.
Running between May and October, its climax is the 2,253m-high Bernina Pass, the gateway to Italy. It’s a smooth ride but one that’s big on drama, encompassing dizzying and panoramic views from the Brusio Spiral viaduct along the way.
Top tip: For the best views, grab a seat on the rig.
The journey: St Pölten to Mariazell (78km; two and a half hours)
We say… Traversing one of the wildest regions of the Austrian Alps, this narrow-gauge service is officially split into two sections: ‘Valley’ and ‘Mountains’.
The former stretches from St Pölten to Frankenfels, a land of pretty grazing meadows and gentle pathways (tickets allow you to hop on and off), while the latter climbs up through the ruggedly handsome Erlauf gorge and the peaks of Ötscher-Tormäuer Naturpark. Allow a full day – at least.
Top tip: For widescreen views, grab a first-class panorama carriage (May to October on weekend and holiday services), while heritage rail fans love the 100-year-old Ötscherbär train that runs from June to late September.
The journey: Kristinehamn to Gällivare (1,288km; from two days)
We say… The Inlandsbanan is slow travel at its best, heading up past the Arctic Circle and into Swedish Lapland. In fact, its drivers love an excuse to stretch their legs, and scheduled stops to take a dip in Lake Siljan or visit Sami villages and their reindeer herds along the way are worth it.
Before you know it, you’re cooing over moose and foraging for berries under midnight sun (June to early July) – all thoughts of the timetable long forgotten.
Top tip: At each stop you can order fresh dishes from local restaurants, such as smoked Arctic char and lingonberry crumble.
The journey: Palau to Tempio (59km); Sindia to Bosa (33km); Mandas to Laconi (37km); Mandas to Sadali (58km); Arbata to Gairloch (62km); times vary
We say… The best way to get under the skin of Sardinia is by catching the Trenino Verde – or Green Train – for a picturesque pootle around the island. The Mandas-Laconi line weaves through wild woodlands, the Palau-Tempio track culminates in a town famed for its cork groves, and Sindia–Bosa forges from the island’s untamed interior out to its western coast.
Top tip: Don’t be surprised if the conductor hops out to shoo sheep off the line, or to stop traffic at level crossings. Slow travel at its purest.
The journey: Moscow (Russia) to Nice (France) via Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus (3,315km; two days)
We say… Crossing a whopping eight countries, this European epic is marketed almost exclusively at Muscovites travelling west.
But, for the rest of us, the magic lies in leaving behind France and Austria for the greats forests of Poland and Belarus, where the train’s wheel gauge is adjusted to the narrow local tracks, before ploughing on to the onion-dome churches of Moscow.
Top tip: Solo travellers can book a single bunk in a same-sex cabin (with two or four beds), or pay extra to have the space all to themselves
The journey: Clermont-Ferrand to Nîmes (304km; six and a half hours)
We say… Every twist and turn of this train line is an engineering marvel: it ticks off a mighty 106 tunnels and over a thousand bridges, as well as the seriously lofty (46m high) Chamborigaud viaduct.
With 29 long-legged arches arranged in a semicircular loop, Chamborigaud is a scene-stealer – although the track reaches its pinnacle on the summit at La Bastide (1,023m). There are gentler pleasures still to be found in the rolling vineyards of the Auvergne, the chestnut forests of Cévennes National Park and the track’s picturesque dalliance with the River Allier.
Top tip: Visit in springtime to see the area’s wildflowers in bloom.
The journey: Derry/Londonderry to Coleraine (55km; 38 minutes)
We say… This route doesn’t need five-star cabins or steam locomotives for wow-factor: it’s all about the scenery. Explore a banquet of windswept beaches, razor-edged cliffs and wild views on the no-frills Translink service.
Sit on the left-hand side (if travelling eastwards) and settle in for a ride that Sir Michael Palin hailed in his Great Railway Journeys series as “one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world”, as you hop-skip peregrine falcon habitats and the thread the longest railway tunnels in Ireland.
Top tip: Stop for a yomp on the wide, wild sands of Benone beach.
The journey: Porto to Pocinho (160km; three and a half hours)
We say… Don’t take a day cruise from Porto: hop on the Linha do Douro instead. Most boat trips only venture as far as the port-producing village of Pinhão, but this train line ploughs further into the heartlands, past great walls of rock and rambling quintas (wine estates).
Better yet, the track swaps between shores, so there’s no such thing as a duff seat. Pinhão Station must be one of Europe’s prettiest terminals, trimmed with intricate azulejo tilework, but look out, too, for the towering gorge around Régua and the ancient rock art of the Côa Valley at Pocinho.
Top tip: In Pocinho, linger over lunch and local port at Taberna da Julinha (+351 965 398 826) – its steaks are worth the trip alone.
The journey: Septemvri to Dobrinishte (125km; five hours)
We say… Bulgaria’s only operating narrow-gauge railway is a lifeline to its remote south-west, so make room for the babas (grandmothers) heading to market.
The train travels at a glacial speed (you can walk beside it in parts), but it’s a journey to savour, with stops for hiking in Bansko, Velingrad’s hot springs and Belitsa’s dancing bear sanctuary.
Top tip: The train only has a simple café on board, so bring a picnic.
The journey: Moscow to St Petersburg (635km; eight and a half hours)
We say… The Krasnaya Strela – Red Arrow – has been riding Russia’s rails since the 1930s, and while its overnight service can’t keep up with the new high-speed day train (the Siemens-built Sapsan) that rides this route, it’s still thrilling to board a Soviet relic – just don’t expect a seamless night’s kip. Bedtime is a bumpy affair, although a medicinal vodka might help...
Top tip: When the train departs St Petersburg, loudspeakers play ‘Hymn to the Great City’. Stirring.
The journey: León to Santiago de Compostela (643km; four to eight days)
We say… Never has the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela felt so indulgent. El Transcantábrico’s lavish compartments and plentiful excursions make for an easy, enlightening ride.
The Clásico itinerary hugs the northern coast, with stop-offs at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, seafood suppers in Santander and, on longer trips, hiking in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Picos de Europa National Park.
Top tip: The rail network actually runs between San Feliz and Ferrol – a few kilometres shy of León and Santiago de Compostela – so the trip is bookended by brief coach journeys.
The journey: Belgrade to Bar (476km; 10 hours)
We say… This Balkan line can’t be booked online with national operators, so you’ll need to get tickets at the counter, but once on board you’ll hop ravines and rivers with the greatest of ease, thanks to its 254 tunnels and 435 bridges.
It took railway engineers decades to blast through the Dinaric Alps, traverse the thick birch forests, skirt the shores of Lake Skadar and build the 200m-high Mala Rijeka viaduct, which, until 2001, was the tallest railway bridge in the world.
Top tip: There are two trains a day; set off early for the best views.
The journey: Istanbul (Turkey) to Budapest (Hungary) via Bulgaria & Romania (1,832km; seven days)
We say… On the Danube Express’s ‘Castles of Transylvania’ route, you’ll whizz between two of Europe’s most beguiling cities in the lap of luxury.
Off-train excursions allow for easy exploration of medieval towns and Romanian castles, while the onboard experience includes opulent perks: think plush double cabins, starched linens and piano recitals.
Top tip: Spend your time socialising in the cocktail lounge; this journey tends to attract fascinating souls.
The journey: Whitby to Pickering (38.6km; one hour, 45 minutes)
We say… With a shrill whistle and a scorching blast, this steamy trip into the North York Moors National Park begins in lively Whitby, so spare time to visit its recenty reopened Abbey.
From there, it travels windswept dales, lush carpets of heather and, so it seems, time itself. Though devoid of most mod cons, the NYMR’s hundred-year-old steam trains make surprisingly quick work of these rolling moors, as you stop off for picnics and village walks along the way.
Top tip: For a taste of life at the steamy end, join the railway’s ‘experience days’ and ride on the footplate.
The journey: Jesenice to Trieste (approx 150km; three hours)
We say… To ford the peaks of the Julian Alps to the northernmost sliver of Italian coastline, the Bohinj Railway must slice a route it has plied for over 110 years.
It was built as a strategic network for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, but these days it’s catnip for hikers and cyclists who revel in the easy connections to Most na Soci, Lake Bled and Nova Gorica’s wineries.
Top tip: For a special trip, catch the heritage steam train (May to November) between Jesenice and Nova Gorica, where staff still don the uniforms of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The journey: Gloggnitz to Mürzzuschlag (41km; 40 minutes)
We say… Praised by UNESCO as ‘one of the greatest feats of civil engineering’, the Semmering teeters on two-storey viaducts and narrow mountain passes, with twists and steep inclines aplenty.
The reward for your fortitude? Swoon-worthy views of the Austrian Alps, and opportunities for great hiking or skiing. It took six years and 20,000 labourers to build this track, and this pioneering project from the 1850s became the blueprint for mountain railways all over the world.
Top tip: Gloggnitz is just an hour by train from Vienna, so don’t miss out.
The journey: Oslo to Bergen (500km; six and a half hours)
We say… Even in the cosy comfort of your compartment, Norway’s desolate Hardangervidda plateau will send a shiver down your spine. While the forests and lakes outside Oslo are beautiful, it’s the Bergen Railway’s eerily empty mountain passes that steal the show.
Stretch your legs at Finse, the highest station on the line (1,222m), to see where Robert Falcon Scott and his crew trained in advance of their infamous 1912 South Pole expedition. A lonely spot indeed.
Top tip: Hop off at Myrdal and pick up the extraordinary 20km branch line to Flam (one hour), whose spiral tunnels and steep gradient will sweep you up further into these breathtaking mountains.
The journey: Drei Annen Hohne to Brocken (19km; 51 minutes)
We say… The summit of Brocken (the Harz mountains’ loftiest point) is a doddle for these steam trains (which, if you book online, you'll have to do in German). They climb thick pines and wildflower meadows up to the 1,141m peak, forming one of three lines on the Harz Railway, Europe’s longest network (140km) still running daily steam trains.
Top tip: Buy a one-way ticket and hike back down, walking the famed trail to Torfhaus.
The journey: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog (21.7km; one hour 15 mins)
We say… Operated by the oldestsurviving train company in the world, the Ffestiniog Railway has run for almost 200 years through Snowdonia National Park, and has a gleaming troupe of steam locomotives. The route is a rich feast of rivers, waterfalls, mountains and ancient woodlands, with a looping spiral section lending some thrills.
Top tip: Add on the Welsh Highland Railway – Ffestiniog’s sister route – between Porthmadog and Caernarfon to extend your fun.
The journey: Dublin to Westport and back (1406km; five days)
We say… As if the Emerald Isle’s landscapes weren’t lush enough, the Belmond Grand Hibernian offers a five-star flourish, with top-notch service, deluxe sleepers and lashings of single malt whiskey.
Take the ‘Legends and Loughs’ trip for a coast-to-coast journey with stop-offs at Cork, Galway and Killarney National Park. It’s a convivial affair that doesn’t skimp on the fine dining and has live music every evening.
Top tip: For a more humble train trip, catch the DART from Dublin to Bray – a 50-minute jaunt past pretty harbours and empty beaches.
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