Although I’m a lifelong train nut, most of my epic trundles – from Australia’s Indian Pacific to the Trans-Siberian Railway – have been largely outside Europe. So I’m curious, too, since the continent is crisscrossed with a bewildering array of jaw-droppingly scenic options. I tapped two experts for exactly where – and how – to ride the rails.
Mark Smith’s Man in Seat 61 website (seat61.com) is crammed with trip-planning advice. His roster of recommended routes starts in the U.K.
“I suggest London to Fort William by Caledonian Sleeper, travelling direct from the Big Smoke to the wonderful West Highlands of Scotland. With your own cozy bedroom, you’ll be breakfasting in the lounge car as deer bound away from the train the next morning,” he says.
Then there’s the continent. “Some say the Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano is the best train ride though the Swiss Alps; others say the famous Glacier Express pips it at the post. You’ll just have to do both,” he suggests, adding that Venice to Munich via the Brenner Pass, Zurich to Milan via the Gotthard Pass and Paris to Nice, with its rocky coastline finale, are also major routes with scenic swathes.
But don’t forget Eastern Europe. “Take the train from Belgrade to Bar or Podgorica in Montenegro. There’s breathtaking mountain scenery, including a precarious crossing of the world’s highest railway viaduct. It’s a daylong ride costing just €20 – buy your tickets at the station.”
Rail-specializing travel journalist Jools Stone (railwaystays.com) also favours Scotland, recommending the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig for “spectacular glens, lochs and all that gorgeously desolate boggy Highlands landscape.” Hopping to the continent, he suggests Norway’s fjord-studded Flam Railway and Switzerland’s Jungfrau Railway, which scales the Eiger to Europe’s highest train station.
Looking for some vintage railway decadence? “The Venice Simplon-Orient Express is the ultimate luxe train. Food and service is unsurpassed but it’s the stunning interiors – the Poirot factor – that swings it,” says Stone, adding that Austria’s lesser-known Majestic Imperator train is an equally lavish but lower-cost alternative.
Once you’ve found your dream route, it’s time for ticketing. Smith offers some choice advice for keeping budgets on track.
“Don’t assume you need a rail pass. I often see Canadians taking €29 train journeys with $800 rail passes. Europe’s long-distance trains often operate like budget airlines, with cheap fares for prebooking on a no-refunds, no-changes basis,” he says, adding that buying tickets three months ahead is the way to go.
But where to book?
“There isn’t a single website selling all routes and services at the cheapest prices. The golden rule is to book online at the websites of relevant operators. If a service is run jointly by neighbouring countries – as many are – go to the website of the national rail operator for the country where your journey starts: You’ll pay cheap advance-purchase fares, usually without booking fees. Most offer print-at-home or collect-at-station tickets.”
For many North Americans, Smith adds, the ease of European long-distance train travel can be surprising. “There’s no check in – apart from on Eurostar. You just walk off the streets and onto the train. If you’re on board at departure time, you go with it – if not, you get left behind.”
And while luggage allowances are generally less draconian than flying, Stone adds it makes sense to prepare. “Space will be limited in all but the most lavish cars. Have one luggage rack-friendly case for day-to-day essentials: change of clothes, a good book, a trusty corkscrew and your camera are all you really need.”
It’s this kind of relaxed approach – the foundation of great train journeys – that should also apply during planning. “Be realistic about how much ground you’ll cover,” Stone says. “Resist the temptation to hit every capital. And remember that high-speed doesn’t always mean better – slower journeys are often the most scenic.”
OUR READERS WRITE
- You cannot go wrong with a train trip from France connecting into Italy. French trains are more luxurious than in Italy, especially the regional ones. Also, the Eurostar is great from the heart of London to the heart of Paris to the heart of Brussels – if you can afford it, go business or first class. @Chiqee
- In Switzerland, there is a cog-wheel train to Schynige Platte and an alpine garden. It’s an awesome trip with a beer at the top! @HolidayBakerMan
- The Gornergrat cog-wheel train in Zermatt is spectacular. Gorgeous scenery at an altitude of 3,100 metres in the Swiss Alps. @travelling_mom
- Short but sweet: My fave is the train from Cannes to Monaco. It’s one hour along the French Riviera coastline and is spectacular. @LynnGervais
- I had a wonderful holiday touring Switzerland with greatrail.com. The journey begins in London on the Eurostar. Given a first-class Swiss rail pass and staying a few days in several parts of the country, we were presented with various options each day to pursue by rail. Lots of freedom to choose how to spend each day and spectacular rail journeys. Also, Norway in a Nutshell is a fantastic 48-hour trip across Norway between Oslo and Bergen by express, narrow gauge railway, electric train, steamship and bus. Stunning scenery. Madeleine Lefebvre
- Chemin de Fer de la Mure – the Mure railway – in Grenoble, France. The lake and mountain scenery is just beautiful. @2GoTraveling
- Fort William to Mallaig and Inverness to Kyle are two of the most scenic train journeys in the world – both in Scotland. @BudgetTraveller
- You can’t do Europe’s best train trips without the Flam Railway. The scenery is unbeatable. They used to have ballet students dressed like Huldra [folkloric forest creatures] by the Kjosfossen waterfall. @elisabetheats
- Paris to Barcelona overnight. Foie gras and cava dinner then curl up and wake in a new city! @nikkibayley
- I loved taking the overnight train from Paris to Berlin. Obviously not that scenic, but it’s very romantic to wake up in a new country. For scenery, the train from Porto through the Douro Valley is special. It hugs the cliffs and river and has wooden bridge crossings. @Tours_By_Locals
- The Royal Scotsman departs from Edinburgh travelling all over Scotland. Some of the best scenery in the world! @RVanMorrison86
- The Glacier Express in Switzerland is lovely. I also really enjoyed the 27-hour ride from Moscow south to Astrakhan on the Caspian. @kattancock
- It’s not all Europe but I’ve heard cool things about the Trans-Siberian Railway from China to Russia. @WhistlerTasting
- I would argue that any train trip would be a favourite! It feels magical meeting new people and watching the scenery go by – old-fashioned in all the right ways. @colene
Send your travel questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow John on Twitter:@johnleewriter