Whether you want to travel by luxury sleeper train or take in the dazzling beauty of a mountain pass, Europe’s rail adventures promise sublime scenery and plenty of wide-eyed wonder. Here are 10 of the continent’s best.
Harry Potter fans can marvel at the famous Glenfinnan viaduct on Scotland’s Jacobite steam train. Other trip highlights include crossing the mighty Ribblehead Viaduct in northern England.
The Glacier Express
With a name that’s a play on words, this scenic train journey certainly lives up to its hype. This eight-hour adventure around mountains, deep ravines, and 91 tunnels takes you to the heart of Switzerland’s Alps and allows you to soak up its landscape scenery through oversized panoramic windows.
The entire route is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes engineering feats such as the curved Landwasser viaduct and spiral tunnel between Filisur and Preda. But that’s not all, and no matter which class you choose to travel in, you are bound to be awed by the breathtaking scenery on offer.
One of the best times to take this train journey is in Autumn, when you can see the changing leaves lining the railway track. You may also find that the crowds have thinned, making it a more serene and relaxing ride.
On-board facilities on the Glacier Express include comfortable seats, large panoramic windows, a dining car, and bar. The food is delicious, made from local ingredients and served with a Swiss twist. You can even book a table for two, ideal if you’re travelling with a partner or friends. Children under 5 travel for free, and those between 6 – 15 are eligible to purchase a Swiss family pass that reduces the cost of their ticket.
In Excellence class, passengers will enjoy spacious seating that lines up perfectly next to the panoramic windows. Seats have power outlets and USB ports, and the oversized windows ensure you’re not missing any of the beautiful scenery passing by. You can also opt for an à la carte meal cooked onboard by a regional chef.
The Glacier Express requires reservations, which should be made about 3 months in advance. The price of the trip varies, depending on the season and whether you’re traveling in standard or first class. Typically, the reservation costs about CHF 470 per person and single journey, which covers seating as well as catering and all additional extra services. If you’re using a European rail pass, the Glacier Express can be covered by your Eurail Global Pass or Interrail Pass.
The Trans-Siberian Railway
The world’s longest railway, the Trans-Siberian, was completed 100 years ago today (per Google’s doodle) — and it remains one of the most epic train journeys you can take. Stretching from Moscow to Vladivostok, the trip covers 5,772 miles and traverses eight time zones, 87 cities and towns, and 16 major rivers.
In 1891, Russian minister Sergei Witte broke ground on the project because he believed that political power came from economic power and that Siberia was Russia’s key to harvesting natural resources and expanding trade with East Asia. He also viewed the line as a way of bolstering the Russian population in a remote region and thus strengthening the state.
Today the line is a dream journey for travellers of all stripes. Whether you’re looking for the classical grandeur of great cities or the pristine wilderness of the Urals, the endless steppe of Krasnoyarsk or the awe-inspiring shore of Lake Baikal, the Trans-Siberian has it all.
Most trips on the premium version of this route, which includes sleeper accommodations with en suite bathrooms, run for six days and include stops in Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. It’s possible to do the journey in fewer days, but you’ll miss some of the best spots in Siberia.
Some people may feel nervous about taking the trip because of Russia’s image problem when it comes to personal safety, but most quickly find that a Trans-Siberian trip is no more dangerous than a European or American rail adventure. And once you board, you’ll be able to relax and focus on the history, culture, and scenery of an extraordinary place.
The cost of a Trans-Siberian train ride isn’t prohibitively expensive. The train fare by itself will cost around US$ 800, and that’s before you factor in the cost of your return flights from home, visa fees, costs of mandatory insurance/medical tests, hotel accommodation, taxi fares, food expenses, entry ticket prices to tourist centres/museums, tips, and miscellaneous/contingency expenses. Most tour companies offer packages that cover the majority of these expenses, but it’s still a good idea to budget carefully before you go.
The Norwegian Fjords
Norway’s iconic fjords are a dramatic sight to behold. Located in the country’s westernmost region, they were carved out by melting glaciers over the course of several Ice Ages and feature towering cliffs, plunging waterfalls, green landscapes, fruit trees and year-round alpine skiing. The fjords also showcase exceptional architecture like mighty stave churches and offer a range of culinary experiences from local foods like Gamalost cheese to fresh seafood, part of what’s known as “neofjordic” cuisine.
The best way to see the fjords is by cruise ship or rail, as this gives you the chance to get up close and personal with their soaring mountains, majestic waterfalls and vast glaciers. You’ll also be able to explore the remote communities that reside within the fjords and experience their rich culture firsthand.
One of the most unforgettable fjord journeys is onboard the Bergensbanen train, which links Oslo with Bergen via Europe’s largest high-mountain plateau – Hardangervidda. This stunning rail line boasts panoramic views of crystal clear lakes, rivers teeming with salmon and the magnificent Hardangerjokulen glacier. It’s also home to the famous Flam Railway, which climbs steeply and descends quickly in an awe-inspiring show of engineering prowess.
Fjords are also home to a fascinating array of historical treasures, with Bronze Age carvings and Viking long houses found throughout the region. You can learn more about the fjords’ past at Folgefonna National Park, where you’ll be able to walk on century-old trackways and see prehistoric petroglyphs that depict symbols of sun and boats, a testament to how important these waters were to Viking settlers.
There’s a wide range of fjord adventures to choose from in Norway, with the spectacular Naeroyfjord the narrowest fjord in the world and the sweeping Romsdalsfjord featuring mighty cliffs and jaw-dropping waterfalls. The idyllic Lysefjord is another must-see, with its renowned ‘Preikestolen’ hiking route and the mighty Kjerag boulder, which dangles precariously over a sheer cliff.
The Trans-Mongolia Railway
The Trans-Siberian Railway and its alternative route, the Trans-Mongolian, are journeys that sit high on many a travel bucket list. These are epic routes that transport you across a vast swathe of the planet, linking three fascinating countries and cultures. They’re journeys of a lifetime, and, as such, are intimidating for first-timers. But, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it’s possible to travel along these legendary routes.
The key thing to remember is that these trips are about the journey, not just the destination. Taking in the scenery, meeting locals, sampling cuisine on board and immersing yourself in culture are all part of the experience. “It’s really about the process of getting from A to B, not just about arriving in Moscow or Beijing,” explains Monisha Rajesh, a UK-based journalist and author of Around the World in 80 Trains.
This is particularly true on the Trans-Mongolian, which departs from Moscow every Tuesday night, heading east over traditional Trans Siberian routing until it veers south about 3/4ths of the way through to cut through Mongolia. It’s a chance to see a different side of Russia, Siberia and Mongolia, and explore a whole new world as you trundle along the steppes past gers and Gobi Desert dunes.
Stopping at towns and villages en route is also part of the fun. This is a chance to stretch your legs, sample local food or take a short walk around town before hopping back on the train. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the etiquette of train travel – dressing appropriately and being mindful of fellow passengers.
While there are direct trips to Ulaan Baatar, most travellers will choose to break the journey at a few key stops, including Irkutsk, Lake Baikal and Naushki. This allows you to see more of these intriguing destinations, to make the most of your trip and gives you time to experience the culture on offer.
While there are independent tours of this epic train trip available, most people will opt to take a pre-determined package that includes everything from hotels and transport to excursions and guides. This takes the stress out of planning, and ensures that you can relax and enjoy your journey.