The best train journeys in Europe
1. Caledonian Sleeper
After years of decline, things are looking up for Britain’s two remaining sleeper trains. The Night Riviera, which runs between London and Cornwall, has managed to cling on in the face of closure threats — and now, following a steady but stylish makeover, almost lives up to that ridiculously glamorous name. Meanwhile, the Caledonian Sleeper, running between London and Scotland, has gone one further, with a £150 million revamp. It’s been a long time coming — five years in total, and six months later than planned — but there’s no denying the scale of the transformation. Out with the beat-up cabins and the microwaved food; in with comfy seats, meals cooked in an actual oven, stranger-free sleeping arrangements and, perhaps most inspired of all, double beds. Who says romance is dead?
One-way prices for Comfort Seats start from £45; Classic Rooms from £140. See www.sleeper.scot.
2. Inlandsbanan, Sweden
Sweden’s Inlandsbanan traverses what is described as the continent’s last wilderness of untouched forests and lakes. The 663-mile (1,067km) railway from Mora to Gallivare links isolated Lapland settlements with a variety of attractions. Most are either within walking distance of stations or linked to the railway by bus and include open-air museums, 19th-century lake steamers and Sami villages.
Discover Inlandsbanan (0046 771 53 53 53; inlandsbanan.se) offers a nine-night return tour from Mora from £1,036 per person.
3. Flavours of Tuscany
Ease the pace by taking the train to Italy as it celebrates a year of Slow Tourism. The tour takes the Eurostar to Paris and then a TGV for an overnight in Turin, before skirting the Tuscan coast to reach the base for six nights at the Relais dei Molini. Car hire is included so travellers can explore and taste local wines, visit thermal springs, have a cookery lesson in the charming walled city of Lucca and try cheese making outside the town of Volterra. Return is by plane from Pisa.
From £1,495 per person sharing with Planet Rail (01347 825292; planetrail.co.uk).
4. Habsburg Trail, Central Europe
This eight-night self-guided tour through Austria, Slovenia and Italy follows a coffee trade route developed to meet the demands of the early 18th-century coffee craze in the Habsburg Empire. Travelling by train between four cities with a common imperial past – Vienna, Graz, Ljubljana and Trieste – provides an introduction to the empire’s magnificent architecture and art, ranging from Vienna’s Hofburg Palace to the wonderfully preserved Old Town in Graz. Notes for walking tours and recommendations for coffee provided.
From £995pp with Inntravel (01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk). Includes rail travel between Vienna and Trieste, but excludes flights
5. Bordeaux, Cognac and the Loire
Three nights in Bordeaux, reached by Eurostar and TGV, allows time to visit the World Heritage Site Old Town, the new wine museum and, with included car hire, the nearby vineyards of Médoc and St-Émilion. Three nights in Cognac for the city’s medieval quarter and English Garden are followed by another three nights in the village of Chenonceaux in the heart of the Loire Valley, home to excellent wines and Leonardo da Vinci – 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of his death, and of the construction of the beautiful Château de Chambord.
From £1,595pp with Planet Rail (01347 825292; planetrail.co.uk).
6. Castles of Transylvania
This new tour starts as it means to go on: cocooned in the historic luxury of Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. From here, the Golden Eagle Danube Express makes a stately dash through European Turkey towards the ancient Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo, via the lofty Shipka Pass. Country number three is Romania for the beautiful town of Sighisoara – and Bran Castle, home of the infamous vampire-count. The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest is the ultimate stop on the seven-night tour, where there’s time to visit an Ottoman-era bath before the flight home.
Golden Eagle (0161 928 9410; goldeneagleluxurytrains.com) offers Castles of Transylvania from £4,535 including four nights on the Golden Eagle Danube Express, all meals and drinks, plus five-star hotels stays. Departs June 27 2019.
7. Baltic Sea sleeper, Malmo to Berlin
The sole direct train from Sweden to Germany includes a night cruise across the Baltic Sea. At 5pm the Berlin Night Express putters through Malmo’s leafy suburbs en route to the Swedish port of Trelleborg. Here carriages are eaten by a special train-ferry, before trundling out four hours later in the ritzy German period resort of Sassnitz. The final leg is a straight shot through the former East Germany to Berlin for a 7am breakfast.
The Berlin Night Express operates in spring and summer. Sleeper berths cost £60 (0046 40 669 62 00; snalltaget.se).
8. Paris to Moscow
This is the classiest way to cross the continent. Each Thursday evening, the Russian Railways train rattles out of Paris Gare de l’Est, arriving in Moscow in time for Saturday breakfast. Ultra-modern First Class sleepers offer dual bunks, lockable doors, wash basins and waiter service – there are even private showers in the pricier VIP section. Better still, Europe’s second-longest train route (Moscow-Nice is a shade lengthier) offers a taste of the five nations it passes through. Expect German beers, a Polish buffet carriage, then a Russian dining car from the old Soviet Border at Belarus.
Russian Railways (007 495 505 6325; russianrailways.com) offers one-way tickets in a First Class sleeper for around £400.
9. Grand Tour, Scotland
This nine-night tour by train begins in Edinburgh and takes in some of Scotland’s most celebrated castles and scenic journeys. Among the places visited are the Royal Yacht Britannia, the castles of Stirling, Dunvegan, Armadale, Eilean Donan and Glamis and the Glen Ord Distillery. The most dramatic part of the West Highland line between Crianlarich and Fort William is followed by the Jacobite steam train on to Mallaig, crossing the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, featured in four of the Harry Potter films.
From £2,495pp with Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com)
10. Interrail adventure
An epic, a series of short hops, a mix of night trains and day trains: the InterRail is what you make it. Best not to keep moving all the time (under-26s do this to sleep on trains and save on hostels) and it pays to choose a loop and a region or two at most. Bear in mind that sleepers and some fast trains incur surcharges. Swiss trains are the most efficient. Spain’s AVEs and Alvias are super-fast. Slower eastern-rolling stock still rocks with that pleasant train movement. A life-enhancer at any stage in life, and a celebration of Europe’s rail network, glorious stations and common passions and bonds.
Passes range from five days in 15 to a month’s continuous travel and cost from €208 to €510 (interrail.eu/en).
11. Glacier Express, Switzerland
Switzerland’s favourite tourist train between Zermatt and St Moritz has been delighting passengers since 1930. The whole route is a scenic delight, but the climb to the Albula Tunnel is also one of Europe’s railway engineering marvels with its spiral tunnels and viaducts. Since 2018 a new level of service - “Excellence Class” - has been on offer. One Glacier Express a day in each direction between St Moritz and Zermatt will include the new coach for just 20 people. In addition to enjoying the scenery through the panoramic windows, passengers will have a five-course lunch of regional and seasonal dishes, including wine and an aperitif and canapés during the afternoon.
St Moritz to Zermatt, from £115 (First Class fare from £202); 0041 848 642 442; glacierexpress.ch.
12. The Bridge, Copenhagen–Malmo
The dramatic 16km bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmo has made it possible to include visits to both cities in the course of a weekend break and to enjoy a taste of the quite different cultures of the Danes and the Swedes. Services are frequent and there are good views of the Oresund Strait. For lovers of the Scandi noir crime series The Bridge, however, the compelling reason for making this journey is that, this is The Bridge.
One-way fares cost from 110 SEK (£10).
13. Trenino Verde, Sardinia
D H Lawrence loved Sardinia’s 400km rural rail network: “we take the slow train, no matter where it goes.” Now the four railway tracks offer the most idyllic – and sometimes only – passage through Sardinia’s rugged interior using Fifties railway stock. Some locations are so rural that drivers often disembark to shoo geese and sheep off the time-worn track. Sadly steam engines are disused (they kept setting fire to local terrain) but the prettiest coastal lines (to Bosa and Palau) call at secret beaches and vineyards.
From £3 per hour ride; for more details, see Trenino Verde (treninoverde.com).
14. Bohinj railway, Slovenia
The three-hour journey from Jesenice to Nova Gorica winds through the Julian Alps, burrowing through 36 tunnels and crossing the world’s longest stone arch railway bridge over the Isonzo Gorge. A steam locomotive pulls historic passenger carriages with staff in the uniforms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which built the railway between 1900 and 1906.
Tickets from £40 with ABC tourism (00 386 59 070 512; abc-tourism.si).
15. Slow Trains through Asturias
The narrow-gauge FEVE railway, winding along the coast of the Asturias region of north-west Spain, is the focus of a a seven-night self-guided Slow Train through Asturias journey from the “slow travel” specialists, Inntravel. Passengers can hop on and off the train – billed as “the perfect means of transport for the curious and insouciant traveller” – to explore lush landscapes in the shadow of the dramatic Picos de Europa mountain range, along with fine beaches, fishing villages and Oviedo, the region’s capital, with its characterful old town. The trip includes stays at two Casas de Indianos, grand mansions converted into comfortable hotels.
From £595 per person (two sharing), including B&B accommodation and train travel; 01653 617000; inntravel.co.uk.