The 10 Best European Train Journeys

2 April 2019

The 10 Best European Train Journeys

From high-speed trains to the slowest Express train in the world, these top ten European train journeys offer the best the continent has to offer.

This isn’t to say that your list will be exactly the same, or that you’d place them in the same order, but in our opinion, these are the ones that are hard to beat.

10: Madrid to Seville (AVE)
Many train journeys are modelled after the golden age of luxury travel, as you’ll clearly see in the entries below. But if a step into nostalgic opulence isn’t your cup of tea, then the high-speed AVE trains of Spain just might be.

At top speeds of 190mph, the AVE train from Madrid to Seville passes from the urban landscapes of the capital to the hills of Andalucia, and is well worth the ride. Add to it the picturesque city of Cordoba along the way, and it is hard to resist.

Turista class has more room than on a plane, and is pretty comfortable. First Class (Preferente) offers even more space and on weekdays a complimentary at-seat meal. Despite the relative brevity of the journey, there is a lot to see. Keep your eyes open for deer, wild pigs, and lovely olive groves along the way.

It’s a good idea to book ahead, and to get there thirty to forty minutes early in order to pass through security in good time and settle in upstairs at Atocha. It’s a big station, so if you don’t speak Spanish, or just want to be sure of boarding in time, make it an hour and relax with a coffee prior to boarding.

You can travel between Madrid and Seville on our Andalucia in Detail Holiday, or simply tailor-make your own Spanish itinerary.

9: Rhine Gorge Route
This train runs from Cologne to Mainz in Western Germany and, as the name suggests, follows the dramatic meanderings of the famous River Rhine.

There is natural beauty in abundance, but people have lived along the Rhine for thousands of years, and layer upon layer of beautiful historic jewels remain too: Castles, manors, vineyards, quaint villages and more.

Hundreds of trains pass through this route each day – passenger and freight included – yet despite its function as a busy commercial thoroughfare, it serves as a stunning ‘scenic route’ as well. There are other ways to see the area as well – the river cruise tours are popular too – but for the best combination of speed and scenery, the train is an enjoyable way to go.

Many of our German holiday suggestions include travel along this route, or you can plan your own holiday to incorporate the journey.

8: The Glacier Express
It sounds like the quickest way between two points, but the term ‘express’ is more of a tradition than a description. It is sometimes called ‘the slowest express train in the world’, and takes nearly eight hours to cover the distance between Zermatt and St Moritz. However, if the journey is the destination, and the scenery and a relaxing trip is what you’re after, then this ticks all the boxes.

This route winds its way from Zermatt through the Swiss Alps and some of the finest scenery in world, scrolling almost 200 miles of stunning views past your window. You’ll climb to the Oberalp Pass, over 6000 ft above sea level, and then down to St Moritz, spending seven and a half delightful hours immersed in panoramic beauty. There are options to board later (in Brig) or end your ride sooner (in Chur).

Unless you happen to hit a day with low and heavy cloud cover, you will see some truly amazing views. Great any time of year, but best in the winter. The snow-capped mountains offer superior views, adding to the excitement of the journey.

Meals are available at a cost on par with regular Swiss restaurant prices, and are of decent quality. There is a dedicated menu for Indian food as well, catering to vegetarian and vegan traditions, so if you’re used to packing and carrying food suitable for your particular family, you can relax in this trip, and simply enjoy the views.

With lots to see and enjoy on both ends of this route, it serves as a very fitting and pleasurable way to tie them all together.

You can have a look at all our holiday suggestions featuring the Glacier Express here.

7: Elbe River Valley
Running between Berlin and Prague, this route runs alongside the Elbe River, overlooking the spread of the valley, edged with rugged cliffs, and dotted with villages, small farms, and even terraced vineyards. Woodlands will sometimes give up glimpses of deer, and there are always birds and other small wildlife for the sharp-eyed and the lucky to spot. There are even some ancient ruins in the hilly areas known locally as “Saxon Switzerland”. It’s a relaxing and peaceful way to pass from Germany to the Czech Republic, with great cities to explore on either end.

If you have the chance to choose your seating position, the views on the left side of the train are a bit better, especially to the south of Dresden, but there is no shortage of great scenery wherever you sit.

The trains are well-designed, clean, and all classes of car have enough room for comfort in most circumstances. Standard Class is mainly comprised of six-seat compartment cars, which cuts down on noise generated from other passengers – or from your group if you tend to let the volume get a little high in your excitement. First Class is located in saloon-style cars, but they are roomy, comfortable, and usually quieter than the Standard cars, which tend to have more travellers in them.

First Class includes a complimentary bottle of water, more space and carpeted floors, with power sockets and free Wi-Fi, whilst on the Czech side of the border. A refreshment trolley makes the rounds if you need a snack or a light meal. The train accepts Euros, Czech Crowns, and credit cards, and there is no shortage of food, drinks, of snacks in any class of service.

The restaurant car is a pleasant surprise on this train. Where one might expect a cafeteria-style setup with trays and only passable food choices, this is a true restaurant, and open to all classes of service. Clean white linens, china – and excellent fare to put on them – make a visit to the car a must. There is no reserved seating though, so I would advise you to visit it early. I can’t advise you to stake it out for the whole of the trip, but I will say this: it’s your holiday, so don’t rush either.

The ride is smooth, quiet, and a perfect time to discuss and plan for the rest of your trip, all the while letting your eyes scan the scenery and the busy lives of the villagers and farmers you pass.

6: Moscow to St Petersburg (Sapsan Bullet Train)
These German-designed trains race at speed up to 150 mph, connecting the Russian capital to another of its most famous and historical cities. It’s a great way to take in some of the countryside, catch glimpses of rural Russian homes and life, and arrive at a historical treasure-chest of things to see and do.

The trains are quiet and fast, covering the distance in three and a half to four hours, depending on conditions and rail traffic.

First Class is clean, modern and in excellent condition. There are good choices for food, drinks and coffee, wine is available, and earplugs are provided. On some trips, passengers even get complimentary slippers, so you can take your shoes of without feeling self-conscious about it, and give your feet a break from the relentless impact with the cobbles and slabs of the Kremlin and Red Square.

Once in St Petersburg’s Moskovsky station, step off the train and a taxi or transfer will be waiting to take you onward to yet more adventure.

Our Moscow to St Petersburg holiday includes a journey on this train.

5: The Bernina Express
The Bernina Express runs from Chur and St Moritz in the Graubünden region of Switzerland, to Tirano, just over the border into Italy. It is worth travelling in either the summer or the winter. The best way to experience this trip is to fuel up with breakfast before boarding, and enjoy a hearty Italian lunch once you arrive in Tirano. You can buy drinks and snacks onboard, but there is no lunch service.

It is possible to make a start early in the morning, have lunch in Italy, and return in the afternoon to Chur. Many people do this and have a wonderful time. The scenery in the same, and the train is the same. This makes for a pretty long day though, and I would argue that the trip as a whole is made so much better when you don’t feel rushed, and when you have the flexibility to linger over a view, a meal, or a good coffee when the quality of the moment warrants it. You can also catch a train from Tirano directly to the shores of Lake Como at Varenna or Colico, so this is another great option.

For most of the journeys so far, the focus has been on the natural scenery, but those with an eye for it will be delighted with the engineering of the Bernina track, of the tunnels punched through the mountainsides, and of the viaducts that vault out over daring precipices to bridge one rugged cliff to another. These feats of human endeavour are almost as impressive as the natural scenery itself; some would say more so. In either case, it is well worth noticing the ingenuity and design that went into this amazing high-altitude route.

The train staff are multilingual, and English is a staple. Service is good in all classes, but for the most comfortable and trouble-free trip, I do recommend paying the extra for a First Class seat if you can afford it.

The side windows by the seats don’t open, but if the windows aren’t clear enough to take pictures from your seat, you can get some great shots from between cars, or from the open carriage at the back if weather is suitable and it is included with the cars on your trip.

With its fantastic engineering and more glaciers than the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express is the best way to enter Italy, whether you plan to turn and head back right away, or to stay a while and enjoy a hearty meal.

Find out more about the Bernina Express and our featured holiday suggestions here.

4: Bohinj Railway
Slovenia might not be the destination that first comes to mind when you think of stunning European travel – but it should be. The Bohinj Railway is a great place to start, and can be enjoyed either from the convenience of a modern train, or via the historic steam train that travels the same route. Most tourists opt for the more historic version, which runs once a week on a Saturday.

Slovenia truly is a gem, hidden from the West by the Iron Curtain for many years, but now gaining due fame for the historical and natural beauty of its landscape and cities. You’ll ride from Jesenice, through the Soča river valley toward the Julian Alps, crossing ancient viaducts and passing through tunnels in the rugged mountain terrain. On your way to the Italian border, you’ll pass Lake Bled, and can even stop there to stroll the shores and sample delicious local food and delicacies. Once in Nova Gorica, you can cross into Italy refreshed, both in mind and body, from one of the most pleasurable travel discoveries you’ll make.

Though there is a modern train that makes the same trip (at a lesser price), the heritage train experience is by far the most popular of the two. If you’re a history buff, want something the whole family will enjoy and talk about, or just like a little fun and something different, this trip is a great find. Information and explanations are given in Slovenian, German, and English, so you’ll know what’s going on for the whole trip, two to three hours in either direction.

You’ll see attractive bridges, interact with conductors in old-style uniforms. There is even an accordion player wandering up the aisle and people sing nationally-known songs. You can buy postcards – and have them franked on the train, and they’ll be posted from Jesenice when the train returns there. You might even see a special appearance by none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand – a pretty noteworthy figure for the history buffs among you. There are tours and other things to see before heading back, but if you want to take one of the tours, pre-book before the trip starts, or you’re unlikely to find a space.

Trains, mountains, scenery and fun, in a region that should see nothing but increased fame in years to come. It truly is a charming place to visit.

Travel on the Bohinj Railway with our Discover Slovenia itinerary. And remember to ask for travel on a Saturday if you would like the steam-hauled trip.

3: Flåm Railway
When it comes to taking in stunning scenery from the comfort of your own seat, there are few trips that pack as much beauty into a short period of time, as the Flåm Railway. At an hour, it is a relatively brief journey, but in that time it climbs from the sea-level village of Flåm at the edge of the Sognefjord, up 2845 ft to the Myrdal mountain station, where you can connect with other trains that run between Bergen and Oslo. If you want high-impact scenery in a condensed amount of time, you can’t beat this trip.

As if the majesty and mystery of the fjord itself weren’t enough, this ride lifts you up above it and gives you the view of the gods. There is an audio narrative and a special performance at the waterfall stop that is great for whole family. Don’t stay on the train at the waterfall stop; get out and see the view and the performance from the ground. You’ll be glad you did. For the ride itself, you can sit on either side of the train, as the views are equally stunning from left or right, even in hazy or overcast weather.

There are zip lines in the area, if you want to see the world rushing past from a bird’s-eye view. You can rent a bike in Flåm, take it up on the train, and ride the trails back down the mountain, sampling wild raspberries and getting up close views of the stunning waterfalls. A word of caution though, this is not a trail for the novice. It can be very steep and requires some skill and confidence in riding trails. They can also be walked, but again, make sure you’re in good enough condition to do it comfortably, to get the most fun out of it. It takes about four hours of steady walking to make the trip down.

Our Norway in a Nutshell holiday offers the perfect introduction to the country’s fabulous scenery, including the Flam Railway.

2: Brenner Pass Route
The Brenner Pass is one of our most popular trips. Between the beautiful departure city of Munich, and the romantic destination of Venice, this train climbs and descends the picturesque Alpine landscape. View it from your own seat or from the restaurant car while you enjoy lunch. The convenient direct train leaves after a late breakfast and will have you looking out over the canals by dinnertime.

The Brenner Pass has one of the lowest altitudes for mountain passes in this area, so its valleys will be green through more of the year, and in warmer months the mountains around it will also have little or no snow. Dairy cows graze the lush summer grasses and pine trees crowd in along the slopes and gorges that line the route.

There are plans to build a base tunnel that will flatten the journey and make it considerably shorter. The construction is projected to be complete by 2026. The views in certain areas may be marred by the construction, and the new route, once complete, may be an inferior one when it comes to seeing the stunning landscape – even if it does ease the trip for regular commuters and those in a hurry to get through to a different destination. Our advice? Don’t put this one off. If your plan is to work through this list, or one like it, make sure Brenner Pass is near the top of it.

Find out more about the Brenner Pass on our dedicated page or check out our best-selling Venice via the Brenner Pass holiday.

1: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
For most people, the words ‘Orient Express’ evoke the strongest and most glamorous images of train travel. Agatha Christie knew her craft, and knew the train; the foundation for the luxury and drama she wanted for her story was already laid down in the train journey itself. That’s as true today as it was back then.

The train has covered various routes over its 140-year history, and today’s most popular route takes passengers from London to Venice, Venice to London and a number of other continental routes, in style and comfort.

Your enjoyment of the trip is facilitated by on-board stewards, attentive and discreet, who are both knowledgeable about the train and its history, and happy to share that knowledge with others who want to know a little more about its eventful past.

In addition to the passenger cars, there are three elegant restaurant cars and a world-class, dedicated bar car.

The menus prepared by Christian Bodiguel, head chef, who has been working in the galley on the train for the past 25 years. His professional life revolves around delighting guests on the train with fine food. Each dish is set off in style, on white linen, with fine silver and crystal.

The bar car will transport you to the opulent 1920s, complete with period (or modern) cocktails, and music provided by the resident pianist on a baby grand piano.

The compartments are not replicas of the originals, but are the originals themselves, carefully restored and cared for. Dark oak panels, luxurious ivory linens and rich upholstery, all tied together with taste and skill in the Art Deco style of the early 20th-century.

Spend the day exploring the train, enjoying the amenities and ambience, or relaxing in your luxurious cabin. While you dine in the evening, a steward will convert your cabin to a welcoming haven when you return.

If you have a little more to spend, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express now has Grand Suite cabins available. These are larger, furnished with double or twin beds and private en suite facilities. Guests in these cabins have a private steward, private transfers to and from the train, and a guaranteed table for two in the restaurant. Champagne and a complimentary Art Deco bathrobe are also provided. There is no way to adequately describe this experience – and that’s part of its value. The only way to truly understand the Orient-Express experience, is to try it yourself.

The train is a strip of elegance on rails, and guests are expected to conform to that standard too. Jeans and trainers are not considered appropriate attire in the public areas of the train, and smart-casual is the lower level of formality observed. A jacket and tie is a minimum requirement for men at dinner, and in the evenings, many male guests choose to wear a dinner jacket. Yes, it’s more restricted in that sense than other trains, but in reality, the surroundings are so meticulously designed for style and luxury, that one doesn’t feel comfortable doing any less.

Whether you are in a Grand Suite cabin, a Cabin Suite, a double or a single cabin, there is no other train journey in the world that is as much about the ‘train experience’ itself as this one. Yes, the scenery is wondrous, the food takes your breath away, and the level of luxury would satisfy the most discerning traveller in any context, but the combination of these things, aboard the train made immortal by the writings of Agatha Christie and the fame earned by a continuous dedicated to the highest standards in guest care, makes this the best, and most magical train trip in the world.

We have a variety of holidays to tie in with the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express including departures from London (to Venice), Prague and Budapest.