Beauty is a fascinating thing. It can be glaring right at you, but yet you may be utterly blind to its allure. How does this have anything to do with
you may ask...everything really. If you’re thinking of jumping on any train routes in Europe, first ask yourself whether you’re prepared to invite in the beauty and wonder you’ll see while en route. Before diving into the
, allow me to share with you something thought-provoking that will help you fully appreciate your upcoming rail journey.
I’m sure we’d all agree, we live in a fast past world. At any given moment our over-stimulated minds are being pulled in many directions at once. So much of our time is spent thinking when what we often lack within ourselves is the ability to feel deeply. When was the last time you rolled down the window and let your hair blow in the wind? Or, how about when you have last stood at a mountain’s peak and embraced your surroundings without thinking about from which angle you should take your new IG selfie? We’d all love to immerse ourselves in the moment more often, however, unfortunately, we’re typically caught in a spinning spiral of go go go. Slowing down doesn’t come easy, and it’s no different when it’s time to head on our holidays.
When our holidays roll around, anticipation overcomes us. Mentally we’re already running out the door by 11 am, even though we finish our day at 5 pm. Why is this? Globally we are overworked and underappreciated. As a result, when it comes time to take a vacation, many of us want to get as far away from work as fast as possible. Consequently, it’s no wonder why air travel is so popular and train travel has fallen by the wayside.
I’m not knocking the quick weekend break or mid-week vacay. All I’m saying is although these holidays allow you time to relax, they place a lot of emphasis around the destination and little on the journey, which is undoubtedly the most important.
Deep down, you’re seeking a journey full of enchantment, one that will spark your senses and light your imagination into a dream-like state. If you’ve read up until this point, then it’s clear you’re looking for more than a mode of transport merely to get you from A to B. You’re genuinely ready to slow down and engage your senses. Whether you want to take a short train journey, a longer route or make a multi-leg voyage across several time zones, I’ve got the top scenic rail journeys that will ignite your sense of adventure.
Short Scenic Train Rides - Less than 5 hours
Rhine Valley, Germany
Whenever I hear of the Rhine Valley, my thoughts immediately drift towards fairy tales. Towering hillsides, lush beauty, and countless castles. There are roughly 40 historic castles scattered throughout the varied landscape and scenic railroad route from Mainz to Cologne. There is plenty to admire en route, including awe-inspiring river valleys, stunning villages, and beautiful vineyards clinging to the hillsides. A portion of the rail route between Bingen and Koblenz is so remarkable, UNESCO has classified it as a World Heritage Site.
Route: Bingen to Koblenz | Distance: 78 km | Time: 50 min
Full Route: Mainz to Cologne | Distance: 180 km | Time: 2 hours
Best: Spring & Autumn
Latour de Carol, France
The unassumingly breathtaking route near the French Pyrenees
doesn’t last long; however, the journey is more than worth it for its dramatic views. Perched at 1600m above sea level, you’ll pass by France’s highest railway station
, Bolquère-Eyne. To get there, you have to cross the Pont Gisclard railway suspension bridge. If you’re at all scared of heights, take a deep breath before the crossing. For a longer journey, you can extend your trip across into Spain
Route: Villefranche de Conflent to Latour de Carol | Distance: 60 km | Time: 3 hours
West Highland Line, Scotland
It’s unlikely you’re camping out in Fort William, where this route begins; therefore, you’re most likely starting your journey from Glasgow. After an incredibly ‘healthy breakfast’ of haggis and eggs hop aboard the train on your way to the old fishing port of Mallaig. Let’s hope you’ll be so full from breakfast that your head stays glued to the window and your attention won’t waver. The highlight of the West Highland Line is by far the Glenfinnan Viaduct
. Sounds familiar? This portion of the line was used in the 1st Harry Potter
film, hence why this rail journey often goes by the name of Hogwarts Express. The rugged landscape on this scenic rail journey is jaw-droppingly stunning. With views of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain
, lonely lochs, and coastline panoramics, the steam train journey will knock your socks off.
Route: Fort William to Mallaig | Distance: 67 km | Time: 2 hours
Full Route: Glasgow to Mallaig | Distance: 264 km | Time: 5 hours
Bernina Express, Switzerland to Italy
When UNESCO lists a train ride as a World Heritage Site
, it must be something incredible. The narrow gauge train, known as one of the most breathtaking routes in Switzerland leads you through the Engadin Alps
on its way over the border of Italy
. Take in panoramic views of glaciers, lakes, and the stunning passageway through the Landwasser Viaduct
Route: Chur, Switzerland to Tirano, Italy | Distance: 123 km | Time: 4 hours
Great Western, UK
Be sure to start your journey on the left side of the carriage, facing forward. You’ll thank me soon enough. The Great Western route hugs the coastline, allowing you to you enjoy unspoiled views of the sea. If you have to put your elbows up and barrel through the crowd to get the best seat, we’d say do what you have to do, although, don’t go too far as to knock down a few grannies in the process. The scenic train ride itself is relatively fast as the route is considered high speed. With that said, put away your phone and enjoy the views without distraction, don’t risk missing the gorgeous sites.
Route: Exeter to Penzance via Plymouth | Distance: 175 km | Time: 3 hours
Long Scenic Rail Journeys - More than 5 hours
Glacier Express & Golden Pass, Switzerland
Home to dramatic landscapes and some pretty epic scenery, it’s no wonder why many of the most well-recognized and traveled train journeys in the world can be found here. Switzerland’s rail journeys are best enjoyed year round, however, during the holidays, there’s extraordinary magic in the air. The Glacier Express takes you over almost 300 bridges and through 90 tunnels, introducing you to breathtaking panoramic views of the Swiss Alps.
Glacier Express Route: St. Moritz to Zermatt | Distance: 290 km | Time: 7 hours
The most magnificent out of these two Swiss stunners is the Golden Pass, a rail journey split into three portions. Take them all in one go or section up the scenic train ride over several days. For the true Golden route experience, book the classic train, which uses refurbished train cars from the Orient Express. On the way, enjoy one of Switzerland's most picturesque and untouched valleys, Gruben valley, along with the Brünig Pass, and dramatic views of Oberalp Pass (6,700 feet) above sea level. Europe’s slowest high-speed train offers so much more than a smooth ride.
Golden Pass Route: Lucerne to Montreux via Interlaken | Distance: 400 km | Time: 5 hours
Flåm Railway, Norway
At various points in the journey, The Flåm Railway resembles what to many seem like a theme park ride, but it’s not for its speed. This mountain railroad, 4000 ft above sea level makes you feel as if you’re on top of the world; no wonder, it’s because it’s the highest major rail line in all of Northern Europe. For those afraid of heights well, you should probably refrain from look down. There’s enough of a view at eye level to keep your mind occupied.
The simple thought of this landscape ignites a level of excitement inside of me, that even as I sit here writing about it, I can’t contain. Is anyone else checking flights to Norway already? I’m sure thinking about it. What intrigues me most about the Flåm Railway is what’s right after the Hardangervidda Plateau (Norway’s Highest Station). The nerd in me hears the voice of Isaac Newton in this very moment, ‘What goes up, must come down’ and with that said if you take this rail journey you better be prepared for the 2500 foot drop to the fjord down below.
Route: Oslo to Bergen | Distance: 550 km | Time: 9 hours
Best: Autumn & Winter
Scenic Train Journeys - More than a day
The Arctic Circle Express, Sweden to Norway
Having your kids been asking to see Santa? Or maybe you secretly want to head up to the Arctic to catch a glimpse of what a real-life winter wonderland looks like. Either way, your exploration of the beauty of Lapland
all starts when you jump aboard The Arctic Circle Express
. I’m pretty sure there’s no need to paint a picture of what you’ll see, if you’re considering this journey then you’ve probably already been daydreaming about it. One of the best parts of this scenic train ride is having the chance to see the Northern Lights
painted across the sky.
Route: Kiruna, Sweden to Narvik, Norway | 3 Days
Balkan Flexipass - For the true adventure seeker
I’m pretty sure the Balkans weren’t on your bucket list, then again, if they were, good on you! With a Balkan Flexipass
, you can hop on a rail journey from Serbia to Montenegro and beyond. Honestly, I truly believe in leaving the best for last. If you’re shaking your head at me wondering how the Balkans could top the Alps, let me explain. First of all, this entire article is centered around scenic rail journeys rather than the destinations. I can guarantee, this expression plays out if you venture through the Balkans by rail.
If you’re short on time, take the Montenegro Express, lasting roughly 11 hours. Discover over 250 tunnels and 400 bridges as you pass by the Mala Rijeka Viaduct, the Fortress of Lesendro, Lake Skadar, the largest lake in the Balkans, Biogradska Gora National Park and plenty more incredible sites.
As I said at the beginning, Beauty is a fascinating thing; It can be glaring right at you, but yet you can be utterly blind to it. Taking any scenic rail journey through The Balkans requires more than open eyes. It calls for a deep appreciation of the smallest of gems, those that many often overlook or discount. If you’re ready to invite in the internal beauty and energy of the Balkans, then hop aboard one of their scenic rail journeys. I can assure you, the sites you’ll see and the people you meet along the way will change your life forever.
Route: Belgrade, Serbia to Montenegro | 3 - 15 Days
Shorter Route: Bar to Belgrade 476 km, 10 hours
Best: Autumn & Winter