In today’s world of innovative travel, train travel is enjoying a revival. And to be honest, traveling by train has always been so much more enjoyable than by plane, because on a train, the journey is just as, if not more, important than the destination. Is there anything better than sitting comfortably by a window, with an untouched book on your lap, probably drink in hand, while you enjoy spectacular vistas rolling past outside?
I have always loved traveling by train, and whether you are on a luxury train or a suburban commuter link, it is the views that are important.
There are so many fabulous trains around the globe that invite you to sit back and enjoy the journey, but this list concentrates on Europe, and I will tell you in each section just why that chosen train should be on your to-do list. Enjoy the ride.
1. Orient Express: London To Venice
Is there a more famous train than the Orient Express? Harking back to the glamorous times of travel in the 1920s and 1930s, the train used to take passengers from Paris all the way to Istanbul and did so in style. This still happens roughly once a year at a stupendous price, and tickets sell out well in advance. However, you can sample the extravagance on shorter trips, such as an extended lunch or a murder mystery day trip in England. Or you can travel from London to Venice for a more in-depth experience. Along the way, you will travel through France and the Alps for spectacular views, even if most of the enjoyment of this particular trip lies firmly within the train and its superb black-tie service.
2. West Highland Line: Glasgow To Mallaig, Scotland
Scotland is home to one of Europe’s most rugged and dramatic countrysides, and this ride is taking in all the West Highland delights along the way. Add to that the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, which Potterheads will recognize as the viaduct the Hogwarts Express travels along in the Harry Potter films, and Corrour, the UK’s highest altitude train station, and you have a thoroughly enjoyable 5 hours of looking out of the window. Before heading out on the West Highland Line, enjoy the arts and crafts city of Glasgow, and end in the harbor city of Mallaig.
3. Nimes, France To Barcelona, Spain
Whether you start your journey in Paris, adding a mere 1.5 hours to the trip, or in the Roman city of Nimes, the stretch between Nimes and Barcelona is the highlight of this train journey. The line hugs the Mediterranean coast and takes you through the fabulous marshlands of the Camargue, with salt lakes on one side of the train and the sea on the other. Then you sidle along the Pyrenees mountain range before reaching Barcelona. You will find yourself dashing from one side of the train to the other.
And apart from great cities at the start and the end of your trip, this is a worthwhile alternative to flying between France and Spain, as it offers you 5.5 hours of relaxed views, while probably still being faster than flying.
4. Cologne, Germany To Basel, Switzerland
This is another normal train route, but it travels along the Rhine Valley and offers some stunning sights normally only seen from river cruises. Start in Cologne and travel through the former German capital of Bonn, past Mainz and Mannheim. You will spot the seemingly countless castles perched high up on the cliff edges along the Rhine Valley, with the bustling river traffic right next to the train tracks. If you are traveling in summer, you might see endless sunflower fields as well. Step off in Basel, or continue to Zurich.
5. Cannes, France To Ventimiglia, Italy
Starting your roughly 1.5-hour-long journey covering three countries in Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, you travel to Nice, and then Monte Carlo, Monaco, right along the French Riviera with simply stunning views inland and across the coast. You continue along the coast, with the mountains rising high on the left side and the rugged Italian coastline on the right. This short stretch has often been voted as one of the most scenic stretches of rail track in Europe.
6. El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo: San Sebastian To Santiago De Compostela, Spain
You can walk through northern Spain along the pilgrimage path of Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela, or you can take a super-luxury train. Even better, you can walk one way, and reward yourself with the very plush return journey by train.
This 8-day journey, starting or ending in San Sebastian near the Pyrenees mountains, takes in stops such as Bilbao and the medieval Santillana del Mar while ferrying you in luxury Pullman carriages along the coastline. You have your own cabins, complete with living rooms, bedrooms, and en-suite bathroom. You will dine on local specialties and enjoy small group excursions in the daily stops along the way.
7. Cinque Terre Express: Italy
This little local train runs every 15 minutes and connects the five colorful villages that make up Cinque Terre. Straddling a spectacular stretch of coastline, the train runs along steep cliffs and the Mediterranean Sea. The views across the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses the entire Cinque Terre National Park with its five towns are spectacular, and the tickets are cheap.
8. Glacier Express: Zermatt To St Moritz, Switzerland
Not necessarily an express train, with the trip taking some 8 hours, the Glacier Express is nevertheless a wonderful, bright red train that takes you past the green valleys and snow-capped mountains of Switzerland. You will leave Zermatt, right by the Matterhorn mountain, and traverse the Swiss countryside, crossing the Rhone river, climbing up to a 6,669-foot-high mountain pass, crossing viaducts, and end up in lovely Saint Moritz. You can take in the vistas through the large panoramic windows that encase each carriage for nearly 360-degree views. The journey is split into four segments, so you could stop in between overnight if you wanted to, enjoy a shorter segment, or even travel along the same route by normal train to save money.
9. The Douro Line: Porto To Pocinho, Portugal
If you are in Porto, this scenic 3.5-hour train ride is a must-do. Running along the Douro river valley, taking in the lovely Portuguese countryside with its vineyards and small, picturesque villages, makes for a lovely day out. You could be tempted to split the journey and step out along the way, hopping back onto the next train, as it runs in regular intervals.
10. Trenhotel: Lisbon, Portugal To Madrid, Spain
Taking the train between the capitals of Portugal and Spain is a lovely way to not only skip a flight but also relax, sleep in comfort, and enjoy some scenery along the way. The Trenhotel is an express overnight train that connects the capitals and allows you to travel in a two-bed sleeper with an en-suite bathroom or save money and travel simply. You get what you pay for on this train, but either way, this is a nice alternative to flying and exploring Europe.
11. The Flam Railway: Flam To Myrdal, Norway
Probably one of the most scenic train journeys of them all is this short but thoroughly impressive 1-hour journey between two fjord towns in Norway. In the 1-hour, 12-mile trip, the little train climbs impressive heights, passes through 20 tunnels, takes in the stunning Rjoandefossen waterfall, and even allows you to connect with the Bergen line, if that is on your itinerary when in fjord country. Or you can simply return on the next train for a repeat performance. Either way, dress warm and keep your camera poised.
Europe, or at least western Europe, has a superb rail system, allowing you to explore the continent without even uttering the word airport. You can connect easily between capitals and get decent discounts if you carry ID or purchase a discount card for the country you are most likely to stay in the longest. All services generally tend to be on time, comfortable, and straightforward to use, with officials usually at least speaking a degree of English, should you have questions.
While I have highlighted some routes and trains that are special and luxurious, even along those routes, there tend to be cheaper local alternatives if you want the views without the cost. Pack comfortable clothes, sit back, and enjoy Europe’s vistas passing along outside your window.
Editor's Note: While you are traversing the continent, check out these scenic ferry rides as well.