Much of European train travel is about efficiency and comfort—punctually leaving and arriving and having a cozy seat or sleeper compartment in which to devour the latest issue of the Economist. But rail travel in the United Kingdom and on the Continent is also about experience: gaping out the window at Alpine glaciers, savoring gourmet cuisine in a restored last-century dining car. Accordingly, our ten favorite European trains don’t necessarily offer the fastest journeys—just the most memorable. All aboard!
Sweet Switzerland: The Chocolate Train
Route: Montreux to Broc, Switzerland
Duration: 9 hours, 45 minutes, roundtrip
This charming train running in summer and fall climbs from Montreux overlooking Lake Geneva to the medieval town of Gruyères, population 1,600, home to the cheese of the same name. Tour the cheese factory and the local castle, have lunch, then reboard the train and continue on to Broc. There you’ll bus to the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory, tucked between Lake Gruyères and mountain peaks, for free samples, before making the return trip.
Tunnels Galore: The Bernina Express
Route: Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy
Duration: 4 hours, 14 minutes
This narrow-gauge, vertigo-inducing train takes on seven-percent inclines, a 360-degree spiral, 55 tunnels, and 196 bridges—reaching an apex of 7,391 feet and then descending 5,905 feet before coming to a stop. The word “express” refers to the availability of short-notice seat reservations, rather than the train’s velocity as it courses through the Alps south from Switzerland’s oldest town to a charming Italian town of just under 10,000 people. Part of the route is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A Hotel on Wheels: Trenhotel
Route: Lisbon to Madrid
Duration: 10 hours
Leave Lisbon in the evening, enjoy a sumptuous meal and the increasingly rural scenery, slumber to the soothing rhythm of the rails, and wake the next day as you arrive in Madrid, rested and ready to tour the sixth-most-populous city in the European Union. Gran Clase includes a wake up call, club lounge access, parking, and en-suite facilities.
The Epic Journey: Trans-Siberian Railway
Route: Moscow to Vladivostok, Russia
Duration: 19 days
This fabled route, an icon of Russian culture, crosses eight time zones to connect the Russian capital with a port on the Pacific Ocean. On board, poor mingle with rich, young with old, foreigners with locals. Social barriers disappear as passengers share a unique rail experience—and shots of $3-a-liter vodka. You can book a private car via a tour operator for added comfort; schedule any number of side excursions from trekking and scuba diving to city tours.
Waterworld: The Flam Railway
Route: Flam to Myrdal, Norway
Duration: 1 hour
A must-do on any tour of fjord country, the Flam Railway, rising from a village on the shores of Aurlandsfjord, mounts a steeper climb than any other non-cog, normal-gauge railroad in the world. In just 12 miles, the train climbs over 2,838 feet to reach the mountain plateau of Myrdal in under an hour. See the Rjoandefossen waterfall with a free drop of 459 feet, and the Kjosfossen waterfall, plunging 305 feet, where the train makes a photo stop during the summer.
Bavarian Bullet: InterCity-Express (ICE)
Route: Munich to Nuremberg, Germany
Duration: 1 hour
Want to go fast? This high-speed wonder zooms you between two historic Bavarian cities at speeds up to 199 miles an hour. “It’s amazing to watch the landscape change so quickly,” says Gillian Seely, a Boston resident who traveled widely by rail while living in Europe for 22 years. “The train is completely quiet inside,” she says. “Vibrations are barely enough to cause ripples in your strong German coffee.” In December, visit various German cities via the ICE rail network to take in traditional Christmas markets selling seasonal foods, handmade gifts, and gluhwein, a mulled spiced wine.
The Elegance of Yesteryear: Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Route: London to Venice
Duration: Two days, one night
Step aboard the VSOE, as the train is known, and the calendar turns back to the 1920s and ’30s, the golden age of rail on the Continent. The operator spent $16 million restoring 35 sleeping cars to their original art deco sophistication; passengers are expected to dress elegantly for dinner: at a minimum, suit and tie for men and the equivalent for women; black tie and gowns encouraged. Awake to the sight of the snowcapped Alps and learn the story behind each of the restored carriages.
Roughing it by Rail: Balkan Flexipass
Route: Belgrade, Serbia, to Bar, Montenegro
Duration: 10 hours, this leg
Explore the heart of the former Yugoslavia via a Balkan Flexipass (which offers unlimited travel for five, ten, or 15 days through Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey). Start in Belgrade, with its glitzy all-night club scene, hop off at any of various stops to shop or overnight, then board a later train to continue on to sleepy Bar, an ancient town influenced by various conquering cultures on the sun-swathed Adriatic. “Relax, and budget extra time for the inevitable delays,” says Chris Deliso, a travel writer who lives in Macedonia. “The trains are run-down, and the local characters you meet are salt-of-the-earth types.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Luxury on Wheels: The Balkan Odyssey
Route: Venice to Budapest
Duration: 11 days (including stays in Venice and Budapest)
At the top of the food chain among European trains is the Danube Express, a private train with classical elegance, modern conveniences, and fine dining. On this route, which begins in the infamous waterways of Venice, you penetrate the heart of the Balkans and enjoy a walking tour of the medieval town that is rumored to be the birthplace of Dracula. Eventually you approach Budapest along the Danube, where the Hungarian Parliament Building marks the skyline.
A Nostalgic Journey: El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo
Route: San Sebastián to Santiago de Compostela
Duration: 8 days
Explore northern Spain in utmost luxury with a five-star journey through historic towns and evolving scenery. Combining original 1923 Pullman coaches with 21st-century modern comforts, this vintage train features spacious suites complete with a separate living room and en suite bathroom. After touring destinations like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the beaches of Ribadeo throughout the day, enjoy live entertainment in the evening while the train parks at a station until morning.