Top 5 scenic European rail journeys for spectacular mountain views
From luxe locomotives to everyday passenger trains, here are the best ways to explore Europe’s mountains by rail.
Is there any better way to take in an Alpine panorama than by train? Scaling peaks, tunnelling through mountains and striding over valleys on epic feats of engineering, the railways that navigate the Alps offer VIP views at every twist and turn — and often at regular passenger train prices. We select the best routes to ride, from Railjet’s Zurich-Innsbruck line to the luxurious Venice Simplon-Orient Express service.
1. Bernina Express
An option that will appeal to lovers of slow travel, the Bernina Express takes just over four hours to weave its way from Chur, in Switzerland, to Tirano, in Italy. The narrow-gauge track, which was completed in 1910, includes 55 tunnels and 196 bridges, most of which are anchored in precarious-looking rock faces above swirling rapids and rivers. Also traversing the Landwasser Viaduct and gliding around picket-fenced fields filled with buttercups and purple aster, this is a sensible option for those who don’t have the patience for an eight-hour ride. And with panoramic windows and cosy chairs, it’s another service that ensures passengers soak up the views in comfort. Consider breaking up the journey with a stopover at the medieval town of Poschiavo, where visitors will find a Mediterranean lifestyle in an Alpine setting. Wednesday’s weekly market is popular for local burrata and wine, and is best followed by a hike around the lake and dinner at Hostaria del Borgo, which does excellent pork. Board the train the next morning for the final 45-minute run to Tirano.
A single ticket from Chur to Tirano starts from £73.
2. Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
While luxury travel company Belmond has a number of routes that traverse the Alps, this one offers the classic itinerary: an overnight journey that begins mid-morning at Venice’s Santa Lucia station and ends at London Victoria station the following afternoon. Not long after departure, the train sails past the twinkling Venetian Lagoon and its oak-wood piles before veering towards the northeast of the country and into the Dolomites. Here, the mountain formations differ vastly from elsewhere in the Alps, with their jagged edges and needle points shaped like a rapid ECG graph.
At lunch, passengers can find themselves in the L’Oriental dining car, lunching on pan-fried monkfish medallions or fillet of beef in truffle while the train shoots into the mountains, cutlery and crystal clinking at the twists and turns. After dark, passengers in black tie and elbow gloves sit with noses to the windows watching the almost-blue snow sweep down into valleys where chalets glow like clusters of golden orbs, the carriages tilting around the peaks. At occasional points, the train parks up, allowing passengers to step down and pace in the shadows of the mountains, feeling the Alpine chill up close.
Cabins start from £3,785 per passenger.
3. Train des Pignes
Most visitors to the French Riviera are clued-up about the extraordinary coastal journey that stretches from the glitz and glamour of Cannes to the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, but an alternative scenic ride takes passengers inland from Nice, at the edge of the Ligurian Sea, to Dignes-les-Bains, in the lower French Alps. The metre-gauge Train des Pignes makes its way around Mediterranean villages, medieval towns and fortresses, winding high into the mountains past thick olive groves, pine forests and fields blooming with lavender. With four trains running per day, it’s worth jumping off to have a spot of lunch and load up on rosemary and thyme before returning to Nice on a later train.
A return ticket from Nice to Dignes-les-Bains starts from £41.
4. Zurich, Switzerland to Innsbruck, Austria
A regular ÖBB passenger service with exceptional views, the journey from Zurich through Liechtenstein to Innsbruck takes just three-and-a-half hours. There are multiple services per day, meaning passengers can choose a dawn departure to enjoy the first light rising over villages and farms, or opt for an evening ride to watch the sun cast orange rays across lakes and snowy peaks. Not long after setting off, the train takes a wide arc around Lake Zurich, before passing by Lake Walen, a spectacular basin of peacock-green water overlooked by forested slopes and ice-slicked mountains. Crossing into Austria, passengers will be treated to views of wooden chalets in deep meadows, with chapels and churches dotting the slopes. After snaking through the medieval town of Feldkirch, the train enters the Arlberg Pass and disappears into a six-mile tunnel before emerging five minutes later and beginning its descent into Innsbruck.
A single ticket from Zurich to Innsbruck starts from £30.
5. GoldenPass Express
Proposed 150 years ago, Switzerland’s GoldenPass Express was finally launched in early December 2022, connecting the town of Montreux, on Lake Geneva, with Interlaken, in the Bernese Oberland. The route was made possible by revolutionary technology that permits the train to change the gauge of its wheels and the height of its coaches. Previously, those wanting to make this journey would have to travel by metric gauge between Montreux and Zweisimmen, then change trains for the Zweisimmen-Interlaken leg. The new, uninterrupted route means passengers can lie back in reclining seats and watch the changing scenery as the train seamlessly completes the journey. Over the course of three hours, it circles vineyards, valleys and glaciers before making the final run to Interlaken, which lies between the Thun and Brienz lakes.
A single ticket starts from £64.
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