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European Trains: Scenic & Historical

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Meet the Express that is anything but fast. Don’t be baffled by the name, these express trains might have been exhibiting their top speeds in the beginning of the 20th century, when the Oriental Express was an embodiment of luxury, style and fast travel. The expresses I invite you to look at cannot beat the modern Fast & Furious high-speed trains, but they certainly offer you the travel experience of an exquisite kind.
These express trains are all about devouring rail travel: you gape out of the panoramic windows at the Alpine glaciers or Norwegian fjords, you savour gourmet cuisine in a restored vintage dining car, or you hear strange whispers in all sorts of languages, when people nonchalantly discuss politics or their last dinner. Yet most of all, these express trains offer the nostalgia of train travel itself, when you see incandescently beautiful old stations or grim reminders of the past, or listen to the mesmerizingly lulling cadent clip-clop of the train wheels. Sometimes, standing on a platform and waiting for your express, you realize that you are on a brink of a great discovery, knowing exactly where you are going, but nothing more. Let us discover what is waiting for you just round the corner, if you dare to take a European scenic express train.
Trying to be embrace all Europe, we shall start from the north and go to the south of Europe, also covering some cross-European trains.

The Rauma Railway, Norway


Route: Åndalsnes-Bjorli-Lesjaverk-Lesja-Dombås
Altitude: 655 metres
Length: 114 km
Tunnels: 6, amongst them the 1340 metre-long horse shoe tunnel of Stavem
Bridges: 32
Highlights: The emerald-green River Rauma, access to hiking trails like the Trolls’ Path, stunning fjord views, Kylling Bridge, Trollveggen
Goodies: Multiple departures daily. Sightseeing train runs end of May through end of August — reservations strongly recommended. Normal trains run year-round. Eurail passes accepted.
The 100-minute journey starts gently enough at Dombås at sea level, the majestic fjord lands quickly give way to lush meadows, deep gorges, and vertical cliff faces, you get a real scenic punch when the River Rauma cranks up the drama. You will never forget the imposing bridges, winding tunnels and the tallest rock-face in Europe: the Trollveggen. Be sure to pack a sack lunch and wear hiking shoes, because the train stops at several destination hiking trails.

The Flam Railway, Norway

Myrdal railway station

Myrdal railway station

Route: Myrdal to Flam
Altitude: 867 metres
Tunnels: 20
Duration: 1 hour
Highlights: The Nåli Tunnel, tremendous fjord views, Kjosfossen waterfall
Goodies: Many departures daily. No reservation necessary. Eurail pass holders receive a 30% discount.
A must-do journey from a village on the shores of Aurlandsfjord to Myrdal mountain station. It is one of the steepest train lines in the world on normal tracks (non-cog, normal-gauge railroad), where almost 80% of the journey has a gradient of 5.5%. In just about 20km, the train climbs 867 meters to reach the mountain plateau of Myrdal. It’s hard to believe this steep, picturesque line was ever a working railway, but indeed it was, shuffling passengers and cargo into the Sognefjord beginning in 1940. Nowadays, it operates purely for the pleasure of gawking tourists, traveling slowly and making ample scenic stops. See the Rjoandefossen waterfall with a free drop of 138m, and the Kjosfossen waterfall, plunging 100m, where the train makes a photo stop during the summer. After the roughly one-hour journey, continue on to Oslo or Bergen by train.

The Inlandsbanan, Sweden

Route: Kristinehamn to Gällivare
Duration: 14 hours
Length: 1300km
Highlights: the Arctic Circle
If you are no Santa and have no Rudolf-reindeer to take you that far north, this train is a perfect solution. It traverses probably the wildest terrain in Scandinavia and races past the Arctic Circle. Not many people can say they have taken a train to the Arctic Circle, but you can. The terrain might appear somewhat bleak and too tranquil, but you can spot bears, elk, reindeer, and moose along the way. The train is hop-on, hot-off adventure, providing you have the Inlandsbanan Card, which also offers 25% discounts to the youngsters (16-25 y.o.)

The Rhine Valley Line, Germany

Railway station of Koblenz, Germany

Railway station of Koblenz, Germany

Route: Koblenz to Mainz
Duration: 30-50 min, depending on the train
Length: 100km
Highlights: Rhine wine — Riesling is king but also try Müller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer. Impossibly cute towns of Bacharach, St. Goar, Rüdesheim
Goodies: No reservations necessary. Eurail passes accepted.
It is one of the shortest yet sweetest railway journeys in Germany. This section of the bigger Cologne-Mainz railway was opened in 1859, it runs close to the river through this winding section of the Rhine Valley from Koblenz past the Loreley towards Rüdesheim and Bingen. This riverside tour connects some of Germany’s quaintest Rhine villages, where vineyards sit on terraced hillsides below looming medieval castles. There may be more charm packed into this 100km stretch than anywhere else in Germany. Take your time and catch a “milk-run” train that stops at all the villages along the way. The coolest part? Hopping from train to boat or vice versa using the same ticket!
There are some routes nearby to consider: https://routes.tips/frankenstein_castle

The Baden Black Forest (Schwarzwald) Line, Germany

Route: Offenburg to Konstanz Lake and Freiburg to Seebrugg
Distance: 150 km
Vertical climb: 650m
Highlights: The Lakes of Titisee and Schluchsee, “Hell Valley,” traditional farms and half-timbered villages, the stretch from Hornberg to St. Georgen
Goodies: Standard trains depart daily. Check schedule for special “nostalgia” trains running vintage locomotives. Eurail passes accepted, no reservations needed.
Schwarzwald

Schwarzwald

The Black Forest is the stuff of fairy tales, quite literally — Germany’s ancient forest was the setting and inspiration for the twisted fantasies of the Brothers Grimm. Germany has done an admirable job protecting the forest and the pastoral lifestyle that defines this south-western region. The scenic train route passes through the fairy-tale region of Baden-Württemberg. The train winds around conifer-coated mountains and passes Hanzel and Gretel-style villages. Think pine forests, rock faces and dark overhead branches. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t just a tourist train, but a regular service. There are several itineraries available.
You may want to go from the small workday town of Offenburg, where the train quickly leaves the overhead trappings of urban life behind and glides into pristine outdoor scenery. Grassy fields stretch away from the track as church spires pierce the skyline and small clusters of villages flash past the windows. From Hornberg the scenery changes as deep green pines cover the landscape and the train passes through tunnel after tunnel and runs between dense, dark foliage. From Donaueschingen the route runs right down to Singen where it joins the Upper Rhine Railway to continue to the shores of Lake Constance (Konstanz).
If you are in the south of Germany, there are some other attractions you can visit nearby.
Here come the majestic Alps, whether you explore them a la James Bond style, or lounge back on a comfortable train, they never cease to surprise you. Don’t forget to download the PeakVisor app to instantly recognize all the mountains you pass. This app will tell you which is which and what is unique about every mount you see in your visor.

The Glacier Express, Switzerland

Glacier express

Glacier express

Route: St. Moritz/Davos to Zermatt
Duration: 7.5 hours
Length: 290km
Highlights: 291 bridges, 91 tunnels, Oberalp Pass
Goodies: Departures daily. Eurail passes accepted from St. Moritz to Disentis. From Disentis to Zermatt, Eurail pass holders receive a 25% discount. Reservations required.
It’s probably the slowest “express” train you will ever find – more than seven hours – but the Glacier Express rivals the Bernina Express for the most scenic train ride in Switzerland. Starting in the shadow of the Matterhorn, the train makes its leisurely way from exquisite Zermatt to St Moritz on a narrow-gauge track of over 290km. Only in Switzerland could there be a train called the Glacier Express — and truly deliver. Just imagine gorging on one-of-a-kind Swiss Alps views for 7.5 hours. You will be traveling through a landscape so sacred to Europeans that the railway (along with the Bernina) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; it’s also home to the headwaters of the mighty Rhone and Rhine Rivers.

The Bernina Express, Switzerland


Route: Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy
Duration: 4 hours, 14 minutes
Length: 156km
Highlights: Hollywood-style over the 65-meter-high Landwasser Viaduct, the signature structure of the Rhaetian Railway and the UNESCO World Heritage site. 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Montebello curve with a view of the Bernina massif, the Morteratsch glacier, lakes Lej Pitschen, Lej Nair and Lago Bianco, the Alp Grüm and the Brusio Circular Viaduct.
This bright-red 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 Bernina Express is the James Bond of scenic trains — smoothly pulling off impossible daredevil feats and looking damn good in the process. You go from ice-age glaciers to palm trees in a couple of hours. 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. Extra-large panorama windows offer an incredible vantage point from which to take in the glaciers, lakes, peaks, and villages of Switzerland’s High Alps. Check out the Bernese Alps here. You can continue exploring the northern Italy and go to Lake Como or Lugano from here.

The Golden Pass, Switzerland

Route: Luzern–Interlaken–Zweisimmen–Montreux
Distance: 191km
Duration: 5hours, 08 minutes
Highlights: Brünig Pass, flower-covered chalets, vineyards on the shores of Lake Geneva, Lake Thun, the Gruben (Schönried) area, 8 lakes, 6 cantons, 3 mountain passes, 2 language regions. You can make a stopover and go to Jungfraujoch – top of Europe; with breath-taking views from the Sphinx viewing terrace, or Schilthorn – James Bond’s favourite mountain.
Goodies: Departures daily. Reservations recommended. Eurail passes accepted.
The panoramic cars on the Golden Pass train allow for almost 360-degree views. The Golden Pass route gives you a little slice of everything Switzerland — high-alpine mountains, chalet-filled villages, vineyards, lakes, and some of the country’s most historically important cities. For a driver’s-eye view, consider splurging extra 15 CHF for VIP seats in the very front of the train. For railway nostalgia enthusiasts, the GoldenPass Classic is the perfect choice: this is a replica of the elegant Belle-Époque trains.

Sweet Switzerland: The Chocolate Train

Route: Montreux to Broc, Switzerland
Duration: 9 hours, 45 minutes, roundtrip
Highlights: Gruyère and chocolate: the pinnacle of Swiss culinary expertise
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 re-board 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.
On MySwissAlps.com you may find even more information about Swiss scenic trains.

The Centovalli Railway, Switzerland and Italy

Centovalli Railway

Centovalli Railway

Route: Domodossola to Locarno
Length: 52km
Duration: 2 hours
Highlights: Stone cottages, waterfalls, hardwood forests, idyllic vineyards the south side of Lake Maggiore, the Simplon Pass (Piedmont).
Goodies: Departures daily year-round. Eurail passes accepted. Centovalli means “100 Valleys,” so you can probably guess what this Italy-to-Switzerland alpine route is famous for. It ain’t beaches. This is the way to travel from French-speaking Switzerland to the Germanic capital, Bern.

Trenino Verde della Sardegna, or The Little Green Train of Sardinia, Italy

Routes: Isili-Sogorno (83km), Mandas-Arbatax (159km), Macomer-Bosa (46km), Sassari-Tempio-Palau (151km)
Total length: 404 km
Characterized by lengthy travel times and winding tracks in attractive landscapes, the narrow-gauge train comes out for the summer only, but it takes you into the wild heart of the island. You’ve got four lines to choose from, but the one going from the southern town of Mandas to Arbatax on the east coast has the most arresting scenery. You’ll pass prehistoric dolmens known as giants’ graves as the train clacks past soaring mountains suitably nicknamed taccu (heels). D. H. Lawrence, in his Sea and Sardinia (1921) wrote “We'll take the secondary train, … wherever it goes.”

The Cinque Terre, Italy

Manarola village and train station

Manarola village and train station

Route: Levanto to La Spezia
Highlights: The Ligurian Sea, Cinque Terre National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site), pastel villages, terraced vineyards, seafood
Goodies: Multiple departures daily. Eurail passes accepted.
This little section of railway serves the five Italian Riviera villages of the Cinque Terre in dramatic fashion. The trip is only about 40 minutes in one direction, so take the train one way, then spend the day hiking the amazing village-connecting trails back to where you started. You can see the trains are serving the area are a lot, but since the tracks running along the coastline are just 2, well, sometimes a train is cancelled and other trains, due to the crowd jumping on and off, delay their departure. So delays on the line are expected. If you have connections or flights to catch consider to leave with a large advantage of time. 

The Arlberg Line, Austria


Route: Innsbruck to Landeck to Bludenz
Distance: 140km
Duration: 2 hours
Highlights: 87meter-tall Trisanna Bridge, Castle Weisberg, 13km-long Albergtunnel (1.2km a.s.l.), postcard Tyrol towns
Goodies: Trains run daily year-round. No reservations required. Austrian Eurail passes accepted.
The transalpine Arlberg Railway is Austria’s only east-west mountain line and has been a marvel of engineering since its completion in 1884 — a year ahead of schedule, incidentally. The route traverses Austria’s western “finger” of mountainous land and features countless bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. With steep grades in high-alpine environments, it is a problematic line for railway engineers and maintenance workers, but pure delight for riders. The two-hour journey covers 140km via countless viaducts and tunnels. Look out for the Trisanna Bridge, which sits beside the equally impressive Castle Weisberg.

The Semmering Line, Austria

Route: Wiener Neustadt to Bruck an der Mur
Distance: 41 km
Highlights: Over 100 curved stone bridges, 14 tunnels, the 1.4 km-long Vertex Tunnel, 16 viaducts (many of which are two-storeyed)
Goodies: No reservations required. Austrian Eurail passes accepted.
One of the first great alpine railways — instrumental in proving high-elevation train travel on standard-gauge track was indeed possible — the Semmering Line opened in 1854 and was the highest line in the world at the time. Not just the highest, it was also built to be the most beautiful, with special attention paid to harmonizing the railroad with the natural surroundings it passes through. The Semmering, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is truly an exceptional train ride. The Semmering railway overcomes an altitude difference of 460 m; on 60% of its length the gradient is 2.0-2.5% (equivalent to a 1-meter difference in altitude on a 40 m route distance) and 16% exhibit a curvature radius of only 190 m.

Francisco de Goya Train, France-Spain

Route: Paris to Madrid
Duration: 13 hours, 30 minutes
Leave Paris in the evening, enjoy a three-course dinner 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 third-most-populous city in the European Union. Grand class includes a welcome drink, gourmet dinner, breakfast, and an in-room bathroom with shower.

Le Train Jaune, France

Le Train Jaune

Le Train Jaune

For more than a century, this metre-gauge yellow train has been winding its way through the French Pyrenees from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol. What it lacks in distance – it’s only 63km and about three hours long – it more than makes up in the dramatic mountains of the Park Naturel Regional des Pyrenees Catalanes. It also stops at France’s highest railway station, Bolquère-Eyne, which sits at 1592m above sea level, and crosses the Pont Gisclard, a railway suspension bridge.

The West Highland Line, Scotland

Glenfinnan viaduct

Glenfinnan viaduct

Settle back for at least five hours and take in the mesmerising Highland scenery from Glasgow to Fort William, and then onwards to the small fishing port of Mallaig. Most of the 264km journey is along a single track that slithers past moors, lochs (Loch Lomond) and The Trossachs National Park. The line splits at Crianlarich, carrying you either past Loch Awe to Oban, or high up to Rannoch Moor, through remote wilderness and on to Fort William and Mallaig. It has a dash of Harry Potter magic – the Glenfinnan viaduct used by the Hogwarts Express.
And now we shall move on to the trains coving long distances.

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.

The Balkan Flexipass

Route: Belgrade, Serbia, to Bar, Montenegro
Distance: 467km
Duration: 10 hours
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. These trains you take may seem run-down, but the local characters you meet are salt-of-the-earth types. Still, you’ll be amazed by the rugged mountain views of Bulgaria’s Balkan Peninsula and humbled by its famous monasteries. You’ll pass the biggest lake in the Balkans, Lake Skadar, before heading into some of Montenegro’s truly astonishing mountains in Biogradska Gora national park. Then you nip in and out of Bosnia before meandering through the gently rolling hills of southern Serbia and Zlatibor National Park. You’ll reach Belgrade in time to hit one of its several hundred floating bars along the Sava and Danube rivers. You’ll visit Romania’s romantic medieval region of Transylvania (“The Land Beyond the Forest”), after you’ve basked in a nearby therapeutic lake or spa. Or, just mingle with the locals in Macedonia’s Old Skopje Bazaar, a bustling, cobbled-street marketplace selling Turkish teas and fine linens. Each and every location is a touchstone of archaeological, architectural, and cultural magnificence. And you can experience one or all when you get on track with the Balkan Flexipass.

The Transylvanian Odyssey

Route: London to Istanbul, Turkey
Duration: 8 days (including stays in Budapest and Istanbul)
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 Budapest after your flight from London, you penetrate the heart of Transylvania and enjoy a walking tour of the medieval town that was the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. Eventually, you approach Istanbul along the Bosporus, where the Topkapi Palace marks the skyline.
It is by no means the complete list of scenic trains in Europe, but we have tried to locate the most famous trains that make you feel that organic ebb and flow of the European rail system, no matter what train you take. Travelling by a leisurely express train you never regret when you see a beautiful horizon disappear, there is another breath-taking landscape opening up. The travel in the long stretches of comfortable silence, punctuated by the rhythm of the train’s machinery, makes you feel that it is not the destination, but the journey that really matters.

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