Journey to Wonder
There was a brief moment on the train journey between Lucerne and Lake Geneva in Switzerland when I found myself peering at my reflection in the spotless window wondering if this experience was real.
Just beyond my reflection, a lush green valley, dotted with Swiss chalets, the odd one puffing little plumes of smoke into the cool spring air, washed silently past. A narrow river fueled by melting snow flowed rapidly between the chalets, filtering into a pristine turquoise lake further up the valley. And towering up all around this living tourism brochure were the giant Swiss Alps. The highest peaks, visible through windows in the ceiling of the carriage, escaped the warming sun and still had light dustings of snow.
For many inside the train, this was little more than their daily commute — but for at least one wide-eyed tourist lucky enough to spontaneously stumble into a seat on the GoldenPass Express, it was nothing short of spectacular.
Scenic train rides like the one I lucked into abound in Europe, and though it’s true that many of the continent’s most remarkable journeys are confined to the Alps, there are also dozens further afield well worth seeking out. Here, we’ve rounded up the most awe-inspiring.
Jacobite Train, Scotland
Jacobite Train is commonly described as “the world’s greatest railway journey”— and that's not an over-exaggeration.
This incredible Scottish rail route and steam train served as inspiration for the Hogwarts Express, and though this has caused a flurry of excitement from Harry Potter fans around the world, it’s an unmissable excursion even for those not au fait with the novels. That’s because the journey takes you close to some of Great Britain’s most breathtaking extremes — from the country’s highest mountain, to its deepest sea and freshwater lochs, to its shortest river.
Beautiful nature aside, you’ll also chug through a handful of quaint Scottish villages before arriving in the coastal town of Mallaig — a busy fishing port in the Highlands dating back to the mid-1800s.
The train runs according to a seasonal service, so it’s important to double check departure times ahead of time and book well in advance. But given the views, the history and the fantastical undertones, there are few rail journeys worthier of your advanced planning than this.
Bergen Line, Norway
If you’re looking to tick off the most iconic train ride in Norway, and ride one of Europe’s most celebrated scenic routes, then book your ticket for the Bergen Railway between Oslo and Bergen.
It’s a 310-mile, seven-hour extravaganza past some of Norway’s most varied scenery and dramatic mountaintops. Much of the journey wends through beautifully stark and desolate terrain. But it’s also an important means of transport for residents and visitors alike — during winter months it fills with skiers heading to the famous slopes along the way.
This is the highest mainline railway in Scandinavia, and its completion in the early 1900s was an impressive achievement. Though it’s celebrating its 110th year since the first train left Bergen, the modern trains that now service this line are anything but dated.
Rauma Line, Norway
If you’re looking for a Scandinavian journey with diversity and action, then head for Norway’s Rauma Railway line between the town of Åndalsnes and the mountain village of Dombås. The journey between the two takes less than two hours, but the train carries you past Trollveggen wall and Kylling Bridge, and right through Reinheimen National Park, famous for the reindeer who call it home.
Given the relatively short journey time, this train ride makes for an incredible return day trip from Åndalsnes.
Rhine Valley Line, Germany
Germany’s Rhine Valley Line is the stuff of fairytale and legend. Unlike many thrilling scenic train journeys in Europe, this one is somewhat more sedate — which is exactly what makes it so appealing.
The Rhine Railway runs through the heart of German wine country between the towns of Mainz and Koblenz, at times just a few feet from the famous river after which it’s named. The route is not short on scenic beauty, thanks to views of the river and Rhine Valley's towering peaks, but it's the numerous castles and quaint small towns along the way that give this route an intriguing edge.
The journey isn’t a long one — if you choose one of the numerous high-speed trains you can complete it in under an hour. But most travelers choose the slower regional trains and stop off along the way to sample world-famous Rhine Valley wine as close to the source as possible.
'Over the Top' Line, Germany and Austria
The somewhat inconspicuous rail route between Innsbruck and Munich, via Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Mittenwald, delivers a range of scenic surprises. It’s operated by Deutsche Bahn and Austrian Federal Railways, and includes a stint on the Mittenwald Railway, but because it’s not the quickest route between the two cities, many overlook it.
Online maps and automatic route finders will tend to push you towards the faster but less interesting InterCity line between the two cities. But the most memorable journey traverses via Seefeld, and is dubbed "Over the Top." On a clear day it delivers views of Zugspitz, the highest mountain in Germany, and the remainder of the route serves up remarkable Alpine views. The arrival into the Innsbruck Valley is truly something — particularly during winter months when thick layers of snow line the trackside and mountains.
And because the route is not a branded scenic line, it costs a fraction of the other better-marketed attractions, and you’ll alight with a sense of in-the-know satisfaction.
Semmering Bahn, Austria
Austria’s 41-kilometer Semmering Bahn line may be relatively short, but it passes through Alpine terrain so dramatic, it has earned the entire route UNESCO World Heritage Status (not to mention the UNESCO label of “one of the greatest feats of civil engineering”).
Though it dates back to the 1850s, this line passing between Gloggnitz and Murzzuschlag is still in impeccable condition, and it offers plenty of thrills via the striking stone bridges and 15 tunnels it encompasses.
Of course, true to the Austrian way, trains run efficiently here, and the scenery is everything you’d expect for a route that cuts its way through the incredible Alps.
Cinque Terre Train, Italy
The steep slopes and colorful seaside villages of Cinque Terre are among Italy’s most popular tourist attractions. Many flock there simply to bask on one of the iconic beaches or hike the rugged cliffs — but the area also features an incredible train journey to include in your itinerary.
The Cinque Terre train, operated by TrenItalia, runs between La Spezia and Levanto, stopping at various points along the way. It’s not a long journey; if you ride the train start to finish it will take you just 30 minutes. But most choose to stop off at iconic towns along the way and meander along the cliffs. And thanks to panoramic sea views and a coastal atmosphere, this is a truly unique European rail experience.
GoldenPass Express, Switzerland
Switzerland’s GoldenPass train connects Lucerne to Montreux, on the shores of Lake Geneva. In just five hours it serves up a condensed Swiss highlights package, complete with jaw-dropping views of picturesque villages, vast mountains, fertile valleys, and pristine rivers and lakes.
The trains are slick and ultra-modern, but if you switch to the GoldenPass Classic carriages at the halfway mark, you’ll be able to experience what it was like to journey during the golden age of rail travel. These retro trains that run between Zweisimmen to Montreux have gold-trimmed luggage racks, wood finishes, carpeted aisles, plush armchair-like seating, and waiters who’ll take your food or drink order at your seat.
Many take the journey from start to finish simply to explore the scenic beauty along the way. But most break their journey en-route to Lake Geneva with a stop in the popular tourist city of Interlaken, which boasts dramatic alpine and lake views and all the amenities of a premier resort town. Or they hop aboard another train and venture up the valley to the painfully quaint town of Lauterbrunnen, just 20 minutes from Interlaken.
Bernina Express, Switzerland
While you’re in St. Moritz, you may as well hop aboard the Glacier Express’ biggest rival, the Bernina Express. Technically beginning in Chur, the oldest city in Switzerland, but connecting at several small towns along the way, the route runs over the Alps — at times improbably — and into Italy.
Though shorter than its glacial competitor, this line is no less dramatic. At its highest point you’ll traverse the Bernina Mountain Pass and rattle past three pristine lakes and a large glacier, before dipping down toward Tirano on a scintillating set of tracks.
UNESCO recognizes this railway line for bringing together two historic railways and several isolated mountain villages, once separated by the massive Alps. In order to achieve this, engineers built dozens of tunnels and viaducts on precarious mountain passes, and as such, for many passengers the journey isn’t actually about the scenery. Two structures in particular get the engineering fans out of their seats — the 213-foot high Landwasser Viaduct and the circular Brusio loop viaduct.
The Bernina Express terminates in Tirano, but if you’re eager to return to Swiss soil there are official Bernina busses that skirt Lake Como and deliver you back to another Swiss lakeside haven in Lugano.
Glacier Express, Switzerland
The Glacier Express is perhaps the most iconic scenic train ride in Switzerland, if not the world. Over the course of eight hours it carves a line through the Alps between two of the country’s most exclusive destinations — the car-free ski resort town of Zermatt, famous for its jagged Matterhorn, and the exquisite ritzy lakeside village of St. Moritz.
In spite of its name, the journey is anything but rapid. Instead, the Glacier Express chugs along at a sedate pace that allows you to take it all in. That many hours on a train might sound like too much, but considering the remarkable scenery you’ll glimpse via over-sized windows along the way, you’ll hardly be complaining.
In winter the train ride lives up to its name and delivers views of a frozen Swiss wonderland dotted with cross-country skiers, frozen rivers and thick white snow several feet deep. In summer the snow thaws to reveal lush green fields, waving hikers and rapidly flowing rivers, with the highest peaks still sporting a dusting of white.
The Glacier Express trains are the epitome of modern; they feature at-seat service, real plates and silverware in first class, careful climate control and the requisite panoramic windows that allow you to crane your neck up to see the very top of the Alps. All of this comes at a price, particularly if you’re shelling out for first class, but for many this journey occupies a spot atop ultimate travel bucket lists.
Gotthard Panorama Express, Switzerland
There are several efficient ways to travel between Zurich and Lugano, and the recently rebranded Gotthard Panorama Express isn’t one of them. That’s because this train, previously called the Wilhelm Tell Express, does everything in its power to showcase the best of Swiss scenery between these two cities, even if that comes at the expense of speed.
Not only does the route take you over 205 bridges, through seven loop tunnels and deep into the Alps via the 15-kilometer long Gotthard Tunnel — at the time of construction, the longest in the world — but it also gives you the opportunity to depart the train and complete part of your journey via historic steamboat.
The scenery changes constantly, and if you travel from north to south you’ll go from beautiful alpine surroundings to almost balmy lakeside cities boasting palm trees and stone houses in the south of the country.
Though there are easy rail connections throughout the year that deliver elements of these attractions, this seasonal line’s unique combination of boat, Gotthard Tunnel and scenery make it a must-book.
Montenegro Express, Montenegro and Serbia
Unlike the famous, carefully branded train journeys of Western and Central Europe, the line that connects Montenegro’s Bar and Serbia’s Belgrade doesn’t have a carefully considered name, a flashy website or a slew of catchy hashtags following it around. In the absence of these, or any real official online presence for that matter, most travelers have dubbed it either the Montenegro Express or the Balkan Express.
These trains also lack climate control, dining carts, first-class compartments and any real commitment to a schedule. But what Montenegro Express lacks in branding it more than makes up for in charm.
The line dates back to the days of Josip Tito, the first president of Yugoslavia. He opened it in 1976 to run his Blue Train, which ferried him and several famous guests across the Balkans in style. Though the luxurious train now languishes in a shed outside the Serbian capital, a ramshackle collection of carriages continue on the path it set, winding through hundreds of tunnels and across thrilling bridges — including Mala Rijeka Viaduct, the highest in Europe.
In spite of the lack of creature comforts, this no-frills all-day adventure costs just a handful of coins, and far surpasses anything you’ll find in a slick panoramic carriage out west. That’s because you’ll struggle to find any rail journey on the continent that offers a tale like that of Josip Tito’s, combined with engineering marvels in the form of 254 tunnels and 435 bridges that you whip through and over as you ascend and descend at times frankly terrifying aerial mountain terrain.