Last updated 26 Feb 2020

With the vast expansion of budget air routes in recent decades, it can be all too easy to forget that Europe’s exemplary rail network stretches out, awaiting discovery.

By foregoing soulless airports and stuffy planes and you’ll not only get to relax, see and experience far more of the destinations, culture and people you’ll encounter along the way, but you can often do so in greater comfort than you might expect – all while being mindful of minimising your carbon footprint as you go.

Here’s our pick of five European rail journeys to really savour.

Red train travelling down from Jungfrauloch

Train leaving Jungfraujoch, Switzerland

West Highland Line, Scotland

Glasgow - Mallaig/Oban (five hours)

It’s all too easy to overlook what’s on your doorstep, but this five-hour journey is often voted Europe's most scenic rail route – and you’ll soon see why.

Starting out from Glasgow’s Queen Street Station, the city’s industrial hinterland gives way swiftly enough to reveal Helensburgh’s mudflats, before skirting the shores of Loch Lomond. The landscape opens up at Crianlarich, where hardy hikers walking the West Highland Way board, often shrouded in a cloud of midges, a rather more reliable fixture of the great Scottish outdoors than, say, the sunshine.

Glenfinnan viaduct

Steam train passing over Glenfinnan Viaduct, Scotland

Fort William likely won’t win many prizes for beauty, but its status as ‘adventure capital of Britain’ is hard to contest. Alight here if you’re hankering after a spot of abseiling or rafting around Ben Nevis.

The train trundles its way gently through that atmospheric desolate, boggy Highland landscape of moor and bracken near Rannoch Moor, and by Corrour, Britain’s most remote station, you may even spy the odd deer if you’re especially lucky.

The journey’s big draw though is the moment when the train approaches and passes over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, the awe-inspiring curved 380m structure which famously featured in the Harry Potter film franchise. Be prepared to jostle to bag a prime spot in the vestibule to snap that all-important Viaduct approach picture.

The terminus for this route is Mallaig, a pleasant seaside town with an attractive harbour and all the usual chippies, cute gift shops and cosy pubs.

It’s worth noting that this is no luxury train, but a bog-standard Scotrail service which while comfortable enough frankly could do with a few more carriages, especially given the popularity of the route. There’s no buffet car, but you can expect a simple trolley service offering simple sandwiches and other light bites and drinks. Sit on the left for the best views.

In the summer months on select dates from April to October, there’s an extra special way to enjoy the final stretch too. From Fort William, you can board the Jacobite Steam Train service, for that super-authentic Harry Potter experience. The steam train ride is a separate journey, which you’ll need to book in advance on West Coast Railways’ site.

Rannoch Moor Scotland

Rannoch Moor, Scotland

For a shorter journey, you can branch off at Crianlarich and head for Oban, via Loch Awe taking in the mighty Ben Lui. Oban’s a charming, small seaside town with a picturesque row of buildings on a horseshoe bay with a whisky distillery and a ruined castle. From there, you can take a ferry to spend a few days on the stunning small islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

If you’re on a tighter schedule or budget, it’s perfectly possible to return to Glasgow the same day. The last train leaves Mallaig at 6.15pm (arriving into Glasgow at 12.15am) or Oban at 8.37pm, arriving at 11.33pm. With multiple daily departures, starting from around 5.20am, you’ll get plenty of time to explore either destination.

From the Med to Moscow in luxury

Nice-Moscow (50 hours)

When it comes to long distance train journeys through Europe, they don’t come much more epic than this one. Yes, you can cross the continent in considerable style, going all the way from the glitzy Cote d'Azur resort of Nice to Russia’s capital with one easy – if fairly pricey – rail journey.

This 3,315km journey run by Russian Railways takes 50 hours and passes through some eight countries (France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Belarus, Poland and finally Russia) along the way. As you can imagine, a journey like this does not come cheap: a one-way ticket starts at around £275 per person in Second Class Business, (going up to around £1,000pp for a Deluxe Cabin) but if you’re in no rush, why not consider it as a ‘land cruise’ which slices its way leisurely through great swathes of Europe?

Nice cote dazur

Nice, Cote d'Azur

Since you’ll be spending two nights and three days onboard this train, which pulls into Moscow Station around 11pm, it helps to know that you’ll be doing so in some luxury.

Sleeper cabins come kitted out with mahogany furnishings, private bathrooms and even flat-screen TVs, which is more than you can expect from the likes of the Venice Simplon Orient Express.

Dining cars resplendent with jolly, bright red seating and carpets serve traditional cuisine, with five options to choose from in the inclusive breakfast (lunch and dinner are not included in the ticket price). And who knows just who’ll you get seated with and what stories they’ll carry with them?

Many wealthy Russians take the west-bound service from Moscow, so there is a very real possibility of having what the Great Railway Bazaar author Paul Theroux termed as ‘conversations with strangers framed like Russian short stories’ while the Alps scroll serenely past you.

While there’s less of the hanging around and hassle you’ll encounter making a similar journey by plane, expect to be woken early for the border checks into Poland and Belarus, and do note that visas are required for both Belarus and Russia on this route. And yes, there’s a bar car too, so you can knock back the vodkas with your newly-forged carriage comrades.

The train runs once a week in either direction, departing from Nice on Sunday mornings, and from Moscow on Thursday evenings.

Amazingly, this isn’t even Europe’s longest train ride. That particular plaudit goes not to the Trans-Siberian but to another of Russia’s trains – from Sochi to Vorkuta, a whopping 89-hour, 4,200km cross-country journey into the Arctic Circle.

The length of Italy to Sicily

Milan - Siracusa, via Rome and Naples (16hr17)

Italy ranks highly on many European rail travellers’ wishlists, and this journey whisks you past a brace of the country’s highlights, through a combination of modern high-speed trains and a more leisurely ride from the capital, to the tip of Italy’s ‘boot’ and beyond into Sicily.

Italy’s Frecciarossa trains hit speeds approaching 350km per hour at full pelt, which means that you can go from fashion hub Milan’s extravagant Galleria shopping arcade to the Colosseum in a little over three hours, from around £40 one way.

You’ll cut through the interior past some stunning Lombardy scenery. If whizzing through the likes of Parma, Modena, Bologna and Florence feels like a crime against travel, at least you can do so on board a train with reliable WiFi, elegant café cars and air conditioning.

Gulf of naples

Gulf of Naples with Vesuvius in the background

Arriving in Rome’s Termini Station, after perhaps pausing for a quick espresso and cannoli, you can settle in for an 11-hour ride on a line originally conceived as a faster route in the 1920s. Leaving Rome behind, you’ll glide past the Aurunci Mountains before you hit the coast at Formia, a seaside town on the Appian Way. Soon after that you’ll call in at Naples.

From here the scenery gets more interesting, hugging the coast with views across the Gulf of Naples, flanking Vesuvius and past the port of Salerno. The line then cuts inland through the remote terrain of Cilento National Park before rejoining the Tyrrhenian Sea. Look out for the statue of Christ the Redeemer at Maratea, and enjoy this rugged coastal stretch dotted with tunnels and charming beach towns like Tropea and Rosarno.

Taormina station Sicily

Taormina Station, Sicily

When you reach the tip of mainland Italy at Villa San Giovanni you’ll be treated to the novelty of the entire train being shunted onto a ferry to reach Sicily. There’s no let up from the views on the island, first past Taormina’s ancient ruins and soon dominated by Mount Etna, finally winding up at Siracusa, famed for its Greek antiquities, vibrant fish market and Baroque cathedral.

A Balkan journey to the Adriatic Coast

Ljubljana, Slovenia - Bar, Montenegro, via Belgrade

This train journey follows a route once used by the Orient Express to trundle you through five of the six distinct nations of the former Yugoslavia, via four capital cities, which is all topped off by one of Europe’s most prized scenic rides – to Montenegro’s Bar on the sparkling Adriatic.

Starting out from the smart Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, known for its thriving café culture and spectacular Dragon Bridge, you’ll trace the Sava River Valley, and in a little over two hours, after a brief passport stop at Dobova, you’ll hit the Croatian municipality of Zagreb.

Dragons Bridge Ljubljana

Dragon's Bridge, Ljubljana

By contrast, the city is crammed with splendid Austro-Hungarian architecture and quirky attractions, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships.

From Zagreb, you can hunker down for a leisurely seven-hour ride to Belgrade. Serbia’s capital makes for an entertaining overnight stop, packed as it is with nightspots and party-boats moored on the banks of its two rivers, playing everything from Gypsy folk to underground electronica. Fortify yourself with a hangover-beating cevapi kebab for an early morning start tackling the ruined fortress of Wander Kalemegdan.

It’s also worth stocking up with provisions for a train car picnic here, as the final leg of your Balkan jaunt doesn’t offer a buffet car. What this journey lacks in amenities, it more than compensates for with sublime scenery.

Setting off at 9am from Belgrade’s Topcider Station, this 13-hour journey represents incredible value, with one-way tickets available at the station office from just €21. The 300-mile ride takes in some 254 tunnels and 435 bridges in a remarkable feat of engineering, personally overseen by former Yugoslavian President Tito before the Iron Curtain fell.

Old Bar Town Montenegro

Old Bar town, Montenegro

The train weaves its way pleasantly through remote stretches of rural Serbia, inching its way into Bosnia and Herzegovina before slipping back into Serbia approaching the town of Priboj.

The route’s prime mountain scenery really kicks into gear once you cross the border into Montenegro, especially past Bijelo Polje. Be sure to sit on the right to make the most of these views.

Just outside Podgorica (the Montenegrin city notching up yet another capital for you) the train rolls over the colossal, 500-metre-long Mala Rijeka Viaduct, which towers some 200 metres above the river valley. You’ll pass over a tract of Lake Skadar (the Balkans’ largest lake and a birder’s paradise), before descending down one last tunnel emerging at Sutomore for the final chug down towards Bar on the Adriatic Coast.

Europe's best train trips

Jools Stone

Jools Stone is an award-winning travel and arts writer and editor, published by the Telegraph, New European, Daily Express, Rough Guides and more. Based in Brighton, he’s a keen advocate for rail and slow travel.

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