What if there was a way to experience rugged Alpine landscapes without hiking a metre? Or a way to enjoy the arid Indian countryside without breaking a sweat?
Whether it’s a quick hop from city to city, or a longer adventure through remote wilderness, hitting the railway can be a rewarding and comfortable way to explore overseas. These seven train journeys are some of the most scenic routes the world has to offer. All aboard!
1. Bernina Express, Switzerland
Best for: Snow-capped mountains and Alpine air
Total duration: Four hours
Crossing over 195 bridges, through 55 tunnels and reaching 2,253 metres above sea level, the Bernina Express is regarded as one of the best ways to experience the Alps. Passengers marvel at Switzerland’s shimmering glaciers from panoramic railway cars, before winding their way down through the picturesque palms of Italy.
The Bernina Express begins its epic journey in the oldest city in Switzerland, Chur. With its charming streets, museums and stunning mountain backdrop, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to leave. But once you’re on the train, you’ll pass over towering viaducts, alongside crystalline glacial lakes and end in the quaint Italian city of Tirano.
Insider tip: If you’re hoping for sweeping mountain views from the comfort of your carriage, consider buying a second or first class ticket; these will ensure you’re in a cabin with modern panoramic windows. Check at the point of purchase if you’re unsure what your ticket entitles.
2. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, India
Best for: A breathtaking journey through the Indian countryside
Total duration: Seven hours
Affectionately called the ‘Toy Train’, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) stretches from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling in West Bengal. It’s one of the most historic railways in India, and was built in the 1880s.
Like the Bernina Express, the DHR winds its way through mountain landscapes, climbing almost 2,200 metres above sea level. You’ll cross rolling hills, tea plantations, towering bridges and plenty of sweeping bends. There are several ways to ride the DHR, including shorter joy rides with first class carriages, and safari trains that fringe wildlife sanctuaries. However, the entire route runs more slowly and takes around 7 hours.
Insider tip: Shorter journeys between Darjeeling and Ghoom are the most popular routes among tourists, with historic steam trains and stunning views. Ensure you visit outside of the July to September monsoon season for the best chance at a smooth trip.
3. Durango-Silverton Railroad, Colorado
Best for: A picturesque view of remote Colorado wilderness
Total duration: Four hours
The Durango-Silverton Railroad snakes for over 70km through the Colorado wilderness, and offers some of the best views of the San Juan National Forest. A former miner’s line, the railroad bends through canyons, lush forests and waterfalls, with a historic steam train adding to the old-world feel of the journey.
For an immersive natural experience, check out the Knight Sky cabin, which features glass ceiling and open sides. If you’re interested in learning about the dramatic wilderness you pass through, consider a narrated cabin with professional local guides.
Insider tip: The Durango-Silverton Railroad even offers an iPhone app, which you can download to follow your progress along the journey and learn about significant sites as you pass them.
4. La Rhune, France
Best for: An unforgettable mountain climb with views to match
Total duration: 35 minutes
The Train De La Rhune isn’t your typical scenic railway. Just a 35-minute haul up the mountainside, the historic cog railway deposits you at the summit of La Rhune mountain, over 900 metres above sea level. From there, 360-degree views will leave you breathless as you gaze down upon the Atlantic Ocean and French Pyrenees.
For a unique and exclusive La Rhune experience, the Sunset Evenings trip includes buffet dinner, drinks and entertainment. These sunset trips are exclusively by reservation, and only run on Thursday evenings in September, so plan your journey carefully.
Insider tip: You’ll find no shortage of other things to do in the region, with the beachside bliss of Biarritz and Basque villages like Sare and Ainhoa nearby.
5. Ella to Kandy, Sri Lanka
Best for: A hands-on view of the Sri Lankan jungle
Total duration: Seven hours
A brightly-coloured train perched on a dramatic bridge as it bends its way through dense jungle - the Sri Lankan railway has become an iconic attraction for tourists. Experience the sprawling tea plantations, small villages and charming train stations, and it’s easy to see why.
At one end of the journey, Ella is a small relaxed town in the Hill Country, cloaked in green and dotted with waterfalls, scenic hikes and boasting the famous Nine Arch Bridge. At the other end, Kandy is a larger city with countless restaurants and religious sites, including the Temple of the Tooth - one of the most significant sites in Sri Lanka.
Insider tip: When planning your trip to Sri Lanka, remember to consider the two distinct monsoon seasons in the country, and essential items like insect repellent and protection from the tropical sun.
6. Venice Simplon-Orient-Express: London to Venice
Best for: A luxury alternative to domestic air travel
Total duration: eight hours
Far from the rough-and-ready railroads of Sri Lanka, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is all about luxury and excess. The art deco-designed train boasts elegant cabins with plush interiors, and fine dining that showcases the best in local produce.
The midnight blue London-to-Venice Orient Express began in 1982, and has since become an icon of European travel. However, there are now a number of routes serviced by the Express, including Venice to Paris and Verona to London.
Insider tip: You don’t need to splash out on the luxurious Orient Express to explore Europe by rail. In fact, domestic train travel is becoming more popular among travellers as an alternative to flying; and it can be better for the environment, too!
7. Blue Train, South Africa
Best for: An all-inclusive excursion through dramatic South African landscapes
Total duration: 31 hours
Stretching from Pretoria to Cape Town, the 1.6 thousand kilometres traversed by the Blue Train are pure South African majesty. You’ll pass through arid deserts, through the wild grasslands of the savannah and alongside towering mountain ranges, all while enjoying indulgent onboard amenities.
If you prefer to experience the African wilderness with fine dining, luxury lounges and private suites over traditional bare-bones safaris, the so-called “Palace on Wheels” was built for you. Lasting over 30 hours, Pretoria to Cape Town trip will give you plenty of time to marvel at the best scenery the continent has to offer.
Insider tip: Cape Town itself is a smorgasbord of incredible natural attractions, including the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain and Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden.
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