Forget about driving through Europe. If you want to make the most out of its stunning scenery, rail travel is the way to do it. It's relaxing, reliable, and much, much easier than trying to navigate your way around the continent under your own steam. Whether you're an intrepid explorer with a Eurail pass and a sense of adventure, a trainspotter craving the romance of the steam age, or a vacationer looking to pack as much scenery into your trip as possible, these are the 20 best scenic train rides in Europe not to be missed.
20. The Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland
As Trip 101 notes, if you're a Harry Potter addict, the Jacobite Steam Train in Scotland is the ride for you. After boarding the train at Fort William, you'll chug your way past many of the same stunning locations that featured in the Harry Potters movies - keep your eyes peeled for the Glenfinnan Viaduct curve (i.e. the route from our world to Hogwarts) in particular. Don't miss soaking up the beautiful views over Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, too. There are no spells, but there is a whole heap of magic.
19. The Inlandsbanan, Sweden
Scandinavia has some of the most impressive scenery in Europe, and few train routes dish up quite such a generous portion of it as The Inlandsbanan. The ride between Kristinehamn and Gällivare takes 14 hours in total, but the time flies by as you soak up the specular views over the Arctic Circle, the snowy peaks, the rugged terrain of Lapland, and the majestic Mount Dundret. Asides from scenery, you'll also be treated to numerous wildlife spotting opportunities - keep your eyes glued to the window for reindeer, elk, and moose. If you're traveling in June or July, there's also a good chance you'll see the midnight sun. The train runs on a restricted schedule, so you'll need to plan your trip between June and August or December and April.
18. Montenegro Express, Montenegro and Serbia
The route from Belgrade to Bar is unquestionably one of Europe's most stunning rail journeys. The dramatic natural scenery is wonderful enough, but the engineering feats you'll pass along the way (including 435 bridges and 254 tunnels) are no less memorable. Trains run daily along the route, but it's worth breaking up the journey with an overnight stay in the beautiful Montenegro city of Podgorica.
17. Linha do Douro, Portugal
Northern Portugal is blessed with some of Europe's most scenic scenery, and the Linha do Douro rail journey is one of the best ways to pack in as much of it as possible. The 126-mile railway route is a feat of engineering - built in 1887, its planners incorporated the valley's natural geography into the railway to create an architectural marvel, boasting 30 bridges and 27 tunnels. The Linha do Douro is widely considered one of the most beautiful stations in the world and is worth a visit even if you don't plan on taking the train out of there. It'd be a shame not to, though - with pristine terraced vineyards, dramatic valleys, and rugged plans to admire, it's a truly breathtaking journey.
16. Wolsztyn to Leszno, Poland
While steam trains have been retired in most other European countries, they've been an enduring tradition in Poland for over 110 years. But it's a tradition that could soon be coming to an end, as funding cuts threaten to bring the age of steam to an end. If you want to travel the gorgeous route from Wolsztyn to Leszno the traditional way, the advice is to do it soon before the regular daily services get cut.
15. Le Train Jaune, France
The little yellow train has been chugging its way through the French Pyrenees from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol for over 100 years, delighting its passengers with mile after mile off dreamy scenery. It's not long, and unless you decide to take some breaks along the way, the entire journey can be wrapped up in a little under three hours. But while brief it may be, it still manages to pass through some extraordinary sights, including France’s highest railway station, Bolquère-Eyne, which sits 1592 meters above sea level, and the Pont Gisclard suspension bridge. There's also plenty of small, charming towns, mountain resorts, forests, rugged peaks, and bottomless valleys to admire, not to mention two ancient fortresses and a hermitage.
14. Rhine Valley Line, Germany
As Eurorail Blog notes, Germany has no shortage of scenic rail routes, but few are quite so iconic as the one that runs between Cologne via Bonn, and Koblenz to Mainzalong along the Rhine Valley. Among the many highlights you can look forward to include the castles of Marksburg, Stahleck, Katz, and Maus and the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein in Koblenz. Trains run regularly along the line, so it's worth breaking up the journey with a few stops at the riverside stations and towns you pass through, if for no other reason than to enjoy a glass of refreshing Rhine Riesling wine.
13. Bernina Express, Switzerland and Italy
From start to finish, the Bernina Express is a sensory feast. Running from the gorgeous town of Chur in southern Switzerland to the equally charming town of Tirano in Italy, this cross-border narrow-gauge train passes through scenery of almost otherworldly beauty. Whether they're covered in snow in winter or carpeted in green in spring and summer, the Alps are stunningly beautiful. What really makes this journey extraordinary is the rollercoaster ride you'll experience as the train spirals 360 degrees up a 7% incline to reach an altitude of over 7000 feet before descending down to 5000 feet as the journey shudders to a stop in Tirana.
12. Kalavryta Railway, Greece
Stretching 22km in length, the Kalavryta Railway in Greece is one of the last two remaining narrow gauge lines in the country. The other line climbs up to the historic site of Olympia - scenic though that route is, it can't quite match the staggering beauty of the Kalavryta line. Built in 1895, the line starts at the Gulf of Corinth at Diakofto before winding through scenery of such wild beauty, it's almost impossible to soak it all in. Break up the ride with a quick tour of the 4th-century monastery of Mega Spilaio before completing the journey to the mountain town of Kalavryta.
11. Rauma Line, Norway
Recommended by Lonely Planet as one of Europe's top scenic train journeys, the Rauma Line in Norway might not be quite as famous as the country's other stunningly beautiful train journey, the Bergen Line, but it's no less rewarding to those who travel along it. Starting at Dombas, the train chugs past deep gorges, towering snow capped mountains, dramatic fjords, and alpine meadows. Highlights of the journey include the soaring Kylling Bridge and rugged Reinheimen National Park - if you want to break up your journey with a hike or even an overnight camping experience, this is a great place to do it.
10. Mittenwald Railway, Austria and Germany
If sparkling lakes and dramatic mountain ranges tick your boxes, don't miss the Mittenwald Railway, a stunning cross-border journey that takes you from Austria's heartland to Germany's. To experience Germany's highest mountain, switch to the Bavarian Zugspitze Railway at Garmisch-Partenkirchen to wind your way up toward the summit of Zugspirze. The route takes around three hours in total and runs all year round.
9. Bergen Line, Norway
Recommended by GoGo Places as one of the most scenic train rides in Europe, the 9-hour journey between Oslo and Bergen is nothing short of sensational. As you'd expect of the highest major rail line in Europe, the views are majestic. As you pass by rugged, snow-capped peaks in Finse (the highest station in Norway), you'll start to get a sense of just how high you're climbing - when you drop over 2500 feet down to the fjord below, you'll be left in no doubt.
8. The Chocolate Train, Switzerland
Like chocolate? Then you're going to love the Chocolate Train, a vintage train that's as much of a feast for your belly as for your eyes. The route starts at Montreux and climbs up to the medieval cheese-making town of Gruyères. Break up your journey here with a tour of the castle and a few samples at the cheese factory. Hop back on the train to carry on the rest of the journey to Broc, where you can binge on sweet treats at the Maison Cailler chocolatier while enjoying the panoramic views over the Alps.
7. Centovalli Railway, Switzerland and Italy
The route from Locarno to Domodossola via the Centovalli Railway (or the "Hundred Valley" Railway, as it's very aptly nicknamed) is nothing short of spectacular. On a journey lasting 2 hours, you'll pass by waterfalls and vineyards, chestnut groves, and alpine pastures. Watch out for the Isono Bride near Intragna in particular. To appreciate the lush landscape at its very best, the journey is best reserved for the summer.
6. Trenino Verde della Sardegna, Italy
As Rough Guides says, Sardinia’s Little Green Train comes out for the summer only, but it's worth waiting for. There are four lines to choose between, each of which takes you through wild, rugged landscapes at a pleasantly relaxed pace. If you can only take one, the route from Mandas in the south to Arbatax in the east is perhaps the most enchanting. Keep your eyes peeled for the prehistoric dolmens (or giant's graves, as they're often referred to) scattered along the way.
5. Glacier Express, Switzerland
Switzerland isn't short on scenic train rides, with the Glacier Express ranking as one of its very best. The express chugs through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the country, all of which is showcased to perfection via the train's panoramic windows. It takes 7 hours in total to get from St. Moritz to Zermatt, but the breathtaking beauty of the Swiss Alps doesn't lose its wonder for a second.
4. El Transcantábrico, Spain
Named as one of the most scenic rides in Europe by The Guardian, the El Transcantábrico railway line in Spain offers travels one of two options. Those looking for an Orient Express type experience can travel the route on Spain's oldest tourist train, which is essentially a five-star hotel on rails. Those who'd happily do away with luxury if it means packing more in would do better sticking to local stopping trains. Beginning at the border town of Irun, the journey takes you along the Bay of Biscay via the cities of San Sebastián, Bilbao, and Santander. Other places of interest to break up the journey include the pre-Romanesque churches of Asturias and the dramatic mountain ranges of Picos de Europa
3. Semmering Railway, Austria
Semmering was the very first railway route to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as you'd expect, it's absolutely breathtaking. One of the first great alpine gauge railways, it's also one of the highest railways in the world, promising travelers a memorable, if hair raising, adventure. The elevated trail is brief but beautiful, taking you across dreamy scenery, stone bridges, cavernous tunnels, and soaring viaducts. The line, which is divided into four sections, starts at the elevated Gloggnitz station and ends at the equally lofty Murzzuschlag station, The main section, which runs from Wiener Neustadt to Bruck an der Mur, is served by several daily trains.
2. Cinque Terre Train, Italy
Italy is crammed with scenic trail routes, but few manage to surpass the route from Levanto and La Spezia. The two-hour journey passes through several picturesque fishing villages - Riomaggiore, Manarola, Monterosso, and Levanto- dotted at different heights on the mountains overlooking the Meditteranean Sea. The entire area is part of the Cinque Terre National Park, a popular tourist destination that was elevated to international fame when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
1. The Golden Pass, Switzerland
The Golden Pass is unquestionably one of the most scenic and dramatic rail journeys in the world. Regular trains run along the line throughout the day, but to get the most out of the experience, it's worth reserving a space on the less frequent Golden Pass Classic or Golden Pass Panoramic trains, both of which promise majestic views from their panoramic windows. After starting the journey in the German-speaking town of Lucerne, you'll pass through mile upon mile of alpine pastures, sparkling blue lakes, mountain resorts, pristine vineyards, and charming towns until you end your journey at French-speaking Montreux.
Written by Liz Flynn
Read more posts by Liz Flynn