Europe is a continent crisscrossed and stitched together by iron rails. Running from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Arctic Circle, and from the minarets of the Bosporus to the lighthouses of Biscay, a matrix of railway lines slice effortlessly across borders, traversing mountains and diving under seas.
It goes without saying that traveling around this wondrous web affords pleasures more profound than any airplane trip could. That might mean making connections in 19th-century stations whose designs evoke royal palaces, or enjoying sojourns to the dining car for French wine (or German beer) shared with fellow passengers. Additionally, of course, going by train means you’ll leave a lighter footprint on the environment — despite never leaving terra firma.
Just as Europe is a diverse family of nations, so does it host a diverse family of trains. Leading the charge are a generation of high-speed lines which continue to expand their tentacles — French TGVs, German ICEs, Italian Frecciarossas and Spanish AVEs can reach top speeds of 200mph or more. Factor in Eurostar services from St Pancras International in London, and transcontinental rail travel represents a time-effective way of reaching your destination.
Traveling around this wondrous web affords pleasures more profound than any airplane trip could.
Then again, a railway itself might well be the destination, for the continent contains plenty of carriages that saunter through sublime landscapes at a more graceful tempo, whether little red trains chuntering through the Swiss Alps or narrow-gauge lines skirting sandy coves in northern Spain. On certain services, buying a ticket is equivalent to time-traveling to a bygone age: those venerable steam trains that chuff through German meadows, for example, or the antique electric trains that navigate Majorcan sierras.
The following list runs through the most beautiful railway rides in Europe, most of which can be reached by rail from the UK (we’ve given flight options only for the furthest flung). While a few only trundle forth for less than an hour, others make a full day’s march of it, giving you plenty of time to soak up the scenery on the other side of the glass. After all, that’s the point. As motorists stare at the tarmac ahead and flyers look down at sheets of clouds, train travelers have the finest view of all, watching landscapes unfurl from the intimacy and comfort of, hopefully, a window seat.
1. Mr. Henderson’s Railway, Andalusia, Spain
Spain’s southernmost line, linking Algeciras and Bobadilla, is nicknamed “Mr Henderson’s Railway” after the English pioneer who plotted its route in the 1890s. Tickets offer passage into an Arcadian nook of Andalusia, hidden behind the Costa del Sol. Hop aboard in Algeciras to watch chestnut forests, olive groves and hazy sierras fly by, interspersed by tidy, mustard-hued stations. You can break the 2 hour 30 minute journey with a stop-off midway in Ronda, a spectacular clifftop city immortalized in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, before spending the night 20 minutes away from Bobadilla’s station at the Parador de Antequera.
Details B&B doubles from $114 (parador.es). Algeciras to Bobadilla from $17 (renfe.com). Fly to Malaga
2. Douro Valley line, Portugal
Porto claims perhaps the most glorious station in all of Iberia: the azulejo tile-adorned São Bento, a rhapsody in blue-white ceramics. This is the gateway to the equally magnificent, three-hour Douro Valley line, where trains wheeze uphill into a river gorge and the spiritual homeland of port wine. Sun-dappled vineyards and whitewashed wineries pass by as the line swerves tipsily beside the Douro. Special steam services run each summer, all rickety carriages and wandering accordion players. Torel 1884 has luxurious suites and apartments near São Bento station.
Details Room-only doubles from $154 (torel1884.com). Porto to Pocinho from $16 (cp.pt). Fly to Porto
3. Belgrade to Bar, Serbia and Montenegro
A legacy of the former Yugoslavia, the spectacular Belgrade-Bar railway links three countries on its odyssey from the Danube to the Adriatic. A westbound, 11-hour adventure begins in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. Trains screech toward the wooded foothills of the Dinaric Alps first, before taking a nibble out of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most dramatic scenery happens one passport check later in Montenegro, where you’ll slalom through karst mountains and cross the Mala Rijeka Viaduct, once the world’s highest railway bridge. Belgrade’s Mama Shelter design hotel represents a suitably photogenic starting point for the trip.
Details B&B doubles from $122 (mamashelter.com). Belgrade to Bar from $24 (pay on board). Fly to Belgrade
4. Semmering Railway, Austrian Alps
All swashbuckling Alpine routes owe something to the Semmeringbahn. This 90-minute high line was welded into existence in 1854 and is replicated in model railways the world over. It’s still seducing passengers today. Board a train from Vienna which climbs toward the town of Semmering, watching the landscape unfurl below you. You’ll eventually reach the scenic high point of the Krausel-Klause Viaduct before a descent to the town of Mürzzuschlag. Enjoy it while you can — within the next decade the route will change to go through a new tunnel under the hills. Relax after your journey in the Krainer Hotel, a typical Alpine lodge just outside Mürzzuschlag.
Details B&B doubles from $170 (hotel-krainer.com). Vienna to Mürzzuschlag from $27 (oebb.at). Take the train to Vienna
5. Bergen Railway, Norway
Connecting Norway’s two biggest metropolises, this line spends nearly seven hours barreling past white-water rivers and serrated summits on its journey from the Oslofjord to Bergen and its Atlantic quays. The high point, scenically and literally, is the section around Finse; an upland station where parts of The Empire Strikes Back were filmed. Here, amid a lunar landscape of snow and barren rock, passengers may just feel they have been transported to a galaxy far, far away. Right beside Bergen’s station, the Grand Hotel Terminus makes a good finishing point.
Details B&B doubles from $162 (grandterminus.no). Oslo to Bergen from $49 (vy.no). Fly to Oslo
6. Bernina Express, Switzerland
The two-hour Bernina is sublime: trains scale the flanks of glaciated Alpine peaks like grizzled mountaineers, burrow through tunnels like moles, spiral downhill like roller coasters and waltz through wildflower meadows like Maria von Trapp. Southbound services begin sedately enough, trundling through a river valley outside St Moritz, before the gradients become fiercer and the scenery wilder. Only after Lago Bianco, an azure lake, do trains grudgingly obey the rules of gravity and descend to the Italian border. That’s at Tirano, where you can stay at the Curt di Clement eco-hotel inside a 16th-century building.
Details B&B doubles from $111 (curtdiclement.com). St Moritz to Tirano from $37 (rhb.ch). Take the train to St Moritz
7. Harz Railway, north Germany
Northern Germany’s Harz Mountains are Valhalla for steam enthusiasts. Their fire-breathing railway has vintage 1950s tank engines huffing and puffing along forested slopes. Among many possible routes, the classic 90-minute option takes you from Wernigerode, a biscuit tin-cute town, up to the 3,747ft summit of the Brocken. This peak was once famed for witch gatherings; later, covens of East German spies built a listening station to monitor those further west. A good base is Ringhotel Weisser Hirsch on Wernigerode’s medieval marketplace.
Details B&B doubles from $140 (hotel-weisser-hirsch.de). Wernigerode to Brocken from $34 (hsb-wr.de). Fly to Hanover
This line spends nearly seven hours barreling past white-water rivers and serrated summits.
8. Le Train Jaune, Pyrenees, France
Decked out in the Catalan colors of canary yellow and red, Le Train Jaune spends more than three hours traveling 40 miles in parallel with the French-Spanish border through the Pyrenees. Open-top carriages let you gaze up at soaring mountains while inhaling crisp mountain air. Highlights include the Pont Gisclard suspension bridge, strung high over the River Tet, and the terminus at Latour-de-Carol — a station whose meeting of three different track gauges gets railway anoraks salivating. Hotel Parada Puigcerdà is a station hotel just over the Spanish border from here.
Details B&B doubles from $85 (hotelparadapuigcerda.com). Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains to Latour-de-Carol from $6 (sncf.com). Take the train to Villefranche-Vernet-les-Bains
9. Brenner Railway, Austrian and Italian Alps
From Hannibal’s elephants to Napoleon’s cavalry, crossing the Alps has long been regarded as an endeavor of mythic proportions. So it is with the Brenner Railway, a thundering main-line route from Mitteleuropa to the Med that takes three and a half hours. Heading south from Innsbruck, the train charges past the Tyrolean ski lifts of Bergeralm and grazing cattle toward the Brenner Pass. Once in Italy, the track runs alongside the Dolomites as conifers gradually cede to cypress or olive groves. Disembark in Verona and head for the narrow-alleyed historic center, where Albergo Mazzanti has simple, elegant rooms.
Details B&B doubles from $116 (albergomazzanti.it). Innsbruck to Verona from $21 (oebb.at). Take the train to Innsbruck
10. Circumetnea, Sicily, Italy
Tectonic rumblings and railways don’t always make for the happiest bedfellows, yet the four-hour Circumetnea line has been happily orbiting Sicily’s leviathan volcano for over a century now. Departing from the city of Catania, passengers swiftly find themselves in lava fields as the mass of Etna smolders to the right. Stop to stretch your legs at the handsome pistachio-farming town of Bronte before reconnecting with the main line at Riposto. Set in a baroque palazzo back in Catania, Asmundo di Gisira is a restful base in which to bed down.
Details B&B doubles from $323 (asmundodigisira.com). Circumetnea Day pass from $2.40 (circumetnea.it). Fly to Catania
11. Black Forest Railway, Germany
The Black Forest is the southwestern Germany of picture books — all cuckoo clocks, Hansel and Gretel woodlands and half-timbered houses. The cherry on its metaphorical chocolate gâteau is its railway, which affords splendid sylvan views and connects Rhineland vineyards and the shores of Lake Constance. Taking 36 minutes, eastbound trains delve into the thick woodlands of the Kinzig Valley before making a dramatic, looping ascent to the hilltop village of Triberg, home to a 534ft-high waterfall. Embark at Gengenbach, in whose old quarter Hotel die Reichsstadt has contemporary rooms.
Details B&B doubles from $207 (die-reichsstadt.de). Gengenbach to Triberg from $9.75 (bahn.de). Take the train to Gengenbach
12. Albula Railway, Switzerland
A sibling of the Bernina, this two-hour mountain route incorporates one of Europe’s most famous railway bridges: the Landwasser Viaduct, where little red trains cross swooping limestone arches before disappearing into a tunnel halfway up a sheer cliff. With soaring Swiss Alps above, the route takes in spellbinding scenery through glacial valleys and runs from Chur to St Moritz. Return-trippers can deposit themselves at Central Hotel Post Chur — a comfy base within walking distance of the station.
Details B&B doubles from $143 (hotelpostchur.ch). Chur to St Moritz from $39 (rhb.ch). Take the train to Chur
13. Inlandsbanan, Sweden
Traversing remote Swedish woodland, the single-track Inland Railway ranks among Europe’s most stridently strange routes. Services have been known to stop so that passengers can pick berries, swim in lakes or dine in track-side restaurants. Barring any of that, it usually takes 14 splendid hours — in summer, the midnight sun ensures perpetual daylight — to plod from lakeside Östersund up to the mining town of Gällivare. Once you enter the Arctic Circle, boreal forest gives way to tundra. The Clarion Hotel Grand has comfortable, contemporary rooms in central Östersund.
Details B&B doubles from $168 (nordicchoicehotels.com). Östersund to Gällivare from $156 (inlandsbanan.se). Fly to Stockholm
14. The Côte d’Azur, France
It may be synonymous with speedboats and sports cars, but lovely trains also travel the Côte d’Azur. Although lines traverse the entire Riviera, the real blockbuster scenery commences eastbound from Cannes, lasting just over an hour. The route flirts with the coast by the beaches of Golfe-Juan and passes under a 16th-century fort outside Antibes. After some tunnels, the stretch beyond Monaco offers a showstopping reprise: the train re-emerging into daylight among the millionaires’ marinas and mansions of Menton, where Hotel Napoleon lords it over the seafront.
Details B&B doubles from $207 (napoleon-menton.com). Cannes to Menton from $11 (sncf.com). Take the train to Cannes
15. Ferrol to AvilÉs, Spain
The FEVE lines are a lovable tangle of narrow-gauge railways straddling Spain’s craggy northern shore from the French border to Galicia. Their hero section takes almost eight hours, skirting the wave-lashed coastline between Ferrol and Avilés. As it bears eastward, eucalyptus forests open out into natural harbors; thereafter, expect views of sandy coves, surfers’ breaks and the blustery Biscay headlands as you enter Asturias. Change trains in the classy city of Oviedo to reach the lively port of Avilés, and stay in the 17th-century Palacio de Avilés.
Details B&B doubles from $113 (palaciodeaviles.com). FEVE roving fares from $91 (renfe.com). Fly to Oviedo
It usually takes 14 splendid hours — in summer, the midnight sun ensures perpetual daylight.
16. Trenino Verde, Italy
When he wasn’t penning smutty novels, DH Lawrence wrote lyrically about the Trenino Verde, or Green Train — a narrow-gauge network that wanders aimlessly about the Sardinian interior — in his book Sea and Sardinia. Perhaps he’d still recognize the vintage timber carriages and railcars that run today. Book on to a service from Gairo, just inland on the east side of the island, to Arbatax on the coast, which takes over three and a half hours. The line dawdles downhill from forested heights to the Tyrrhenian Sea and its bobbing fishing boats. Try Hotel la Bitta, set beside a little bay in Arbatax.
Details B&B doubles from $250 (hotellabitta.it). Gairo to Arbatax from $16 (treninoverde.com). Fly to Cagliari
17. Flamsbana, Norway
This Norwegian line descends an ear-popping 2,821ft on its 55-minute march from mountain-top Myrdal to the mouth of the Aurlandsfjord — among the most hallowed of all Norwegian fjords, northwest of Bergen. Sit on the left for views of waterfalls and hillside farmsteads between the frequent tunnels. The railway is also accompanied by an old navvies’ road — the Rallarvegen — now used largely by cyclists, many of whom freewheel down to sea level before catching a train back up. Another 25 minutes by train from Myrdal, the Hotel Finse 1222 is a convenient base.
Details B&B doubles from $392 (hotelfinse1222.no). Myrdal to Flam from $37 (norwaysbest.com). Fly to Bergen
18. Ligne des Hirondelles, Jura, France
A sparsely inhabited region of foothills and forests hugging the Swiss border, Jura is probably most famous for its Comté cheese. But it’s also home to the bucolic Ligne des Hirondelles — or Swallows Line — a 90-minute glide south from canal-lined Dole into the verdant, undulating Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park. After the Col de la Savine, it clings to lofty escarpments and rattles over viaducts whose breezy heights are reputedly a haunt of those eponymous swallows. Just as grand is the 18th-century Château Mont Joly, occupying parkland outside Dole.
Details B&B doubles from $199 (chateaumontjoly.com). Dole to St Claude from $13 (sncf.com). Take the train to Dole
19. Ligurian Coast, Italy
“Beautiful” isn’t a word that easily fits Genoa or La Spezia — the former a raffish but lovable port; the latter a salty naval town — but the Ligurian coast that lies between them is devastatingly lovely, and a railway clings to its pebbly coves and promenades. From Genoa, the train races westward to the dapper resort of Rapallo, entering cliffside tunnels and snatching views of yachts on the Ligurian Sea. Its big finale is the Cinque Terre: five colorful seaside villages hugging near-vertical slopes. Also pastel-shaded is the salmon pink Grand Hotel Savoia by Genoa’s Piazza Principe station.
Details B&B doubles from $166 (grandhotelsavoiagenova.it). Genoa to La Spezia from $7 (trenitalia.com). Take the train to Genoa
20. West Rhine Railway, Germany
This vital cog in the German railway machine also happens to be one of Europe’s most picturesque rides. It rumbles alongside the Rhine as it flows toward the North Sea. Taking a train heading north from Mainz, look out for the medieval Pfalzgrafenstein Castle perched on an island and the cliffs of Lorelei rising over a river bend. After 80 minutes, disembark in Cologne, its station set beneath a humongous cathedral. The Stern am Rathaus hotel occupies a historic town house close by.
Details B&B doubles from $170 (min 2-night stay; stern-am-rathaus.com). Mainz to Cologne from $21 (bahn.de). Take the train to Mainz
21. Bohinj Railway, Slovenia
Built by the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire in the early 20th century to help connect its capital Vienna with its seaport in Trieste, the Bohinj Railway, which passes through Slovenia, is one of Europe’s most criminally unsung rides. Departing from the Slovenian town of Jesenice, near the Austrian border, southbound trains skirt close to the mighty lakes of Bled and Bohinj before racing the foaming current of the Soca River downstream to the border-spanning town of Nova Gorica — a geopolitical quirk where a Slovenian station opens onto an Italian city square. Look out for the Solkan Bridge — the longest stone railway arch in the world — on the way, and peruse your photos in the rose garden of nearby Vila Burbonka hotel on Nova Gorica’s Slovenian side.
Details Room-only doubles from $83 (vilaburbonka.com). Jesenice to Nova Gorica from $8.50 (potniski.sz.si). Fly to Ljubljana
22. Mariazell Railway, Austria
For centuries, pilgrims walked across Europe to see the image of the Virgin at Mariazell. These days they can just board the Mariazellerbahn, a narrow-gauge affair snaking through Alpine valleys from St Pölten in southeastern Austria. Sit in its panoramic coaches to fully ingest two hours of mountain splendor, particularly the horseshoe curves during a heavenly ascension south of Laubenbachmühle and a series of lakes and ravines before Mariazell. Praise be, too, for the holy city’s cozy-roomed Hotel Magnus Klause.
Details Room-only doubles from $54 (booking.com). St Pölten to Mariazell from $19.50 (oebb.at). Take the train to St Pölten
23. Naples to Palermo, Italy
The nine-hour ride from Naples to Palermo involves an Inspector Montalbano-worthy plot twist. It all starts out ordinarily enough as the train rolls past Vesuvius as Campania segues into Calabria. But it’s at Villa San Giovanni that it gets exciting: the train is loaded onto a ferry and smuggled across the sea to Sicily — passengers can get out on deck to see the tower of Messina’s Norman cathedral across the strait. As the journey continues in Sicily, sit on the right for views of the distant Aeolian Islands en route to Palermo, where L’Olivella is a B&B within an Art Nouveau mansion.
Details B&B doubles from $63 (olivellabb.it). Naples to Palermo from $43 (trenitalia.com). Fly to Naples
24. Train des Pignes, Provence, France
The Pine Cone Train once comprised four narrow-gauge tracks traversing rural Provence. France’s own Monsieur Beeching wielded his guillotine, alas, and now just one remains: a railway winding from Nice to the hot-springs town of Digne-les-Bains. Offering welcome respite from the riviera’s hubbub of the coast, it spends three and a half hours pootling through lavender fields and, yes, pine forests beneath the Alps. Services stop at sleepy stations with shuttered windows. Before departure, stay at the Hotel Villa Victoria in Nice, near the seafront and with a garden.
Details B&B doubles from $128 (villa-victoria.com). Nice to Digne from $25 (dignelesbains-tourisme.com). Take the train to Nice
25. Soller Railway, Majorca
Magaluf foam parties or Love Island vote-offs could hardly feel further away for riders on the vintage Soller Railway, whose 1912-built trains take passengers into one of Majorca’s unspoiled swathes of scenery. From Palma’s pastel-hued station, carriages swoosh toward the Serra de Tramuntana — chiseled limestone mountains along the island’s northern coast. The line ducks and dives among summits before hauling into Soller itself — a pretty mountain town fringed by citrus groves — after an hour. Hotel Soller Plaza has boutique rooms right by the station.
Details B&B doubles from $155 (hotelsollerplaza.com). Palma to Soller from $18 (trendesoller.com). Fly to Palma
Oliver Smith is a U.K-based travel journalist, writing for The Times of London, the Financial Times, and National Geographic, among other publications