Train travel in the Old World maintains a certain mystique for many travelers – and it’s little wonder: With scads of culture, 47 countries packed into a region slightly larger than the U.S., and exhaustive tracks that go everywhere from the plains of Spain to the eastern fringes of Russia, Europe is tailor-made for riding the rails. Few vacations inspire as much romance and possibility as chugging across the continent, collecting new passport stamps, and taking in a diversity of landscapes – from snow-capped Alps to rich vineyards to turquoise coastline – all from the comforts of Europe’s storied locomotives.
London to Disneyland Paris on Eurostar Disney
Journeying from London to Paris on the Eurostar fuels childlike curiosity in its own right – after all, the tracks are mind-bogglingly submerged in an English Channel tunnel – but combining that iconic international route with a visit to Paris Disneyland (www.disneylandparis.com) amps up the wonderment quotient even more. The direct Eurostar Disney line zips from London’s city center to the Disneyland Paris gates in a little more than 2.5 hours (adult rail tickets start at about $109 round-trip, and fares for children 11 or younger cost approximately $70 round-trip; park entrance fees are separate), but the party starts before the train whistle even blows at St. Pancras Station, where a live jazz band sends off travelers. En route, the littlest riders can occupy themselves with complimentary Disney-themed activity packs before disembarking at Marne la Vallée (the station's within walking distance to the park gates) and running into the arms of the Disney characters who welcome guests to the park each morning. At less than three hours each way, this top train trip in Europe is a manageable day trip from London (trains depart from St. Pancras at 9am and leave Disney at 7:30pm, except for Tuesdays and Saturdays when UK schools are in session), but we suggest coupling the excursion with a short stay in Paris, as the city’s iconic architecture, world-class museums, and culinary delights are only about 40 minutes away from the park via RER, Paris’s regional train system – you then have the option to catch the standard Eurostar route back to London from Paris. www.raileurope.com
Switzerland on the William Tell Express
Take in a bevy of Swiss natural wonders aboard the William Tell Express, a nearly 5-hour boat-train combo trip that links three of the compact nation’s most storied regions: Lake Lucerne, the Bernese Oberland (famed for its winter sports), and Ticino (the country’s Italian-speaking region). The voyage begins with a 3-hour cruise of Lake Lucerne, a scenic sliver of central Switzerland that showcases the region’s pastoral mountains and the lake’s bright blue waters. Upgrade to the first-class fare (from $164, standard fares from $75; available May through mid-October) to dig into a leisurely gourmet lunch on the boat ride before settling down in panoramic train cars. As the carriages chug south toward the Italian border, marvel at the postcard-perfect views of the Reuss Valley and the soaring, snowcapped peaks of the imposing Gotthard Range. The top train trip in Europe’s last leg zips through the historic St. Gotthard Tunnel – a 9-mile passageway that was the world’s longest train tunnel upon its inauguration in 1882 – before disembarking in the Italian-flavored Bellinzona, where you can opt to switch trains and journey on to Lugano or Locarno, close to Switzerland’s border with Italy. www.raileurope.com
Paris to Moscow (via Berlin) Overnight Train
Transition without a hitch from the comfortable familiarity of France to the Eurasian flare of Russia aboard the new Paris to Moscow overnight train. The route, which debuted in late 2009, completes the crossing in two nights and two days, and although lengthy, the option plies adventure from what would otherwise be a rather generic voyage by plane. You’ll embark at Paris’s Gare de l’Est in the evening and roll through Germany to arrive in Berlin the next morning. The day is free for stretching out and exploring the city that once infamously split the East and West, but be back on board by 3:15pm to finish the lengthiest leg of this top train trip in Europe, which clips eastward to arrive in Moscow at 8:30am the next morning. Significantly, the train is well-appointed for the lengthy journey, as two restaurant cars serve meals and drinks, and first-class cabins (available year-round in both single from $778/person and doubles from $709/person) and second-class compartments (triples only; from $475/person) come stocked with towels, fresh linens, and convertible beds. www.raileurope.com
See our Paris Travel Guide and Moscow Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Paris and Moscow.
Russia on The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express
After 7 years (and $25 million invested), Siberia welcomed Russia’s first elite train trip in May 2007. Although not an exclusively European itinerary (the line crosses the Asian border at Ekaterinburg four days into the voyage), the Trans-Siberian Express earns a spot on our list of top train trips in Europe for its daring foray into some of Russia’s most remote and otherworldly landscapes. Holding the title as the world’s longest single-service train (at 5,753 miles), it glides from Moscow, through the surprisingly beautiful Siberian tundra, and skims the border of China to arrive at Eurasia’s Pacific coast in Vladivostok, in 15 days. In that time, passengers soak up the benefits of their hefty fare (starting price: $8,995 per person in 2011; departures available May through September) which entitles them to private carriages, technologically tricked out with plasma-screen TVs and DVD/CD players; en suite bathrooms with showers and under-floor heating; and dining delicacies like Borscht, caviar, and omul (a fish unique to Lake Baikal). At these rates, you would expect meals to be bundled in and they are, as are alcoholic beverages (including, naturally, vodka), all gratuities, English-speaking guides, and a 24-hour on-call doctor. www.mircorp.com
Venice to Paris on Orient-Express
The Orient-Express – which most famously wound from London to Istanbul – reached legendary status as much for its colorful cast of passengers as for the opulent form of train travel that Belgian creator George Nagelmackers ushered in when he christened the first locomotive in 1883. The original line operated in some form until 1977, but its heyday was in the ’20s and ’30s, when the golden age of train travel in Europe drew kings, spies, and courtesans aboard for indulgent dinners, fine wines, and effortless border crossings. Today, passengers can revel in that history on the modern iteration of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (launched by James B. Sherwood in 1982), set aboard a series of vintage carriages that restores the route to its original lavishness. The signature Venice to Paris voyage, starting at $2,600, requires one full day and night (with arrival in Paris the following morning; operates November through March), but passengers are rewarded with onboard luxuries like afternoon tea served directly in the cabin; a black tie-optional, four-course dinner prepared by French chefs in one of three restaurant cars; and ever-changing vistas of the Italian Dolomites and Swiss Alps. www.orient-express.com
See our Venice Travel Guide and Paris Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find flight, hotel, cruise, and more travel deals to Venice and Paris.
Great Britain on the Royal Scotsman
Sumptuous accommodations and lavish living await passengers aboard the Royal Scotsman, a nine-car luxury train that epitomizes glamorous, old-world-style rail travel. Choose from seven itineraries (in 2011, two-day trips start at $3,720, and seven-day journeys ring in at $13,180; various departures available May through September) that crisscross Scotland, Wales, and England, and prepare for a decidedly intimate experience. The train’s 20 cabins — equipped with private bathrooms, full-length wardrobes, and feather duvets — sleep only 36 passengers, all of whom have access to the train’s on-call cabin attendants and standout observation room, complete with plush armchairs and an outdoor verandah. Formal dinners are not to be missed, as travelers outfit themselves in cocktail dresses, tuxedos, and tartans before indulging in locally sourced meals prepared by head chef Mark Tamburrini, who cut his teeth cooking in London’s Michelin-starred L’Escargot. The Edwardian décor (think rich marquetry, deep-mahogany paneling, and boldly patterned linens) and gold-star service is perhaps only outdone by the passing countryside, as this top train trip in Europe rolls over stone bridges, past crumbling castles, and through pink heather glens into the heart of the Highlands. www.royalscotsman.com
Overnight to/from Spain on Elipsos Train-Hotel
Substituting a hotel stay with overnight travel saves valuable time and funds on tight vacation schedules, but the sacrifice is often a rocky night’s sleep in cramped spaces and little energy to explore the next day’s destination. Spain’s Elipsos Train-Hotel lines, however, succeed in making an overnight trip on the tracks appealing, practical, and downright relaxing. The sleek trains’ premier compartments claim many of the accoutrements of modern hotels (en suite showers, free morning newspapers, complimentary breakfast), and all-level tickets offer cozy sleeping quarters, complimentary magazines, and access to the onboard restaurant and bar. Although the tracks cross four international borders (France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland), we’re partial to the simplicity of the nonstop, 14.5-hour Barcelona to Milan voyage (first-class, one-way rates from $125), which departs year-round from Barcelona’s Estacio de Franca in the evening and pulls into Milan’s Centrale station just in time for the morning’s first cappuccino. www.raileurope.com
Norway on the The Bergen Line
Train trips in Europe are rife with tracks that tackle rugged terrain, traverse imposing mountain passes, and complete staggering feats of engineering in general, but the Bergen Line of Norway is quite simply one of the most impressive – and a prime example of a trip that can take you places that you might never experience otherwise. As one of Europe’s highest railways, it passes through scenic fjord inlets, and past snowcapped mountains and glaciers, on a 300-plus mile journey (much of which is above the timber line) between the culturally rich city of Bergen in western Norway and its capital at Oslo. The classic 7-hour voyage (standard rates start at $153; available year-round), which celebrated its centenary in 2009, also includes stops at charming mountain towns and ski resorts, and exhibits many technological accomplishments en route, including passage through a spiral mountain tunnel. The smooth traction and steady velocity of the train does little to give away its constant battle against extreme temps, icy winds, and harsh snowfalls – against which a combination of skilled workers and high-tech equipment is constantly employed to outmaneuver. www.raileurope.com
Provence and the French Riviera on TER Méditerranée
Although the French are known for their high-speed, high-tech TGV train trips, you’ll find some of their most notable routes (and the most authentic French experiences) along their slower, regional tracks. A well-kept secret is their Mediterranean line, TER Méditerranée, which, while not particularly stunning onboard, more than makes up for it with its spectacular location, which straddles the French Riviera coastline as it rolls for 3 hours and 40 minutes from the port city of Marseille (accessible from Paris in just 3 hours by TGV train) to Ventimiglia, Italy, stopping at the Riviera capital of Nice, the resort towns of Antibes and St. Raphael, film-famous Cannes, and high-rolling Monte Carlo along the way. In the summer, bundled packages cruising through the Marseille calanques and exploring the Posidonie grasslands (home to several thousand protected species) are available directly through TER, but the allure of this top train trip in Europe is making leisurely stops along the way, disembarking at quaint villages and stunning beaches at whim. www.raileurope.com
Swiss Alps on the Chocolate Train
Sate both sweet and savory cravings aboard the Chocolate Train, a daylong trip (available June through October) that glides through the Swiss Alps with visits to the hometowns of two of the country’s richest culinary creations. The train departs from (and returns to) Montreux, Switzerland, and rolls northeast to Gruyeres, an idyllic medieval hill-town where cheese-mongers still milk Fribourg cows to churn out blocks of the eponymous cheese. A tour of Gruyeres Castle breaks up the voyage before taking off to nearby Broc, home to the world-famous Cailler-Nestle factory. The new, $7-million visitor center, which opened in April 2010 and traces the history of Swiss chocolate from the Aztecs to the present, is educational, but rest assured that there is plenty of chocolate available for consumption, as well – 65 tons of chocolate are produced on-site each day. While traveling aboard this top train trip in Europe, savor the treats inside a Belle Epoque Pullman car, or feast your eyes on the surrounding countryside from a panoramic carriage, which promises unobstructed views of Lake Gruyeres, orderly vineyards, and craggy Alps. www.raileurope.com