Whether sparked by childhood tales of Thomas the Tank Engine chugging along or during college adventures backpacking the tracks through Europe, a love affair with the locomotive has been kindled within many of us from early on. We’re awed by the power of their engines, which promise to pull us on unknown adventures around the bend ahead, past window-framed landscapes and villages that we might never glimpse another way. We’re entranced by their whistles, which ring of nostalgia for the golden era of train travel, long before the days of the plane or automobile, when it was clear that the trains were designed not just to get passengers from here to there, but to allow them to embark on a journey. This list of top train trips around the globe will put you on the fast track to an “I-think-I-can” rail trip that we assure you not only can embark on, but absolutely should.
The Bergen Line, Norway
A good train trip can take you places that you might never experience otherwise, which is definitely the case for the Bergen Line (www.nsb.no) of Norway. Northern Europe's highest railway, it passes through scenic fjord inlets, and past snow-capped 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 7-hour voyage also includes stops at charming mountain towns and ski resorts, and exhibits many feats of engineering 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.
For more trip-planning information, see our Norway Travel Guide.
The Blue Train, South Africa
While no one can deny that the South African countryside is an amazing scene to wake up to, it has a worthy aesthetic rival in The Blue Train’s (www.bluetrain.co.za) onboard opulence. This veritable five-star hotel on wheels touts passenger cabins with such refined features as deep-soaking tubs, fine linens, marble-tiled bathrooms, and digital entertainment centers. The train operates a handful of itineraries from Pretoria – South Africa’s administrative capital – of which our favorite is the one-night excursion to Cape Town, stopping at an old diamond rush mining town along the way. During this 27-hour train trip, riders can experience gourmet dining accompanied by local wines, traditional high tea, personal butler service, and elegant lounges stocked with nightcaps and cigars – not to mention the landscapes of vineyards, waterfalls, and mountains whizzing by.
For more trip-planning information, see our South Africa Travel Guide.
Denali Star Train, Alaska
Navigating a state that’s almost two and half times the size of Texas can be a daunting task: That’s why we recommend uncovering Alaska’s stark beauty and vast terrain – think snow-capped mountains, verdant forests, and sprawling tundra – via the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star Train (www.alaskarailroad.com). Passengers can chug along on a memorable 365-mile route of scenic unspoiled backcountry between Anchorage and Fairbanks, catching glimpses of towering Mt. McKinley (weather permitting) and wildlife, from eagles soaring overhead to moose grazing in the distance, all the while traversing breathtaking river gorges via single-span bridges, making old-fashioned whistle stops, and stopping over at the legendary Denali National Park (www.nps.gov) – to which the train pioneered tourism. Definitely consider upgrading this train trip to the first-class, double-decker GoldStar cars, with their open-air observation decks, upscale dining cars, and priority seating under panoramic glass domes.
Eastern & Oriental Express, Southeast Asia
A trip that traverses Asia can be altogether exotic and exhilarating, but can also be intimidating, especially for first-timers. That’s why we love the peace of mind travelers can enjoy being shuttled about courtesy of the classy Eastern & Oriental Express (www.orient-express.com), which offers several different itineraries to major Southeast Asian cities in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Laos. Our favorite is the three-night train trip between elegant Singapore and the bright lights of Bangkok, with stops along the way in Malaysia, as well as at natural attractions like the River Kwai. Onboard, deep wood-paneled passenger cars, an ornate bar car, and a panoramic observation room provide maximum comfort to view the passing bucolic landscapes of rice paddies, small villages, and water buffalo, as well as of bustling urban areas, each providing great insight into Asia's history and future.
For more trip-planning information, see our Asia Travel Guide.
The Ghan, Australia
In the 1800s, emigrant Afghans on camelback sparked development in Aussie's remote desert Outback, acting as guides on expeditions and starting construction on a dream transcontinental railway. That dream has since been realized in the form of The Ghan (www.theghan.com), an 1,850-mile, two-night train trip operated by Australia’s Great Southern Railway (www.gsr.com.au), and fashioned from the tracks of those pioneer cameleers. Travel from the wine capital at historic Adelaide, brushing north past red sandstone cliffs, gorges, water holes, and rock formations, keeping watch for wild camels, dingoes, brumbies (wild horses), and kangaroos along the way – an overall landscape that’ll have you exclaiming “There’s no place like Oz"! Disembark at Outback capital Alice Springs, where you can ride a camel or visit an opal mine – before hopping back aboard, slicing on through northern aboriginal territory, and stopping last at the cosmopolitan city of Darwin, lined by tropical coastline.
For more trip-planning information, see our Australia Travel Guide.
The Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, Russia
After 7 years (and $25 million invested), Siberia welcomed Russia’s first elite train trip in May 2007. Holding the title as the world’s longest single-service train (at 5,800 miles), it glides from Moscow, through the surprisingly beautiful Siberian tundra, to Vladivostok in 14 days. In that time, passengers soak up the benefits of their hefty fare (starting price: $7,995 per person) which entitles them to private carriages, technologically tricked out with plasma-screen TVs and DVD/CD players; en suite bathrooms with power showers and underfloor 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.
For more trip-planning information, see our Russia Travel Guide.
Hiram Bingham Train, Peru
Mystical Machu Picchu no longer mandates four-day treks along the challenging Inca Trail (www.incatrailperu.com), or aboard overcrowded backpacker trains. Instead, the Hiram Bingham (www.perurail.com) luxury rail – named for the American explorer who awakened the lost city’s existence worldwide – ushers travelers to and from the steps of the sacred site from Cusco six days a week, in sheer class – and in just 3.5 hours. From the comfort of your seat, uncover stunning vistas of the surrounding landscape as you glide along through the lush Sacred Valley: cascading mountains, the flowing Urubamba River, abundant flora and fauna, and colorful villages unfold in the Andean foothills. Fret not about the details as packages can be booked to include onboard meals (with wine), live entertainment, private guides, bus transfers and entrance to the ruins, and afternoon tea at Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.
For more trip-planning information, see our Machu Picchu Travel Guide.
Napa Valley Wine Train, California
Since getting behind the wheel after multiple wine tastings is a risk we don't advise oenophiles to take, we propose the Napa Valley Wine Train (www.winetrain.com), departing daily from downtown Napa for 3- to 4-hour day trips through the celebrated wine region’s rolling countryside, as a delightful, DUI-free alternative. Savor a gourmet lunch in one of its lavishly restored Pullman dining cars, dating from 1915 to 1917, before hotfooting it to the wine tasting car, where a choice of 100 wines compensates for the fact that you can’t disembark at the wineries you fancy along the route – though two train trip packages do include stops at wineries, one at Grgich Hills (www.grgich.com) and the other at Domaine Chandon (www.chandon.com). Or, book a table in the line’s newest railcar, the Silverado, and experience the Valley’s idyllic climate firsthand via large sliding windows. After the 36-mile round-trip voyage from historic Napa to the quaint village of St. Helena, sober up at the train station with afternoon tea and shopping.
For more trip-planning information, see our Napa Valley Travel Guide.
TER Méditerranée, France
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 (www.trains-touristiques.sncf.com), 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 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. Direct, the whole trip takes 3 hours and 40 minutes, but the allure of this route is making leisurely stops along the way, disembarking at quaint villages and stunning beaches at whim.
For more trip-planning information, see our France Travel Guide.
Tokaido Shinkansen, Japan
No list of the world’s best train trips would be complete without a nod to Japan’s remarkably efficient high-speed “bullet trains,” known locally as a shinkansen. Their sleek futuristic design, incredible speed, high frequency, and on-the-dot departures and arrivals put the shinkansen, operated by Japan Railways (english.jr-central.co.jp), in a league of their own. The popular Tokaido Shinkansen line’s Nozomi train reduces the 320 miles between the bustling urban metropolis of Tokyo and temple- and shrine-speckled Kyoto to a mere 131-minute journey, traveling at speeds of an astonishing 168 miles per hour (and accelerating to 186mph just beyond Kyoto). On a clear day, you’ll catch glimpses of majestic Mt. Fuji as you zip by the mix of urban and bucolic landscapes. Inaugurated in 1964, this first of Japan’s current eight shinkansen lines holds historical significance as the world’s first high-speed rail, although its shiny train cars (which debuted in July 2007) feature entirely modern perks like PC power outlets at most seats.
For more trip-planning information, see our Japan Travel Guide.