Ten trips to inspire your next holiday by train - and not an escorted tour in sight. Our selection of scenic train trips for independent travellers in Europe.
Thanks to a vast high-speed rail network, taking the train across Europe is getting easier. Yet much of the joy of train travel comes from watching the world go by from your window seat, so sometimes the low-speed train holds more allure. With that in mind, we've compiled ten of the best scenic trains that are easy to book yourself, on their own or as part of your own mini rail adventure:
The Bergen Line: Oslo - Bergen, Norway
Passing fjords, glaciers and snow-capped peaks, the Bergen Line is one of Norway's most impressive train journeys. Travelling from Oslo to Bergen over 7 hrs, you travel through some of Scandinavia's most imposing landscapes and Europe's largest mountain plateau, Hardangervidda.
Not only are the views impressive, the railway itself is pretty extraordinary. A workforce of more than 15,000 men laid track high into the peaks and dug 182 tunnels out of mountain rock by hand. Unsurprisingly then, building work which started in 1875, took 34 years to complete.
Search for trains: Oslo to Bergen | Journey time: Approx. 7 hrs
The Bernina Express: Chur, Switzerland - Tirano, Italy
Travelling at around 35km/ph, the slowest scenic train in our selection, the Bernina "Express" hardly deserves its title. But as it winds its way through the southern Alps, over bridges, gorges and precarious mountain passes, you wouldn’t want it to go any faster. Navigating close to 200 bridges and boring through mountains via 55 tunnels, this is a feat of engineering so impressive it has earned itself Unesco World Heritage status. The glass-roofed train has been designed to offer the best panoramic views, climbing over the Albula pass to St Moritz.
Search for trains from Chur to Tirano | Journey time: Approx. 4 hrs
The West Highland Line: Fort William - Mallaig, Scotland
The West Highland Line between Glasgow and Mallaig is one of Britain's most scenic train journey. 190km long, the 'Road to the Isles' speeds through dramatic Scottish landscapes, cruising past the banks of Loch Lomond as you depart Glasgow. As you head north, keep your eyes open to see ruined castles, mountain peaks and waterfalls toward the west coast. Britain's highest peak, Ben Nevis, makes an appearance as you near Fort William. The icing on the cake as you approach your journey's end is crossing the spectacular Glenfinnan Viaduct. It should be noted that this is just one of several scenic rail trips in Scotland.
Search for trains from Fort William to Mallaig | Journey time: Approx. 1.5 hrs
Madrid - Oviedo, Spain
The train journey between Madrid and Oviedo gives a glimpse of classic Spanish countryside on its way from the capital to the north coast. As it approaches the Asturias region, and its principal city Oviedo, the train climbs into the clouds atop the Picos de Europa mountains. The train remains the best way to explore this part of Spain - in Oviedo it's possible to take a 'Feve' narrow-gauge railway along the north coast between País Basco (Basque country) and Galicia, calling at Santander on the way.
Search for trains: Madrid to Oviedo | FEVE trains available at the station | Journey time: Approx. 5 hrs
Golden Pass Railway: Lucerne - Interlaken, Switzerland
The Golden Pass railway refers to the stretch of line between Montreux and Lucerne in the Swiss Alps. Though technically feasible in a day, the entire Montreux - Lucerne route isn't one to "do" and tick off the bucket list - journeys through this part of Switzerland should be savoured, and as an independent traveller there are countless opportunities to explore without pressure from a tour guide.
The region is home to an array of scenic trains, including glass-topped panoramic trains and funicular railways, so it's little wonder that the Oberland attracts such wide praise from train travellers. Between Lucerne and Interlaken the landscape is exceptionally beautiful, passing the emerald green waters of Lake Lungern and lakeside hamlets near the Brunig Pass.
Search for trains: Lucerne to Interlaken | Journey time: 2 hrs
Zurich, Switzerland - Lake Como, Italy
Starting out in Zurich's cosmopolitan centre, this train quickly ascends into the Alps passing green lakes, snowy peaks and quaint Swiss villages. Just a few hours later you're descending on the other side into Italy down to the shores of Lake Como.
Although it is in the shadow of imposing Swiss mountains, Como has a distinctly Latin feel. The Zurich - Como route is on board an everyday train, with no panoramic windows or fancy title to its name. Yet, as you catch a glimpse of the cupola of Como Cathedral or lakeside villas lined with cyprus trees you'll know you're arrived in Italy.
Search for trains: Zurich to Lake Como | Journey time: Approx. 3 hrs
Messina - Catania, Sicily
A scenic train trip doesn't have to be long to be beautiful. Taking the train from Messina to Catania in Sicily takes just 1 hour 30 mins, but the views of the coast and Ionian sea are spectacular. If you're coming overnight from Rome you awake at daybreak to the train being loaded onto a ferry. From the moment you're on Sicilian shores until your arrival in Catania your eyes will be glued to the windows watching the rocky Mediterranean coastline and bobbing fishing boats pass by.
Search for trains: Messina to Catania | Journey time: Approx. 1.5 hrs
Train des Pignes: Nice - Digne les Bains, France
The narrow gauge railway from Nice to Digne les Bains, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, is a relative unknown in the world of scenic trains. The train makes its 110km journey over 3 hrs, crossing rivers and passing through picturesque towns such as St Andre les Alpes and Entreveux. Though a private railway, it's open for exploration by independent travellers, departing Nice CFP station four times per day.
Search for trains to Nice | Nice to Digne les Bains trains | Journey time: Approx. 3 hrs
Venice, Italy to Munich, Germany
Despite not being a designated scenic train the once-daily direct train from Venice to Munich promises spectacular views. Travelling through Verona, Trento and Innsbruck on the stunning Brenner Alpine pass, you see snowy peaks, green valleys and glacial rivers from your window. The section between Verona, Bolzano and Fortezza is particularly striking as the train follows the River Isarco north, in the shadow of the Dolomites, briefly crossing into Austria before arriving into Munich in time for dinner.
Search for trains: Venice to Munich | Journey time: Approx. 7 hrs
Rhine valley and the Black Forest: Cologne - Mainz, Germany
Cologne to Mainz is just one section of many scenic routes along the Rhine Valley and around the Black Forest. And since journey times between towns rarely exceed an hour, the region is ideal for day trips. On this route, between Koblenz and Mainz, the train passes alongside the River Rhine for some 70km. Keep your eyes peeled for medieval castles, which make regular appearances on both sides of the riverbank at Marksburg, Stahleck, Katz and Maus. One, called Pfalz, is actually on an island in the middle of the river bed.
Search for trains: Cologne to Mainz | Journey time: Approx. 1.5 hrs
Image Credits: Hardangervidda by Tristan Taussac reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 ND Licence, Langwieser Viadukt by Kurt Zwahlen reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 NC-SA Licence, Glenfinnan © Joe Dunckley, Lago Ausente by Luis Angel reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 SA Licence, Brunig Pass by 5D*Guy reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 NC-ND licence, Lake Como by Michael Gwyther-Jones, reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 Licence, Taormina by anams reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 NC-ND licence, Entrevaux by Royonx reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 1.0 Licence, Dolomiti by Luigi Alesi reproduced with thanks under a Creative Commons 2.0 NC Licence, Fall Colors © Andreas Wonisch
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