Europe is famous for train travel, with extensive railways connecting not only capitals, but even some of the remotest mountain villages. Besides the convenience and environmental factors that come with modern train travel, the tracks cross some of Europe’s most inaccessible -- yet beautiful -- regions, granting clear views the whole way (except in the occasional tunnel, of course). We’ve assembled a list of train trips that are practically a vacation in their own right, but also connect to some of Europe’s most charming towns, ancient cities, and stunning landscapes.
1. Glasgow to Mallaig, Scotland
This route on the West Highland Railway crosses some of Britain’s most remote wilderness, offering spectacular views year-round on this roughly five-hour journey. If you’ve ever seen the Harry Potter films, you’ll likely recognize sections of this journey from footage of the Hogwarts Express, particularly the Glenfinnan viaduct. This elevated path, complete with 21 arches, crosses the River Finnan while granting views of Loch Shiel. Tickets for the journey can book up well in advance, especially in the summer months, so plan accordingly.
Mallaig is a modest village on Scotland’s western coast. Though it has a few pubs and inns, many visitors come here to take the short ferry across to the Isle of Skye. Skye’s natural scenery is exceptional, including incredible rock formations, imposing peaks, enchanting lochs, and dramatic coastline. As Scotland’s second largest island, there are plenty of chances to head off trail for some solitude in the striking Scottish wilderness. If that sounds a bit intimidating, a road trip along Skye’s coastal roads takes in plenty of scenery, with a cozy pub waiting afterwards.
2. Oslo to Bergen, Norway
The Bergensbanen line connects Norway’s biggest cities via 308 miles of track across some of the country’s most daunting mountainous terrain. Fortunately, Norwegian engineering leaves little for concern, as passengers cross Europe’s largest mountain plateau at Hardangervidda. So, sit back and enjoy this seven-hour journey through quaint villages, dense forest, and rugged mountains on your way to either of Norway’s hippest cities.
Oslo is often overshadowed on travel itineraries by Norway’s gorgeous fjords. Though not as famous as Stockholm or Copenhagen for architecture, the city boats an impressive opera house, where you’ll find many locals hanging out on a nice warm day. Another unique attraction is the Holmenkollen ski jump, which has been used for numerous competitions, including the 1952 Winter Olympics. Other highlights include the Munch Museum, which features paintings by famous Norwegian painter Edward Munch, and exploring the trendy Grünerløkka neighborhood, filled with cafés, bars, and boutiques.
Lovely Bergen is situated amongst a labyrinth of fjords and islands bordering on the North Sea. Though hiking in the surrounding fjords abounds, there are a handful of excellent trails leading out from the city. The more leisurely option is to take the Fløibanen funicular up Fløyen mountain for a prime view of the city. Bergen’s main attraction is Bryggen, a collection of wooden houses that have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This row of colorfully painted wooden structures survived a series of fires in the city, which were tragically not uncommon given that everything was made of wood. Strolling between the buildings, which now house restaurants and shops, offers a glimpse into Bergen’s past.
3. The Glacier Express: Zermatt to St. Moritz, Switzerland
This impressive engineering feat encompasses 291 bridges and 91 tunnels through the Swiss Alps. A substantial portion of the roughly eight-hour journey crosses the Rhaetian Railway, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the outstanding engineering achievements of harmonizing the railway with the alpines landscape. Along the way, passengers can see the Rhine Gorge, dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland”, as well as the Oberalp Pass.
St. Moritz is an upscale resort town. The town’s popularity stems from its favorable lakeside location in the heart of Swiss ski country -- St. Moritz has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, after all. Hiking opportunities abound as well, with over 360 miles of trails nearby. So even if the big-name designer shops and après-ski cocktails aren’t your scene, St. Moritz’s natural beauty is worth the price tag.
Zermatt’s claim to fame is its direct view of the towering Matterhorn. Like St. Moritz, Zermatt is not easy on the travel budget. However, this car-free village remains popular due to the alpine backdrop and access to world-class skiing and mountaineering. Climbing the Matterhorn is reserved for the extremely skilled, but there are still plenty of high-altitude hikes for all skill levels. Neighboring Breithorn is the easiest climb of the 4,000-plus meter peaks (that’s over 13,000 feet!). Anyone heading up in elevation should be diligent about hydration and taking it slow to avoid altitude sickness.
4. Offenburg to Konstanz, Germany
Cutting through Germany’s Black Forest, this 93-mile journey grants splendid views of this fairytale region. Tracing the Kinzig River out of Offenburg, the route leads through vast vineyards until the valley narrows. From here, the railway navigates a series of loops and tunnels. After descending through the mountainous landscape, the train follows the Danube until reaching the lowlands, leading to lakeside Konstanz.
Though many people associate Germany with beer, Offenburg is known for its proximity to the Oretanu wine region, famous for its Riesling. The small city boasts a handful of castles as well, but the neighboring timber villages in the Black Forest are the main draw. To the north sits Baden-Baden, a luxury spa town offering relaxation amid prominent Belle Époque-era architecture. In the Black Forest, quaint Triberg is situated by one of Germany’s highest waterfalls and great hiking.
Konstanz’s stunning location on the shores of scenic Lake Constance, outlined by the Alps, has attracted visitors for centuries. Coupled with a thriving cultural and nightlife scene, thanks to numerous galleries and a sizable university population, Konstanz is worth lingering around for. On a clear, sunny day, the shores of Constance Lake are abuzz. Konstanz was fortunate to escape bombing during World War II, so the narrow alleyways crisscrossing the Altstadt (old town) still retain their old-world charm.
5. Levanto to La Spezia, Italy
Tracing Italy’s northwestern coast in Liguria, this journey takes passengers past one of Italy’s most famous destinations: Cinque Terre. These five, gorgeous, quintessential Italian villages are connected by this mere 40-minute journey. The villages are also connected by excellent hiking trails, so one can easily hop off the train and hike to the next village to pick up the train again. Each locale is well equipped with fine Italian cuisine and a chance to swim in the enticingly blue Mediterranean.
Though many visitors flock to the villages within Cinque Terre, both Levanto and La Spezia have plenty to offer. Consider taking the day to wander these coastal cities’ piazzas and medieval sites. However, the five villages comprising Cinque Terre really do live up to the hype and merit several days to take in the atmosphere properly. Picturesque pastel hued homes intersected by narrow lanes that descend the dramatic, rocky cliffs to the Mediterranean. It’s a great destination for activity and relaxation alike. As one might imagine, Cinque Terre’s charm hasn’t gone unnoticed, with sizable crowds in the summer months, so it’s advisable to visit during fall or spring to escape the worst of the masses.
6. Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
This route recently reopened this summer after several years of closure, so take advantage of the new and hopefully improved connection. Bosnian railways and trains may lack the efficiency and speed of France’s TGV, but the mountain scenery between these ancient cities is well-worth the plodding pace. The Dinaric Alps are some of Europe’s most rugged landscapes, home to bears, wolves, and gushing waterfalls.
Mostar’s old town’s crown jewel, the iconic Stari Most bridge, spans the sapphire-blue, churning waters of the Neretva river. Local men and occasionally, a foolishly brave tourist dive from the bridge down 65 feet into the river below. The locals make it look easy, but as a precaution, there are always swimmers positioned on the river banks below in the event that a diver doesn’t immediately surface. For a tamer swim spot, head out of town to Kravica waterfall -- a gorgeous arc-shaped waterfall, cascading over jagged limestone cliffs. It’s a great escape during the heat a Bosnian summer.
Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, possesses one of Europe’s most charming and eclectic old towns. While strolling the cobbled streets, visitors pass churches, mosques, and a synagogue, all within this compact district. Between these ancient buildings, the streets are lined by numerous cafes, serving up Bosnian-style coffee and other local delicacies. A visit to Sarajevo isn’t complete without browsing the craft markets in Baščaršija and becoming informed about the recent conflict at the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a trip out of town, hire a taxi to drive up to the abandoned bobsled tracks. While only the concrete shell remains, the tracks are donned with graffiti art, and serve as an elevated walkway through the forest. Be sure to stay on the path though, as part of the area was imbedded with landmines in the '90s during the civil war.
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