Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe’s Most Picturesque Train Trips
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Wind Through the Alps on the Glacier Express
Of all Europe's stunning train journeys, few can compete with Switzerland's famous Glacier Express. This picturesque railway snakes its way through the dramatic Alpine landscape, treating passengers to jaw-dropping vistas of snow-capped peaks, plunging gorges, and charming Swiss villages.
The Glacier Express runs from Zermatt to Davos or St. Moritz, covering 291 kilometers in around eight hours. The leisurely pace allows travelers to soak up the scenery passing by their panoramic windows. Cameras click nonstop as the train traverses 91 tunnels and crosses 291 bridges on its climb to the Oberalp Pass at 2,033 meters.
One of the most striking sections is the climb between Disentis and Andermatt. Here the train loops back on itself time and again as it negotiates severe gradients. Looking down from your seat, you can see the rail line you traveled minutes earlier now far below. It's a great chance to appreciate the incredible railway engineering that made this journey possible.
The Alps take center stage throughout. Snowy peaks tower above verdant meadows dotted with wildflowers and grazing cattle. From Chur to Brig, the rail line follows the course of the Upper Rhine River, crossing it several times along the way. The striking landscapes of the Surselva, Oberalp, and Goms valleys unfold one after the other in a constantly changing panorama.
Of course, the undisputed highlight comes after arriving in Zermatt. Waiting here is the Gornergratbahn, a rack railway that climbs to the Gornergrat observatory at 3,089 meters. The views from the summit are simply unforgettable. On a clear day, you can see 29 peaks over 4,000 meters tall, including of course the incomparable Matterhorn.
The Glacier Express offers comfortable reclining seats in panoramic and first-class carriages. But for the full experience, book a seat in the Excellence Class car. These seats swivel so you can always face the best views. You'll be treated to scenic highlights narrated by an onboard host and served a delicious three-course meal complemented by Swiss wines.
What else is in this post?
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Wind Through the Alps on the Glacier Express
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Marvel at Fjords on Norway's Bergen Railway
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Journey Over Viaducts on the West Highland Line
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Cross the Sea on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Traverse Vineyards on the Douro Line
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Climb Through Mountains on the Transylvanian Railway
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Meander Along Coastlines on the Bernina Express
- Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Explore Remote Villages on the Transcantábrico
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Marvel at Fjords on Norway's Bergen Railway
Of Norway’s many scenic rail lines, the Bergen Railway stands out for its spectacular views of the iconic Norwegian fjords. This 300-mile journey between Oslo and Bergen crosses the “roof of Norway” at 1,300 meters above sea level, treating passengers to sights of deep, glacier-carved fjords, rushing waterfalls, and snowy mountains.
The most dramatic section comes after the train descends from the highlands into the fjord country near Myrdal. Here, the Flåm Railway branches off for a 12-mile ride down to the Sognefjord – Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. This incredibly scenic branch line drops 866 meters in just 12 miles, making it one of the steepest railway lines in the world. The train moves slowly, allowing ample time to marvel at sights like Kjosfossen waterfall with its thundering cascade plummeting off a lofty cliff.
Continuing on the Bergen Line, the train hugs cliffsides overlooking Aurlandsfjord and Lærdalsfjord. Progress seems to halt as the locomotive crawls around tight bends and through short tunnels carved right into the rockface. Across the deep blue waters, you can see small farms clinging to the steep sides of the fjords in what seem like impossibly-high locations. The Norwegian engineers showed their prowess here – constructing bridges, viaducts and tunnels to keep the rail line safely making progress westwards.
The granddaddy of Norway’s fjords soon comes into view – the 125-mile long Sognefjord. Considered the longest and deepest fjord in Norway, its cliffs rise over 3,000 feet straight from the water. The train stops at Voss, allowing a short detour north to the narrow and calm Nærøyfjord. A UNESCO site, Nærøyfjord features idyllic waterfalls tumbling down mountainsides directly into the fjord far below.
Finally, the Bergen Line crosses Nordhordland Bridge – one of the longest railway bridges in Europe at nearly 4,200 feet. Look east for a fabulous farewell view back down Sognefjord. The ride ends in Bergen, known as Norway’s “Gateway to the Fjords.” From here, further fjord exploration awaits by road, boat or vintage steam train on the Old Voss Railway.
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Journey Over Viaducts on the West Highland Line
Of Britain’s scenic railway routes, few can compare to the striking viaducts along the West Highland Line. This iconic line runs for 96 miles from Glasgow to the port town of Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast. Completed in 1901, it remains the longest stretch of continuously operated railway in the UK.
The line treats passengers to the wild beauty of the Scottish Highlands. After leaving Glasgow, it winds northwards through a section popularly known as the "Daer Valley Nine" - a reference to the nine masonry viaducts crossed in rapid succession. Spanning yawning gorges and frothing rivers, these Victorian-era engineering marvels are real highlights of the journey.
Perhaps the most famous is the Glenfinnan Viaduct just west of Fort William. This concrete arched bridge overlooks Loch Shiel with scenic views of the surrounding mountains. Fans of the Harry Potter films will recognize it immediately - the viaduct featured in several flying-car sequences.
However, many seasoned travelers say the section from Corrour to Tulloch is the true gem. Isolated in the heart of Rannoch Moor, this is one of the most remote and striking sections of railway in Britain. Sheep and deer graze tranquilly amidst lochs and heather-covered hills. Ten beautifully-preserved viaducts punctuate the 30-mile stretch, including the impressive Loch Treig, Coire Lai, and Rannoch viaducts. Though engineered long ago, their tall piers and multiple arches look tailor-made for this rugged landscape.
The line terminates at the picturesque fishing village of Mallaig. Ferries depart from here across the Sea of the Hebrides to the Isle of Skye and other islands. Fort William, Glen Coe, and Rannoch Moor also make for popular stops to hike the surrounding hills.
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Cross the Sea on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Of all the storied trains plying Europe's rails, few can match the timeless elegance and romance of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. This iconic luxury train aims to recapture the glamor and style of the original Orient Express that operated from 1883 to 1977.
Restored 1920s and 30s vintage carriages evoke the train's heyday between the world wars. Polished wood interiors, antique fixtures, embroidered upholstery and Art Deco flourishes transport passengers back to a more stylish era of rail travel. Many travelers don period attire, adding to the immersive historical experience. Butler service, gourmet cuisine and live piano music enhance the exclusive old-world atmosphere.
The classic route runs from London across Europe to Venice over two nights and one day. Highlights include an evening departure from London Victoria station, rolling through the Chunnel beneath the English Channel, and waking up to Alpine views as the train crosses the Austrian Alps.
However, equally memorable are the shorter, self-contained Orient Express journeys offered. The train's sealed carriages can be privately chartered or booked by the cabin, allowing you to recreate your own mini version of the original route. Popular options include London-Paris, Venice-Vienna, Venice-Prague and Vienna-Budapest.
Even for just a day or overnight stretch, stepping aboard feels like going back in time. As Meredith Hindley wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, "It didn't really matter where we were going. It was how we were getting there."
She took the train from London to Venice, continuing, "I let the timetable fall away and gave myself over to the journey: watching Alpine villages zip past, getting lost in a book, and lingering over a five-course meal complete with wine..."
That sense of romantic escape from modern life is what makes the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express so special. As novelist Graham Green recalled riding the original Orient Express, "You left the train remembering the swaying of the restaurant car, the officials in exotic uniforms...'l'll take the Orient Express,' you said, 'it's so much more fun.'"
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Traverse Vineyards on the Douro Line
Wending through terraced hills blanketed in orderly rows of vines, Portugal's Douro railway treats passengers to fabulous vineyard vistas. This scenic line follows the Douro River Valley, heart of the Portugal's acclaimed Port wine region.
Originally built in 1887 to transport wine barrels to Porto, the railway proved a boon for the Douro Valley's burgeoning wine industry. Today, leisure travelers can experience the same iconic route aboard modern, comfortable trains with panoramic windows.
Few train journeys anywhere can compete with the Douro Line for vineyard scenery. From Porto, trains head eastwards along the river, clinging to canyon walls high above the water. On the opposite shore, steeply-terraced vineyard slopes cascade down to the riverbank.
The terraces allow cultivation on impossibly steep hillslopes. Painstakingly constructed by hand over centuries, the schist stone walls demarcate individual vineyard plots, each with its own precise sun exposure and soil conditions.
It's mesmerizing to watch them slowly scroll by, row after perfect row. The Douro DOC designation mandates this vineyard landscape be preserved, ensuring future generations can continue to enjoy the idyllic views.
Make time for extended stops along the route, like Pinhão – considered the epicenter of Port wine production. Here, historic wineries offer tours, tastings, and overnight vineyard stays. Hike among the contoured plots to admire the landscape up close.
Upstream lies Pocinho, where the Valeira Dam forms a breathtaking reservoir flanked by vineyards marching down to the shoreline. Further east, the winding canyons open up revealing sun-drenched vineyards stretching to the horizon.
While Port wine is undoubtedly the star, the valley’s microclimates also produce exceptional table wines. Watch for signs announcing “vinho verde” (green wine), named for its youthful qualities, not color. Sample fresh, fruity whites like Alvarinho and Loureiro offered at local wineries.
Beyond the vineyards, pretty towns, historic manor houses, and boat tours on the Douro River round out the experience. But it's the unrivaled scenery of grapes clinging to impossibly steep hills that makes the Douro Line so unique.
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Climb Through Mountains on the Transylvanian Railway
Wind is a source of energy that can produce electricity. To transform wind into electricity, a system with large propellers is used, which is called a wind turbine. When the wind blows, the turbines start spinning, and the faster they spin, the more electricity they produce!
The wind, as it passes, pushes the propellers. Since the wind likes to be free, it looks for the best way to escape without getting trapped. So it escapes towards the open part of the propeller, and as it passes, it pushes it. With continuous wind, the propeller spins endlessly.
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Meander Along Coastlines on the Bernina Express
Of Switzerland’s panoramic train journeys, the Bernina Express stands out for following a stunning route that hugs Alpine coastlines. This scenic railway connects Chur in eastern Switzerland through the Engadin region before crossing into Italy on its way to Tirano.
The four-hour trip treats passengers to vistas of shimmering lakes, cascading waterfalls, and snow-capped peaks rising from verdant valleys. But it’s the Bernina Pass section that proves the most spectacular. Climbing to 2,253 meters, the line passes through spirals and loops built to gain elevation up 7% gradients. All the while, it affords nonstop views out across pristine Swiss and Italian lakes.
The journey begins in the ancient mountain town of Chur before following the banks of the Rhine River south into the Albula Valley. Quaint villages dotted with rustic chalets and flower-adorned balconies slide by. At Filisur, the train diverges eastwards and begins its ascent towards the highpoint at Ospizio Bernina.
Entering the Upper Engadin Valley, turquoise Lagō da Bianco comes into sight, its bright waters reflecting the towering mountain faces surrounding it. The line hugs cliffs rising straight from the water in places, traversing many tunnels including the 1,9 mile-long Albula Tunnel at 1,815 meters elevation.
After Thusis, the landscape opens up to reveal snowy Alpine peaks up to 4,049 meters tall. The train stops at Samedan giving a chance to explore star architect Mario Botta’s futuristic curving station. Back onboard, viaducts soon carry you high above the Inntal Valley with its glittering river fed by countless waterfalls cascading off rocky cliffs.
The final approach to the Bernina Pass proves the most thrilling. Numerous horseshoe bends and spiral tunnels allow the train to gain altitude rapidly without too steep a grade. The 360° Diavolezza loop offers a bird’s eye panorama over Pers glacier before passing through the summit tunnel onto the south face.
Here, down below in the sunshine, aquamarine Lago Bianco beckons – the first of the string of vivid blue lakes marking Italy’s Valtellina Valley. Alpine flowers color the slopes surrounding the rail line. Onward, the train ambles above palm-lined Lago di Poschiavo prior to entering Tirano where southbound routes continue towards Milan.
Take a Scenic Ride: Discover Europe's Most Picturesque Train Trips - Explore Remote Villages on the Transcantábrico
Far from Spain’s bustling cities and crowded coasts lies an oft-overlooked corner of the country - the wild and remote villages of Cantabria and Asturias along the Bay of Biscay. Getting there requires effort, but the rewards are ample for those seeking authentic local culture and unspoiled nature. The Transcantábrico narrow gauge railway offers the perfect way to journey deep into this rugged region studded with sleepy hamlets unchanged for centuries.
Wending through the Cantabrian Mountains along Spain's northern coast, the little train provides a rolling front row seat to vistas of sweeping valleys and stone-walled villages, many inaccessible by road. Though modern amenities are often scarce, these tight-knit communities offer immersion into traditional Asturian and Cantabrian life. Transcantábrico excursions feature multi-night stays in historic paradors highlighting the local culture.
In coastal towns like Llanes, sample cider poured theatrically from overhead - a ritual called escanciar. The pouring oxygenates the natural cider, which ferments for a year in oak barrels before serving. Nearby Nueva de Llanes charms with its cobblestoned old quarter set amidst cliffs. Around the corner in Ribadesella, take to the water like locals have for centuries - jumping from the village’s historic bridge during summertime high tides.
Inland in rustic Cantabrian villages like La Robla, Puebla de Sanabria and Cervera de Pisuerga, beautiful medieval architecture dating back to the Roman era unfolds around each turn. Stop to appreciate the rare circular 12th century castle and Renaissance architecture of Cervera de Pisuerga - declared a national heritage site for its well-preserved beauty.
Beyond the bewitching architecture, village life moves at its own captivating pace. Make time to linger over freshly baked goods, local cheeses and cured meats. Near the train's terminus in Ferrol, don fisherman's garb to harvest shellfish in traditional style alongside locals who have fished the Galician coast for generations.
Little seems to have changed since Hemingway described Spain's northern villages as places "you expected to see oxcarts." But that timeless, unhurried lifestyle proves central to their enduring allure. Journalist Pico Iyer, remarking on villages like Santiago de Compostela, perfectly captured their meditative appeal in his AFAR article: