Much of European train travel is about efficiency and comfort—punctually leaving and arriving and having a cozy seat or sleeper compartment in which to devour the latest issue of the Economist. But rail travel in the United Kingdom and on the Continent is also about experience: gaping out the window at Alpine glaciers, savoring gourmet cuisine in a restored last-century dining car. Accordingly, our favorite European trains don’t necessarily offer the fastest journeys—just the most memorable. All aboard!
1. Sweet Switzerland: The Chocolate Train
Route: Montreux to Broc, Switzerland
Duration: 9 hours, 45 minutes, roundtrip
This charming train running in summer and fall climbs from Montreux overlooking Lake Geneva to the medieval town of Gruyères, population 1,600, home to the cheese of the same name. Tour the cheese factory and the local castle, have lunch, then reboard the train and continue on to Broc. There you’ll bus to the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory, tucked between Lake Gruyères and mountain peaks, for free samples, before making the return trip.
2. Tunnels Galore: The Bernina Express
Route: Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy
Duration: 4 hours, 14 minutes
This narrow-gauge, vertigo-inducing train takes on seven-percent inclines, a 360-degree spiral, 55 tunnels, and 196 bridges—reaching an apex of 7,391 feet and then descending 5,905 feet before coming to a stop. The word “express” refers to the availability of short-notice seat reservations, rather than the train’s velocity as it courses through the Alps south from Switzerland’s oldest town to a charming Italian town of just under 10,000 people. Part of the route is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
3. A Hotel on Wheels: Francisco de Goya
Route: Paris to Madrid
Duration: 13 hours, 30 minutes
Leave Paris in the evening, enjoy a three-course dinner and the increasingly rural scenery, slumber to the soothing rhythm of the rails, and wake the next day as you arrive in Madrid, rested and ready to tour the third-most-populous city in the European Union. Grand class includes a welcome drink, gourmet dinner, breakfast, and an in-room bathroom with shower.
4. Reliving the Age of Chivalry: The Castles of Britain
Route: Inverness, Scotland, to Gwynedd, Wales
Duration: 15 days
Discover the United Kingdom’s historic fortresses on this itinerary combining a two-week BritRail pass with the Great British Heritage pass. You’ll get entry to 580 attractions, as you hop off for local touring. Start in Inverness, Scotland, near Loch Ness, to tour Urquhart Castle. Continue south to Stirling Bridge, where William Wallace triumphed over the English in 1297, and on to Edinburgh Castle. English sights include Dover Castle, with its wartime tunnels. In Gwynedd, Wales, tour Caernarfon Castle, a World Heritage site where the investiture of Prince Charles was held.
5. The Epic Journey: Trans-Siberian Railway
Route: Moscow to Vladivostok, Russia
Duration: 19 days
This fabled route, an icon of Russian culture, crosses eight time zones to connect the Russian capital with a port on the Pacific Ocean. On board, poor mingle with rich, young with old, foreigners with locals. Social barriers disappear as passengers share a unique rail experience and shots of $3-a-liter vodka. You can book a private car via a tour operator for added comfort; schedule any number of side excursions from trekking and scuba diving to city tours.
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