The world's greatest train journeys: The 20 best rail trips

There's something magical about a journey by train. Sometimes the magic is inside – in a restaurant car with white tablecloths, in a private compartment between crisp, clean sheets. Sometimes the magic is outside, in the landscape the train traverses – an adventure, an experience, an insight into the heart of a nation.

I've been hooked on the magic of train travel since the tender age of 13. I saved my pocket money for years – well, several weeks at least – until I had amassed £2.73, enough for my first solo overseas trip, a child-rate cheap day-return from London to the Isle of Wight. My parents had no idea where I'd gone, but when I eventually returned home were too relieved to scold me. The railways became my career, first with British Rail, and now running the train travel website, The Man in Seat 61.

I don't think even I realised quite how magical a train journey could be until I took a trip from London to Verona in the luxurious 1920s-vintage cars of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. I had doubted that any 24-hour train ride could possibly be worth £2000. But on discovering that my girlfriend had never visited Italy, I booked tickets. We'd only been going out for six months but that special train weaved its very special magic: when that train arrived in Verona we were engaged. Powerful magic indeed.

Here, you'll find many of my own favourite journeys – some well known, some less so, some luxurious and expensive, others true bargains. I hope it inspires you to discover – if you don't already know – just how magical a train ride can be. - MARK SMITH

 

THE TRAIN: The Trans-Iranian Railway

THE ROUTE

Andimeshk to Dorud, Iran; 209 kilometres; 5-7 hours; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

The Trans-Iranian Railway links the Persian Gulf with the Caspian Sea, and the 208-kilometre convoluted section through the wild and barren Zagros Mountains is especially scenic.

In 2017, the system of tunnels, viaducts and overlapping spirals, originally engineered in the 1930s, were World Heritage listed. A thought to ponder as upstream on the Dez the line burrows under Kuh-e Kornas mountain (1980 metres), returning to daylight just as the river splits into two tributaries.

The line crosses the Sezar several times before disappearing back into the earth under Kuh-e Hamid (1386 metres) and Zarrin Kuh (905 metres). At Sepid Dasht, beautifully ringed by 1600-metre rocky spires, the line loops over itself in a figure-eight climb onto the greener Lorestan plateau.

At Kuh-e Pariz (2942 metres) the line enters yet another narrow gorge for the final push to Dorud.

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LIFE ON BOARD

In summer, slow regional trains can be crowded beyond belief, and the reservation numbers on your ticket mean little, but as a foreigner you'll be offered a seat. You'll be the height of interest so expect to share food and be ready for an onslaught of questions and selfies.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Several trains ply the route daily in both directions. Schedules change frequently. Book seats (up to one month) in advance from a travel agency within Iran or any station, or queue early on the day. Bring your own refreshments and share. See rai.ir

THE TRAIN: Mukaba Express, Tazara Railway

THE ROUTE

Tanzania and Namibia; 1860 kilometres; 46 hours; twice a week

RIDING THE RAILS

Even the most jaded of trans-continental travellers must surely feel excited boarding the Mukuba Express at Dar es Salaam's Tazara Station. From here, the next two days will slowly unfold: an unforgettable cross-Africa journey taking in city, plains, hills and rivers.

An open window allows all the sounds, smells and warmth to drift into your compartment.

As the line passes through Selous Game Reserve on the first evening there is a decent chance of seeing giraffe, elephant and other African wildlife. There should at least be a glorious sunset to gawp at, and the promise of more beautiful scenery to come.

LIFE ON BOARD

There are clean and comfortable 1st-class (four-berth) and 2nd-class (six-berth) sleepers, which are single sex unless you have reserved the entire compartment. Seated tickets are also available. There is a bar and a dining car, though you should bring your own snacks and water.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Two trains per week run in each direction. One train (leaving Dar on Fridays and heading the other way on Tuesdays) is the Mukuba Express service, while the other is a slower train with many stops, rather marvellously named Kilimanjaro Ordinary. See tazarasite.com

THE TRAIN: The Hershey Train, Cuba

CAMILO CIENFUEGOS, MAYABEQUE - MARCH 30: The first train of the day leaves the Hershey train station shortly before sunrise on March 30, 2015 heading towards Matanzas. About 30 miles east of Havana lies the now defunct sugar mill town of Camilo Cienfuegos which was built by the famous American chocolatier, Milton Hershey, and was originally named Hershey. The town grew up around a giant sugar mill and featured American style amenities in Cuba, a golf course, baseball diamond, power plant, water system, school and rows of nice affordable wooden houses for the workers. Hershey also built an electric railway system which connects Hershey to the large cities of Havana and Matanzas allowing the sugar and employees to come and go with ease. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. World's greatest train journeys

Photo: Getty Images

THE ROUTE

Casablanca (Havana) to Matanzas; 85 kilometres; 3 hours 25 minutes; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

Casablanca, a fraying-at-the-edges fishing village, is a world away from Spanish colonial Old Havana, but the Hershey train departs from here. A ferry chugs across the bay to the Terminal.

The carriages sway and judder at no more than 40 kilometres per hour, tooting to scare stray dogs and cows off the tracks, as they arc out of the bay of Havana and straight into rural pastures. Cubans board the train from tiny hamlets – the train stops at 46 stations – some no more than unmarked concrete platforms in the thicket.

At the end of the line is Matanzas, an overlooked, untouristy, emerging urban star. Go for the rumba, Afro-Cuban tunes, history and art galleries.

LIFE ON BOARD

When buying a ticket you're given a seat number. Sweet snacks are sold at Hershey Station and the Hershey Gardens hosts a couple of restaurants. There are no bathrooms on board; there's a (decrepit) toilet at Hershey Station.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Trains depart three times a day from both Havana and Matanzas, year-round. The timetable has been known to vary so be there at least one hour before scheduled departure. Book tickets in person at the terminals in Casablanca or Matanzas, or on board if you get on at smaller stops.

THE TRAIN: The Rupert Rocket, Canada

BFEWP7 Passenger train riding along the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada SatDec1cover - trains - text edited by Julietta Jameson
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

THE ROUTE

Jasper to Prince Rupert; 1160 kilometres; two days; three times a week

RIDING THE RAILS

The Rupert Rocket might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for some but it's simply a way of life for others – including its veteran train attendants. Passing silvery lakes and snow-frosted crags in the Rockies, these friendly folk point out the landmarks to newbies.

The Rocket's steel cars were built in the mid-1950s, recalling a bygone age of romantic rail travel – especially in the train's double-decker Park Car, with its domed upper-level seats and cosy little downstairs lounge.

After the service stops for the night in Prince George, the grand Coast Mountain range's trestles and tunnels take centre stage, testament to the death-defying challenges of building this line more than a century ago.

There are long stretches of reverential vista-watching before the long shoreline towards end-of-the-line Prince Rupert.

LIFE ON BOARD

From mid-June to September, passengers can opt for touring class: spacious Panorama Car seats, airline-style meals and Park Car access. Economy class operates all summer and throughout the rest of the year.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Trains leave Jasper on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday year-round. Services stop overnight in Prince George – reserve your hotel in advance. See viarail.ca

THE TRAIN: Mandalay to Lashio, Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar. Mandalay Division. The Train Between Mandalay and Lashio. (Photo by: Marka/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Getty image for Traveller. Single use only. World's greatest train journeys

Photo: Getty Images

THE ROUTE

Mandalay to Lashio; 201 kilometres; 15 hours; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

The bone-rattling ride begins, as all great rail journeys should, before dawn. Sleepy villages and backwater stations tumble by as the light turns slowly grey, then golden.

Sunrise coincides with the departure from the plains to the hills, then the slow ascent to Pyin Oo Lwin. Pulling into the tin-roofed station at Pyin, there's a platform breakfast of strawberries, samosas and condensed-milk-sweetened tea.

To reach Hsipaw, the train has to cross a plunging gorge on the Gokteik Viaduct – a marvel of colonial-era engineering 102 metres above the valley floor.

Chasm crossed, you can sit back and enjoy the scenery, scanning the forests and villages for stepped monastery roofs and golden zedis (stupas).

For the last leg, the line brushes the riverbanks, passing scattered forest cascades. The number of foreign passengers drops markedly, and you may be the only tourist disembarking at the dusty platform in Lashio.

LIFE ON BOARD

Creature comforts are limited on Burmese trains; it's worth paying the extra pennies for a padded upper-class seat. In either class windows open.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

The train runs once daily year-round. Purchase tickets in person at the stations, ideally a couple of days in advance (bring your passport). In smaller towns, station staff are sometimes reluctant to sell tickets to foreigners; finding the stationmaster will normally help. A basic meal service operates in upper class; in ordinary class, hawkers sell fruit and packed lunches.

THE TRAIN: Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), Russia

Landscape for travel with the arrival of a red train on a wooden deserted platform Circum-Baikal railway in a village on Lake Baikal in a bright summer sunny day. iStock image for Traveller. Re-use permitted. World's greatest train journeys

Photo: iStock

THE ROUTE

Tayshet to Sovetskaya Gavan; 4324 kilometres, four days or more; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

The BAM is a journey to be attempted only by black-belt railway fans. Its pleasures verge on the perverse. Lying cocooned in a small cabin for 36 hours straight. Gazing out at infinite birch forests without the vaguest indication of human presence. Disembarking at desolate stations where the crippling winter cold can freeze the liquid on your eyeballs. Enduring hangovers of metaphysical proportions after long nights knocking back vodka with fellow passengers.

Construction began in the 1970s, ordered by a Soviet leadership keen to open up mineral-rich corners of Siberia. But to its detractors, the BAM has been a 4000-plus-kilometre white elephant ever since it opened in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union. To its fans, it is a pioneering railway and a lifeline for some of the most remote communities on Earth.

LIFE ON BOARD

In the kupe class, carriages are divided into four-berth compartments where the couchettes fold down to form seats. Platskartny consists of open-plan dormitory style coaches.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Travelling the BAM requires serious advance planning. Trains are slow, departures are irregular (daily or else less frequent) and to get from one end of the line to the other you'll need to factor in connections between at least three services. See eng.rzd.ru

THE TRAIN: Japan's Post Road Train, Japan

THE ROUTE

Nagoya to Matsumoto; 172 kilometres; four hours; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

This railway is not your stereotypical Japanese bullet train. This train is slow. It works its way through a landscape that was meant to be walked, or ridden.

Stop-offs are compulsory, so you need to allot the whole day; several days if you've planned well. Don't miss Magome, hometown of writer Shimazaki Toson; Tsumago, a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site; laid-back Narai further north up the valley.

Before reaching Narai, though, a glimpse out of the right-hand windows reveals the Nezame no Toko, a small gorge that wows with its unusual granite rocks. A hike up this rocky ravine is possible by stopping off at Agematsu Station for a couple of hours; and in Matsumoto, a small mountain town, see 16th-century Matsumoto Castle at sunset.

LIFE ON BOARD

All trains in Japan are clean, comfortable and efficient. Prepare for winding mountain valleys and wide views out of slow-moving (but big) windows. Bring snacks.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

A Japan Rail Pass allows unlimited train travel. You can reserve a seat with a pass, or purchase a single ticket, beforehand or on the day of travel from any station in Japan.

THE TRAIN: Settle to Carlisle line, England

HYM1KN Passenger train crossing the Ribblehead Viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line. Batty Moss, Ribblehead, North Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom, *** ONE TIME USE ONLY ****** FEE APPLIES ***SatDec1cover - trains - text edited by Julietta Jameson
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

THE ROUTE

Settle to Carlisle; 113 kilometres; 40 minutes; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

The Settle-to-Carlisle line reopened in 2017 after a partial closure due to a landslip. The most striking thing about the journey is how wild and remote the terrain is. This is upland England in every way, where glorious open moorland is populated by hardy sheep, and dramatic views stretch for miles over rocky hillsides.

The line is wonderful all through the year, though the weather can be wild at any time. Being on board as rain lashes the windows adds to the experience, though the colours visible from the line in autumn make this arguably the best time to travel. Should you be lucky enough to traverse this high country when there's snow on the ground then you're going to get a different perspective again.

LIFE ON BOARD

Though a superbly scenic journey, Settle to Carlisle is served by regular trains. Commuters, families, hikers and photographers will jostle for the best seats on busy days, but off-peak you can expect to have a quiet journey with only the tinkling of the refreshments trolley disturbing you.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Trains depart up to eight times a day in both directions, seven days a week. Book ahead for the best fares or you can buy tickets in advance or on the day at northernrailway.co.uk or any station in Britain. See settle-carlisle.co.uk

THE TRAIN: Belgrade-to-Bar Railway, Serbia and Montenegro

Belgrade-to-Bar Railway SatDec1cover - train journeys - text edited by Julietta Jamseon
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

THE ROUTE

Belgrade to Bar; 476 kilometres; 12 hours; daily

RIDING THE RAILS

When construction began on the 476-kilometre railway in 1951, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was in its infancy. By the time the route opened in 1976, complete with 254 tunnels and 234 bridges winding down from the Pannonian Plain to the Adriatic Sea, the country was a synapse between the West and the Soviet Union.

Yugoslavia has since splintered. The railway endures, connecting Serbia to Montenegro with a brief blip across Bosnia and Herzegovina's eastern border, taking adventurers across vistas criss-crossed by Greeks and Illyrians, and the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

The tracks levitate atop the 499-metre-long, 198-metre-tall Mala Rijeka Viaduct, one of the planet's highest railway bridges. Finally, it pulls into Bar – home to the world's oldest olive tree, more than 2000 years old.

LIFE ON BOARD

The carriages are worn but comfortable. There are 1st- and 2nd-class options but, compartments are similar in quality, and it is common – and acceptable –for passengers holding 2nd-class tickets to sit in 1st. Class differentiation is more pertinent to night-train passengers.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

The line runs twice per day, both directions. Book tickets at the station a day in advance. Reservations are essential and purchased in addition to the ticket. See srbvoz.rs

THE TRAIN: Inlandsbanan, Sweden

Railway line in north of Sweden
Inlandsbanan SatDec1cover - train journeys - text edited by Julietta Jamseon
Credit: Shutterstock

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

THE ROUTE

Mora to Gallivare; 1288 kilometres; two days; daily (in season)

RIDING THE RAILS

The Inlandsbanan consists of a single-track line, dotted with chocolate-box stations, served by red trains.

Devised in the early 20th century as a pioneering line that would open up Sweden's northern wilderness, the Inlandsbanan's idiosyncrasies are many and varied. You can eat grilled fish in lineside restaurants while your train patiently waits. You can enjoy long conversations with the driver in the cab while looking out for bears crossing the line.

Whereas Sweden's lively cities and coasts are familiar to many tourists, a ticket on Inlandsbanan is an excellent way to strike into the unknown. It takes you deep into a landscape of spruce and pine forests – the territory of wolves, bears and moose. Sometimes the train screeches to a halt to let off a hiker far away from stations and settlements. Mostly it trundles forth at an average speed of about 50 kilometres an hour, crossing broad rivers, skirting little hamlets of scarlet cabins, puttering over wildflower-strewn meadows on its gentle journey northward.

LIFE ON BOARD

The Inlandsbanan trains are one or two carriage services, with standard class only. Snacks, teas and coffees are served on board; meals can be bought during stops at lineside restaurants. Inlandsbanan isn't a sleeper service: passengers overnight in Ostersund.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Services typically run from early June to mid-August, with daily departures. Tickets – and packages including accommodation – can be booked in advance. The Inlandsbanan Card gives unlimited travel for up to two weeks. See inlandsbanan.se

FIVE AMAZING CLASSIC TRAIN JOURNEYS

JOHANNESBURG TO CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA

Formerly known as the Trans-Karoo Express, the overnight train leaves Johannesburg's suburbs and crosses the northern bush, hurtling across the Karoo as its passengers sleep and the desert stars twinkle, before emerging among the Cape's breathtaking tapestry of mountains and vineyards. See shosholozameyl.co.za

THE ROCKY MOUNTAINEER, CANADA

JEH2X7 The scenery along the Fraser River promtps guests to photograph from the dome windows of the Rocky Mountaineer train. SatDec1cover - trains - text edited by Julietta Jameson
BREAKOUT
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

Crossing the wild Rocky Mountains along a pioneering 19th-century railroad, this journey is all at once a geological field trip, a sightseeing adventure and a wildlife safari. It promises cinematic views plus a bevy of engineering marvels, and you might spy a bald eagle, moose or grizzly bear. See rockymountaineer.com

THE EASTERN & ORIENTAL EXPRESS, THAILAND TO SINGAPORE

Tracing a route between Bangkok and Singapore, passengers on the two- to three-night journey experience luxurious comfort, quality dining, beautiful tropical landscapes slipping past the train windows and cultural experiences provided by off-train excursions in both Thailand and Malaysia. See belmond.com

THE GLACIER EXPRESS, SWITZERLAND

This eight-hour journey from St Moritz to Matterhorn-topped Zermatt unzips the lovely Alpine terrain in the country's south, corkscrewing up mountain passes, crossing 291 bridges and 91 tunnels. The slowest express train on the planet, it moves at a snail's pace so as to big up those out-of-this-world views. See glacierexpress.ch

TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY, RUSSIA

Connecting some of Russia's most fascinating cities, spanning mighty rivers and running across mountains, taiga (forests) and vast steppes (grasslands), this is an epic journey. It also provides an intimate insight into Russian culture. The Rossiya No. 2 leaves Moscow on odd-numbered days; the No. 1 departs Vladivostok on even-numbered days. See pass.rzd.ru

FIVE AMAZING AUSTRALASIAN TRAIN JOURNEYS

THE GHAN, AUSTRALIA

Cutting vertically across the outback heart of Australia, the Ghan is one of the southern hemisphere's most unforgettable train journeys. Inaugurated in 1929, this cross-country train travels just under 3000 kilometres across the country from Adelaide to Darwin. Luxurious and legendary, it's Australia's elegant riposte to the Orient Express. See greatsouthernrail.com.au

THE TRANZALPINE, NEW ZEALAND

DFP0AM Tranz Alpine train near Springfield Canterbury New Zealand SatDec1cover - trains - text edited by Julietta Jameson
BREAKOUT
Credit: Alamy

Photo: Alamy

One the world's most scenic one-day train rides commences in Christchurch, crosses the Canterbury Plains and then climbs through the Southern Alps. After traversing remote alpine scenery, descend through a thrilling tunnel to on the South Island's West Coast, all in less than five hours. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

WEST COAST WILDERNESS RAILWAY, AUSTRALIA

In the rainforest of Tasmania's west of the 1890s, workers completed a 35-kilometre stretch of track between Queenstown and Strahan's port to transport copper. Today it's a tourism route. Steep gorges, Huon pines and feats of engineering are yours to absorb from a comfy caboose while enjoying fluffy scones. See wcwr.com.au

THE NORTHERN EXPLORER, NEW ZEALAND

Traversing the rugged centre of New Zealand's North Island, the Northern Explorer is a scenic journey linking two important cities. Have breakfast beside the harbour in Auckland, lunch near snow-capped volcanic peaks in Tongariro National Park, and a late dinner in Wellington. Along the way, enjoy inland scenery. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

KURANDA RAILWAY, AUSTRALIA

This heritage locomotive winds its rickety way through rugged mountains and steep ravines, from Cairns through Barron Gorge National Park to the picturesque village of Kuranda in Australia's Far North Queensland. In operation since 1891, this unique route of 15 handmade tunnels and more than 37 bridges is an architectural wonder. See ksr.com.au

This is an extract from Amazing Train Journeys, 1st Edition, 2018, Lonely Planet, $39.99. Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2018. See lonelyplanet.com

About the author: Mark Smith worked at British Rail, starting out in Kent before being station manager for London's Charing Cross, London Bridge and Cannon Street stations in the early to mid-1990s. After a spell as customer relations manager for two large British train companies, he worked for the Office of the Rail Regulator and later the Strategic Rail Authority, ending up at the Department for Transport in charge of the team regulating fares and ticketing on the British rail network. Since 2007 he has run his website, The Man in Seat 61, full-time, travelling the world on trains and ships. See seat61.com

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