10 of the best train journeys in Europe, chosen by Lonely Planet | European holidays

RStill in Europe, there are many things. With their awe-inspiring stations, evocative history and destinations, they evoke a timelessness absent from the uniform flight experience. In recent decades, high-speed services have supplemented conventional routes, while demand for more climate-friendly travel has grown and new options have emerged, including a recent wave of overnight trains.

Lonely Planet, which for almost 50 years has championed a down-to-earth and connected style of travel, has produced a new Guide to Rail Travel in Europe aimed at unlocking train adventures from any starting point on the continent. Here the authors choose fantastic journeys from the book.

Paris to Berlin – fast or slow

Liège-Guillemins station in Belgium, designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava. Photography: Reinhard Tiburzy/Alamy

A well-established network of high-speed trains and a huge choice of slower options connect two of Europe’s major cities. A glorious three-country tour would take you from Paris to Brussels, via Cologne via the spatial architecture of Liège-Guillemins station. Cologne Cathedral is so close to the station that you can’t miss stopping by before boarding a fast German ICE service to the capital, which takes less than five hours. To see more than the immediate surroundings of the station buildings in each city, book separate tickets for each stop at trainline.comor add a few hours stop or overnight reservation via Deutsche Bahn (bahn.de). A broadband connection from Paris via Frankfurt is also possible.

Amsterdam to Vienna by Nightjet

Passengers look out of the window of a Nightjet train at Vienna station.
A Nightjet train at Vienna station. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

One of many recent additions to the sleeper train scene in Europe, the night spray service operated by Austrian Railways (oebb.at) departs every evening at 7 or 7:30 p.m. from Amsterdam. As you doze off, the train will follow the Rhine, pass Cologne and Koblenz, then continue southeast through Germany and enter Austria at Passau. A 9:19 a.m. arrival in Vienna guarantees time for a lie-in and breakfast. This train can easily be combined with the Eurostar service from London or a ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdamor of Harwich to Hook of Holland.

Come full circle in North Wales

A steam train on the Ffestiniog Railway, in Snowdonia.
A steam train on the Ffestiniog Railway, in Snowdonia. Photograph: Daryl Hutchinson/Alamy

Some of the finest narrow gauge railways in the world are found in Wales and two of the best can be combined in a loop that takes in the mountains and coastal scenery of Snowdonia. Take a service from Llandudno Junction – which has main line connections – down the Conwy Valley to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Change for the famous Ffestiniog Railway, a distinctive steam service that meanders 13 miles to the coast at Porthmadog. Return via the sublime steam service of the Welsh Highland Railway below the summit of Snowdon at Caernarfon, where you can catch a bus to Bangor and main line services.

From Bastia to Ajaccio via inland Corsica

Train passing an abandoned station in Lumio, Corsica, with snow capped mountains in the distance under a deep blue sky.
Passage of an abandoned train station in Lumio, Corsica. Photograph: Jon Ingall/Alamy

The Railways of Corsica (Corsican Railways) is a narrow-gauge railway centered on Ponte Leccia – from where three main lines run to Ajaccio, Bastia and Calvi, all offering incredible views over beautiful, rugged terrain. The route from Ajaccio to Bastia is the longest and most famous, taking three and a half hours, so it’s best done with an overnight stopover, rather than a day trip. Corsica is well served by ferries from mainland France such as Toulon, Marseille and Nice, opening up a tempting train-ferry route from the UK.

Dublin to Madrid by train and ferry

View from the Cliff Walk between Bray and Greystones, with grassy cliffs and sea, in Co Wicklow, Ireland.
View from the Cliff Walk between Bray and Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland. Photography: Dawid Kalisinski/Alamy

It is possible to fly from Dublin directly to mainland Europe. A largely single-track line skirts the Irish Sea heading south to Wicklow before branching inland and stopping in the charming County Wexford town on the estuary of the Slaney River. It’s a short hop along the waterways from there to Rosslare Port for the twice weekly ferries to Bilbao, which takes about 30 hours. Then it’s a five-hour train journey to Madrid. Recommended stops include the precious Cathedral of Burgos, the former Spanish capital of Valladolid, and the Roman Aqueduct and Alcázar of Segovia fortress.

From Venice to Palermo – across the water in Italy

The statue of Garibaldi outside the train station in Palermo, Sicily.
The statue of Garibaldi outside the train station in Palermo, Sicily. Photography: Julio Etchart/Alamy

From top to bottom in Italy, the potential stopping points of this spectacular journey need no further introduction. Quickly Frecciarossa trains connect Venice to the gastronomic center of Bologna in 90 minutes, with Florence 40 minutes on the line. An hour and a half later, you are in Rome. From there, southern Italy opens up. For one of Europe’s most unusual rail experiences, take a train to Sicily. At Villa San Giovanni in Calabria, you and your horse-drawn carriage board a dedicated ferry to Messina, Sicily, from where bustling Palermo is a four-and-a-half-hour trip along the coast. There are several daily intercity and overnight services that depart from the mainland, via ferry, to the Sicilian capital, including direct crossings from Milan, Genoa and Pisa.

From coast to coast, via a high mountain – Oslo to Bergen

A Flåm railway train crossing a valley, Norway.
A Flåm railway train crossing a valley, Norway. Photography: Wirestock, Inc./Alamy

Competitor for the best train journey in Europe, the Bergen Line (Bergensbanen) rumbles along the mountains and lakes of southern Norway between Oslo and Bergen, reaching 1,222m at Finse station, where a snowball fight is usually offered. The journey takes nearly seven hours, which quickly passes through a blur of incredible scenery on a comfortable intercity service. It is possible to do a longer version of this route by taking the Norway in brief tour, which includes the Flåm Railway – perhaps the most scenic branch line in the world – and a boat trip through Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord.

Paris to Barcelona by slow train

Le Petit Train Jaune (little yellow train), crossing the Pont Séjourné viaduct in the French Pyrenees.
Le Petit Train Jaune (little yellow train), crossing the Pont Séjourné viaduct in the French Pyrenees. Photography: Martin Castellan/Alamy

These towns are connected by a fast trainbut there is one quiet route south through France to the Pyrenees via Limoges, Toulouse and through beautiful rural and mountain scenery to Latour-de-Carol. Although it is possible to reach Latour-de-Carol by direct overnight train from Paris, you would miss the slowly unfolding views that you can enjoy by taking this trip in daylight. From Latour de Carol A suburban metro line goes all the way to Barcelona and takes just over three hours. Possible stops along the way include the Ribes de Freser and Ripoll fortifications, home to an old monastery and a good starting point for hiking trails.

Budapest to Split in a berth

Old Hungarian train at Lake Balaton, in a beautiful landscape, with Tihany in the background.
At Lake Balaton, with Tihany in the background, Hungary. Photograph: Szalai Andras/Alamy

During the summer there is a temptation night duty between the Hungarian capital and the Adriatic. In recent years the train has left Budapest at midnight arriving in Split after lunch. En route, it passes the Hungarian playground of Lake Balaton and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Once on the Adriatic coast, buses head south to Dubrovnik, while ferries and catamarans radiate out to nearby islands.

Locarno to Domodossola through the Swiss Alps

View of snow capped peaks through a restaurant window near Titlis mountain, Switzerland.
A stop in a restaurant near the Titlis mountain, in Switzerland. Photograph: Ted Foxx/Alamy

Almost all trips to Switzerland promise breathtaking scenery, and on several routes the trains run slowly specifically to show off the mountains, rivers and lakes that can be seen from the window. Traveling between Locarno in Switzerland and Domodossola in the Piedmont region of Italy, the Centovalli The railway (Cent Vallées) is a short but scenic service that crosses 52 km of waterfalls, chestnut groves, villages topped with churches, deep ravines and vineyards. Highlights include the Isorno Bridge near the village of Intragna and the Intragna Gorge.

These routes, as well as advice on train travel, are presented in Lonely Planet’s Guide to Rail Travel in Europe by Tom Hall, Imogen Hall and Oliver Smith (£19.99), available at boutique.lonelyplanet.com

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