Air travel: efficient, yes - but you don’t get to see anything until you reach your destination. Car journeys: there’s traffic - plus driving just isn’t particularly relaxing. Railway journeys: old school romanticism at its finest. Here are some of the world’s most scenic railway journeys to consider traveling on for your next vacation.
1. The California Zephyr, USA
Crossing the vast distance between Chicago and San Francisco - from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean - you can make the entire trip in two days and two nights, but with three time zones and seven states to be experienced en route, why not have have a stop-off or two? The silver, double-decker Amtrak train even boasts comfortable sleeping quarters and meals cooked to order - so your time off-board can be spent exploring, rather than panic-eating at McDonalds.
2. Bernina Express, Switzerland
Running from eastern Switzerland to northern Italy, this four-hour, ninety mile railway journey is one of the most spectacularly beautiful in the world - and everyone on the train gets to enjoy it, since it’s decked out with vista windows. Expect glorious alpine scenery, including waterfalls and glaciers, with steep drops making your stomach flip as you cross deep ravines.
3. Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West, Canada
British Columbia’s breathtakingly gorgeous landscape is ably showcased on this train ride once it sets out from Vancouver, which is consistently named as one of the world’s most beautiful and livable cities. From here, passengers can gawp at Cisco Crossing, Black Canyon, the Hoodoos, Kinbasket Lake and many more spectacular sights until the journey reaches its end among the magnificent, snow capped Rockies and terminates in Banff.
4. The Ghan, Australia
Australia’s outback scenery is undoubtedly some of the most stunning and otherworldly you’ll ever see but there’s no doubt that it can also be extremely harsh and unforgiving. To experience it in unparalleled luxury - and without dying of thirst or heat exhaustion en route - hop on board The Ghan, which cuts an approximately 2000 mile path through Australia’s center, from the lush tropics of the north, through the intense red of the desert and down to the temperate plains of South Australia.
5. West Highland Line, Scotland
Glasgow’s urban landscape quickly recedes as the train rolls out into the wilds of Scotland. Taking in lush greenery and glassy, steep sided lochs, the train heads north into the remote expanses of Rannoch Moor, and travels the Glennfinnan Viaduct, used for the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. You’ll see parts of the country inaccessible by car, areas that have no roads and few inhabitants, before arriving at the port of Mallaig.
6. The Train to the Clouds, Argentina
One of the highest railway journeys in the world, this train climbs to around 13,800 feet above sea level, taking in ruggedly dramatic Andean scenery on its route. Crossing 29 bridges and 13 viaducts, you’ll see yellow-grassed scrubland, sprawling cactus plains, richly-hued rock formations and steep canyons, Beginning and ending in Salta, the round trip takes around 16 hours.
7. TranzAlpine, New Zealand
Setting out from Christchurch, this journey traverses New Zealand’s dramatically stunning South Island, covering 139 miles in just under 5 hours. Before the train reaches Greymouth, you’ll cross the grandeur of the Canterbury Plains, taking in vast expanses of native beech forest, the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps, the subtropical rainforests of the West Coast and views of the Waimakariri River. Truly magnificent stuff.
8. The Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
One of the most epic railway journeys in the world, the Trans-Siberian Railway recently turned 100. Passing through no fewer than eight time zones as it travels west from Moscow to Vladivostock, there’s no better way to experience the incredible diversity of landscape that this impossibly enormous country has to offer - and with a web of tracks branching off from the original 1916 route, there’s a choice of routes to be explored.
9. Flåm Railway, Norway
If the thought of a long, scenic railway journey makes you fret over the possibility of missing the views once you’re being lulled to sleep by the steady chug of the engine, then this journey will dissolve your anxiety. Just an hour in length, it’s often described as one of the world’s most beautiful railway journeys, starting from the tiny village of Flåm and passing waterfalls and ravines en route to Myrdal, high in the mountains. Gorgeous in summer, magical in winter.
10. Snowdon Mountain Railway, Wales
With a choice of traditional diesel or the more leisurely heritage steam, this is the route that allows non-climbers and hikers the opportunity to bag Wales’ highest peak. A unique experience, offering stunning views and all of the breadth of landscape that a breathless walker may not be able to appreciate, the route only runs in the spring and summer months. Be aware that, at the top, you get a certificate congratulating you on reaching the summit: hide it from the exhausted climbers, who get exactly the same one for their efforts.
11. Belmond Hiram Bingham, Peru
The strenuous, high-altitude Inca Trail is not for everyone, which is why so many people access the magnificence of Machu Picchu by train. The train journey from Cusco is wonderfully immersive, with locals selling their goods through the open windows on slow stretches and incredible views to be enjoyed. For a more luxurious experience, take the Belmond Hiram Bingham, with on-board, old-school glamor as the side order to your views of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the Urubamba River.
12. Colombo to Kandy, Sri Lanka
Train travel is one of the most authentic ways to see Sri Lanka and this route, climbing upward from the heat and bustle of the capital and up into the cool Tea Country, is nothing short of spectacular, showcasing the country’s amazing diversity of landscape in a four to six hour journey. Sit on the right hand side for the best views, some of them involving sheer drops and dramatic terraces.
13. The Orient Express, Europe
The original Orient Express ran between Paris and Istanbul; it now links London, Paris and Venice and is still associated with elegance and culinary excellence (and murder. Okay, not murder). Think Bellinis, glass and wood panelling, a four course meal, tinkling ivories and jaw-dropping scenery: in particular, don’t miss the dazzling display of the mountains surrounding St Anton when the train emerges from long moments of darkness in the Arlberg Tunnel.
14. Palace on Wheels, India
This seven-night train journey summons up the grandeur of colonial India, as well as allowing passengers to experience the incredible color and vibrancy of the bazaars, plus the forts and palaces, the natural habitat of majestic tigers and, finally, one of the most enduring symbols of love ever created: The Taj Mahal. There’s even an on-board spa, adding to the palatial atmosphere already set by the superbly decorated carriages.
This amazing journey starts and ends in Delhi with highlighted destinations along the way of Jaipur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, and Bharatpur/Agra.
15. Blue Train, South Africa
First introduced in 1923, this journey runs from Cape Town to Pretoria; its original wooden coaches were replaced with blue steel ones in 1937 and the train took its name from that time. Tickets are fairly pricey but for their cost, you get all the food, drink and MonteCristo cigars you can manage. If you doubt you’ll get your money’s worth on this basis, there are various budget alternatives, like the Shosholoza Meyl train, which offers scenery just as breathtaking at a fraction of the price.
16. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, USA
First created as a means by which the riches of Colarado’s goldfields could be transported, this railway was completed in 1882 and has been running ever since. Passengers - sadly probably without newly acquired riches, but with plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife - can otherwise evoke the past on this coal-fired steam locomotive, traveling the 45.4 mile route along the Animas River and trailing through the stark wildness and majestic canyons of Colorado’s San Juan National Forest.
17. Glacier Express, Switzerland
Its social media tag #windowtothealps pretty much sums up the appeal of this train ride, which links Zermatt and St Moritz in a stunning eight-hour journey. Sights include stupendous views of the Matterhorn, The Albula Line with its viaducts and spiral tunnels, Oberalp Pass and The Rhine Gorge, nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland.” Panoramic windows and skylights ensure that you don’t miss any of it.
18. Kurobe Gorge Railway, Japan
There are various onsen - hot springs - to be enjoyed along this spectacularly scenic route, which is particularly popular in autumn, when the colors cloaking the landscape are ablaze. This is Japan’s deepest V-shaped gorge, with views of the emerald green waters of Lake Unazuki, mountains and rock faces to be seen from the open air carriages of the train, although covered carriages are available for less forgiving weather.
19. Reunification Railway, Vietnam
Linking Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, this journey covers 1070 miles and takes around a day and a half to complete, with views of rice paddies and water buffaloes rolling dreamily past your windows. The most scenic section of the journey is generally considered to be between Hue and Danang, with lush vegetation spilling down to the track as it hugs the coast line within meters of the sea.
20. The West Coast Wilderness Railway, Tasmania
This historic railway line, originally built to transport copper from remote mines down to a harbor port, has been restored in recent years: as you take in the thick forest, steep mountains and vast rivers and gorges en route, spare a thought for the backbreaking efforts the laying of these lines through such terrain must have involved back in the 1800s. There’s a choice of two half-day itineraries to choose from, both drawn by original and restored locomotives.
21. The Cotswold Line, England
Running from famed university town Oxford to Hereford, this train passes through gently rolling hills of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and on to the wilder landscapes of Herefordshire, via the architectural magnificence of Great Malvern station. It continues on over the Ledbury Viaduct, which was built using 5 million bricks and is underlined by 31 spans.
22. Cass Scenic Railroad, West Virginia
Original locomotives - once used to haul timber - will take you on this eight-mile journey, from which you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding area, especially as you climb up the 4 mile section of incline and gawp down at the mountains below. Maximum viewing pleasure is guaranteed in Fall, when the leaves are putting their annual dazzling display.
23. The Golden Eagle Danube Express Central Europe & Transylvania Route
You’ll need a fortnight for this trip, which starts from Istanbul, in Turkey, and ends in the Czech Republic’s beautiful Prague, taking in eight countries and 2000 miles en route. There are stops in some of Europe’s grandest and most iconic cities, in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Poland - with the elegance of a bygone era setting the tone of your on-board experiences. Bran Castle - also known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’ - is another highlight.
24. Belgrade to Bar, Balkans
Drama is the hallmark of this train journey, which rumbles across 296 miles from Serbia’s capital to Montenegro’s coast. Navigating 254 tunnels and 435 bridges, this train takes around 12 hours as it travels through untouched mountainous landscape, sweeping through canyons and flying across far-below rivers. Conditions are basic, tickets are cheap and the experience is one you’ll never forget.
25. Cape Town to Simon’s Town, South Africa
South Africa has its fair share of luxury, multi-day train travel options but that’s not to say that equally staggering views can’t be had from a no-frills train. In fact, the lack of distraction from an on-board bar may mean that you spend more time looking out of the window - or at least less time seeing double out of it. Tickets on this Metrorail journey are dirt cheap, bypassing all of the intricacies of the Cape Town’s city tracks and gliding you straight to the coast, with the glorious blue of the ocean by your side all the way to your destination.
26. Grand Canyon Railway, Arizona
Skip the hassle of the traffic pileup on your way in to the national park and board the train at Williams, about 65 miles to the south. The journey starts from within thick forests of pine, before emerging into a vast desert landscape, offering glimpses of wildlife, strangely shaped flora and Native American reservations. The train continues on through the San Francisco Peaks before arriving at the Grand Canyon’s Southern Rim.
27. Qinghai-Tibet Railway, China
The world’s highest train journey doesn’t disappoint - neither in terms of views nor of slightly stomach churning anxiety. Reaching a impressive 5068 meters at Tanggula, the journey takes in salt flats, with their oddly shaped formations, Yuzhu Peak and the surrounding mountains and the Kekexili Nature Reserve, populated by wild antelopes and yaks. The high-altitude Tsonag Lake is another highlight; believed to be sacred by local Tibetans, it’s a place of worship for thousands of pilgrims.
28. Andean Explorer, Peru
The 10 hour journey between Cusco and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is made all the more pleasurable in these 1920s Pullman-style carriages, on which elegant meals are served as you travel through the high wilds of the landscape. Departing four times a week, you can head to the observation deck for broader views; there’s also a slower, overnight option which continues on to Arequipa via Colca Canyon.
29. Koblenz to Mainz. Rhine Valley, Germany
It takes under an hour, so this is a perfect train trip to take with kids, not least because of the fairytale castles you’ll see en route, which are sure to send youngsters into a swoon of wide-eyed delight. The curvy path of the train, as it follows the course of the river is another scenic plus: there’s the also the option for a slower train that stops in restorative spa towns along the way.
30. White Pass and Yukon Route, Canada & US
Great, hulking cruise ships call in at Alaska’s Skagway; from here, the narrow gauge railroad, which was completed at the tail end of the Gold Rush, travels to Carcross, with an onward link to Whitehorse. Expect steep inclines, stomach-drop views and barely-skimming-the-edge-of-a-cliff turns: drama that’s only heightened by the sheer magnificence of the glacial, mountainous landscape.