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Trip List by brickie

Top Ten Scenic Rail Journeys

May 27, 2009  My job as Rail Specialist at a tour operator!
5.0 of 5 bubbles based on 8 votes

The title says it all - my personal top ten of European rail journeys which shouldn't be missed.

  • Category: Best of
  • Traveler type: Sightseeing, Never been before
  • Appeals to: Couples/romantics, Honeymooners, Singles, Families with teenagers, Large groups, Seniors, Students, Budget travelers, Tourists
  • Seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • 1. The Bernina Express

    The journey from Chur in south-east Switzerland to Tirano, just across the border in Italy, takes in some of the most stunning scenery and the most impressive engineering feats in Europe. The train climbs the Albula Pass courtesy of loops, switchbacks and spiral tunnels, then crests the bleak Bernina Pass before descending an almost vertical cliff-face into Poschiavo and running along the Poschiavo valley (including a unique open-air spiral viaduct) and through the streets of some small villages.

  • 2. The West Highland Line

    Recently voted the "Best Railway Journey in the World", the railway line between Glasgow and Mallaig in Scotland takes in some of the best scenery in the British Isles. Leaving Glasgow, the train skirts Loch Lomond before climbing onto the Rannoch Moor, where the train slows to 30mph in places where the track foundations are built on boggy ground. After calling at Fort William, the train passes through ever wilder mountain scenery, glimpsing some of the inner Hebrides islands and crossing the impressive Glenfinnan viaduct before arriving in Mallaig. If the scenery looks familiar, it has been used in many TV series and films, most recently as the route for the "Hogwarts Express" in Harry Potter. During the summer, a steam service, "The Jacobite" is operated by a private company, but regular services by scheduled trains continue all year round.

  • 3. The Glacier Express

    The Glacier Express, between Zermatt and St. Moritz, is probably the most famous rail journey in Switzerland, and one of the most famous in Europe. Taking in a variety of scenery, it begins with ancient castles and some of the highest vineyards in Europe, before arriving at the wider valley of the Rhône and onwards into the chocolate-box Goms valley. After tunnelling through the Oberalp Pass, the scenery becomes bleak and forbidding, more reminiscent of a Scottish moor than classic Switzerland and, after a dizzying climb out of Andermatt, the train reaches the source of the Rhine in heavily-forested country. After calling at Disentis, the train passes the "Swiss Grand Canyon", a series of rapids in the young Rhine, accompanied by weird rock formations, to reach Chur. From Chur, the train follows the same route as the Bernina Express (number 1) over the Albula Pass to St. Moritz.

  • 4. The Rhine Gorge

    The river Rhine is followed by railway tracks more-or-less all the way from source to sea, beginning with the Glacier Express which follows the young river as it grows. The most famous section, however, is the "Rhine Gorge" between Koblenz and Mainz. Travellers heading southwards from the great rail junction at Cologne will reach the Rhine near Bonn and follow the river southwards as the landscape becomes increasingly hilly. At Remagen, the old bridge across the Rhine fought over in 1945 and immortalised in film as "The Bridge at Remagen" can be glimpsed, but it is not until the train calls at Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, that the scenery becomes more rugged. The Rhineland is famous for its romantic castle ruins, steeply-stepped vineyards and pretty little half-timbered walled towns, and is a popular destination for river cruises, either week-long itineraries or simple day cruises - but if you aren't a great sailor or don't have time as you head south, it's worth taking the train along the Rhine instead. Most passenger trains stick to the west bank of the Rhine, which gives you views of the Lorelei rock just north of Boppard.

  • 5. Liège to Luxembourg

    Be honest - you probably didn't expect Belgium to feature in a list of scenic rail journeys. But the line from Liège to Luxembourg travels through the Ardennes region - not spectacular like Switzerland but a fascinating region with some really scenic parts of the journey. Leaving the post-industrial city of Liège, the railway line very quickly enters a winding river valley, following it through a succession of small Ardennes villages. Although the countryside opens out in places, particularly around the Belgium/Luxembourg border, the majority of the route takes you through twisting, wooded valleys with small villages strung out along the road/river/railways. Perhaps not comparable with the sheer majesty of the Alps, but something a little different...

  • 6. Dresden to Prague

    The Rhine Gorge (number 4) is a very well known rail journey - the "Elbe Gorge" between Dresden and Prague less so, despite Prague being a very popular destination. Travelling along the banks of the River Elbe, the train passes through an area of rugged rocky scenery known locally as "Saxon Switzerland", and as the valley narrows the train crosses into the Czech Republic. Beyond Usti nad Labem, the valley opens out into farmland, but the train sticks to the riverbank more or less all the way to Prague.

  • 7. The Gotthard Pass

    The Gotthard Pass railway will soon become less scenic as a new base tunnel is built, chopping an hour and some of the best scenery off the journey. Travelling south to north, begin your journey in Milan. Crossing the fertile but boring Lombard plains, you see the mountains begin to grow ahead of you but it isn't until the train approaches Como that the scenery begins to become more dramatic. Como station sits above the lake, affording great views, and the next stop is the Swiss border at Chiasso. Shortly after this, the train enters a narrow valley and reaches Lake Lugano, which it crosses on a causeway. Continuing northwards, the train enters the valley of the Ticino river, a broad flat valley with steep sides. As the train heads north, the valley gets narrower and narrower, until eventually the tracks begin to double back on themselves and use spiral tunnels to gain height up to the Gotthard tunnel itself. Emerging on the north side, in German-speaking Switzerland, the train skirts pretty Lake Lucerne on its way to Lucerne or Zurich.

  • 8. Munich to Innsbruck via Garmisch

    The main line from Munich to Innsbruck is scenic enough, but far superior in terms of scenery is the local service travelling via Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The train climbs up into the German Alps south of Munich, passing close to Oberammergau before arriving in the ski resort and former Olympic venue of Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the foot of the mighty Zugspitze. The train then winds through Mittenwald to Seefeld in Austria, before making a spectacular descent into Innsbruck along the side of the steep Inn valley.

  • 9. La Spezia to St Raphael

    A coastal journey through scenic Liguria and on to the French Riviera. As the train leaves the port of La Spezia, it tunnels through the hills to emerge on the coast, and hugs the seashore closely for the majority of the journey. The rugged nature of the coast means lots of tunnels, particularly during the first part of the journey. The train heads inland after Santa Maria Ligure, cutting off the Cinque Terre peninsula and rejoining the coast at Camogli. After leaving Genoa, the coast becomes a little more open but also more developed, and the sea is more and more glimpsed between houses and hotels, but on a sunny day, even the glimpses of sparkling green sea are tremendously evocative. Heading into France, the riviera becomes ever more developed, though the hinterland remains as steep and dusty as ever, and the train passes through major resorts like Monaco, Nice and Cannes before finally leaving the coast behind at St. Raphael.

  • 10. The Semmering Pass

    The Semmering Pass railway technically runs from Gloggnitz to Mürzzuschlag, but you will more likely be travelling from Vienna to Graz, or to Carinthia/Slovenia if you head this way. Less overtly spectacular than some of the Alpine routes in western Austria, the Semmering was the first mountain pass crossed by rail, and this area is on the edges of the Alps, where the mountains are just as steep and the valleys narrow and winding, but the peaks are lower, meaning they keep their tree cover, and the rapid waters of the Mürz are overlooked by a number of ruined castles. The journey from Vienna south to WIener Neustadt is unremarkable, travelling across the edge of the great Hungarian plain, but on leaving the Wiener Neustadt, the scenery immediately picks up as the train climbs into the Alpine foothills and remains consistently scenic all the way to Graz, some three hours distant.

  • 11. Honourable mentions

    Take a train anywhere in the Alps and you're likely to have a pretty good view - in fact you could easily make a top ten (or even twenty) of Swiss journeys alone. With that in mind, the following journeys could easily have made this list:

    Montreux - Interlaken, the "Golden Pass"
    Interlaken - Lucerne, the "Brünig Pass"
    Interlaken - Lauterbrunnen - Grindelwald - Interlaken
    Spiez - Kandersteg - Brig, the Lötschberg Pass
    Lausanne - Montreux - Brig
    Innsbruck - Bregenz, the Arlberg Pass
    Salzburg - Villach
    Innsbruck - Verona
    Udine - Villach via Bled

    And don't forget, this is my personal favourites of routes I've travelled. There are plenty more scenic routes out there that I haven't had chance to see for myself yet...