Travelling to a distant location that isn’t on your doorstep has been made very simple by air travel. But there are so many aspects of the journey that you miss out on when you’re 38,000 feet in the air. No matter how good the view is out the window, the foreign lands whistling by beneath your feet are incomprehensible from such a height.
Trains, on the other hand, allow for that immersive journey experience and give you a much more personal connection with the exotic environments flying past your window. Train journeys can be an assault on the senses; the smells and sights of a destination are brought into much sharper focus.
Not all train journeys are fun – the morning commute to the office isn’t always something to shout about from the rooftops. But these opulent cross-country journeys through some of Europe’s most desirable cities and landscapes are truly exhilarating and offer a unique travelling experience for those onboard. Fine dining, award-winning wine, and cosy lodgings are but a few of the classy, elegant features to be enjoyed on these luxurious locomotives.
Venice Simplon-Orient Express
Perhaps the most famous train journey on the continent, the Orient Express, so eloquently portrayed by Agatha Christie in her 1934 murder mystery novel, is an art-deco sleeper train that traverses some of Europe’s most scenic countries.
The historic journey originally started with a 17-carriage service that connected Paris to Istanbul in 1883. The service was later expanded to various cities across Europe and reached its pinnacle in the 1940s. Due to an exponential increase in air travel from the 50s onwards, carriages fell into disrepair and the famous service ground to a halt.
In the 1970s however, American James Sherwood, founder of luxury hotel and train company Belmond, bought some of the rundown trains at an auction. By 1982 he had located and restored enough original carriages to form the Venice Simplon-Orient Express that still operates today.
Sales were at a record high before the pandemic and Belmond are looking to re-establish that as international travel becomes more accessible. Gary Franklin, vice president of Belmond’s trains and cruises, told CNBC in 2021 that: “2019 was a record year for Venice Simplon-Orient-Express that saw our revenue increase by 70% compared to those in 2015.”
Today, the service runs from London or Paris to Venice, and now also stops at Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, Rome and Florence. Other longer trips include the popular Paris to Istanbul route which only happens once a year and takes five nights, costing £35,000 ($47,500) for a twin cabin.
The Trans-Siberian Express
Another well-known addition to the list is the 9289km journey from Moscow in the west of Russia to Vladivostok in the south-east of the country, right on the border with China and North Korea. This truly epic journey spans eight time zones and transports guests through an incredible range of climates and environments, all within the luxurious confines of an opulent sleeper train.
There are several routes guests can take; the Rossiya is a prestigious service that runs between Moscow and Vladivostok and provides you with comfortable lodgings for the six days onboard. Meanwhile, the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian is a more luxurious option that takes guests on a 15-day trip to the Mongolian city of Ulaanbaatar, past the ancient Lake Baikal, across the sprawling Ural Mountains and to many more inspiring locations.
This train journey is a unique opportunity to explore areas of Russia that are otherwise not very easy to reach. Aboard the Golden Eagle, guests can enjoy exquisite food whilst listening to a pianist playing Tchaikovsky and sipping a delicate cocktail. At each major location, guests are encouraged to leave the train and take in as much unique culture as possible. Trips are held from May to September, and rates start from $18,095 for the all-inclusive 15-day journey.
Belmond Royal Scotsman
Riding aboard the Royal Scotsman is a bucket-list moment and is ranked amongst the most luxurious train journeys on the planet, let alone Europe. The same company that runs the Venice Simplon-Orient Express crops up again on this list, as they are responsible for what their website calls a “private party in a palace on wheels”.
The Royal Scotsman offers a variety of journeys; perhaps the most fascinating of which is Scotland’s Classic Splendours. For the price of £6,200 per passenger, guests can enjoy four nights aboard the train with all food and drink included (that’s a full Scottish breakfast, a three-course lunch, and a four-course dinner), a seal-watching boat trip, a trip to Ballindalloch Castle, a walk around Rothiemurchus Estate, and a guided tour of Glamis Castle and gardens.
With this train, it really is about the journey rather than the destination. Cosy mahogany marquetry coupled with magnificent onboard entertainment make this train journey something that guests will remember for the rest of their lives. There’s even a spa to be found inside one of the carriages to pamper to your every need, and a bar that stocks 30 varieties of Scottish Whiskey.
The Presidential Train, Portugal
Built in 1890 as the Royal Train for King Dom Luis I, the Presidential Train in Portugal hosted heads of state like Pope Paul VI and Queen Elizabeth II. After Portugal became a republic in the early 20th century, it was retitled the Presidential Train and hosted international dignitaries until its last ride in 1970.
Portuguese entrepreneur Gonçalo Castel-Branco found the train at the National Railway Museum and began his vision to create one of the most Europe’s most celebrated train journeys. Setting off from the medieval heart of Porto toward the beautiful Douro Valley gives guests a nine-hour gourmet excursion that follows in the footsteps of some of the continent’s most illustrious figures.
Tickets are €500 ($560), compared to €24.60 if you take the regular train along the same line. On the Presidential train though, you are paying for some exquisite catering from a string of Michelin-starred chefs from Portugal and beyond that serve gourmet lunches to travellers. Furthermore, their flamboyant, sometimes experimental meals are always partnered with prize-winning Douro wines.