5 of the most photogenic train journeys in Europe

Posted on 28 February 2017

There’s no better way to travel Europe than by train. You get to skip the airport security lines (and lengthy check-in procedures), take as much baggage with as many liquids of your choosing (including your own minibar, if you like), and will arrive in the heart of the continent’s most celebrated cities within walking distance of your Old Town hotel.

But if that’s not enough to convince you of the glories of train travel, all you have to do to get some of the best views of the continent is to gently pivot your turn your neck to the window beside you. There are dozens of scenic routes throughout Europe, but here are five of the most photogenic:

1. GoldenPass Line – Lucerne to Montreux (Switzerland)

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

The GoldenPass line runs between Lucerne and Montreux and somehow still flies beneath the radar of Europe’s best scenic lines. This may be because it’s not a dedicated scenic line, but an important commuter route that stops in at dozens of cities and towns along the route. Which is precisely the reason you should be taking it.

Switzerland’s GoldenPass line is also cheaper than its compatriots, and is included in most rail passes at no extra cost. It whips you through a highlights package of the most clichéd Swiss sights in just a few hours. There are also several noteworthy destinations en-route, including Gstaad, Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen.

Regular trains run throughout the day, but time it correctly and you can ride aboard the panoramic train between Lucerne and Zweissemen, and then take a nostalgic trip down memory lane on the Classic train all the way to Lake Geneva.

Best direction: There’s no discernable difference between trains running Lucerne to Montreux, or Montreux to Lucerne
Best side to sit: Either
More information: goldenpass.ch


2. Bernina Express – Chur to Tirano (Switzerland)

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

The Bernina Express that runs between Chur and the Italian border may just be the best scenic Swiss train route of all time. It even gives the Glacier Express a run for its money.

The Bernina Express is a spotless narrow-gauge train with floor-to-ceiling windows so you can soak up the dramatic views. If you’re not concerned about the panoramic carriages and want to save some cash, there are also regular trains running throughout the day that follow the same route.

The ride is shorter than other legendary Swiss routes, but no less incredible. In fact, the entire route is now a UNESCO World Heritage site – when you see the engineering achievements and scenery around every single corner, you’ll understand why. You’ll cross dozens of bridges, including the famous spiral Brusio Spiral Viaduct, head up staggering mountain passes, alongside the purest glaciers, and have a slow descent all the way to the Italian border.

Many choose to return to Swiss soil almost immediately either by doing the trip in reverse, or hopping aboard the Bernina Express busses that skirt Italy’s Lake Como before arriving in Lugano three hours later. You’re also just a short ride away from Milan.

Best direction: No discernable difference in summer. In winter, southbound is the better option as the last few hours in the northbound train will be in darkness.
Best side to sit: Grab a seat on the right hand side if you’re travelling south for the best views.
More information: rhb.ch/en/panoramazuege/bernina-express


3. Montenegro Express – Bar to Belgrade (Montenegro and Serbia)

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

It’s unclear whether the train between Bar and Belgrade even has an official tourist name like those elsewhere in Europe. The few tourists who take the journey seem to call it the Montenegro Express; the daily commuters just call it life. What is clear, however, is that it doesn’t matter that this train lacks a slick name thought up by an overpaid marketing department.

This isn’t your glitzy scenic line packed full of foreign tourists stumbling the aisles. You’ll also be lucky to find a first class carriage, or any on-board services for that matter. It isn’t exactly a luxurious or particularly punctual service. But none of that will matter the moment you board the train in either Montenegro or Serbia.

The scenery, history, engineering and sense of adventure you’re treated to on board this route are unlike any other route on the continent. And the full fare for the 11-hour journey between the two cities, over hundreds of bridges and through hundreds of tunnels along seemingly impassable terrain, will cost you less than a reheated dining cart meal and a glass of wine in any of the other trains on this list.

Best direction: The morning train from Bar to Belgrade gets my vote – you’ll travel through the best Montenegrin scenery in daylight and save the darkness for the Serbian suburbs.
Best side to sit: Make sure you sit on the left side travelling from Bar to Belgrade.
More information: Not surprisingly, there is no official website or suitable online booking option, but the Wikipedia page has some good info.


4. Rhine Valley – Bingen to Koblenz (Germany)


Germany’s Rhine Valley route may be short, but it’s also the sweetest journey in the country. It officially runs between the quaint towns of Bingen and Koblenz, but you can extend your journey in either direction.

The Rhine Valley is littered with tiny picturesque towns, cliff-side medieval castles and pristine vineyards, and the train ride offers perfect views of all. At times it feels as if you’re floating along the river itself on a carefully constructed grownup theme park ride of sorts.

The route is only about 100 kilometres long, but there’s a staggering amount of charm built in around every corner. If you want to prolong the journey, make sure you pick the train with regular stops en-route, or hop off at a little village that captures your imagination and sample a cold glass Riesling at source.

Best direction: Both directions are much the same
Best side to sit: You’ll want to be on the river side – this is on the right hand side on the south to north journey.
More information: www.bahn.de


5. Glacier Express – Zermatt to St Moritz (Switzerland)


Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Photo by Andrew Thompson.

Unfortunately, the Swiss are just too good at railways not to bag another spot on this list. The Glacier Express is a top contender for the best scenic rail line in Europe on most criteria – comfort, efficiency, views, facilities and even starting and ending destinations.

It traces a route through some of the country’s most dramatic scenery, between two of Switzerland’s most beautiful and pretentious winter resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz. It is equally impressive during summer.

You can expect all the Swiss rail comforts imaginable on board this surprisingly slow train. Massive glass windows rise from your waist to as high as you can crane your neck – perfect for catching glimpses of those Swiss mountain tops. In first class you’ll get served at your seat with a real cutlery and crockery, an actual table cloth and glasses of the finest European wines. Though you’ll pay heavily.

Of course, like me, you can also politely refuse the service and pull out a sandwich pilfered from the hotel breakfast buffet to accompany the 99-cent can of beer you bought at the supermarket earlier that day. You may receive some down-the-nose glances from your fellow passengers and the napkin-carrying waiters, because it’s that kind of journey, but when you remember the financial sacrifices you’re making (a first-class one-way fare for the seven-and-a-half hour journey costs close to R4000), you probably shouldn’t care.

Best direction: Both directions offer equal views and travel in daylight throughout the year.
Best side to sit: Westbound your best bet is probably to sit on the left-hand side, but be prepared for the river views on the left hand side when you enter the Rhine Gorge.
More information: glacierexpress.ch

Scenic train rides are not hard to find in Europe. Most train journeys offer moments of brilliance, and even the blandest routes hold surprises. Though some of these may cost a small fortune, if you arm yourself with a Swiss Rail or Eurail Pass and plan ahead, there’s no reason why you can’t tick at least one of these legendary European rail routes off your bucket list. The bad news is, once you do, you’ll stop at nothing for your next hit.

Follow my travels on Instagram for more: @andrewthompsonsa

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