Incredible routes and amazing scenery where the journey itself is the adventure
Travel doesn’t have to be all rush, rush, rush. Sometimes you just want to sit back in a comfortable seat, maybe with a good book or excellent company, and watch the scenery roll by. Here’s our selection of the ten most beautiful railway journeys in the world: some lasting for days, some only a few kilometers, but all spectacular.
Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West, Canada
The Rocky Mountaineer company provides a number of trips and holidays by train, and the First Passage to the West is the most well-known. From Vancouver, the routes take you high into the Canadian Rockies, through mountain passes and vast canyons, and across the wilds of British Columbia. Into Alberta and onto Banff, you’ll see some of the most jaw-dropping scenery anywhere in the Americas.
There are curated packages depending on what you’re looking for. From the basic two-day trip from Vancouver to Banff, you can also opt for extra sightseeing tours, or to do a 4–5 day round trip. Their Rainforest to Gold Rush route is even longer, again starting in Vancouver, but winding its way north and east for three days, traveling via Whistler and ending in the town of Jasper, surrounded by snow-capped alpine peaks.
Linha do Douro, Portugal
The Linha do Douro takes its name from the Douro River which, for much of this route’s 160km length, runs alongside. The Douro valley is one of Europe’s most well-known regions of vineyards, with thousands of acres covering the landscape all around.
The route connects two very different places: the village of Pocinho, high up in the Alto Douro, and the city of Porto on the Atlantic coast. The whole journey takes around three and a half hours, but the trains are nicely regular, so there are plenty of chances to hop off and explore some of the towns en route, or even do a part of the route by boat.
Kandy — Ella, Sri Lanka
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Taking anywhere from eight and a half to ten hours, Kandy to Ella is in fact just one section of a longer line that runs from Colombo to Badulla. Initially built by the colonial British to transport goods such as tea, the line is now a vital transport link for locals.
It’s dusty, it’s hot, it’s exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating as carriages fill with people singing songs, selling delicious home-made food and drinks, laughing and smiling. The train heads through the hills and through the open windows you can see the dots of people in brightly-colored saris working on the tea farms. You can, if you want, ride this route in a first-class carriage, but why would you do that? This is one route where the stiff, stuffy world of first class goes against the whole point of the journey.
This isn’t much of an adventure, but it certainly is a pretty route. In 20 km and about an hour, the train takes you from sea level at the Aurlandsfjord in Flåm to Myrdal mountain station. The Flåm Valley is home to beautiful villages, meadows and flowers, while the higher the train climbs, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.
Following a sparkling blue river that crashes and flows down the valley, the line teeters on the edge of seemingly impassable cliffs, heading through 20 tunnels cut into the rock, and emerging at the Kjosfossen waterfall where the train stops for passengers to take photos.
TranzAlpine, New Zealand
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Not only an example of New Zealand’s love of a deliberately misplaced letter Z (see also: Split Enz), the TranzAlpine is also one of the southern hemisphere’s most scenic train journeys. The route crosses the country’s South Island, between Christchurch and Greymouth, and takes around five hours to complete its 223 km.
Beginning by crossing the patchwork fields of Canterbury Plains, the train rumbles towards Springfield, gateway to the Southern Alps. Previously, the line had ended here, before planning, engineering and bravery constructed a track through the mighty mountains. Via the township of Arthur’s Pass, the train climbs along the cliffs of the Waimakariri River, through 15 tunnels and over four dizzying viaducts. Once over the mountains, the landscape turns lush and green as you pass rivers, lakes and forests before finally arriving at Greymouth.
Glacier Express, Switzerland
One of the most beautiful countries in Europe in terms of scenery, Switzerland is also famous for its railways, which are clean, punctual, and — through sheer luck at being in such a mountainous country — spectacular. Wandering for eight hours across the south of the country between St. Moritz and Zermatt, the line winds its way through dazzling alpine scenery, across narrow bridges crossing heart-stopping ravines, through tunnels and alongside burbling rivers.
It’s a thoroughly modern service, with excellent food available on board, and views enhanced by the fact that the carriages have huge windows and glass ceilings, meaning an even more panoramic experience. You’ll rarely have rolled into any destination more stylishly.
The Serra Verde Express, Brazil
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Running from the city of Curitiba, almost a kilometer above sea level, the Serra Verde is a route that began in the 19th century through the Belgian-French company Chemin de Fer Bresilien acquiring permission to build a railway to open up trade routes. It now exists as a train carrying tourists for three hours down to the town of Morretes.
It begins in the heavily forested mountains and heads into the Pico do Marumbi State Park. A tropical wilderness of crashing waterfalls and cloud forests, make sure you get a seat by an open window to experience the full sensation of the breeze, the smells of vegetation and water, and the thrill of flying over viaducts with seemingly nothing beneath you. That, by the way, means getting a cheaper ticket: the only class that’s air-conditioned (and therefore has sealed windows) is the top Litorina de Luxo class, so get anything but that. What’s the point in being sealed in on a trip like this?!
Pacific Surfliner, US
A US road trip without having to do any driving? Sounds good, right? Well that’s pretty much what’s going on here. Along 560 km of Southern California coast between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, with Los Angeles the rough halfway point.
It follows the coast almost continuously, the line being mere feet from the ocean at points. The inland sections cross farmland and wide-open spaces, as well as wild contrasts such as industrial areas on the outskirts of the cities. It’s not the longest journey on this list — end-to-end is around eight and a half hours — but it’s a great way of traveling from place to place over a longer time at a scenic, relaxed pace.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia
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Similar to the Norwegian railway above, this is a short pleasure trip more than a grand adventure, with a one-way trip taking just under two hours. It’s absolutely worth it though, as the train winds its way from the city of Cairns on the coast up and across the Great Dividing Range to the rural town of Kuranda, situated deep in the Wet Tropics rainforest.
The sights, sounds and smells of the rainforest pour in through the train windows into the period carriages as you snake your way through lush forests, across precipitous bridges and past crashing waterfalls. There’s a commentary as the journey continues, letting you know what you’re seeing and the history of the rainforest and the railway.
Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia
We end with the grandfather of them all, almost 10,000 kilometers of railway stretching between Moscow and Vladivostok. Commissioned on the whim of Emperor Alexander III, it was already being written about in awed terms before it was even completed, as adventurers and railway enthusiasts rode sections of the journey in anticipation.
Time hasn’t dulled its appeal. The journey takes eight days and spans eight time zones, navigating mountain passes, crossing steppe, skirting rivers and lakes. The ever-changing landscape is a different planet depending on the season as well, so a glorious, colorful summer journey is a completely different experience to a winter trip across ice-fields and past frozen water. It remains one of the worlds’ great adventures.
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