Julia Buckley, CNN
It’s where the “flight shame” movement was born and no wonder — Europe is home to a superb rail network, including some truly spectacular journeys which are a vacation in themselves. Here are 10 of the most beautiful rides.
Derry-Coleraine railway, Northern Ireland
Travel maven Michael Palin called this “one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world” — what more do you need to know? The 38-minute journey follows the Foyle river out of Derry, weaving through the countryside until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Benone Strand, one of CNN Travel’s best loved beaches. The tracks run right beside the sand here, although you can get off just afterward at Castlerock if you can’t resist a walk on the beach.
From there, the train turns inland again, following the river Bann this time, to Coleraine. You’ll be following in some important footsteps — the earliest human settlement on the entire island of Ireland is Mountsandel Fort, high up on the Bann’s high bank. It was inhabited from 7600-7900 BCE.
Florence to Naples, Italy
Only in Italy can one of the country’s main routes be so beautiful. Italy’s main north-south line runs from Milan to Naples and while the top part is take it or leave it, through the flat plains of the Po Valley and then through mountain tunnels from Bologna to Florence, continuing south, you’ll roll through some of Italy’s most classic landscapes.
Pulling out of Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, you’ll glimpse the famous Duomo, then cross the Arno, before chugging through Tuscany, rolling hills on either side, then Umbria and Lazio.
Sit on the left for views of the ragged Apennine mountains; pick the right, and you’ll see Orvieto, one of central Italy’s most beautiful ancient towns, first sculpted from a tuff rock bluff by the Etruscan civilization. Coming into Rome, you’ll roll past the ancient city walls. Got more time? Stay on after Rome to Naples for spectacular views of Vesuvius as you wind into the city.
Barcelona to Montserrat, Spain
Barcelona’s grand Plaça d’Espanya is the departure point for the fearsomely beautiful journey to Montserrat, the saw-toothed mountain range rearing up in the distance behind the seaside city, and home to a Benedictine abbey since the 11th century (although the current building is from the 1800s). The 23-mile railway line rumbles through the Catalan countryside to the foot of the mountains, where the Cremallera rack railway has been heaving visitors up the mountainside since 1892 (with a break from 1957-2003).
It’s a truly astonishing ride, climbing 1,800 feet in the first 2.5 miles, helped by rack traction. Once you’re at the level of the monastery, you can take a further funicular, the Sant Joan, higher up into the peaks. From there you can hike in the mountains.
Semmering Railway, Austria
Nearly 200 years after it opened in 1854, the Semmering Railway is still one of the most beautiful railways around — and it even enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. Even better, you can take this if you’re traveling between Vienna and Venice — making it a suitably stunning way to travel between two of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
Running for 25 miles through the Austrian Alps between Gloggnitz and Semmering, the Semmering weaves through the mountains, taking in 16 tunnels, 15 viaducts and over 100 bridges, plus a journey through a mountain pass at nearly 3,000 feet and plenty of thrilling bends.
Built as Europe’s first mountain railway, designed to connect Vienna to Trieste (which was at the time the Austro-Hungarian empire’s port), it’s still one of the greats. If you’re taking it as part of a longer journey, you’ll recognize the Semmering part not just from the great views, but also the 57 cottages built for railway staff spaced out along the line.
Bohinj Railway, Slovenia
Slovenia is a fascinating place to take a train journey, thanks to its location — its 800 miles of railway lines are part of wider lines connecting Italy to Hungary, and Austria to both Croatia and Italy. This one is no less epic — it’s part of a line connecting Prague to Trieste, or, in other words, landlocked central Europe to the Adriatic Sea.
One of Slovenia’s most historic lines, the Bohinj takes in 28 tunnels (one of them just under 17,500 feet long) and 65 bridges — including the Solkan Bridge, the world’s largest stone railway bridge, straddling the Soča river.
Bergen Railway, Norway
Built in 1909, the Bergen railway connects Norway’s capital with its second city. This is no ordinary commuter train, though — it’s a spectacular seven-hour ride across the mountain plateaus of Norway, past lakes, hikable mountains, and a village only accessible via train: Finse, at the highest point of the railway.
At Myrdal, you can connect to the cutesy Flåm Railway, whose hour-long ride hoists you up alongside high cliffs, lush greenery and a spectacular waterfall — a checklist of classic Norwegian beauty.
Nice to Ventimiglia, France, Monaco, Italy
You’re here for the views, of course — stonking vistas of the sparkling Mediterranean, between some of its most delightful towns. But this 50-minute route is also one for your inner travel buff, since it clocks up no fewer than three countries in under an hour, starting in France, dipping into Monaco, coming back out into France and finishing just across the Italian border.
For most of the trip, starting out from Nice Riquier station, you’ll have beautiful views, clonking past Art Deco villas, and alternating between snatches of the Med between the trees, and rattling along entire bays, with towns stacked up the cliffsides. You’ll pass through some of the most fabled towns on the Cote d’Azur, like Èze (above) and lemon-filled Menton, as well as getting prime views of Monte-Carlo. You’ll know you’ve hit Italy when the smell of blooming bougainvillea hits the air.
Sarajevo to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The road between Bosnia’s whimsical capital and its tourist honeypot, pretty Mostar, is beautiful enough; but the two-hour train journey is another level, threading below green mini mountains and ragged cliffs as it follows the emerald Neretva river. You’ll arrive in Mostar — one of CNN Travel’s favorite small towns in Europe — slightly upriver from the famous bridge, which was built by the Ottomans before being destroyed in 1993 by Croat forces and rebuilt stone for stone in 2004.
West Highland Railway, Scotland
You’ll likely recognize the Glenfinnan viaduct, which sprawls 1,250 feet through the Scottish Highlands, trains chugging across the river Finnan at a height of 100 feet — from “Harry Potter,” if nothing else.
No wonder this is one of the world’s most spectacular train rides — the epic views on Scotland’s most famous railway line draw you straight into the Highlands without so much as leaving the carriage. Leaving Glasgow, it points straight northwest, finishing at Mallaig, where you can take a ferry to the Isle of Skye.
En route, you’ll be whisked through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (yes, you chug alongside the loch), past Ben Nevis and across Rannoch Moor, where the line is “floated” above the peat bogs — with red deer and stags often your nearest neighbors for miles.
Lidköping to Mariestad, Sweden
As the home of the “flight shame” movement, Sweden has no shortage of beautiful rail routes — the Stockholm to Narvik line (in Norway’s Arctic Circle) is a real icon. However, it’s a long one that takes planning.
For something shorter, there’s the Lidköping to Mariestad line, which was voted Sweden’s loveliest train journey by rail users in 2018. The single-track railway skirts around the country’s largest lake, Vänern, riding up onto the Kinnekulle plateau for spectacular lake views as it heads northeast. Bored of the lake views? Keep a look out for deer and moose around the line in winter, or go in spring when wild garlic carpets the plateau.
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