Get us in your inbox

Kyoto Sagano railway
Photograph: Shutterstock

11 of the most incredible train journeys around the world

Feed your wanderlust with our ultimate guide to the world’s greatest railway adventures

Written by
Monisha Rajesh
Advertising

As the world begins to open up and travel is a prospect again, it’s time to rethink how we make our way around. With the ever-growing threat of climate change and a greater desire for sustainable ways to travel, the world’s railways have never been more enticing. And what better way to travel, propped up in a cosy berth, watching villages, towns and cities go by with a cup of tea in one hand and a paperback in the other? While you sleep under a soft duvet, wolf down noodles in a noisy dining car or sit in the library of a luxury service, your train will take you from one destination to the next without interrupting your day. Ready? Feed your wanderlust with our round-up of the world’s 11 greatest train journeys.

RECOMMENDED: 12 ways to be a better tourist right now

The best train journeys in the world

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Saigon, Vietnam
Photograph: Shutterstock

Reunification Express from Hanoi to Saigon, Vietnam

With a creak and a wail the Reunification Express rolls out of Hanoi station, taking two nights to travel along the backbone of the country down to Saigon. From behind limp-curtained windows passengers are drawn through the guts of Vietnam, granted views into kitchens, backyards and alleyways, where chefs hose pans, mothers plait children’s hair and tiny coloured vests dry on makeshift washing lines. Between Hué and Da Nang, jungle rises up around the train, waxy leaves slap the sides and hot sunshine flashes in between barred windows. And below, the South China Sea opens into an expanse of hazy blue, a finger of cream sand running along its frothy edge.

Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region
Photograph: Shutterstock

Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region

Few trains can take your breath away, but climbing to more than 5,200 metres, the Qinghai-Tibet railway from Xining to Lhasa can leave passengers more than a little tight in the chest. On the highest train in the world, compartments are fitted with gold nozzles pumping in purified oxygen to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness as passengers gaze at the yellow plateau and electric-blue skies. Suede-soft mountains are dusted with snow and raggedy-looking yaks dot the landscape, coloured prayer flags twisting in the breeze. As the train curls around the Kunlun Mountains, its interiors darken from the shadows of looming ice and snow before the final descent into Lhasa. 

Advertising
Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, USA
Photograph: Alex Cimbal / Shutterstock.com

Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles, USA

Sailing out of the seaport city of Seattle, the Coast Starlight curves down the western edge of America, showcasing the best views, food and conversation that Amtrak has to offer. Get comfy in the sightseer lounge with a view of the Pacific Ocean where turquoise hues bleed into one and tiny waves peak in the blue. Buskers strum guitars, students play poker and retirees chat to young travellers about their days on the old railroads. Serving everything from enchiladas to shrimp in lobster sauce, the dining car is the hub of the action where unlikely friendships strike up and strangers swap stories until the train barrels along the final stretch of sunlit coast and brakes into L.A. Union Station.

Sagano Scenic railway in Kyoto, Japan
Photograph: Shutterstock

Sagano Scenic railway in Kyoto, Japan

The antithesis of Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains, this nineteenth-century narrow-gauge railway chugs along at 15 miles an hour offering passengers close-up views of the Hozu river. In spring, the delicate scent of cherry blossoms drifts off pink explosions of sakura, but one of the most popular times to travel is in autumn when Japanese maple trees take on a range of colours as though the forests were on fire. Flaming in shades of orange, papaya and dark red, the mountainsides look as though they’ve been splashed with cans of paint.

Advertising
Yangon Circular Railway, Myanmar
Photograph: Shepps / Shutterstock.com

Yangon Circular Railway, Myanmar

The best way to get a feel for Myanmar’s capital city is by riding on the Yangon Circular Railway. On board, there’s a laid-back vibe where passengers nudge off flip-flops and sit cross-legged catching up with friends, threading flowers for market and selling everything from eggs and papayas to freshly roasted corn on the cob. As the train approaches stations, passengers hop down before it has stopped and stroll across overgrown tracks to markets covered with coloured umbrellas to shield their wares from the heat. Take the opportunity to step around the hessian sacks piled with pyramids of fruit and haggle with women in loose cotton shirts and floral longyi. Hop back on the next service and continue the loop to Yangon.

Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing
Photograph: Shutterstock

Trans-Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing

Known as the Godfather of Trains, the Trans-Mongolian departs from Moscow and takes more than five days to traverse Siberia, passing naked trees, isolated farms and low-hanging cloud and mists to arrive in Mongolia from where it dips down and carries on for another two days through China to Beijing. On board passengers will meet everyone from farmers and lawyers eating blinis and cottage cheese, to teachers and soldiers downing vodka and swapping smoke grenades for stamps and English coins. Pack plenty of food, brace yourself and surrender to an experience of a lifetime.

Advertising
Mandovi Express from Mumbai to Madgaon, India
Photograph: Shutterstock

Mandovi Express from Mumbai to Madgaon, India

Running down the southwest coast of India, the Konkan Railway is a feat of engineering excellence, with the Western Ghats flanking one side and the Arabian Sea sparkling quietly on the other. Submerged between coconut groves, palm trees and great swathes of wet greenery, trains travel with the doors flung open and warm air billowing up the aisles. The Mandovi Express is one of many services on this route, but it’s widely known for housing the best pantry car on Indian Railways, with vendors traipsing up the aisles carrying baskets of hot pakoras, chicken lollipops and pots of fresh biryani with yoghurt.

Cannes to Ventimiglia, France
Photograph: Shutterstock

Cannes to Ventimiglia, France

A commuter service running between the resort town of Cannes and the lovely old border town of Ventimiglia, this double-decker train is usually filled with elderly shoppers carrying bread in paper bags, students en route to university in Nice and tourists on day trips to the beach. But for the unaccustomed it’s a fabulous 90-minute journey along the French Riviera during which passengers can watch the Ligurian sea twinkle like a sheet of diamonds around curves of beach where tanned bodies play volleyball, and pipe-smoking men play pétanque. From the top deck you can peek over wrought-iron balconies, see bundles of magenta bougainvillea pour down walls on thin streets and listen to the sound of supercars growling through Monaco.

Advertising
The Skeena from Jasper to Prince Rupert, Canada
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Skeena from Jasper to Prince Rupert, Canada

A well-kept secret, the Skeena runs between Jasper in Alberta and Prince Rupert in the furthest reaches of British Columbia. Over two days the train winds around the Rocky Mountains, their white peaks blazing in perfect sunshine, their bodies reflected in water as still as glass. Armies of douglas fir march down to the lakes’ edges and passengers will likely spot moose, caribou, golden eagles and a brown bear or two. Although popular with tourists who enjoy the domed panoramic viewing car, three-course meals and constant wine, the train is also a lifeline for First Nations people who have no other mode of transport in this desolate region. Like mushroom pickers, fishermen and hikers, they emerge from the trees and flag down the train which has to stop – even between stations.

The Death Railways from Bangkok to Nam Tok, Thailand
Photograph: apiguide / Shutterstock.com

The Death Railways from Bangkok to Nam Tok, Thailand

During World War II the Japanese used prisoners of war to construct a railway connecting Thailand and Burma – with the aim of invading India. Under the most dire of conditions the men built 372 miles of track with one death for every sleeper laid. With a harrowing history, a segment of the railway continues to run today from Bangkok to Nam Tok, through some of Thailand’s most spectacular scenery. With branches thwacking the windows, and vendors hawking sticky rice and chicken satay on board, the train runs along trestle bridges, over wide rivers with floating villages bobbing around, and even across the infamous bridge on the River Kwai. There is a museum at the end where passengers can listen to testimony from survivors and walk along old sleepers still visible through the dirt.

Advertising
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Venice to London
Photograph: Belmond Orient Express

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express from Venice to London

Probably the most famous train in the world, the Orient Express is a theatrical performance for those who long to hark back to a golden age of travel. With lacquered marquetry, varnished walls and personal stewards to make up the cabins, the train sweeps passengers into a reverie of pure decadence. Over the clink and shiver of glasses on the table, passengers dine on foie gras, chicken oysters and chunks of sweet lobster tail, while the train curves through the Dolomites and around Lake Geneva, with passengers waking in Paris to a basket of warm croissants and fresh coffee. Unable to travel through the Channel Tunnel, the train deposits passengers in Calais, but there’s a British Pullman service waiting in Kent to carry passengers along the final leg to London Victoria, accompanied by salmon and cucumber sandwiches and pots of hot tea.

Monisha Rajesh is the author of ‘Around the World in 80 Trains’, which is published by Bloomsbury.

Recommended

    More on getaways

      You may also like
        Advertising