Whether you’re simply travelling from the end of one country to its other, crossing the English Channel or searching for a longer adventure – one that will have you feeling as though you’ve stepped back to another era – the best way to get around Europe is by train.
Watch the countryside change outside your window, meet people from around the world and enjoy relaxed hospitality on the way to somewhere new and exciting. Plus, you surely have to be in favour of any method of long-distance transportation that allows you to avoid the clamour and stress of an airport. Here, we’ve found some classic European rail journeys that will take you to the continent’s finest destinations.
Top of the Hot Lists
There’s no doubt about it: Portugal is experiencing a moment. Everyone you talk to wants to go there, and that’s why you should book early if you’re keen to get on board The Presidential. They don’t call it that for nothing – kings, presidents, heads of state and popes have all travelled on this train, the jewel in the crown of the country’s railway, during the past century.
These days it offers a mouth-watering journey where guests can experience sumptuous meals prepared by incredible chefs from Portugal and further afield. The culinary talents in 2019’s departures between 20 September and 26 October include Henrique Sá Pessoa (two Michelin stars), Oscar Goncalves (one Michelin star), Leandro Carreira, Alexandre Silva (2012 winner of Top Chef), Óscar Gonçalves, Nuno Mendes and Bruno Rocha, as well as rising stars André Lança Cordeiro and Pedro Pana Bastos.
Of course, you’ll need to make a decision on which option you’re going to take. The first is a nine-hour trip. Entitled the Presidential Experience, it includes a return journey between Sao Bento and Vesuvio, a four-course gourmet lunch with matched wines and an excursion to taste port at Quinto do Vesuvio.
There’s also a two-day Escapade Pack from Sao Bento to Duoro – think the Presidential Experience with added grape stomping in one of the world’s last stone pits and an overnight stay at Six Senses Duoro Valley, a nineteenth-century manor house overlooking vineyards that’s been transformed into a luxury resort.
For maximum extravagance, book the three-day Premium Pack. You’ll begin in Porto, where you’ll indulge in meals at some of the city’s best restaurants, take private tours of the country’s premier modern art museum, Fundacio Serralves, and grand concert hall Casa de Musica. Then it’s on to the train where you’ll embark on a wonderful two-day exploration of Vesuvio and the Duoro Valley.
Don’t Miss Swiss
If you look up the word efficiency in the dictionary, there’s a photograph of a Swiss train right next to it. They run on time, they go everywhere and with the ultra-convenient Swiss Travel Pass you can jump on any public train, bus or ferry and explore to your heart’s content.
Of course, the million-euro question is which train to choose. Check out the suggested routes for the Ultimate Grand Train Tour of Switzerland to help make your decision a little easier. The experts do recommend allocating between four and eight days to your train tour to take in a huge variety of the landscapes and experiences on offer throughout this fascinating country. There are eight different routes in all, covering 1,200 kilometres and crossing all four of Switzerland’s language regions. Each one offers a journey of discovery, rolling through jaw-dropping scenery and also delivering travellers to lesser known towns and villages. Get a better understanding of the country by matching your timetabling to local festivities or events.
Still stuck? Here are some of our favourites. At the top of the hit list is the Bernina Express, which travels between St Moritz and Lugano on an elevated journey across the Swiss Alps. It negotiates 55 tunnels and 196 bridges along the way, follows the edge of Lake Como and stops at Alp Grüm, a restaurant accessible only by train.
Lovers of the high life might also like to board the Glacier Express, which passes through charming towns, across steep glaciers, past waterfalls and along Switzerland’s very own Grand Canyon, the Rhine Gorge. We know the word spectacular gets bandied about an awful lot, but it really is the only way to describe this scenic route from St Moritz to Zermatt.
Then there’s the GoldenPass MOB Panoramic linking Lucerne and Interlaken, gateway to the country’s adventure capital.
There are certainly far more places to see and trains to catch, and you can get one of the local experts at Great Train Journeys to organise an entire itinerary, including accommodation, for you.
It’s one of the largest of its kind in the world and Hardangerfjord, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to Norway’s mountainous interior, is a sight a visitor will never forget. In parts, it is 900 metres deep and is blessed with natural wonders like thundering waterfalls and spectacular peaks.
If you want to set your full attention to its many wonders, book the Hardangerfjord in a Nutshell tour. Operating from May to September, this round trip can be done in one day, but why rush? It’s much better to slow right down, stretch the journey out to three days, and enjoy it all.
Along the way you’ll join a boat cruise on the fjord and a coach tour through countryside that explores delightful villages, like Ulvik, typical of Western Norway. You’ll also go on a sightseeing side trip that takes in the Vøringsfossen waterfall and the Norwegian Nature Center.
But there are plenty of other adventures that will reveal the region’s unique offerings. Take a guided snowshoe hike to Trolltunga, which juts out high over Ringedalsvatnet lake. Fjord safaris take visitors out on the water in rigid inflatable boats, where they can see seals and seabirds, as well as marvel at the sheer walls of rock that erupt from the waterline. Or perhaps you’d prefer to power a similar journey yourself. At Ulvik, join a guided kayak tour where, once you’ve paddled to an isolated island in the fjord, you’ll be taught basic survival skills, like how to start a fire and identify edible plants.
There are many other options for this train trip, too, including starting your return journey in Oslo and doing a one-way trip between Bergen and Voss.
For many other European journeys, head to Great Train Journeys.
This story is sponsored by Great Train Journeys, a Rail Europe portfolio.
Qatar Airways flies to more than 50 destinations throughout Europe, with connections from Australian cities through Doha.