10 Great Scenic Railway Journeys to Take Before You Die
By Lyn Parry
A train trip can be like taking several vacations from a single seat—while you relax with a book or a glass of wine, changing views leap from one side of your carriage to the other. On the best routes, whether you have a posh spot in a panoramic carriage or a reservation in a retro wagon hauled by a steam locomotive, there will always be dramatic, window-wide vistas to soak up. Seasoned travelers covet tickets on these 10 great rail journeys across the world, ranging from one-hour jaunts to multiday odysseys.
Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland
- Route: Between Fort William and Mallaig
- Journey time: Roughly two hours
- Along the way: This nostalgic steam train that clickety-clacks through the Scottish Highlands will have you glued to the window. Between Fort William and the small fishing port of Mallaig, the route slices through a wild landscape of rugged peaks, misty glens, and glassy lochs. Look out for Ben Nevis, Scotland’s tallest mountain, and the 21-arch Glenfinnan viaduct, in use since 1901. The viaduct was seen in the Harry Potter films when the Jacobite Steam Train played the role of the Hogwarts Express. The train's 1960s carriages are hauled by vintage steam locomotives known as Black 5s.
- Extend your trip from Mallaig and hop on to a ferry to the Isle of Skye.
Rocky Mountaineer Train, Canada
- Route: Between Vancouver and Banff
- Journey time: Two days
- Along the way: The Rocky Mountaineer train from Vancouver to Banff in Alberta follows the 1885 Canadian Pacific route through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies. This landscape-hugging ride strings together black shale cliffs, dramatic canyons, glacial lakes, and fast-flowing rivers and cascades, passing the peaks of the Coast Mountain range, over the Continental Divide, and through Banff National Park. If you splurge on first-class Gold Leaf service, you get to sit in the glass-domed section of a double-decker car, eat top-notch food, and sip unlimited cocktails.
- Extend your trip to Lake Louise and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a short train journey of just 35 miles northwest of Banff.
Hiram Bingham Orient Express, Peru
- Route: Between Cusco and Machu Picchu Pueblo
- Journey time: Three and a half hours
- Along the way: Between Peru’s colonial city of Cusco and Machu Picchu Pueblo, the vintage-style Hiram Bingham Pullman train winds its way along the Urubamba River valley. Along with pisco sours and live music, the journey to Machu Picchu provides some spectacular sights—verdant terraces hacked out by the Incas, colorful villages clinging to the forest-clad hills, grazing llamas, and distant ruins. The showstopper, however, is still the ancient Inca citadel, which rakes in the tourists but is enchanting just the same. The number of visitors to Machu Picchu is restricted each day, so be sure to reserve your ticket for a guided tour in advance online.
- Extend your trip at the end of the line by staying in town or going up the mountain to the ruins of Machu Picchu (pictured).
Japan Royal Express train
- Route: Between Yokohama and Shimoda, Japan
- Journey time: Three hours
- Along the way: This sleek, shiny blue Royal Express train, Japan’s newest and swankiest tourist railway, attracts the stares of commuters as it pulls out of Yokohama Station, just south of Tokyo. After the bustle of the mainline station, chill out on this three-hour trip heading southwest to the Izu Peninsula. As you hug the coastline, the seascapes gradually become more spectacular, offering picture-postcard views of the Pacific Ocean, the Izu Peninsula, and Sagami Bay. When you arrive at your destination in Shimoda, unwind from the journey by soaking in one of the hot springs and visit Shirahama Shrine, Izu’s oldest site of its kind.
- Extend your trip by opting for the package that includes a round-trip journey with overnight accommodations and a tour of Ito.
Bernina Express, Swiss Alps
- Route: Between Chur and Tirano, Switzerland and Italy
- Journey time: Four hours
- Along the way: The Bernina Express excursion over the Swiss Alps seems tailor-made for Instagram. Double-height windows provide unstoppable panoramas of snow-capped glaciers, flower-filled meadows, and vast lakes. Apart from the Alpine vistas, your traveling companions include the famous curved, six-arched Landwasser Viaduct—a spectacular architectural feat when it was built in 1901—and the corkscrew Brusio Spiral Viaduct, which forms part of a 360-degree curve. Settle back as the train drops down the fir-tree-lined track into Poschiavo Valley before finally stopping just across the border in the charming Italian town of Tirano.
- Extend your trip with a panoramic bus ride from Tirano bus station, along the banks of Lake Como, to Lugano.
Maharajas’ Express, India
- Route: Delhi to Mumbai (one direction only)
- Journey time: 4–7 days
- Along the way: The Maharajas' Express odyssey begins with a red-carpet moment as you board amid swirling dancers and turbaned attendants. A bygone era or Bollywood? One thing is certain: This is a top-end trip and a throwback to the leisurely mode of travel enjoyed by the ruling maharajas. Leaving the frenzy of Delhi behind, you make a whistle-stop tour through storied places such as colorful Rajasthan, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), and Ranthambore National Park, the best spot for sighting wild tigers, leopards, and crocodiles. The lineup of princely palaces, temples, and forts, plus sedate afternoon tea parties and even a game of elephant polo, is a luxurious soak in India’s exclusive past.
- Extend your trip by adding more Indian destinations—the train operator offers tour packages of every stripe.
The Ghan Expedition, Australian Outback
- Route: Between Darwin and Adelaide
- Journey time: Four days (including stops)
- Along the way: Your bucket list just acquired a new addition: the Outback. This transcontinental, south-north Ghan train cranks up the drama as it traverses the remote Red Centre between South Australia and the Northern Territory. Leaving the suburbs of Adelaide, the train cuts through staggering Outback landscapes on its way to Alice Springs, finally rolling through the bushlands and pastures around Darwin, where it draws to a halt. Step down from the wagon to participate in off-train excursion opportunities. The package includes a cruise in the spiritual Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine and a tour of the underground world of the opal mining capital of Coober Pedy. As add-on choices there are also helicopter and light aircraft flights.
- Extend your trip to the wine region of Barossa Valley, near Adelaide, or the wildlife sanctuary of Kangaroo Island.
Rhine Valley, Germany
- Route: Between Koblenz and Mainz
- Journey time: One hour
- Along the way: The 55-minute jaunt from Koblenz to Mainz showcases some of Germany’s cutest Rhine villages. Referred to as "The Romantic Rhine," the region ticks all the boxes with a parade of fairytale castles (pictured) and dramatic vineyard terraces. For the best views, opt for a stage-side seat on the right hand side of the car. The express train runs directly from Koblenz to Mainz, but if you wish to stop off here and there to explore the pretty Rhine hamlets, jump on one of the slower local trains.
- Extend your trip by hopping from train to riverboat or vice versa with the same ticket. Castle lovers should head for Rheinfels, above the town of St. Goar, but the cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf are also nearby.
Rovos Rail, South Africa
- Route: Between Pretoria and Cape Town
- Journey time: Two days
- Along the way: When it comes to top-end journeys, the Rovos ride ranks among the best. The journey strings together stunning views of the grasslands of the gold-rich Highveld, the Karoo’s bleakly beautiful desert landscapes, and zigzag paths across the vineyard-studded winelands of the Western Cape, past Dutch-gabled 18th-century houses. The finish line is the center of Cape Town, one of the world's most gorgeous cities, surrounded by an amphitheater of mountain peaks: Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, and Lion’s Head. For hands-on thrills, take one of the off-train excursions to the historic village of Matjiesfontein and Kimberley, home to the world’s largest diamond mine. (The train will wait for your return before moving on.)
- Extend your trip via one of the additional routes that take you deeper into South Africa. From Kimberley, the journey continues to the Northern Cape, taking in Fish River Canyon—second in size only to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The Bergen Line, Norway
- Route: Between Oslo and Bergen
- Journey time: Six and a half hours
- Along the way: The Bergen Line travels through Norway's seriously remote, timeless, and breathtaking landscapes. As it leaves Oslo’s suburbs, the scenery morphs into valleys, fjords, and waterfalls—each getting wider and more vast. When the trees begin to peter out, the high-alpine scenery kicks in with grand, far-reaching vistas such as the barren Hardangervidda mountain plateau. Snowfall and freezing temperatures prevail most of the year, so be sure to wrap up in woolies. (Better yet, buy some as souvenirs.)
- Extend your trip at Myrdal by jumping on the train to Flåm for its electric railway (two hours round-trip) that climbs steeply and thrillingly through the fjords. Frommer's calls it "the most thrilling train ride in Scandinavia, and possibly the world."
Australia, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Peru, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Alberta, British Columbia, The Rhineland, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Bergen, Cape Town, Cusco, Darwin, Delhi, Fort William, Koblenz, Mainz, Mumbai, Oslo, Turin, Vancouver, Outback South Australia