The journey is often more exciting than the destination - and never is that more apparent than on a railway holiday. Whether you're being rocked to sleep on Vietnam's Reunification Express, watching the Highlands whizz past the window in Scotland, or cracking open the vodka and a pack of cards on the iconic Trans Siberian Railway, there are few better ways to travel the world.
European railway holidays guide
“The first time I took a train instead of flying, I was travelling from Italy to France,” says Scott Batchelor from our partner Euroventure. “I remember going through the countryside and realising how much more beautiful it was to look out the window and see the environment slowly shifting. We were going through the Dolomites; the mountains were stunning outside... And I thought that wherever possible from now on, this is how I’m going to do it.”
Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.
– The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
When you go on a Europe railway holiday, you might start where it all began: Great Britain, which went full steam ahead with the first public railway in 1825. Or duck under the Channel on the Eurostar to the Continent, where trainlines extend from Lapland and Russia to Turkey and Greece. Our holidays are designed by rail specialists who’ll navigate the maze of booking systems, timetables and couchette options for you – and hand over your itinerary in one neat binder or app.
Read our European railway holidays guide for more.
Our Europe railway Holidays
Is a Europe railway holiday for you?
Do go on a Europe railway holiday if…… you’re in the mood for an adventure. Even small group trips are exciting – you never know what you’ll see out the window or who you’ll end up playing cards with in your carriage.
… European history is your bag. Every rail line in Europe has a story, from branches that carried refugees in World War II to high-altitude feats of engineering in Switzerland.
… you’re trying to reduce your air miles. Travelling by train is easier, quicker and more exciting than you think.
Don’t go on a Europe railway holiday if…
Our top Europe railway Holiday
Tour through the best of Southern Europe in 3 weeks!
From £1959 21 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2022: 18 Sep
2022: 18 Sep
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What we rate & what we don’t on Europe railway holidays
London St Pancras is like a glass Parisian arcade – which is where you’ll end up if you hop on a Eurostar here. Blue and white azulejos tile Sao Bento station in Porto. And in Madrid, you might think you’ve accidentally alighted in a palm house. Then you’ve got the tiny stations in rural Scotland and Switzerland where mountain views are the only adornments needed. You’ll never want to step in an airport again.
Few tourists explore the Balkans by train, so it’s a great opportunity to experience the cultures that make up this peninsula in Southeast Europe. You’ll roll between Slovenia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, learning about the recent histories of the Yugoslav Wars while seeing life as it’s lived now: twinkling riverside bars and patched-up walled cities included.
Europeans are already au fait with how great their train network is, so stations can be packed with holidaymakers and school children in summer. Take a break in winter instead, when you can watch stags posing on frosty hillsides in the Scottish Highlands or see Siberia when it’s truly Siberian. Southern Spain, Portugal and Italy are perfect for sun and sea minus the crowds.
Knowing your history
There’s a myth that Europeans – and particularly the British Empire – graced the rest of the world with the gift of rail. The truth isn’t quite so generous. Expanding railways into Africa and Asia was mainly done to export coal, metals and cotton to Europe. The great European cities and their grand train stations were built on the backs of the countries they colonised – an important history, but not exactly a proud one.
From the Orkney archipelago to the mountainous Cairngorms, Scotland serves up some of the UK’s wildest places – and you can reach most of them by a combination of rail and ferry. You’ll go from grand Victorian stations in Edinburgh and Glasgow to isolated stations only used by hikers and mountaineers making the most of Scotland’s freedom to roam rules.
You can tackle one of the most epic rail journeys in the world in Europe: the Trans Siberian Express. It’s a network of train routes that explores Russian Siberia before joining up to the Trans Mongolian Express and Trans Manchurian lines, which take different paths through and around Mongolia to Beijing. Other famous – if not quite so long – journeys include the West Highland Line and Glacier Express.
Paul Theroux opens The Great Railway Bazaar with: “I sought trains and found passengers.” He’s right: you’ll remember the punks in your train carriage in London or the flower sellers in the Netherlands more clearly than the views. Robert McKidd, director of our partner McKinlay Kidd, agrees: “Of course, our guests love the views, the skies, Ben Nevis and all those sorts of things… But more than most, like all good travel, they remember meeting the people.”
Opened in 2016 after 17 years of work, the 57km Gotthard Tunnel is the longest and deepest train tunnel in the world. You can hop on the Gotthard Panorama Express, taking note of the memorial to the nine workers who died during construction, or explore one of the many other marvels of Swiss engineering: the mountainous Glacier Express, Bernina Express and Jungfrau railways.
Once you’re in Europe, there’s no reason to fly anywhere. And if you live in Europe, catching a plane to the beginning of your rail holiday feels a bit like cheating. You do need to factor in more time, but consider the extra journey as part of the holiday, instead of just a way of getting to your starting point.
The Orient Express
Agatha Christie called the Orient Express the “train of her dreams”. At the time, it was the only way for Brits to explore the archaeological sites of Iraq via Istanbul and Baghdad. These days, the Orient Express has been curtailed to a short hop from London to Venice that’s more like a stay in a (gorgeous, granted) luxury hotel than a rail journey.
Only 42 percent of the tracks in the UK are electric and 30 percent of Britain’s fleet relies on polluting diesel fuel. Many European countries fare better – Switzerland’s train network is fully electric, and Luxembourg and Montenegro are almost there. However, even a rail journey by diesel train is far better for the planet than travelling the same distance by plane.
Most rail holidays in Europe ask you to carry your own luggage, so pack what you can carry. You don’t need to go full backpacker – sometimes, backpacks are harder work than a wheelie suitcase – but it’s definitely worth considering whether an e-book is better than five novels or if you really need that travel kettle.
More about Europe railway
Use our map and highlights to discover where to go on a rail holiday in Europe. Will it be the Balkans, Ireland, Switzerland, Lapland or the Trans Siberian Express?
More and more people are considering their carbon footprint when going on holiday, and one of the biggest ways you can reduce it is travelling by rail instead of by air.
Balkans rail holidays take you on a winding route from Slovenia to Kosovo via a string of utterly underrated cities, and the mountainous Bar to Belgrade line is the scene-stealer.
Read all about our Europe rail holidays for under 30s, and discover why trains are the most exciting, sociable and environmentally sound mode of transport.