As the world opens up to international travel again, it’s time to look beyond the usual tourist trails for your next adventure on rails.
But instead of using the train as just a mode of transport, how about making it the vacation? Here’s our guide to 10 of Europe’s most underrated scenic train routes for 2023.
Trondheim to Bodø, Norway
Few train journeys can boast a visit to Hell and a crossing of the Arctic Circle, but Norway’s wonderful Nordlands Railway (main photo) is exceptional by any measure. Running for 452 miles from Trondheim to Bodø, this is the longest and most isolated railway in Norway, traversing deep valleys, high mountain plateaus and skirting countless lakes and fjords on its epic 10-hour journey north.
Just two trains a day make the full trip — choose the daytime one to make the most of the views, though there’s also a comfortable sleeper train connecting with trains to and from Oslo for the way back. Trains are now operated by SJ Nord, a division of Swedish State Railways.
Construction of the railway proceeded at a glacial pace from 1882 until 1940 when occupying Nazi forces pushed it forwards. Even so, the full route to Bodø was not completed until February 1962, 80 years after the first section from Trondheim to Hell (half an hour east of the city) welcomed its first passengers.
It remains a challenging route to maintain but provides a vital lifeline for the sparsely populated regions it serves, especially in winter. If you’re heading even further north, to Narvik and Tromsø, buses connect with trains at Fauske, taking a spectacular route through rugged mountain landscapes and over countless fjords.
While the Oslo-Bergen railway steals most of the limelight, there’s much more to see in Norway and most journeys will deliver memorable scenery — not least the underrated Nordlands Railway.
Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland
Scotland is blessed with some of Europe’s finest scenic rail journeys; the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig has frequently been voted as the world’s best trip, but further north is another strong contender for that title.
Spectacular rail lines radiate in three directions from Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands: south to Glasgow, north to Thurso (the most northerly point on the UK rail system), and — our pick — west to the little port of Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to the rugged island of Skye.
Running for 80 miles and taking two hours and 40 minutes, the ScotRail train climbs over wild moorland (look out for herds of deer) with views of the Torridon Peaks further north before descending to skirt the shores of Loch Carron. Consider a stopover at the beautiful lochside village of Plockton, location of the BBC drama series “Hamish Macbeth” and parts of the notorious 1973 movie “The Wicker Man.” You might not expect to see palm trees this far north, but thanks to the warming winds of the Gulf Stream, Plockton enjoys an unusually mild climate.
Although passenger facilities on the little diesel train are fairly basic, you’ll be too busy soaking up the views to notice. The last few miles to the quayside terminus are unforgettable. Exceptional views over Loch Carron and Loch Alsh to the Cuillin Mountains on Skye beckon you to continue (by bus, unfortunately) to the hillwalking paradise of Skye or visit nearby Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, another instantly recognizable TV and film location.
Belgrade to Bar, Serbia and Montenegro
If you’re seeking epic feats of civil engineering, head to the Balkans for one of Europe’s most spectacular rail journeys. Two trains a day link the Serbian capital, Belgrade, with the Adriatic port of Bar in neighboring Montenegro. The 296-mile, 11-hour route is a marvel of 20th century engineering with 254 tunnels and 435 bridges, including what was — until 2001 — the world’s highest railway bridge. Initiated by dictator Marshal Tito in the early 1950s, construction of the line was so difficult that trains couldn’t make the full journey until 1976.
Although Serbia and Montenegro are largely overlooked by visitors to Europe, the Belgrade-Bar train is becoming increasingly popular with international tourists using Interrail or Eurail travel passes. But even without a pass, the 11-hour trip can cost as little as €21 ($21) one way. It’s a favorite of rail travel expert Mark Smith, better known as “The Man in Seat 61,” who rates it “amongst the best €21 you’ll ever spend.”
The best of the scenery is in Montenegro, between Bijelo Polje and Bar, where you’ll find the 660-foot-high Mala Rijeka viaduct. Grab a seat on the right hand side of the train for the best views.
Unfortunately, while the “Tara” daytime train ran daily before the pandemic, its 2023 dates are from June 17 to September 17. However, the best views can still be enjoyed from the “Lovcen” overnight train if you travel during the summer.
Zürich to Innsbruck, Switzerland and Austria
Several train types run between Switzerland and Austria, all equally comfortable, but this is the best looking: the once-daily, EuroCity Transalpin train from Zürich to Graz, which includes a fabulous Swiss panorama car for First Class passengers. The first part of the journey, from Zürich to Innsbruck, is the one you want.
This winding west-east journey, which takes 3.5 hours, follows one of Europe’s oldest trade routes, the Arlberg Pass. Unlike many other major Alpine railways, the Arlberg line has not been bypassed, nor are there any plans to do so. It remains largely unmodernized — and that’s part of its charm.
Sharp curves and countless tunnels hacked out of the Alpine rock by 19th-century labourers abound as the single track clings to narrow ledges, climbing steeply from both directions to the summit tunnel at 4,300 feet — one of the highest major railways in Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the 84-mile mountain section has always been difficult to keep clear — avalanches, rockfalls, mudslides and floods present a constant threat and closures are far from unknown. Prior to electrification in 1924, staff and passengers also had to endure the suffocating effects of steam locomotives working flat out through the many tunnels. It’s far more pleasant with air conditioning!
The highlight of the journey is Austria’s slender Trisanna Bridge, which soars 390 feet across a deep gorge near Landeck, overlooked by the fairytale Wiesberg Castle. But there’s far more to the trip than this fleeting glimpse. From the shores of Lake Zürich and the Walensee in Switzerland to the rugged snow-capped Alps and the last leg through the wide valley of the Inn river, it’s a truly memorable experience that captivates even the most jaded of travelers. And don’t worry if you can’t make the Transalpin — they may not all have panoramic cars, but every Zürich to Innsbruck train takes this route.
Dublin to Wexford, Ireland
Memorable views start the moment your 2.5-hour Irish Rail train leaves Connolly Station in Dublin city center and rumbles across the iron bridge spanning the River Liffey. Threading through the city’s affluent southern suburbs, it’s not long before it skirts around the almost Mediterranean sweep of Killiney Bay to reach the seaside town of Bray.
But standing in its path is the massive bulk of Bray Head, where the Wicklow Mountains tumble directly into the Irish Sea. Never one to shirk a challenge when spending other people’s money, legendary Victorian railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel carved a narrow path through this formidable obstacle, where the mountains meet the sea, allowing the railway to reach Wicklow. Unfortunately, the exposed location and risk of rockfalls has left subsequent generations of engineers cursing “Brunel’s folly.” In fact, the current route isn’t even his original, which was closer to the cliff edge — leading a train to end up in the water.
Bray Head is just one high point of a superb journey rich with sweeping sea views, imposing mountains, lush wooded valleys and attractive small towns. Stop off to enjoy the excellent local food and pubs in Wicklow or Wexford, or continue to Rosslare, where you can catch a ferry to Wales, France or even northern Spain.
If you’re lucky, you might even be able to experience the route from one of the superb “Sea Breeze” steam trains operated by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland — the only trains in the world to serve pints of draft Guinness from the bar car.