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Steam Trains, Sleepers, and Underwater Tunnels: The 7 Most Iconic Train Rides in Europe

Train Travel
by Morgane Croissant Jun 15, 2023

Among the thousands of trains and train routes you can take in Europe, most are practical, dependable, and rather forgettable. A handful of them, however, are pieces of railroad history, record breakers, astonishingly beautiful, or just plain bizarre — and since they are all affordable, there’s nothing preventing you from riding every single one of them. So don’t miss out on those unique experiences — you’ll be able to brag about those iconic train rides in Europe for decades to come.

The Eurostar

While frequent travelers don’t bat an eye at the idea of riding the Eurostar any longer, this is not your average train trip. This high-speed train takes you directly between the south of England to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands via the world’s longest undersea tunnel. For 23.5 miles of your trip, you are actually under the English channel at a depth of 246 feet. No, you can’t see fish bobbing around if you look out the window, but it’s still quite thrilling. The tunnel under the Channel, also known as The Chunnel, was completed in 1993 and the Eurostar has been operating since 1994, expanding its destination offerings ever since. Eurostar trains leave from London’s St. Pancras International station several times daily and tickets are affordable and can be purchased online.

Deutsche Bahn’s ICE 3

Not only does Deutsche Bahn, Germany national railway company, offers passengers an extensive railway network and notoriously reliable and punctual trains, but it also breaks speed records. The ICE 3 (ICE stands for InterCity Express) is Deutsche Bahn’s fastest train. When in Germany, the ICE 3 (specifically models 403 and 406) runs at 186.4 mph, but as soon as it enters France and hits the high-speed rail line between Strasbourg and Paris, the train can reach a top speed of 205 mph, making it the fastest train in all of Europe. It’s a long way from catching up with the Shanghai Transrapid Maglev Train which runs at 267.8 mph, but still, it’s the third fastest commercial train in the entire world. For a chance to ride this very special train, book yourself on a high-speed ICE 3 between Frankfurt and Paris via Deutsche Bahn’s website.

The Glacier Express

Event though it’s known as the slowest express train in the world, the Glacier Express is likely the most celebrated train route in all of Europe and the best way to see Switzerland. The scenic ride between Zermatt and St. Moritz was started in 1930 and has been going strong ever since, attracting tourists eager to see the beauty of the Alps from the comfort of a train car with panoramic windows and a glass ceiling. The alpine landscape will have you glued to the glass panes for the entire eight-hour trip, but the moment every passenger waits for on the Glacier Express is the crossing of the famous Landwasser Viaduct. It’s the most well-known stretch on this route despite the fact that the train goes across another 290 bridges during the trip. If you want to ride the Glacier Express, one of the most iconic train rides in Europe, you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. If you feel like making the most of this train trip with a five-course meal, drinks, and a guaranteed window seat, book yourself in Excellence Class.

The Bergen Railway

The train journey between Oslo and Bergen is one that will take you through a compilation of all of Norway’s most beautiful natural features: lakes, valleys, fjords, etc. Because the trip between the two cities is seven-hour-long, there’s a café on board where you’ll find refreshments and sustenance. Grab a cup of coffee and a waffle with brown cheese, and enjoy the unique combo while looking out the window. The train makes several stops along the way and if you have the time and want to divide the trip into sections, Visit Norway has made a list of the best things to do at each of these stops, including ziplining, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and more. The Bergen Railway is just as beautiful in summer as it is in winter so don’t fuss about the weather and get your ticket to check out one of the most iconic train rides in Europe via VY, the Norwegian State Railway.

The descendants of the historical Flying Scotsman

The Flying Scotsman which ran between London and Edinburgh was, and remains, the most famous steam train of them all. The Flying Scotsman started operating in February 1923 and its career ended in January 1963 so, nowadays, your chances of riding it are nil. But a few other modern trains have stepped in to take you from the English capital to the Scottish one. If it’s a quick trip that you want, railway operators LNER and LUMO run high-speed trains multiple times per day between the two cities. If it’s an affordable sleeper train that you’re looking for, the comfortable Caledonian Sleeper is the ticket.

InterCity Notte to Sicily

Trenitalia, Italy’s national railway operator, runs affordable and comfortable sleeper trains called InterCity Notte (ICN) from the north, all the way along the two coasts, to the very south of country — even to Sicily. And it’s the InterCity Notte trains that go all the way to Sicily that are incredibly special. To cross the Messina Strait and get from the tip of the Italian boot to the island of Sicily, InterCity Notte trains board a ferry. Yes, the train actually goes on a boat to cross the two-mile stretch of water and then reconnects to the rail network in Sicily. Apparently, nothing stands in the way of an Italian train and its destination.

The Jacobite

Almost as legendary as the aforementioned Flying Scotsman, the Jacobite is a steam train that’s more commonly known as the Harry Potter Steam Train for its role as the Hogwarts Express in the movies of the Harry Potter franchise. While you can ride on the Jacobite, it won’t take you to a school of witchcraft and wizardry; instead you’ll travel between the Scottish towns of Fort William and Mallaig, a round-tip journey of 84 miles. The most thrilling moment of this iconic train ride is the crossing of the Glenfinnan viaduct (also made famous by the Harry Potter movies). Once in Mallaig, you’ll get to wander for over an hour and a half before you have to board the train again and make your way back to Fort William. The Jacobite only runs seasonally, between April and October, and gets unsurprisingly busy so book your ticket in advance.

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