Train travel has a fresh spotlight on the tourism stage thanks to movements in slow and sustainable travel. One of our greenest choices, trains make us nomads back on the ground level. It’s a strange, meditative speed with ample time to process and daydream. Trains also allow us to roam where roads don’t go and gaze on things planes don’t see. These epic train adventures epitomize this spirit, giving us the best of both journey and destination.
1. Trans-Siberian Railway — Russia, Mongolia, and China
This is the king of long, historic rail journeys. Crossing almost 5,000 miles and three countries, the Trans-Siberian offers the only way to see remote stretches of Russia’s Siberia and Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. It’s also the master class in slow travel, limiting our gadget use, and forcing us to see what we’re made of in real-time connection.
Technically, there are three possible lines: the Trans-Siberian, the Trans-Mongolian, and the Trans-Manchurian. The Siberian crosses the entirety of Russia, Moscow to Vladivostok with ferries to Japan and South Korea. The Mongolian runs between Moscow and Beijing with a dip across Mongolia. The Manchurian travels entirely around Mongolia, taking in the northern Chinese city of Harbin before Beijing. The latter two routes use Chinese train lines, and although all of these six-day journeys have comfortable sleeping berths, the Russian trains have the top reputation.
Interestingly, the restaurant cars on each train change in each new country. Not just the food and beverage menu but the entire car, with national decor and changes at the borders. When you get tired of restaurants, kiosks and vendors at stations sell food, but be quick: The stops aren’t long. And boiled water is unlimited, so bring your dry noodle mixes, instant coffee, and hot chocolate.
What to expect
If you’re spending six days on a train, then you are at least partly interested in life on a train. Bring several books, a route handbook to identify sights, and, if you want WiFi, a VPN. Drink some vodka, play games, talk to people, and have your camera ready.
The Trans-Mongolian route is widely considered the most scenic. It crosses Russia through the birch forests and heavy industry of Siberia. It then skirts Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, before leaving Russia. The grassy steppes of Mongolia start quickly, blending down into the Gobi Desert before climbing through the northern mountains of China.
Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, makes a festive stopover in mid-July. The country’s Naadam holiday celebrates Mongolia’s history of formidable displays with contests in traditional wrestling, archery, and horse racing. After taking in the festival, hop on a horse of your own and join a steppe tour out to the land of yurts. While established tours explore national parks and settlements across the country, others are still pioneering new routes with intrepid visitors.
- Navigating this journey’s visas and plans is the toughest task in this entire list. There are several high-priced packages, but this is a popular planner for less. For complete DIY, check out train guru Seat61 and Lonely Planet’s guide.
- Train tickets are not open or hop-on, hop-off. You need a ticket for each segment between stopovers.
- The Trans-Siberian lines not only have national travelers but also many Western tourists, particularly on the Mongolian line. Russian (or Mongolian or Chinese) is not necessary to communicate, but knowing station names in the Cyrillic alphabet is very helpful.
2. The Ghan — Australia
Epic and remote, this train crosses the “Red Center” of Australia’s remote interior, a powerful and complicated piece of the country’s heritage and identity. Even the name pays homage to the Afghan camel drivers who eventually made the crossing possible. From Adelaide’s wine region through to the tropics of Darwin, this is the easiest way to get a sense of this heart of Australia. And no, you won’t see an ocean in the middle of Australia as Europeans once suspected, just modern-day cattle stations the size of Belgium.
Long gone are the confusing days when different Australian states each had their own passenger rails, complete with varying sizes in the tracks themselves, making it necessary to change trains at borders. Now Great Southern Rail runs the show and has packaged the legendary journey for travelers’ ease. The Ghan has private rooms, regionally inspired menus, local wines, and other beverages all included in the three-day, two-night trek.
What to expect
Since this is a packaged journey, stops are built in with included excursions available at each. The “capital of the Outback,” Alice Springs, is a regional must. As an essential way station in an inhospitable environment, you can visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service that covers the barren expanses or tour the Telegraph Station that once seemed to be at the end of the world. Other options include a desert park, a reptile station, or a day trip trek in the nearby cliffs.
Katherine, in the north’s tropical wilderness and just one train day away, is an entirely different world. Much like the Outback’s red stretches, this part of the Northern Territory houses the iconic scenes we imagine when we think about wild Australia. Travelers can cruise the Nitmiluk Gorge, learn about the indigenous people and their art, and scan for the country’s famous crocs.
Great Southern Rail allows for travelers to add on days and expand trips with broader packages. A several-day stop at the sacred indigenous site of Uluru (five hours from Alice Springs) is a bucket list Australia experience.
- Going north from Adelaide, you have a sunrise outback breakfast before arriving at Alice Springs. Heading south from Darwin, you instead do a late-night stargazing reception in the outback.
- May-September is the best time to avoid blazing Outback heat (remember that it is fall and winter in Australia) and to catch the dry season in the tropical north. Just keep in mind June to August are the busiest months.
- Pack layers. Adelaide and Darwin are over 1,600 miles apart, and you’ll have stops in several climates.
- If you’d rather head east to west across the country, Great Southern Rail also offers the classic Indian Pacific route.
3. Copper Canyon — Mexico
Far from border towns, beach resorts, and busy capital lies an entirely different look at Mexico. The northwest’s Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is the largest canyon network in North America, sheltering a pristinely wild country and the indigenous culture of the Tarahumara. These canyons are just as grand but without the crowds.
Chepe offers two rail routes: the Express and the Regional. The nine-hour Express has only two stops between Los Mochis and Creel, and you’re allowed to overnight (one or more nights) at each stop as part of your ticket. Known as the tourist train, the Express has first-class passenger and bar cars, floor-to-ceiling windows that open in a lounge car, and a restaurant serving the region’s seasonal dishes. For those wanting to see the canyon in luxury and visit the most easily accessible destinations of this remote area, this is your train.
The more budget-friendly 16-hour Regional takes you from Los Mochis, past Creel, and on to Chihuahua (or reverse) with six stations. It’s a comfortable but no-frills train, best for those who are looking to make more stops and wanting to stay in more remote villages. The Chepe Regional allows for three overnight stops along the route with four extra options not included on the Express.
What to expect
The main canyon hubs of Divisadero and Creel deliver adventure and culture. Divisadero provides unfettered views of three canyon systems converging, and you can take your pick of adrenaline jolts from aerial trams, ziplining, mountain biking, horseback riding, or hiking to remote villages. Creel serves as the gateway to the Tarahumara people, the famed ultra-marathon runners and peaceful farmers of these canyons. Spend two nights to take in both the popular community tours as well as a day trip out to Recowata, the 11th tallest waterfall in the world.
- Reserve your ticket segments early for your overnight stops.
- If your starting point is Los Mochis, you want a seat on the right side for prime viewing; heading west from Chihuahua, make sure to snag a place on the left.
- While the train is busier in the summer months, the post-rainy season (mid-October to December) has clear views, less humidity, and gushing waterfalls.
4. Churchill — Canada
No paved roads can take you to this isolated town in Manitoba, but at least 8,000 visitors a year come for close encounters with the Great North’s polar bear kings. If your wallet is bulky and your time is short, just fly in, take a tundra buggy tour, and jet back out. But that bucket list grab-and-go takes from the spirit of this journey to the seeming edge of the world. Instead, save some money and do like the locals by grabbing the train.
At a third of the cost of a flight, VIA Rail Canada takes you from Winnipeg to Churchill in just under 48 hours. There is room to roam and stretch in the economy car, but if spending two nights in a semi-reclined position doesn’t sound appealing, go for the Sleeper Plus cars. The extra fee gets you a private bed and washroom, a shared shower, and inclusive dining car meals. When the panoramic dome car is in season, only Sleeper Plus passengers get those views.
What to expect
Riding this route gives you a sense of place as you pass through the boreal forests and remote lakes on your way to where the tundra takes over. It also gives you a sense of how crucial the rail line is for the people and economy of Churchill. When flooding washed the rail line out in May of 2017, the area suffered for 18 months in isolation. After long-held fear that the rail line would close permanently, the relief of the region at the train’s first run was palpable.
But people come first for the wildlife, the other travelers to the area. The area depends on tourism and offers a slew of creative and sustainable outdoor experiences to show off their natural treasures. Most polar bear safaris are day trips from town in enclosed tundra vehicles that the occasional curious polar bear will try to climb. Others offer walking tours of bear areas for those that want to feel the wind in their face and a dose of fear. Snorkeling with the belugas is no longer allowed, but kayaking tours will still get you close to the thousands that migrate to Churchill.
- The northern lights might come out to dance from February to March. The beluga whales stop by in July and August. And the town’s icon, the magnificent polar bears, are strolling along in full force in October and November.
- Everything books quickly in this town of just 1,000 people. Plan far in advance with your lodging and tours.
- If you’d like to add on to your Canadian adventure, the Winnipeg line connects with Vancouver to the west and Toronto to the east on a great transcontinental journey.
5. Tren Crucero — Ecuador
This scenic journey has the highlights: coastal sugarcane and tropical plantations, the Ecuadorian Andes, and the highest capital in the world. But while a series of bus trips could get you to these sights, one of the world’s scariest sections of railroad is what makes this luxury line’s journey epic.
The inclusive, luxe Tren Crucero has been voted South America’s Leading Luxury Train since 2014. For the train buffs, this route mixes restored steam locomotives and modern diesel-electric engines to climb from the ocean to the peak altitudes. For those less interested in the power up front, the train itself only carries 50 guests at a time, letting you relax in lounges, terraces, bars, and boutique cars that have more in common with colonial homes than commuter trains. You don’t sleep on this train; the package includes hotels every night and many meals on the tours. But even though you’re not an overnight guest, the staff is ready to justify all the awards they’ve won. Small plates, snacks, the full range of beverages, and route guides are available at all times.
What to expect
Like the Ghan, the Tren Crucero is a package deal with outings built into the schedule. Cultural experiences are the primary focus with tours of Andean cowboy haciendas, traditional markets, and the Quichua village of La Moya. Nature lovers also have the chance to roam the Andes with the llamas at Cotopaxi National Park.
The Devil’s Nose is what pulls the entire train line together. The engineering marvel of its century, this treacherous pass is also the most popular in South America. Cut through sheer cliff walls with an almost vertical drop, the tracks create switchbacks through the nearly vertical elevation change. Your train will climb and descend, swinging back and forth, often in reverse, giving you an eerie free-fall sensation. It is such a wild ride that the regional service used to allow daredevils to ride on the roofs, a practice cut short after a passenger death in 2006. Whether it’s genuinely cursed as legend says, the Devil’s Nose remains one of the greatest railroad feats in the world.
- Not interested in the price tag or the guided tours on the Tren Crucero but would love to ride the engineering feat of the Devil’s Nose? Tren Ecuador runs a round trip regional service through this edge-defying stretch of the Andes for a fraction of the price. But you’ll need to catch a five-hour bus to Alausi from Quito for this train’s day trip.
- If you’re descending from Quito, the best seats through most passes are on the right side of the train. If you’re heading up from Guayaquil, the left side showcases the exposed drops.
- Locals and train experts make sure to point out that while most trains in Ecuador don’t run on time, both the Tren Crucero and the Devil’s Nose day train are prompt.
6. TAZARA — Tanzania and Zambia
There is one overwhelming consensus when it comes to traveling on the TAZARA: It’s the most authentic way to see this part of south-central Africa as long as you can handle limitless delays. While the schedule notes this is a two-day journey, no one talks about the timeline since it often becomes irrelevant. Part cheap safari, part living like a local, and part overland market, the TAZARA embodies its setting, including delays, fully for an immersive experience.
The Tanzania & Zambia Rail Authority (TAZARA) runs the Express and “Ordinary” train down this 1,155-mile route. Express may be a bit misleading; it’s not about speed but rather the reduced number of stops. In contrast, the original line stops at “every serviceable station” across the two countries. Since this train is a trade lifeline for a thousand miles, that’s a lot of stops.
Each train offers four classes: first-class sleepers with four beds, second-class sleepers with six beds, second-class seats, and the crowded third-class seats. Genders don’t mix in sleeping cars, so if you want your whole family or group to share, you must book the entire compartment and specify this ahead of time.
Chicken, veggies, and manioc are standard fare in the dining car. If you’re looking for more variety, station vendors along the route are happy to oblige, and traders throughout the train offer fruits and snacks. The bar is the prime gathering spot and armed train guards keep the crowd from getting too boisterous.
What to expect
Ideally, one of the best experiences of the TAZARA is the bonus safari from the windows. It passes through Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to elephants, rhinos, hippos, cheetahs, giraffes, and baboons. Occasionally a pride of lions even has to be urged off the track. With the notorious delays, there is no telling if you’ll pass Selous during day or nighttime viewing. For a better chance, July to October gives you the best crowds of wildlife gathered before the droughts. Your best shot is to stop at Selous, or Kasanka National Park in Zambia, and stay awhile.
Day or night, stops or not, the TAZARA provides a chance to see local life in these two countries. This train is vital for those living along the route, providing the only access to goods for those without electricity, medications, or other trade opportunities. Your fellow travelers are merchants and farmers heading to other markets, children heading back to boarding school after home visits, workers going to their jobs in mines and coffee plantations, and, every once in a while, another traveler.
- As of this writing, you cannot book online. Call either of the terminal stations, make a reservation, and then collect and pay in person or buy at the station that day.
- The train can run out of potable water between stations. Bring extra just in case.
- For those that want more indulgence and less planning, the luxury line Rovos uses this route from Cape Town on its way to Dar es Salaam.
7. The Jungle Railway — Malaysia
This sleepy little train ride’s top tier appeal is less obvious than the others on this list. Even in its own country, it’s the clunky, rural leftover compared to the west coast’s modern, high-speed line. Malaysia itself is a lesser-known tourist spot when compared with the giants of Singapore and Thailand that sandwich it. An often overlooked journey in an often overlooked country. And that disconnect is the draw of the Jungle Rail, especially when the jungle presses against the train and you start losing your sense of place.
Not long ago, the East Coast Rail had open windows and wooden benches. But Malaysia’s KTM has replaced those with air-conditioned cars and reasonably comfortable seats. There is no dining car, but vendors are selling the national rice-based dish of nasi lemak, guava, and quail’s eggs at many stations with enough time to hop off and grab something. On some trains, an entrepreneurial trolley will sell cold drinks and snacks. The 12-hour ride has plenty of stops as it not only delivers you but also produce and mail.
What to expect
Sections of this line only showcase rubber estates and housing, with neither jungle nor a coast in sight. But towards the middle of the line, the jungle finally closes in, giving you bursts of a broader view only when you’re crossing wide, latte rivers or pulling up at stations.
In the heart of the jungle stretch is Gua Mustang, a small station town dwarfed by the nearby limestone cliffs. There are lodging options here so you have plenty of time to explore extensive cave networks, temples, and botany parks. River cruises and canopy treks are available at nearby Dabong and Taman Negara National Park. Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive tigers.
- If you have a specific itinerary in mind book your tickets online with KTM. Otherwise, this rail line is not usually busy so you can buy tickets on the day at the station.
- Many stations are rural with few amenities. Bring what you’d need for an unexpected wait.
- The cold air is cranking high, particularly at the ends of the cars. If you tend to get chilly, try to go for middle seats.
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