Photo: Orient Express/Matt Hind

7 Historical Trains and Routes to Experience the Golden Age of Travel

Train Travel
by Suzie Dundas Jun 13, 2023

Depending on where you live in the world, your experience with train travel may vary quite a bit.

If you live in a city like New York City or London, you may associate trains with crowded public transportation where you’re lucky to find a seat. But if you live in a more remote area, like Alaska or the Swiss Alps, you may associate train travel with gorgeous views and plenty of leg room. And if you’re in that first group who has had mostly unfortunate experiences with trains, all you need to do to change your mind is book a ride on one of the train routes below that still uphold the “golden era” of train travel.

Sure, train travel is slower than flying, but that’s the point. And back in the day, train travel was glamorous. You’d have a plush private car, access to fabulous catered meals, and attentive staff willing to cater to your every whim and need. And needless to say, the interiors of vintage train cars were downright gorgeous.

vintage trains - orient express room

In the early 20th century, train travel was far more glamorous — but some train lines are keeping that tradition alive. Photo: Orient Express

Between the rise in private auto ownership, improved road safety, and the affordability of air travel, train travel became a less preferred way to travel, and most of the glamorous trains were replaced by budget-friendly options. But the “slow travel” movement has brought with it a renewed interest in train travel, and there are dozens of train routes around the world where you can travel in style and feel like a true Rockefeller.

From one-day sightseeing tours on vintage trains to overnight train rides with sleeper cars, here are seven of the best old-fashioned train routes to experience the golden age of train travel.

Aurora Winter, Alaska

Photo: Alaska Railroad / Nathaniel Wilder
Photo: Alaska Railroad / Kerry Tasker
Photo: Travel Alaska/Chris McLennan 2022
Photo: Alaska Railroad / Nathaniel Wilder
  • Route: Fairbanks, AK, to Alaska, AK
  • Travel time: 12 hours
  • Scenery: Snowy mountains, aurora borealis, wildlife

Alaska is the biggest state in the US, but one of the hardest to explore by driving — mostly because there aren’t a lot of roads. And driving many of the roads can be a bit dicey in the winter, when there’s very limited daylight and lots of ice and snow.

While the Alaska Railroad’s cars feel a bit like vintage train, the Aurora Winter has something most people weren’t lucky enough to experience back in the early 20th century: astonishing views of the aurora borealis. Fairbanks is sometimes called the “Aurora Borealis Capital of the World,” and because Alaska’s nights are so long, your changes of seeing it onboard are really, really high.

You can take the train round-trip, or do what most people do: take it one way, using it as a point-to-point connecter to see Fairbanks and Anchorage in one trip. It runs from September to May, which also happens to be the length of the aurora season in Fairbanks. Tickets start at $66 for adults, depending on how far you want to go.

The Orient Express, Europe

Photo: Orient Express/Matt Hind
Photo: Orient Express/Matt Hind
Photo: Orient Express/Matt Hind
  • Route: Paris, France, to Venice, Italy (plus additional add-on options)
  • Travel time: Various (2 days+)
  • Scenery: Historic cities, mountains, small villages, coast….

You may have heard of the novel or movie “Murder on the Orient Express,” but what you may not know is why the story is such a hit: it’s because the Orient Express was once the most luxurious train the world, exclusively for society’s upper echelon (and not for murderers). What you also may not know is that the Orient Express is still running, and its vintage trains and five-star service are just as glamorous as they were back in the heyday of train travel.

The primary line was the Orient Express line, which ran glam vintage train cars between Paris and Istanbul. It began running in 1883, offering an 80-hour trip between the two cities. Today, the Orient Express offers slightly shorter trips, leaving from Paris but stopping in Venice. The Art Deco cars offer private rooms (the Grand Suites are a true holdover from the Gilded Age), though you can also opt for less expensive room with more of a convertible bed situation. Tickets start around 1,700 Euro. You can also book routes outside of Europe, including the “Andean Explorer” in Peru.

If you want to experience modern luxury, book a suite on the 12-car La Dolce Vita, offering an overnight train ride with sleeper cars. It’s as elegant as the vintage cars of the original Orient Express, but updated with a modern five-star feel. Rooms look akin to a five-star hotel on the Amalfi Coast, and it will run two- and three-day trips between Rome, Venice, and Sicily. Trips begin running later in 2023, but you can pre-register if you’re willing to a pay a 500 Euro deposit. Just like with Italy’s old-fashioned trains of yore, the first-class trips are expected to be quite expensive. You can also book larger luxury packages that involve train rides, private sailings, land tours, and more.

The Ghan, Australia

Photo: Journey Beyond Rail
Photo: Journey Beyond Rail
Photo: Journey Beyond Rail
Photo: Journey Beyond Rail
  • Route: Darwin, Australia, to Adelaide, Australia
  • Travel time: 3-4 days
  • Scenery: Outback, coastal jungles, gorges, Indigenous towns

If you’d like to see Australia like an explorer of yore, but want to do it with a crystal champagne glass in your hand, book a trip on the Ghan. The train travels across Australia, from Darnwin in the north to Adelaide in the south. The full trip takes four days, and to travel in true golden-age style, you’ll want to book the platinum service class, which the website describes as offering ” stylishly appointed, spacious suites complemented by discreet, personalised service and world-class food and wine.”

The Ghan started transporting travelers in 1929, following the route explorers made with camels in the late 1800s to cross the continent. You can book just the three-night ride, or book a larger trip with day trips and experiences along the way to help you get a sense of the country’s outdoor and cultural diversity.

While the Ghan is among the most vintage trains you can experience in the country, Journey Beyond Rail also runs a few other attractive routes. That includes the Great Southern line, connecting the cities along Australia’s southeastern coast.

The Golden Chariot, India

Photo: The Golden Chariot/
Photo: The Golden Chariot/
Photo: The Golden Chariot/
Photo: The Golden Chariot/
  • Route: Round trip from Bengaluru, India
  • Travel time: Varies (4 days+)
  • Scenery: Tiger reserves, historical sites, beaches, temples, ruins

The Golden Chariot is often cited as the one of the world’s most luxurious train, so there’s no better way to experience the golden age of train travel than to book your seat (err, bedroom). It’s one of the best vintage trains available in Asia (or vintage-inspired, at least) offering several routes through the country. They range from week-long trips all the way to the coast to shorter trips you can do in a long weekend. Every booking includes all meals (including beer and wine) and daily sightseeing tours. You can add on additional day trips as well.

The “Pride Of Karnataka” trip includes visits to temples, palaces, tiger reserves, coffee plantations, and the seaside town of Goa, while the three-night “Glimpses of Karnataka” trip includes visits to UNESCO sites and a national park.

Train decor is inspired by palaces of the Maharajas and feature amenities like an on-board gym and spa, two restaurants, bar cars, and even a sauna. Formal dress is encouraged for dinner to maintain the feel of vintage trains of yesteryear, though it’s not required. There are even on-board butlers for all guests.

The Rocky Mountaineer, Canada and the US

Photo: Rocky Mountaineer and Noel Hendrickson
Photo: Rocky Mountaineer and Noel Hendrickson
A couple looks out from a train at a river and bridge.
  • Route: Vancouver to Jasper National Park
  • Travel time: 3+ days
  • Scenery: Temperate rainforest, mountains, national parks, BC coast

The Rocky Mountaineer is the picture of modern-day luxury, offering the chance to experience what elegant train travel looks like, but without the vintage trains and velvet couches. And travel on the Rocky Mountaineer is indeed elegant, especially if you book Gold Service, which lets guests sit under a glass ceiling on the train’s second floor.

Both silver and gold service come with friendly hosts, gourmet breakfasts and lunches, and endlessly amazing views. However, Gold includes the glass-domed car, outdoor viewing platforms, and access to a high-end private dining car.

The Rocky Mountaineer’s signature route runs from Vancouver to one of a few destinations, and you can combine routes to make a longer train trip or book it in conjunction with a cruise or longer vacation package. It’s not a sleeper train, but the package includes lodging at one of a few partner hotels in each destination. “First Passage to the West” runs to Banff National Park, “Journey through the Clouds” goes to Jasper, and “Rainforest to the Gold Rush” goes to Whistler, then Jasper. There’s also a route from Denver that runs to Moab, UT.

Mount Washington Cogway, New Hampshire

  • Route: Up and down Mount Washington, NH
  • Travel time: 3 hours
  • Scenery: The White Mountains, all of New Hampshire

When people talk about the “Golden Age of Train Travel,” they’re usually talking about luxurious, glamorous trips with waiters who look like they just stepped out from the Grand Budapest Hotel. But during the late 19th and early 20th century, trains weren’t just the fashionable way to travel: they were also the only way, in some cases.

Such is the case for the Mount Washington Cogway — a.k.a., the Cog. It opened in 1869 and goes to the top of Mount Washington, the highest point in the northeast. Back then, there was no other way to get to the top of the peak other than hiking, so the cogway was quite revolutionary. In fact, one of its first guests was sitting president Ulysses S. Grant.

Today, you can ride the same historical route to the top. It takes about three hours round-trip, and you’ll want to make your reservations in advance online since it does tend to sell out. It’s one of the most fun vintage train rides in the US, especially considering the awesome views you’ll have from the top on a good day. Tickets start around $51 for adults.

Rovos Rail “Tale of Two Oceans,” Africa

Photo: Rovos Rail
Photo: Rovos Rail
Photo: Rovos Rail
Photo: Rovos Rail/Greg Beadle

There aren’t too many travelers in the world who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do a safari across Africa — but what about taking a safari aboard one of the world’s most luxurious vintage trains? The “Tale of Two Oceans” route travels across the entirety of the African continent, stopping at the great Rift Valley, Chisimba Falls, South Luangwa National Park, copper mines, historical sites, small villages, and more.

The trip, which runs a cool $23,600 per person for the Royal Suite, includes all meals and drinks, lodging, excursions, guides, and most major expenses, save for any personal items you may buy. Meals are formal, and lounge areas across the posh train include outdoor balconies, special communal lecture cars, and elegant dining areas. In the rooms, you’ll have biodegradable bath products, blow dryers, robes, USB ports, comfy linens, and more.

Note that in the spirit of channeling the golden age of train travel, there are no TVs or radios on board. Use of electronics is limited to in your room. There’s no Wi-Fi on board, so bring a portable Wi-Fi device if that’s something you need.

  • Route: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Benguela, Angola
  • Travel time: 15 days
  • Scenery: Safaris, mountains, wildlife, waterfalls, national parks

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