Train travel is our absolute favourite way to get around and wherever possible we always jump at the chance to take the train rather than flying, buses or even driving. There is something romantic about chugging through scenic landscapes in the comfort (or not in some cases!) of a train carriage. Just the right speed to take it all in, no traffic jams or getting lost, you can instead sit back and enjoy the ride! Train travel too has a long romanticised history, it harks back to the nostalgia of the “golden age of travel” when rail journeys were sophisticated and the epitome of adventure. In many countries the railways were brought by colonial forces and remain as a historical marker and look into the past industries of a nation. Train travel isn’t just about the spectacular views it affords you either, its about sitting side by side with local people, interacting and experiencing another way of life through local methods of transport. Here we document some of the great scenic railway journeys, from the historic to the awe-inspiring, both expensive and dirt cheap, there are many experiences along the iron tracks all over the globe that are hard to beat!
Trans-Siberian / Trans-Mongolian Railway, Russia (Mongolia & China)
An absolute classic railways journey the marathon trip from incredible Moscow through the heart of frozen Siberian, the vast rolling plateaus of Mongolia and finishing in the bustling Chinese capital of Beijing. This has to be one of the most epic journeys ever! From Moscow to Vladivostok the railway covers a massive 9,258km (6,152 miles) and takes at least 7 days, and that is only part of journey as you can change part way onto the two other lines that go through Mongolia and China instead!
A trip on the famed Trans-Siberian Railway is an incredible experience and isn’t just about getting from A to B, rather about the many stops along the way, the people you meet and the amazing cultures you come across on this incredible journey.
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: California Zephyr & Rocky Mountaineer, North America
Both the U.S and Canada compete to offer fantastic train journeys that take passengers through incredible landscapes and wonderfully diverse states.
Some of the most iconic trains such as the California Zephyr which journeys from Chicago to San Fransisco with views of the Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains, and the Sierra Nevada takes around 51.h hours! The vast and varied landscape that the train crosses, from urban sprawls to snow capped peaks, desolated deserts and incredible forests it really is an adventure that sums up the unique landscapes of the US and is what makes it one of the real great scenic railway journeys.
Another famous route is the Rocky Mountaineer which takes passengers through rocky gorges, sweeping valleys and mountain ranges of Western Canada. Specially built panoramic trains allow passengers to take in the incredible landscapes and has been awarded awarded the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train” seven times!
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Reunification Express, Vietnam
Often times the magic of train travel is not just how relaxing the journey is but also the historic and cultural context to the railways. The “Reunification Express” otherwise known as the North-South Railway is one such line. Not only does the 1,726 km (1,072 mi) journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) take in some breathtaking scenery along the coast of Vietnam, but it represents the coming together of the country.
The popular trail takes in some of the countries most scenic spots along the coast including Hue, Da Nang (Hoi An), and Nha Trang and with Vietnam being a long and thin country each stop is ideal for venturing further inland to places such as Phong Nha, Da Lat and Ninh Binh. The line also continues further north of Hanoi to the incredible rice terraces of Sa Pa too.
What also makes this journey special is what is represents and the experiences along the way. The train is very much a local experience with basic sleeper compartments alongside local travellers which makes it fascinating and authentic. Dating back to French colonial times much of the line was badly damaged during WW2 and the Vietnam War. When services began again on 31 December 1976 it became a symbol of Vietnamese unity.
Read more about our time in Vietnam here: The ultimate guide to Vietnam by motorbike: Advice from a 7 week adventure!
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Titicaca Railway, Peru
Traversing the shores of Lake Titicaca through the heart of the Inca capital, the railway from Cuzco to Puno cuts a picturesque path through snow-dusted mountains and the massive valleys of the Andes. With a Pullman-style dining cars and an open-air observation carriage this journey is straight out of the romantic, upper class era of train travel.
This isn’t a local Peruvian experience, but it does take you through the heart of the plains, the towering Andes and to the world’s highest navigable lake. The luxury experience in unforgettable surroundings lasts around 10.5 hours and is the epitome of first class train travel in South America.
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Ella to Kandy, Sri Lanka
This has to be our favourite train journey that we have taken, for us it ticks all the boxes that make it epic. It’s dirt cheap, it passes through some jaw dropping scenery and its a truly local experience too! The 8 hour journey from the mountain town of Ella in central Sri Lanka to the colonial city of Kandy slowly trundles along the old British lines originally constructed for transporting tea. The carriages haven’t been updated much since the British left and with doors and windows being left wide open there isn’t much in the way of health and safety either with many people riding on the footboards between local stops.
Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Sri Lankans, eating 10p Dhal balls and taking in the never ending mountains and tea fields is a true delight. The insight into local culture, the views than never fail to entertain and the sense of adventure this journey instills for just a few $ makes it top of the list for us! Forget luxury travel in air conditioned compartments, this is the real magic of train travel!
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Lhasa Express, Tibet
Linking the skyscrapers of Beijing with the ancient palaces of Lhasa, the Z21 commuter train ferries passengers from urban China to the magical lands of Tibet. The journey climbs some 16,000 ft (5000m) making it the highest train line in the world when it crosses the Tanggula Pass.
Covering a distance of 1,956 km (1,215 mi) between Beijing and Lhasa it traverses some of the most varied terrain in the world, approaching Tibet, the land of incredible temples and flocks of monks the smog of the cities dissipates and the aromas of incense and candles fill the air. Chugging westwards past grazing yaks, snow-capped mountains and fluttering prayer flag whilst onboard locals can be seen slurping noodles and playing cards its the perfect railway experience.
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Transalpine Express, New Zealand
Cutting through from coast to coast on the South Island of New Zealand down Arthurs Pass the Transalpine Express is regarded as one of the great scenic railway journeys in the world. Spanning just 223 km (139 mi) and taking just under 4 hours it is an idea way to not only cross from Christchurch over to the incredible West Coast of New Zealand but a perfect day trip through the stunning Southern Alps.
Beginning on the Canterbury plains the train ascends slows to the Waimakariri River through spectacular valleys and gorges before terminating in the lush rainforests and unique glaciers of the West Coast. With specially built carriages to make the ride smoother and large panoramic non-reflective windows as well as GPS triggered commentary the journey really is just as important as the destination with this trip!
Read about our adventures in the Southern Alps here: Christchurch to Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki: A Beautiful Day Trip to the Start of The Southern Alps
Great Scenic Railway Journeys: Jungfraubahn, Switzerland
Sitting in the Bernese Alps at only 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) long it is one of the shortest journeys on this list but it has to be one of the most spectacular. Over that short distance it travels to an elevation of 3,454 m (11,332 ft) to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe through tunnels carved into the side of the famous mountains of the Eiger and Monch with a station sitting inside the mountains themselves!
The lower parts of the railway traverse some of the most picturesque scenery in the Alps and is the second highest open-air railway in Switzerland at the Eigergletscher station at 2,320 m. Opening in 1912 it is also one of the oldest routes on the list and though modernised over the year does still have that air of romanticism from the bygone era of train travel and early tourism and the views from both the train and the final station make it one of the all time great scenic railway journeys ever.
Read about our time in the Bernese Alps here: Guide to Interlaken, Switzerland. The Adventure Capital Of The World!!
Have You Ever Taken One of the Great Scenic Railway Journeys? What Was Your Favourite?
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