Easier than a car and more comfortable than a bus, taking the train is one of the best ways to experience Europe’s most picturesque regions. Sit back and admire spectacular mountains, lakes, rivers and incredible feats of engineering – here are 10 of the best scenic train rides across the continent.
Settle back for at least five hours and take in the mesmerising Highland scenery from Glasgow to Fort William, and then onwards to the small fishing port of Mallaig.
Most of the 264km journey is along a single track that slithers past moors, lochs, some of the most remote stations in Britain and – adding a dash of Harry Potter magic – the Glenfinnan viaduct used by the Hogwarts Express.
It’s not often you find a train ride listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, but you can see why this four-hour journey through southern Switzerland is included.
Starting in Chur, the bright red, narrow-gauge train trundles through the Engadin Alps for 144km through chic St Moritz until it reaches Tirano just over the border in Italy. The mountains are glorious – either covered in snow in winter or in lush meadows in spring and summer – and the train’s passage along the Landwasser viaduct is breathtaking.
For more than a century, this metre-gauge yellow train has been winding its way through the French Pyrenees from Villefranche-de-Conflent to Latour-de-Carol. What it lacks in distance – it’s only 63km and about three hours long – it more than makes up in the dramatic mountains of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes.
It also stops at France’s highest railway station, Bolquère-Eyne, which sits at 1592m above sea level, and crosses the Pont Gisclard, a railway suspension bridge.
Follow the curves of the River Rhine as it makes its way from Koblenz to Mainz – one of the shortest yet sweetest railway journeys in Germany. It’s only a fifty-minute ride, but along the route you’ll see fairy-tale castles and vineyards clinging to the river’s slopes.
If you want to make more of the ride, take the slow train that stops in laid-back riverside spa towns.
Sardinia’s Little Green Train comes out for the summer only, but it takes you into the wild heart of the island at an agreeably slow pace.
You’ve got four lines to choose from, but the one going from the southern town of Mandas to Arbatax on the east coast has the most arresting scenery. You’ll pass prehistoric dolmens known as giants’ graves as the train clacks past soaring mountains suitably nicknamed taccu (heels).
This two-hour journey starts gently enough at Dombas, but it’s not long before the ride to Andalsnes along the River Rauma cranks up the drama.
Towering peaks, fjords and mountain meadows are your companions during the 115km ride, along with the engineering marvel that is Kylling Bridge near the village of Verma. Bring your hiking gear and explore some of the trails en route.
It’s probably the slowest “express” train you’ll find – more than seven hours – but the Glacier Express rivals the Bernina Express for the most scenic train ride in Switzerland.
Starting in the shadow of the Matterhorn, the train makes its leisurely way from exquisite Zermatt to St Moritz on a narrow-gauge track over 290km. Most of the carriages have panoramic windows and glass skylights so you can admire the Alpine vistas in comfort.
Austria’s only east-west railway rolls through some of the prettiest villages in the Tirol region as it travels from Innsbruck to Bludenz. The two-hour journey covers 140km via countless viaducts and tunnels.
You’re in the high Alps here and on one of the steepest passenger railway lines in Europe. Look out for the Trisanna Bridge, which sits beside the equally impressive Castle Weisberg.
You’ll need at least ten hours – usually more, with no notice – to make this 476km journey from the Montenegrin coastal town of Bar to Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. Along the way you’ll pass the biggest lake in the Balkans, Lake Skadar, before heading into some of Montenegro’s truly astonishing mountains in Biogradska Gora national park.
Then you nip in and out of Bosnia before meandering through the gently rolling hills of southern Serbia and Zlatibor national park. You’ll reach Belgrade in time to hit one of its several hundred floating bars along the Sava and Danube rivers.
Got at least 14 hours to spare? This 1300km “Inland Line” takes you into seriously remote Swedish territory as it chugs from Kristinehamn in the south all the way to Gallivare above the Arctic Circle. It’s bleakly beautiful, with plenty of chances to spot moose, elk and reindeer along the way.
Find more information for your Swedish holiday in our guide to the best things to do in Sweden.
Explore more of Europe with The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
Top image: Bernina Express in Switzerland © Peter Stein/Shutterstock