Inspiration - 3 min read

Five stunning rail routes in Europe

By Chris Elmes
Travelling by train lets you surrender control, forget your ETA and give in to the languid romance of the rails. Gaze out on colourful snapshots of life between the landmarks, share unnamed snacks and smile wordless conversations with the locals on our five favourite routes.

On our search for great rail routes in Europe, we skirt the Pyrenees from Barcelona to Marseille, passing flocks of flamingos in the salt pans of the Camargue, while in Sicily a rattling local train toils between Catania and Riposto through lava flows and dark-soiled orange groves on the slopes of Mt. Etna. We see the rainbow palaces of Sintra, enjoy Coimbra’s craft beer scene and climb to the town of Dignes-les-Baines, scattered around hot springs in a narrow alpine valley. Closer to home, we cross the majestic Ribblehead viaduct on the line from Carlisle to Settle as it carves a scenic path through the Lakes and Dales. 

Barcelona to Montpellier

Narbonne Barcelona ot Montpellier train route
Narbonne, France. Photo courtesy of Guillaume Lefort.

Leaving Barcelona, you pass through the dense green folds of the Guilleries Massif, before threading the foothills of the snow-capped Pyrenees among hill forts and ancient villages. Further north, the line crosses the wetlands of The Narbonnaise en Méditerranée regional natural park, home to flocks of flamingos. After a final coastal stretch you arrive in the broad boulevards of Montpellier, still with plenty of time to check in and head down to Petits Travers beach.

Although this journey can be completed in a few hours by TGV, it can be extended into at least a day trip with stops in Girona to wander among the gothic churches, or in Narbonne, at the heart of France’s “secret riviera”, to see the shining salt pans and find strips of deserted beach.

Time: 3-4.5 hrs

Places to stay
Chez Papa, Barcelona. Hervé’s passions for food, wine, music and flea markets are an unmissable addition to a stay in the city

Castle Cottage, Montpellier. Extend the rail theme with a tram out of Marseille to the peaceful and surprisingly tortoise-filled gardens of this country villa

Catania to Riposto

Sicily train journey in Italy
Sicily, Italy. Photo courtesy of Stefano and Sarah.

The boxy old engines of the Ferrovia Circumetnea hardly look up to the climb through the thick black lava flows and deep gullies of Etna’s ragged landscape and indeed, the journey time can vary dramatically depending on the weather. If you set out to the west, the circular route carries you up onto the Maletto Plateau, where you look down to the cratered landscape and up to ever-changing views of the volcano’s higher reaches. At Randazzo, change for Riposto and as you approach the sea, the landscape softens into orange groves and vineyards thriving in the rich volcanic soil. One used by farmers to access higher fields, the railway is still more than a tourist attraction and you’ll see locals hopping on and off to travel between the towns. Your ticket entitles you to do the same, with many worthwhile stops available along the way. Jump out at Bronte to see some of the most dramatic lava flows, linger in Randazzo if the food market is on, or stop among the pistachio plantations and sun-bleached towns scattered across the slopes.

Time: 1.5-5 hrs

Places to stay
Ursino Roof Garden, Catania. From rooftop sun loungers looking down on Castle Ursino to arancini and cannoli in local spot Bar Savia
Tale Restaurant and Suite, Riposto. Clean-cut style, superb dining and a pool that looks out over the glittering Ionian sea

Sintra Cascais Natural Park
Sintra Cascais Natural Park. Photo courtesy of Mathilde Tushi.

Porto to Lisbon via Sintra

Locals treat this route as nothing more than an inter-city convenience, but while it may lack the spectacular scenery of some journeys, it links some of Portugal’s most inspiring stops. After touring cellars full Porto’s sweet eponymous export and visiting the old town in Ribeira, you head south to often-overlooked Coimbra, with its preserved Roman heritage visible in the historic centre. There’s been a university here since 1290 and the student population brings a youthful feel to the city in the form of varied nightlife and a lively craft beer scene. In the south, Sintra’s painted palaces and wine lodges draw affluent visitors from the capital and the mountainous expanse of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park stretches out to the Atlantic coast. Lisbon makes a great destination, with days of entertainment to be had exploring its steep streets, heading out to the beaches at Estoril and Cascais, or rattling down to old Belem on the tram.

Time: 3-4 hrs

Places to stay
Torel Avantgarde, Porto. Beautifully artistic hotel with colour and style running through every room, the pool and the elegant spa
Quinta das Lagrimas, Coimbra. A grand old palace where the arches of the dining room look out on the fountains in the garden
Casa Jose Ricardo, Sintra. A calm space in leafy central Sintra, close to the tascas, the palaces and the tram to the beach
Torel Palace, Lisbon. Friendly staff and quiet suntrap terraces make this a relaxing break on a lively visit to the capital

Nice to Dignes-les-Bains train route
Nice to Dignes-les-Bains. Photo courtesy of Natalia Fenetre.

Nice to Dignes-les-Bains

A steam locomotive, a historical monument in itself, churns up through the mountains, leaving Nice and the rippling sea of the Baie des Anges behind as it rises into the pine forests of the lower Alps. The train crosses ancient bridges over foaming rivers, stopping in towns hidden in the sharply carved valleys. Dignes-les-Bains, strung along the river in a valley ringed by lush green hills, is well worth the fare as a destination, but stops at Entrevaux, Annot and other medieval towns are also an atmospheric step back in time. Departures are limited to four a day and popular not just with tourists but also with locals travelling down to the city, so it can be difficult to get a seat. Consider travelling outside of summer, when the views are just as spectacular, but the route much less in demand.

Time: 3hrs approx

Places to stay:
Hotel Windsor, Nice. Creative hotel in Nice’s old town with every room decorated by local artists and a lobby exhibition that changes yearly
Le Vieil Aiglun, Dignes. A simple stone farmhouse in the mountains near Dignes, where the clouds fill the valley below in the morning

Settle to Carlisle train route
Settle to Carlisle. Photo courtesy of Gareth Williams.

Carlisle to Settle

Minutes after leaving Carlisle, you’re immersed in the humbling breadth of Yorkshire. The gentle route runs down between the eastern edge of the Lake District and the western edge of the Dales, in a broad bowl of rugged hills. Despite almost not being built after a financial crisis in 1866, the route was a great and expensive feat of engineering, involving the digging of 14 tunnels and 20 viaducts, most famously the 24 arches of the huge span of Ribblehead. Both Carlisle and Settle are good drop-off points for the beautiful wilderness nearby and hopping out at Ribblehead puts you on the Yorkshire Three Peaks track, as well as offering a shorter hike up to the viaduct itself.

Time: 2hrs approx

Places to stay:
The Lion at Settle. Follow in the footsteps of centuries of travellers by dropping in to the Lion for the beef specialty of Settle Pudding
The Hayloft Cumrew House, Carlisle. A red brick farmhouse retreat eight miles into the countryside from the Carlisle stop