Europe’s most spectacular train journeys

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Monisha Rajesh

5 min read

Monisha Rajesh is journalist and author who has written several books and countless articles on train travel. Here are just a few of her favourite routes with spectacular scenery at every twist and turn. From coastal journeys across the French Riviera, and rack railways clacking up Spanish mountainsides to express trains cutting through the heart of the Sicilian countryside and winding around Italy’s cliffs, there are limitless journeys to take through Europe.

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It could be said that we’re entering a second Golden Age of train travel. Post-pandemic, there’s been a distinct swing towards the growing trend of slow travel, with many of us wanting to devote time and attention to our surroundings, exploring cultures close to home and being more present and alert when we do move from one place to another. As a resurgence of sleeper trains sweeps across Europe and more passengers look to the rails for holidays, it’s worth remembering that as we journey from one destination to another there is much to absorb in between.

Barcelona to Montserrat, Spain

With its numerous museums, tapas bars and beaches it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming bored by the megacity of Barcelona. But if calm and nature are what you crave, then this two-part train journey makes for a perfect day trip – one that will soothe from start to finish. Board a metro-style train at Plaça d’Espanya and spend 90 minutes travelling towards Monistrol de Montserrat. In just ten minutes of gliding out of the station, the train shakes loose the urban sprawl, barreling through the suburbs into deep forested greenery, stepped mountains rising all around, terracotta rooftops warming up the landscape. Mottled and knobbly – like giant pieces of ginger – round-topped rock formations throw shadows on the train as the sun flashes in and out of the carriages slowing towards the foot of the mountain. From here, passengers transfer to a funicular railway that travels up a slice in the mountainside, its little green body squeezing through the narrowest space with bushes and trees blooming all around. First opened in 1892, a version of the railway was built to transfer pilgrims from the town of Monistrol up to the sacred Montserrat monastery but today it’s mostly used by curious visitors to the region.

A combined ticket for both journeys can be bought at the station at Plaça d’Espanya. 

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Venice to Rome sleeper train, Italy

During the day, the high-speed Frecciarossa takes around four hours to shoot down the country from Venice to Rome, but for passengers looking for a little bit of romance, the sleeper train is a wonderful option. Departing Venice Santa Lucia station just after 11pm, the train is a favourite of students looking to save money on hotels and young families looking for a little adventure. As the train glides away from the platform, Venice’s lagoons shine like ink, moonlight bouncing across the waves. But soon the waters are far behind and within an hour the train is cantering through Padua and on through the commune of Montegrotto Terme where the Duomo of Saint Peter glimmers gold against the darkness. Forests loom up the hillsides, the train’s headlamps flashing across their trunks, before there’s nothing but blackness and the thump of wheels on steel. At around 6am you can pull up the blinds to find navy skies, cold mists hovering in ghostly whorls and a blurry moon still gold before dawn. As the train rolls through Rome’s suburbs, apartments rising up, curtains swishing back and lights flicking on, passengers will be privy to the quiet workings of the city that no one ever sees.  

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Palermo to Catania, Sicily

Sicily’s trains have long had a reputation for being old, slow and unreliable with poorly maintained tracks and few towns connected to the regional network. However, the truth is that the majority are punctual, clean, air-conditioned and comfortable with a high-speed connection due next year between Palermo and Catania. The current journey, though, is a gorgeous ride that deserves to be enjoyed at leisure. With almost ten departures a day, the train pulls out of Palermo Centrale and runs along the edge of the Mediterranean’s green waters for around 40 minutes, past giant cacti, upturned boats and rocky coves frothing with soap-like surf. Then it swings inland and cuts through rolling fields blooming with delicate pink almond blossom and smatterings of poppies. Silky-skinned cows gleam in the sunshine as they graze in knee-deep grass, vineyards, olive trees and lemon groves in abundance. And just past the city of Enna, the snowy peak of Mount Etna rises into view against a blazing blue sky, its scooped-out crater often with a sideways plume of smoke. Pea-green rivers wind below bridges, bee hives dot around the slopes and tiny butter-yellow flowers fringe the tracks by the armful.

Tickets can be bought on the day of travel from Palermo Centrale, or can be purchased online in advance from

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Fréjus, France to Ventimiglia, Italy

An ancient Roman city set deep within the crags of the southeastern coast of France, Fréjus is the beginning of one of the country’s most glorious train rides. With no airs and graces, the regional express that runs along cliff edges and curves above coves allows passengers a trackside view of wisteria-covered villas on one side and a shimmering Ligurian Sea on the other, before ending two and a half hours later in the Italian market town of Ventimiglia. Much like a bus service, this double-decker train takes teenagers to school, sandalled grandpas to the supermarket, and coiffed ladies to the beach with their lapdogs. On the top deck you’ll find scrawls on the windows, graffiti on the backs of seats and young couples sharing earphones, but it’s the prime spot for passengers wanting to peek into the backs of terracotta houses and to feel the warmth of the Mediterranean sun bobbing above the ocean. Pulling into major stations like Cannes, Nice and Monaco, this service also weaves its way into coastal hideaways like the towns of Cagnes-sur-mer, Juan les Pins and Antibes where you should consider breaking up the journey. It’s in these nooks and crannies where the beaches are quieter, the water clearer and restaurants far less frantic. When the sea’s sparkle disappears behind apartment blocks, move to the left of the train and scour sun-kissed villages where bougainvillea pour down gated villas, and men with orange tans play pétanque. As the train pulls into the soft-hued old town there’s a distinct feeling of crossing from the prim and pretty into the grit and bustle of northern Italy.

Trains run every 40 minutes from around 6am with one change at Cannes. Tickets can be bought online or at the station on the day of travel.  

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Monisha Rajesh

Monisha Rajesh is a journalist and author whose work has been published in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller and Travel + Leisure. She is the author of Around the World in 80 Trains which was a National Geographic Traveller Book of the Year, and also Around India in 80 Trains and Epic Train Journeys. Currently working on her fourth book about the resurgence in sleeper trains, Monisha lives in London with her husband, two daughters and mini-dachshund, Juno.
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