Give thanks to the engineers who built railways across Europe's most difficult terrain, their hard work has translated into some of the world's most picturesque journeys – in Scandinavia along icy rivers to fjords, in Germany, Switzerland and Italy through carved valleys in the Alps, along the swirling Rhine River dotted with romantic castles, and among crags deep within the Scottish highlands. Here are the best of Europe’s scenic train routes.
1. Rauma Line from Dombås to Åndalsnes (Norway)
Enjoy sensational views of high peaks, jagged rock faces and mountain slopes leading up to windswept plateaus as you trace the Rauma River. Europe's highest perpendicular rock face is at Trollveggen, and the beautifully arched Kylling Bridge near Verma.
Distance & time: 114km, 1½ hours
Best time: mid-summer
2. Bergen Line with Flåm Railway between Oslo and Bergen via Flåm (Norway)
Roll through craggy mountain landscapes and across the beautiful Hardangervidda Plateau to Norway’s highest station, Finse (1222m), on this awe-inspiring train journey. From Myrdal to Flåm you go straight up on the world’s steepest railway line. Don’t miss The Flåm Railway Documentation Centre to learn more about this feat of engineering.
Distance & time: 550km, nine hours
Best: mid-summer or winter
3. West Highland Line, Fort William to Mallaig (Scotland)
This is certainly one scenic route: rugged highlands and isolated lochs, flashes of coastline, Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain), and spectacular views from the viaduct at Glenfinnan. The line and steam train are so easy on the eye that they crop up as the Hogwart's Express in the Harry Potter films. Don’t miss the tasty seafood in Mallaig.
Distance & time: 67km, 1½ hours
4. Bernina Express between Chur and Tirano (Switzerland & Italy)
Relax behind panorama windows and soak up the spectacular Alpine views connecting northern and southern Europe. The route follows two World Heritage–listed lines, the Albula and the Bernina, and sweeps among glaciers in Switzerland and palms in Italy. Don’t miss chic, lakeside St Moritz.
Distance & time: 123km, four hours
5. Cinque Terre between Levanto and La Spezia (Italy)
Five colourful, rustic villages give this 18km stretch of rugged coastline its name (‘five lands’), replete with cliffs tumbling into the picture-postcard turquoise Ligurian Sea, bucolic vineyards and olive groves. Regional trains stop at all five villages. Don’t miss walking the path between the towns, enjoying the coastal bliss.
Distance & time: 20km, 40 minutes
Best: spring to autumn
6. Central Rhine Railway between Bingen and Koblenz (Germany)
The Rhine Valley offers romantic German landscapes straight from a fairytale – castles rising above swirling waters, past the narrows where the siren Loreley sings sailors onto the rocks. Take the Mittelrheinbahn (MRB; Central Rhine Railway service), which follows the left bank between Mainz and Koblenz, stopping at all stations. Don’t miss ascending the Loreley bluff in St Goarshausen.
Distance & time: 61km, 50 minutes
Best: spring and autumn
7. Semmering Railway (Austria)
Between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag this line morphs into a picturesque wonderland as the train crosses the Semmering Pass, taking in countless tunnels, viaducts and arched bridges on a forested mountain stretch. Don’t miss a hike along the railway line, and then relaxing your muscles in a winter sauna in Semmering.
Distance & time: 41km, 45 minutes
Best: all year
8. The Centovalli Railway between Locarno and Domodossola (Switzerland & Italy)
The ‘Hundred Valley Railway’ is a spectacle of waterfalls, chestnut groves, lush landscapes and vineyards – the Alps at their spellbinding best. Highlights are the Sorno viaduct (Intragna) and the gorge connecting Re and Intragna. Don’t miss a stroll along dazzling blue Lago Maggiore.
Distance & time: 52km, two hours
9. Munich to Innsbruck via Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany & Austria)
Don’t go any other way – this the most beautiful route between Munich and Innsbruck. It takes in glittering lakes, views Germany’s highest mountain (Zugspitze) and glorious mountainous landscapes along the Mittenwaldbahn between Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Innsbruck. Don’t miss the commanding white castle, Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck.
Distance & time: 157km, three hours
Best: all year
10. Glacier Express between Zermatt and St Moritz (Switzerland)
On this route the chances of meeting a millionaire are higher than average as you curl between the eastern and western Swiss Alps, through pristine Alpine landscapes and two of Switzerland's most reputable ski resorts. It's de rigueur for the ski enthusiast (and, literally, the upwardly mobile). Don’t miss the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt, where you can get to know the mount.
Distance & time: 291km, 7½ hours
This article was published in November 2012. This article was refreshed in June 2013.