Trains pass through jade-green forests, misty mountains and gorgeous coastal stretches in lush South India.
Riding the rails is one of the greatest joys of any India adventure, whether you’re trundling high up into the hills aboard a Unesco-listed miniature train or clattering along the sun-drenched, coast-hugging Konkan Railway.
Down south, landscapes spin from honey-gold beaches and palm-shaded backwaters to jungle-covered hills, gushing waterfalls and sprawling megacities. And there’s no finer way to soak it all up than from the window seat of a clanking train, over a white-paper cup of steaming sweet chai.
Fabulous food is often part of the picture, too, thanks to vendors deftly making their way through carriages at stations, and top-tier tickets that include on-board meals. As you roll across wildly beautiful South India, you’ll see local staples such as potato-stuffed dosas (crispy, thin lentil-and-rice-flour pancakes), crispy vadas (fried savory dough) and coconut-rich Keralite stews pop up, while soothing chai and filter coffee inevitably always appear at just the right moment. Certain stations are famous for selling particular regional specialities, and some trains are known for serving superb food.
Here are eight terrific train journeys that offer a taste of India’s sultry south.
Mettupalayam to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway
46km (29 miles), 3.5–4.75 hours
South Indian rail thrills don’t get more classic than catching the famous, Unesco-listed “toy train” into northern Tamil Nadu’s misty Western Ghats. Jade-green tea plantations, lush jungle, rushing waterfalls and far-reaching panoramas jostle for attention as the narrow-gauge, rack-and-pinion steam train rattles up into the Nilgiri Hills from tiny Mettupalayam, zipping through 16 tunnels and across 250 bridges. Eventually, it reaches the hugely popular hill station of Ooty, at 2240m (7350ft). There’s also a stop along the way at Coonoor, the Nilgiris’ second hill station, resting at 1720m (5643ft). First opened in 1899 (and extended to Ooty in 1908), the NMR pulls in an often-lively domestic crowd, with people cheering as tunnels plunge you into darkness.
The blue-and-cream miniature train leaves for Ooty every day at 7:10am and takes 4.75 hours on the way up; it makes its way back down to Mettupalayam at 2pm, a 3.5-hour journey. The best way to get to Mettupalayam is aboard the nine-hour overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai Central (or hop on it at Coimbatore, which has an airport), arriving just in time at 6:15am.
Bengaluru (Bangalore) to Gokarna on the Karwar Express
711km (442 miles), 14 hours
Flights link Karnataka’s lively capital of Bengaluru with the coast in an hour or so – but then you’d be missing out on a spectacular slow-travel jaunt through the lush, biodiverse and unbelievably beautiful Western Ghats en route to Gokarna’s blissful beaches. Leaving Bengaluru’s Yesvantpur Junction station three days a week at 7am, the Karwar Express follows inland Karnataka’s so-called Green Route, which is known for its wild green forests, dense coffee crops and over 100 bridges. After reaching the low-key coastal town of Mangaluru (Mangalore), the train follows the coast north to Gokarna Road station, where some of South India’s most magical and relaxed beaches await on the doorstep.
If you’d prefer an overnight train to the beach, catch the daily Panchaganga Express at 6:50pm from Bengaluru City station, which drops you at Gokarna Road 12 hours later.
Mumbai to Margao (Madgaon) on the Mandovi Express
765km (475 miles), 12 hours
One of India’s most spectacular railway stations – Mumbai’s Gothic-style, colonial-era Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus – is the 7:10am starting point for a thrilling coastal adventure south to the golden sands of Goa. Built in the 1990s, the beloved 756km (470-mile) Konkan Railway rushes across 2216 bridges and through almost 100 tunnels, and includes one of the country’s tallest viaducts (a 60m/197ft-high marvel near Ratnagiri). Gaze out on tropical-fruit plantations, rice fields, meandering rivers and electric-green coconut palms as you spin through Maharashtra to land in Margao, southern Goa’s main transport hub, from where there’s easy onward transport to mellow beachy beauties like Palolem and Benaulim.
But the Mandovi Express isn’t all about the views: it’s also famous for its food, courtesy of a Karnataka-born catering company that delights travelers with samosas, idli-sambar, vadas and other favorites. South of Goa, the Konkan Railway continues through Karnataka almost to the Kerala border.
Varkala to Kanyakumari on the Island Express
127km (79 miles), four hours
Settle in for a leisurely journey from the golden-black beaches, lively surf-and-yoga scene and holy temples of Varkala, on Kerala’s south coast, to the southernmost tip of India, in Tamil Nadu. Famous as the place where three seas meet – the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal – laid-back Kanyakumari centers on a revered waterside temple devoted to the Hindu goddess Kumari, a site with an entrancing feel. The beloved Island Express’ 10:55am departure from Varkala means you’ll enjoy southern Kerala’s palm-laced landscapes in all their hazy day-lit beauty.
Alternatively, you can hop on in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), three hours from Kanyakumari, or even from as far north as Bengaluru – which involves a 19-hour, 944km (587-mile) overnight spin via Coimbatore, Kochi, Kollam and more.
Vasco da Gama to Londa on the Goa Express
146km (91 miles), 3.5 hours
The tumbling 603m(1980ft)-high cascade of Dudhsagar Falls (one of India’s tallest waterfalls) is the “wow” moment on any journey between the South Goan port city of Vasco da Gama and Londa, just over the border in Karnataka. Along the way, Goa’s gold-tinged shoreline gives way to the Western Ghats’ Unesco-protected hills, as you dive into the contiguous wildlife-rich Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary.
The 3pm Goa Express (a daily superfast train) runs north from Vasco da Gama via Londa all the way to Delhi – 2208km (1372 miles), or 39.5 hours away. It also stops in Margao, a handy alternative Goa start point.
Chennai to Hyderabad on the Chennai–Hyderabad Express
715km (444 miles), 13 hours
Wake up to the ancient architectural jewels of Telangana’s dynamic capital Hyderabad, home to some of India’s most magnificent Islamic buildings, such as the chandelier-lit Chowmahalla Palace, the 16th-century Golconda Fort and the splendid Qutb Shahi Tombs. The fun starts with a 4:45pm daily departure from Chennai Central and a South Indian–style dinner on board as the Chennai–Hyderabad Express inches its way north from Tamil Nadu. You’ll probably start the next day sharing a chat and a sugary chai with your carriage neighbors, watching the countryside morph into an urban metropolis on the slow roll into Hyderabad Deccan station.
Kochi to Margao on the Netravathi Express
849km (527 miles), 14.75 hours
Also following the Konkan Railway for much of the way, this overnight route zips you north from Kerala’s arty cultural hub Kochi to serene southern Goa. After hopping on at Ernakulam Junction station in Kochi at 1:50pm, Kerala whirls past in a blur of sun-toasted coconut palms. Post-sunset, you’ll travel through coastal Mangaluru and the temple town of Udupi in Karnataka, to (finally!) reach Margao Junction just before sunrise.
In its full extent, the Netravathi Express links Kerala’s capital Trivandrum with Mumbai – a whopping 30-hour, 1805km (1122-mile) journey. It’s also handy for reaching northern Kerala’s untouristed beaches (around Kannur and Bekal), and you can pick it up from further south than Kochi if you’re in, say, Alappuzha (Alleppey) or Varkala.
Chennai to Rameswaram on the Rameswaram Express
665km (413 miles), 11 hours
Plodding across the 2km(1.25-mile)-long Pamban Bridge, with the Bay of Bengal swirling below, puts a whole new spin on riding the rails in South India. The bridge links mainland Tamil Nadu to Pamban Island, home to the small pilgrimage town of Rameswaram and the eerie ruins of Dhanushkodi (a once-thriving port destroyed by a 1964 cyclone), and marks the final stretch of a long overnight trip south from Chennai Egmore.
Known as the Boat Mail Express in the 19th century, this train originally operated as part of a rail-and-ferry route linking Tamil Nadu with neighboring Sri Lanka (then under British rule as Ceylon), until the Pamban Bridge was opened in 1914. It’s also possible to travel by train across from the celebrated temple city of Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu; trains leave throughout the day from Madurai Junction (four hours).
At the time of writing, rail services across the original century-old Pamban Bridge have been suspended while a new bridge is constructed, after safety concerns arose in 2022.
How to book trains in South India
The best way to find out about South Indian train services is online via Erail, Indian Railways and/or Seat 61; this last resource offers invaluable advice on all things train travel–related in India, including buying tickets.
Many trains sell out well in advance of their departure date, so it’s best to book as far ahead as possible, ideally online. Long-distance bookings currently open 120 days beforehand. Most comfortable for overnight travels are the reserved air-conditioned classes (1AC, 2AC or 3AC). The easiest way to reserve is through a booking portal such as Cleartrip or 12Go. The IRCTC government website also takes online bookings, but it can be a frustratingly fiddly process. On the ground, major train stations in places like Mumbai and Chennai usually have dedicated ticket counters for foreign travelers. Read more about how to get around India by train here.