No trip to India would be complete without a ride on one of the country's 13,000 daily passenger trains. India's railways are the lifeblood of the nation – the veins and arteries that keep the country’s heart beating, snaking into nooks and crannies that no plane could ever reach, and keeping 1.38 billion people connected with friends and family.

From 10-minute commuter hops to epic four-day journeys across the subcontinent, there’s a train ride to suit every travel need and every budget. Penny-priced local trains transport millions across big cities such as Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, while lavish luxury locos offer the chance to roll around the country in style.

Passengers squeeze into an Indian train at Gwalior
What Indian trains lack in personal space, they make up for in atmosphere © Sanga Park / Getty Images

With the windows down and doors flung open, India's trains offer a peek into the everyday workings of Indian life, crawling through dusty villages, winding up the lush slopes of forest-clad mountains and skimming beautiful coasts, bringing visitors within touching distance of drying laundry and coconut groves.

Onboard, you’ll find a microcosm of Indian society spread across eight different classes, from politicians and businessmen living it up in air-conditioned compartments to laborers sitting cross-legged on simple wooden benches. Affordable and relatively easy to book online, trains are also the most atmospheric way to explore India. Traveling by train is also a smart way to save money on hotels, with comfortable sleeper services connecting major cities nightly and meals often included in the ticket price.

Whether you're a committed rail enthusiast, or just dipping in a toe for the experience, here are the best train journeys in India.

The Deccan Odyssey 

Best luxury journey

Start – New Delhi; End – Mumbai; Distance – 1524km (947 miles); Duration – 7 nights 8 days

Standing out amongst the thousands of passenger trains that traverse the country every day, India's luxury trains roll languorously between major cities, their polished engines and gleaming livery glinting in the sun. For those who can afford it, it's the only way to travel.

Rail aficionados sing the praises of the extravagant Maharajas’ Express, which comes with personal butlers, bejeweled dinner plates and onboard bathtubs, but a more affordable option is the Deccan Odyssey. This luxe service runs from the Indian capital to Ranthambore National Park, the Taj Mahal in Agra and Jaipur and Udaipur, continuing to Vadodara and the World Heritage Sites of Ellora and Ajanta before arriving in Mumbai eight days later.

Less a train ride, more a cruise on wheels, this elegant train rumbles through the night, with passengers waking in a brand new city every day, to be met by coaches offering local tours. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit out the organized excursions and explore by yourself on foot or by taxi, or just pull out a paperback and enjoy the peace and quiet on board.

The lavish dining car onboard the Deccan Odyssey train from Delhi to Mumbai
The lavish dining car of the Deccan Odyssey from Delhi to Mumbai – this is what train travel should be like! © CRS PHOTO / Shutterstock

Mandovi Express

Best all-round rail experience

Start – Mumbai CST; End – Madgaon Junction; Distance – 581km (361 miles); Duration – 11hrs 50mins

With the Sahyadri Hills rising on the left and the Arabian Sea sparkling on the right, the Konkan Railway is a textbook example of Indian railway engineering excellence. Flash floods, landslides and collapsed tunnels all failed to hinder the construction of this trunk line from Mumbai's famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj station (CST) to the beaches of Goa.

While numerous trains weave along this coastal route, the Mandovi Express stands out as a national treasure thanks to its scenic views and the legions of hawkers who wander the aisles vending freshly fried pakoras (vegetable fritters), hot samosas (fried savory pastries) and biryani in clay pots.

Eschew the air-conditioned carriages with tinted windows that obscure the views, and opt for a seat in third or general class, where a warm salty breeze wafts through the bars of open windows. With no glass between you and the scenery, you’ll get the best out of the experience, as the train navigates more than 2000 bridges and 92 tunnels, with coconut trees bending in the foreground and rivers gushing beneath the sleepers.

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Darjeeling Toy Train

Best for families and steam enthusiasts

Start – New Jalpaiguri; End – Darjeeling; Distance – 84km (52 miles); Duration – 7hrs 20mins

Since the late 19th century, this dainty little "toy train" has been trundling slowly uphill to the Bengali hill station of Darjeeling. Seven hours after leaving the base of the hills, this pint-sized loco wails arrives in a cloud of steam and dark smoke, offering a trip back to an earlier century. Trucks and carts creep to a halt to allow the train to wind across Hill Cart Road, where the carriages glide so close to shop fronts that you can almost reach out and touch the piles of apples.

Built by the British colonial government, the railway was originally used to transport tea and rice down to the plains, but it’s now Unesco World Heritage listed and more commonly packed with holidaying families singing Hindi movie songs and cheering at particularly thrilling sections of track such as the Batasia Loop.

Every day, the train zig-zags uphill from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) through thick groves of bamboo and pine, working its way around rich green tea plantations before hooting into Darjeeling. The main service is usually pulled by a diesel engine, but two-hour joy rides chug from Darjeeling to Ghum and back tugged by steam locos. On a clear day, you may even spot the sun-kissed summit of 8586m (28,169 ft) Mt Khangchendzonga hovering on the horizon. 

The toy train rolls into Darjeeling Railway Station
Darjeeling's charming toy train rumbles into the station at the end of its seven-hour uphill journey © beibaoke / Shutterstock

The Dibrugarh–Kanyakumari Vivek Express

Best train ride for serious rail enthusiasts

Start – Dibrugarh; End – Kanniyakumari; Distance – 4154km (2581 miles); Duration: 74hrs 35mins

Leaving once a week on Saturdays, this is one epic train ride, taking passengers from Upper Assam in the northeast corner of the country all the way to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, at the southernmost tip of India – the point where the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean meet. Making 57 stops in eight different states, this multi-day odyssey is a deep immersion into the verve and spirit of India's railways.

For the perfect combination of charm and comfort, book into a 2AC sleeper carriage – with open, four-berth compartments – and lie between clean white sheets watching students playing cards, mothers rocking babies in cradles tied from saris, and friends chatting over hot vadas (lentil-flour fritters) and endless cups of chai (sweet Indian tea). Take the opportunity to stroll up and down the 16 carriages to experience a microcosm of Indian society, and keep plenty of small denomination notes to hand for snacks, as hawkers rarely have change for big bills.

Island Express

Best for a quick taste of the Indian rail experience

Start – Thiruvananthapuram; End – Kanniyakumari; Distance – 87km/54 miles; Duration – 3hrs 20mins

By Indian standards, the Island Express is barely a local hop, but it’s a magical trip that takes passengers into the dewy depths of Kerala. For less than a dollar, passengers can stake out a window seat on this quiet country service that squeezes through the backwaters between Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, passing villages of sugar-pink houses and tiny whitewashed churches.

Waterlogged paddy fields roll by, skinny palms bend as if bowing, and the steam from the kitchens of trackside houses drifts through the open doors. You’ll want to sit right up against the windows (or in the open doorways) to snap photos of children playing street cricket, elderly men in dhotis (white sarongs) smoking rolled-leaf cigarettes and bullock carts rumbling alongside the rail tracks. Just watch out for the stray branches that thwack against the sides of the train, leaving broken twigs scattered up the aisles and tiny flowers scattered underfoot.

Pune–Hazrat Nizamuddin Duronto Express

Best train trip for a first-time overnight ride

Start – Pune; End – New Delhi; Distance – 1515km (941 miles); Duration – 19hrs 35mins

India’s sleeper trains vary widely when it comes to levels of comfort, with many services creeping along at a snail's pace and stopping noisily at local stations through the night – a definite hindrance to sleep! However, Duronto Express trains only stop at a tiny number of stations en route, using some of the country’s fastest trains, and they offer excellent meals and high standards of onboard service.

Recognizable by their bright green and yellow color scheme, these sleek and modernized trains are perfect for first-time night-riders looking to sample the Indian railway experience without the rough edges. Departing Pune just after 11am every day, the train speeds past rushing rivers, stretches of deserts, small mountains and serene villages.

There's much excitement in the middle of the day as lunch arrives on red plastic trays. Expect tomato soup with a breadstick and butter followed by foil-wrapped chapatis, steamed rice, dal, chicken curry, yogurt and pickles – and a small tub of vanilla ice cream for dessert. The meals loaded in Pune are the tastiest of the ride, but you'll also get a satisfying dinner and breakfast before rolling into Delhi's Hazrat Nizamuddin station, close to Humayun's Tomb.

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