A few years ago, competition from low-cost airlines and high-speed railways were blamed for the demise of sleeper trains, which were increasingly starting to look like relics.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, concern about the environmental impact of flying (driven partly by the Swedish flygskam or “flight shame” movement) and an increased interest in slow travel has boosted demand for sleeper trains. In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, operators across Europe are bringing routes back, in some cases returning services to timetables for the first time in generations.
Overnight trains do more than save on a night’s accommodation. They’re an adventure in themselves, recreating the romance of a bygone era as they transport travelers, families and business people across the continent in darkness. Most services offer a mixture of sleeper compartments with room for two or four passengers, six-person dormitory-style couchettes and seat accommodation. Increasingly trains are running with new or refurbished carriages, enhancing the sense of a next-generation of night train.
While the pandemic means travel restrictions and services can change quickly, here are 9 European night train journeys to inspire you in 2022.
Paris, France to Vienna, Austria
Frequency: three trains per week in each direction
Approximate duration: 14 hours
Each Tuesday, Friday and Sunday night Austrian-run OEBB NightJet service pulls out of Paris’ Gare de l’Est setting off on a nighttime adventure bound for Austria’s modern Hauptbanhof station. As one of Europe’s newest, and longest sleeper routes, the 8pm departure means there’s time for a few hours of window-gazing (in summer months) before retiring for the night. While there’s much that’s new about the route, the line matches much of the first section of the legendary Orient Express, which ran on to Constantinople.
Today’s train crosses northern France, passing Strasbourg’s magnificent cathedral to enter Germany, visiting Stuttgart and Munich before heading into and across Austria. Dawn will arrive in time to scoff your complimentary Kaiser rolls with jam and coffee before approaching Vienna just before 10am.
There’s a variety of accommodation from simple seats to couchettes and cozier sleepers all the way up to private one-bed compartments, complete with a shower.
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Berlin, Germany to Stockholm, Sweden
Frequency: nightly during summer
Approximate duration: 14 hours
The Berlin - Stockholm Snalltaget service runs between these two capitals nightly from April 7 to September 25 via Hamburg, across Denmark and the Öresund Bridge to Malmö. This is something of a departure from previous years when the service used to board a ferry across the Baltic Sea, but should lead to a less bumpy night.
Rail travel in Sweden is booming thanks to the “flight shame” movement, which has been championed by climate activist, Greta Thunberg. It is against this backdrop that the Swedish government has announced plans to launch more night trains including a Swedish Railways Stockholm - Hamburg night service, so keep an eye out for further announcements.
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London, England to Fort William, Scotland
Frequency: Mon - Fri, Sun
Approximate duration: 13.5 hours
Great Britain has only two sleeper trains and both have recently benefited from major upgrades in what many see as a vote of confidence in the country's overnight services. The Night Riviera runs southwest from London’s Paddington Station and keeps going until it runs out of land at Penzance in Cornwall. But it is the Caledonian Sleeper that gets Britons most excited. This legendary train leaves Euston Station each night and, via a series of carriage shuffles unnoticed by the snoozing passenger, reaches Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen, Fort William and points in between.
The Fort William service is the most spectacular, offering a night on the rails and a morning crossing wonderful Highland scenery before depositing fresh-faced passengers from the two carriages at the foot of the path up Ben Nevis, the country’s highest peak.
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Trondheim, Norway to Bodø, Norway
Approximate duration: 10 hours
Under normal circumstances the jaw-dropping views offered by any Norwegian rail journey would mean taking a night train would be a wasted opportunity. But there are two factors in favour of taking the 10-hour Trondheim to Bodø service. Firstly, if you do this journey during the summer you needn’t miss anything – the sun will hardly set. Secondly, Norwegian trains are very pleasant places to hang out for a while, and a berth on a night train is an excellent deal in a country where bargains aren’t always obvious.
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Budapest, Hungary to Split, Croatia
Frequency: daily during summer season (Jun - Sep)
Approximate duration: 14 hours
Budapest’s striking Keleti Station is a wonderful place to start a great journey. Split, the gateway to Croatia’s central coast and islands, is a great town to arrive in. The station is over the road from the port and you can be on your way to Brač, Hvar or dozens of other sunny Adriatic rocks within minutes of arriving. In between the two, passengers aboard the Adria will rattle past Hungary’s Lake Balaton and pause in Zagreb, Croatia’s underrated capital.
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Prague, Czech Republic to Kraków, Poland
Approximate duration: 8 hours
This classic European journey features on most interrail itineraries, connecting two of central Europe’s essential destinations. The six-hour trip – which plows through great swathes of pretty Czechian countryside – provides ample chance to sleep off all that delicious Czech lager in private or shared compartments, before arriving fresh-faced in Kraków ready for the Polish take on royal castles, imposing squares and atmospheric cellar bars.
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Rome, Italy to Venice, Italy
Approximate duration: 7 hours
The quiet star of Europe’s night train scene, Italy’s InterCityNotte (ICN) services criss-cross the country, offering several unmissable routes. While trains heading from Rome to Sicily garner attention thanks to the novelty of the carriage-carrying ferry crossing over the Straits of Messina, there are reasons to head in the opposite direction. The Trieste-bound sleeper hauls out of Roma Termini each evening and ambles through the romantic regions of Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. Snoozing travelers may be woken by some shunting as northbound carriages are moved off at Mestre, before an unforgettable crossing of the lagoon causeway to Venice itself. Any bleary eyes should be swiftly jolted into life emerging from Santa Lucia station into the sunshine of a Venetian dawn, the first sight of the city with pretty much no one else around and a strong espresso or two.
Paris, France to Latour de Carol, France
Frequency: Nightly, but departure times vary
Approx duration: 12 hours
Having axed all but a handful of Intercites de Nuit services in 2016, SNCF (French National Railway Company) have spent the past few years plotting to return some of the canceled services. One survivor has been the service from Paris to Latour de Carol, deep in the Pyrenees. Four and six berth couchettes and a seated carriage make the journey south, passing through Limoges, Toulouse and the foothills of the Pyrenees to arrive at the border station of Latour de Carol. From here it’s possible to catch a suburban train into the heart of Barcelona in around three hours, offering an epic alternative to the TGV service from Paris to the Catalan city that runs via Montpelier and the French Mediterranean coast.
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Innsbruck, Austria to Cologne, Germany
Approximate duration: 11.5 hours
There is a multitude of reasons to hop aboard this excellent Nightjet sleeper service, particularly in this direction. Firstly, Innsbruck’s beautiful location in the Tyrolean Alps makes it a rewarding spot to explore pre-voyage, with hiking trails in summer and ski runs in winter. Secondly – and excitingly for real train geeks – Nightjet services offer unique double-decker sleeper compartments, with deluxe berths on the upper level. Thirdly, if you can rouse yourself early, these trains travel through the early morning along the beautiful Rhine Valley Line, passing time-worn castles and vast vineyards on their way north to Cologne.
As if that wasn’t enough, Cologne’s cathedral, right next to the railway station, is one of the great icons of Europe, and watching its twin spires grow in stature as you chug towards the city is a fitting finale to this magnificent journey.
Booking information: Berths go on sale between 30 and 180 days in advance, depending on where you’re traveling and it’s best to book as far ahead as possible. Seat61, Trainline.com and national train operators can guide you through the booking process.
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