Lonely Planet’s Tom Hall traveled from his native London across the heart of Europe on an overnight train. Here’s how it went.
On a spring or summer’s evening, the best way to appreciate Amsterdam is at a canal-side bar with a cold drink. After endlessly strolling the cobbled streets, I eventually found just the right spot.
With the bells of passing bikes tinkling, Amsterdammers cruising by on little boats and the evening light just about perfect, settling in here for many hours – or potentially forever – was a tempting prospect. But there was a train to catch, one leaving from the city’s elegant and ever-busy Centraal station, a short stroll away across canal bridges and tram tracks.
Tonight I was taking an international journey through three countries, on board the Austrian Railways (ÖBB) Nightjet service to Zürich, Switzerland. As I stood on the platform, yellow-and-blue NS (Nederlands Spoorwegen) commuter trains buzzed in and out. Beyond the platforms on one side was the sparkling IJ river and Amsterdam’s waterfront; on the other a vast, multistory bicycle park.
A little different from the airport
I’d arrived earlier in the day on the Eurostar from London via Brussels and Rotterdam, with the landscapes whooshing by rather different from the Swiss scenery I was looking forward to. Ruminations of mountains and fast-flowing rivers were shaken out of my head as that evening’s departure approached, and the happy hubbub of people boarding a night train filled the platform. Bikers and backpackers aimed for the seated compartments, families sought out their couchette compartments and I walked to the back of the train and my designated sleeper carriage.
For anyone used to flying across Europe, the first difference you notice is the lack of security or passport control to worry about. For this trip, wholly inside the Schengen Area, you simply turn up at Centraal, board a few minutes before departure and get settled in as the train rumbles onward into the sunset. Carriage and compartment number are written on tickets, while display boards make it easy to find the right place to get on, with train staff on hand to check you in for sleeping compartments.
There are multiple ways to travel aboard a Nightjet service. These are the Austrian-operated sleeper trains that fan out across Europe from Vienna and Salzburg, reaching Hamburg in the north, Rome in the south, Budapest in the east and Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam in the west – and countless points in between. Some services – like the one I was about to take – do not pass through Austria at all.
The most budget-friendly option is a seat in a regular day carriage – but that’s only worth considering if no other options are available or you are only making a short portion of the journey. For only a few euros more, a bunk in a couchette offers a lie-flat bed in a lockable compartment, shared with other passengers of the same sex.
From there, the price rises as the number of beds in a sleeper compartment falls, culminating in the most expensive option for lone travelers: a single-occupancy cabin. On some services, this deluxe option comes with a shower – an unimaginable luxury even a few years ago.
A midnight companion
Much like airlines, passengers should book early for the best prices. For €90, I got a bed in a three-person air-conditioned sleeper cabin with a washbasin. Traveling alone, I had one other companion who was, I was told by the train manager, joining further down the line, in Cologne. The manager asked that I stay up until his arrival around midnight, then offered me a small bottle of prosecco to convince me to do so. Yet after I happily drank it, I (slightly guiltily) dozed off. Thankfully, the gentleman from Cologne was able to find his way into his bunk, and was soon gently snoring. (Earplugs are provided, thankfully.) Breakfast was also included in the price: a pair of Kaiserbrötchen, an Austrian staple bread roll, with butter, jam and juice as well as coffee (with refills). Given the prices in Switzerland, I’d recommend eating as much on the train as is on offer.
Much of the journey was through Germany, passing from Cologne down the famous West Rhine Railway, hugging the banks of this mighty waterway, and on to Mannheim, Frankfurt and Baden-Baden, crossing into Switzerland at Basel. It wasn’t a completely smooth night’s sleep: there’s always a little movement on these trains during the night as locomotives and carriages get added and removed. On this service, there was even an opportunity for a quick look at a deserted Frankfurt station at 3am. Otherwise, we whizzed along at a top speed of 100mph (160kph), and by the time I woke up at 6am we were approaching Basel, with the foothills of the Black Forest providing a lovely change in scenery. Here, the train paused for a little while, the break in the journey caused by decoupling a few cars that were terminating at this station.
A swim in Zürich
After another hour or so, we were in Zürich, where I celebrated a fantastic journey by doing as locals do. The city’s best free attraction – in warmer months anyway – is a swim in the Limmat River. There are several designated bathing spots, and walking 10 minutes from Zürich Hauptbanhof brought me to one already humming with visitors enjoying a pre-work dip. Stashing my stuff next to a kind sunbather who kept an eye on it for me – you can leave valuables in a locker at the station, too – I walked upstream toward the lake, jumped in to the kind of water I’d gone to sleep dreaming about, floated back down, then repeated, feeling very pleased with life.
While Zürich is an excellent place to get off a train, it’s also a very good station to get on another one, with lines radiating out through Switzerland and further east into Austria and beyond. I continued on that day to Milan, stopping en route to explore some of the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino, in particular the lovely lakeside town of Lugano. This is along the standard route to Milan, which speeds beneath the heart of the high Swiss Alps through the vast Gotthard Tunnel.
There is another option, however: the Treno Gottardo, a service which takes the slower, more spectacular route along the older line. This service heads to another lakeside town, Locarno, after passing through Bellinzona – and certainly offers better, panoramic views. Yet It was a journey for another day. I was happy to be by the lake in Lugano with an ice cream, passing time before a final shuttle on to Milan. This felt like a good place to pause, having traveled to the heart of Europe from an island on its fringe easily and in comfort.
How to make it happen
The best time to go
Like all services across Europe, peak time is school-holiday time. If you can travel midweek, you should find the best deals and quieter trains.
Food and drink
Amsterdam Centraal has all the food options you could ask for when pulling together a picnic. In Zürich, there are lunchtime food trucks in the area outside the station, and grabbing something from these and sitting by the river is pleasant indeed.
Visit Nightjet.com or Trainline.com to start planning and booking. Tickets go on sale around 180 days before departure. Try the Swiss national railway’s website for details of travel within Switzerland, and Ns.nl for travel inside the Netherlands.