The midnight thump and clunk of railway carriages being uncoupled and shunted in a station somewhere in central Europe is not in itself romantic. But add in that this is the night train between Paris and Venice, and that you’re tucked up in bed six feet off the floor, and everything’s somehow more exciting.
The opposite of fast daytime services, night trains chug at a relaxed pace, aiming to deliver passengers refreshed and ready for the day rather than getting from A to B in the shortest possible time.
These trains do more than save on a night’s accommodation. They’re often an adventure in themselves, transporting travellers, families and businessfolk all bundled in together on what can be a rolling party. Some are the finest train journeys you could ever be lucky enough to ride on. And all echo down the tracks from a time when trains were the only way to travel.
Most services offer a mixture of sleeper compartments with room for two or four passengers, six-person dormitory-style couchettes and seat accommodation. Go for the best one you can afford, and book ahead by at least a few days, especially at busy times. Berths go on sale between 30 and 120 days in advance, depending on where you’re travelling. Seat61 and national train operators can guide you through the booking process.
Here are ten essential night train journeys – how many have you done?
Both of Britain's night sleeper services leave from London © pisaphotography / Shutterstock
Moscow to St Petersburg
Approx duration: 8.5 hours
The Red Arrow offers nearly a century of history, comfy beds and its own theme song (which explains why it's the best way to travel between Russia’s superpower cities). When the train, the pick of politicians, dignitaries and humble travellers splashing out on something special, pulls out of St Petersburg just before midnight each evening, Reinhold Glière’s rousing Hymn to the Great City sounds out. Those on board settle down for a gentle ride through the night, snoozing in the grand style that Russians have been rightly proud of for generations. You can do this journey in four and a half hours during the day, but remember: you’ll get no comfy bed, no vodka nightcap, and no theme tune.
London to Fort William
Frequency: Mon-Fri, Sun
Approx duration: 13.5 hours
Great Britain has only two sleeper trains. Both of them are real crackers. 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.
Northern Norway's long hours of sunlight during the summer guarantee great track-side views through the night © Marius Dobilas / Shutterstock
Paris to Venice
Approx duration: 14.5 hours
Paris is blessed with an exciting array of night train services, and boarding one of these is the best way to leave the French capital, preferably on a balmy summer evening from Gare de Lyon or Bercy station. These termini always seem full of people, which adds to the sense of excitement once you board and find your spot on the train.
The pick of the Paris night trains is the route southeast to Venice. If you can’t sleep you can make out the Alps by moonlight and the Italian Lakes in the early morning before stepping off the train into a different kind of crowd and noise in the Lagoon City. As an added bonus you’ll get an hour or two before the herds of day-trippers arrive.
Trondheim to Bodø
Approx 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.
Budapest to Split
Frequency: Daily during summer season (June-Sept)
Approx 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 you’ll rattle past Hungary’s Lake Balaton and pause in Zagreb, Croatia’s underrated capital.
Close quarter sleeper carriages often foster a social atmosphere © Igor Zvencom / Shutterstock
Prague to Kraków
Approx duration: 9 hours
This classic European journey features on most interrailer itineraries, connecting two of central Europe’s essential destinations. The nine-hour trip – which ploughs 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.
Sofia to Istanbul
Approx duration: 12 hours (incl bus transfer)
While the popular evening service linking Greece to Turkey has sadly been axed, you can still reach Istanbul by train from Sofia, Bulgaria's lesser-visited capital where chic bars and restaurants stand in the shadow of ancient, onion-domed churches. The train’s compartments are comfortable and clean and the lights of Sofia dazzling as you trundle away into the Bulgarian countryside.
The only downsides to this journey are that you have to disembark at the Turkish frontier very early in the morning to get your visa, and also the need to make the last 25km of the route into Istanbul by bus or taxi while Sirkeci station remains out of action. Even with this inconvenience, this route is a wonderful way to enter one of the world’s most iconic cities.
Innsbruck to Cologne
Approx duration: 11.5 hours
There are 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 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.
A dining car is usually included on sleeper services, ranging in quality from the modest to the magnificent © Vostok / Getty Images
Malmo to Berlin
Frequency: three times a week during summer season (June-Aug)
Approx duration: 14 hours
If you thought a simple night on a train trundling through Europe was exciting, wait until you board the Berlin Night Express. This privately-run sleeper not only traverses Sweden and Germany as you snooze, it also rolls on to a ferry across the Baltic Sea between Trelleborg and Sassnitz. Though there are longish portions of this journey spent stationary to sync up train and ferry timetables that shouldn’t detract from the charm of this summer-only, thrice-weekly train, which has been quietly going about the business of blowing the minds of in-the-know interrailers for decades.
Madrid to Lisbon
Approx duration: 10 hours
The Trenhotel Lusitania glides between Madrid and Lisbon (and vice versa) each evening, shuttling passengers between the two Iberian neighbours in typically relaxed European fashion. A range of pleasant compartments – some of which offer full ensuite bathrooms – are available, but the real draw, which can be enjoyed by all classes, is the sleek cafe bar, where you can sip a vinho verde and mingle with fellow passengers late into the evening, before arriving reinvigorated in Lisbon’s historic Santa Apolonia station the next morning.
First published in November 2009.