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 eight essential night train journeys – how many have you done?
Moscow to St Petersburg
The Red Arrow offers 75 years 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
Great Britain has only two sleeper trains. Both of them are 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 to have made it all the way at the foot of the path up Ben Nevis, the country’s highest peak.
Paris to Venice
Paris is the omphalos of Europe’s night train services. As Parisiens settle down to sleep, trains radiate out across the continent in all directions. This is the only 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 crowds of day-trippers arrive.
Trondheim to Bodo
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 ten-hour Trondheim to Bodo 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.
Amsterdam to Copenhagen
CityNightLine services are at the top of the pile for night-train standards in Europe. These carriages run on night services within Germany and connecting with other countries. These modern trains offer reclining seats and six-, four- and two-person berths. Best of all, thanks to Deutsche Bahn’s SparNight promotions you can travel for as little as €29 in a seat or €49 in a bed. Amsterdam to Copenhagen via Hamburg is one of the most useful service to travellers, and gives you a few hours of gawping at Denmark out the window before arrival.
Budapest to Split
Budapest’s 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 Brac, 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. Note that this is a summer service only.
Prague to Kraków
This classic European journey features on most Inter-Railers itinerary, connecting two of central Europe’s essential destinations. The nine-hour trip allows for plenty of sleeping off all that delicious Czech lager before arriving in Kraków ready for the Polish take on royal castles, imposing squares and atmospheric cellar bars.
Sofia to Istanbul
Services from Greece to Turkey (and elsewhere) may have been recently axed, you can still reach Istanbul by train from Sofia, Bulgaria's underrated capital. The only downside of this train, is that you have to disembark at the Turkish frontier at one in the morning to get your visa. But you’ll forget that with the thrill of arriving at Sirceki Station, what was the terminal for the Orient Express.
This needn’t be the end of the journey. While the Toros Express service from Istanbul to Aleppo may be out of action, you can cross the Bosphorus to pick up the Trans-Asia Express to Tehran. This is a night train too. In fact, it takes four nights to travel across Turkey and into Iran by way of the Lake Van ferry.
One final word of warning. While the occasional night on a train is the stuff travel dreams are made of, using them as a nightly means of getting a cheap sleep while riding the rails around Europe can send you a little whacko. Prague to Barcelona is best done as a journey of a week or more, not a two-night sprint past some of Europe’s loveliest scenery.
Last updated in August 2017.