From cutting through the countryside to connecting a country's great cities, the world's best railway journeys offer an entirely new perspective on a destination.
There’s plenty of magic with train travel. Sometimes it's in the carriage – meeting fellow travelers and eating and sleeping with the sound of steel wheel swishing on steel rail beneath you. Sometimes it's outside, in the landscape the train traverses – an adventure, an experience, an insight into the heart of a nation.
Our book, Amazing Train Journeys, rounds up the world's greatest railway rides. But these 8 train journeys are also first class.
1. The Reunification Express, Vietnam
Start – Ho Chi Minh City; End – Hanoi; Departs daily; Distance – 1072 miles (1726km); Duration – two days
Some railways rattle through historic cities; others swoosh beside spectacular coastlines. A few have an epic history, and one or two are remarkable for the colorful characters onboard. The Reunification Express line, known as the North–South Railway, fulfills all these criteria.
One of Southeast Asia’s best-loved railways – and most epic overnight train journeys in the world – its fortunes have waxed and waned with those of the country it traverses. Traveling more than a thousand miles from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north, there is no more atmospheric way to haul into Vietnam’s twin metropolises. And there’s no better way of exploring all the glories in between.
2. The California Zephyr, USA
Start – Chicago; End – San Francisco; Departs daily; Distance – 2438 miles (3924km); Duration – 52hrs 40mins
For soaking up the scenic grandeur of the North American continent, nothing compares with Amtrak’s California Zephyr train, one of the US’ best train journeys. This classic three-day ride travels nearly 2500 miles (4000km) across prairies, deserts, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada on its way from Chicago to San Francisco.
The scenery is magnificent throughout – especially when seen through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lounge car – but if you can only do one section, opt for the riveting 185-mile (298km) stretch between Denver and Glenwood Springs, where the train travels through an often roadless wilderness of deep, narrow gorges near the Colorado River’s headwaters. Better still, Amtrak is planning to add more night trains just like it.
3. Perurail’s Lake Titicaca Railway, Peru
Start – Puno; End – Cuzco; departs three times a week; Distance – 241 miles (388km); Duration – 10hrs
Traversing the Altiplano, from the shores of Lake Titicaca to the beating heart of the Inca capital, the railway from Puno to Cuzco cuts a ponderous but picturesque path through the snow-dusted peaks and voluptuous valleys of the Andes.
Between drinks in the bar and enjoying entertainment and fine food in the restaurant, passengers aboard Perurail’s Lake Titicaca train can ogle the vista from an open-air observatory car, as they rumble across the epic Peruvian plains, passing hardy bowler-hatted llama farmers and traveling through remote towns and villages.
4. The Bĕijīng to Lhasa Express, China
Start – Bĕijīng; End – Lhasa; departs daily; Distance – 2330 miles (3750km); Duration – 40 hours
Linking the futuristic architecture and imperial wonders of Bĕijīng with the dreamlike monasteries and palaces of Lhasa, the Z21 train transports its passengers from the neon lights of urban China to a once-remote land of magenta-robed monks, where the air is heady with the aroma of incense and yak-butter candles.
As it chugs westward the train climbs nearly 16,400ft (5000m) on its journey to the roof of the world: the Tibetan plateau, where it glides past grazing yaks, fluttering prayer flags, snow-capped mountains and boundless blue skies. Onboard, passengers slurp noodles and play cards with their bunkmates.
5. The Caledonian Sleeper, UK
Start – London (Euston); End – Fort William; departs daily; Distance – 509 miles (819km); Duration – 13hrs 30 mins
Segueing from the sooty suburbs and crowded concrete-lined cul-de-sacs of central London to the crisp air and soaring vistas of the Scottish Highlands via one overnight train journey epitomizes the romance of rail travel.
It’s just a pity the whole experience – from buffet-car banter and single malt nightcaps, to being lulled into la-la land by the rhythm of the rails and waking to bedside views of towering granite peaks – feels like it’s over in a flash. Though it may be short, especially when compared to some of the other overland odysseys on this list, the Caledonian is surely Britain's best train ride.
6. The Bergensbanen, Norway
Start – Oslo; End – Bergen; departs four times a day; Distance – 308 miles (496km); Duration – 6hrs 30 mins
This astonishing train is arguably one of Europe's best railway rides. One of the wonders of 19th-century railway building, and yet isn't as well-known outside of Norway. In just over six hours and 300 miles (490km) of travel, it covers the spectrum of Norway’s natural splendor: climbing canyons, crossing rivers, burrowing through mountainsides and traversing barren icescapes. All aboard for the Bergensbanen: a mainline into Norwegian nature.
7. The TranzAlpine, New Zealand
Start – Christchurch; End – Greymouth; departs daily; Distance – 139 miles (223km); Duration – 4hrs 30 mins
In fewer than five hours, the journey renowned as one the world’s finest and most scenic one-day train rides spans very distinct microclimates in the South Island of New Zealand. Commence the TranzAlpine experience in Christchurch, before speeding along the Canterbury Plains and climbing quickly through the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps.
After traversing some of the country’s more remote alpine scenery, descend through a thrilling tunnel to emerge among the lakes, streams and rainforests of the South Island’s West Coast. From there, more superb coastal and alpine scenery is on tap for independent travelers.
8. Tazara Railway, Tanzania and Zambia
Start – Dar es Salaam; End – Kapiri Mposhi; departs twice a week; Distance – 1160 miles (1860km); Duration – 46 hours
On a continent where taking things slowly is compulsory, it won’t come as much of a surprise the 46-hour journey along the 1160-mile (1860km) route from Tanzania’s port city to New Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia often ends up taking far longer. Then again, few trains in the world offer the chance – and we should point out that it’s a chance rather than a guarantee – of spotting big game from your seat, but the Tazara (Tanzania and Zambia Railway Authority) does exactly that.
For many, the highlight is neither the scenery nor the wildlife, though; it is the chance to spend two days watching everyday life out of the window, and enjoying the clamor and chaos when the train pulls to a halt, scheduled or unscheduled.