Technicolor greens, brilliant saris, ancient temples: these are my clearest memories of riding India’s South Eastern Railway many years ago. I still recall the rickshaws and rivers full of locals bathing, as the tropical landscape passed in a constant, captivating blur.
My vivid memories speak to the power and allure of train travel. After all, a railway itinerary allows travelers the opportunity to experience a destination in a way that’s just not possible from the air. Above the clouds, it’s hard to tell the difference between a Mexican canyon and a Norwegian fjord. From a train window, the passing vistas are completely distinct.
Sure enough, says Mark Smith, founder of the train travel website Seat 61, many travelers are frustrated with the airlines. “People want to cut their carbon footprint, and they want to avoid the hassle,” he says. “They’re looking for a more relaxing alternative.”
But let’s be clear: some train routes serve up more scenery than others—a lot more. The ride from Calcutta was mesmerizing, but India’s natural beauty shines in its northern mountains as well. There, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway takes riders on an eight-hour ride through jungle and tea gardens to the base of the Himalayas, all from a 19th-century steam locomotive.
Closer to home, the Rocky Mountaineer traverses the dramatic Canadian Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary. The two-day route passes the snowcapped peaks of the Coast Mountain range, the rushing Fraser River, and down over the Continental Divide to Banff National Park.
Best of all, even the most spectacular train ride offers riders something many travelers crave these days: authenticity. “A flight across Vietnam is an identical experience to a plane ride in India, Canada, or Australia,” says Smith. “But a train trip gives insight into the culture of a country. The journey becomes part of the experience.”
See some of the world's most beautiful train rides below:
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West Highland Line, United Kingdom
Britain’s most stunning railway links the ports of Mallaig on the West Coast of Scotland with Glasgow. The 90-minute journey skirts somber lochs, lonely glens, moors, and castles before arriving at the aquamarine coast with views of the Small Isles Eigg, Muck, and Rum.
Train Trivia: The Glenfinnan Viaduct, approaching Mallaig, was one of the filming locations for theHogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.
Insider Tip: The best time to travel is the spring, when the yellow gorse and wild rhododendron are in bloom—unless you suffer from hay fever.
Rocky Mountaineer, Canada
The original Rocky Mountaineer route fromVancouver to Calgary follows the 1885 Canadian Pacific train route through Western Canada and the Canadian Rockies. You’ll see pristine wilderness: black lava cliffs and canyons, glacial lakes, turbulent rivers, bighorn sheep, and maybe even a black or grizzly bear.
Train Trivia: The two-day trip overnights in the town of Kamloops, British Columbia, so that travelers don’t miss the panoramas.
Insider Tip: The best views are in the seats in the front of the first Gold Leaf car, where first-class travelers sit in a glass-domed section on the top floor of the train.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, India
The romantic eight-hour trip on this whimsical “Toy Train” from the Siliguri, in the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, to the hill station of Darjeeling offers views of Himalayan peaks as high as 7,400 feet. You’ll traverse through dense jungle, verdant valleys, tea gardens, and forests of maple, chestnut, pear, cherry, and cardamom trees on this two-foot wide, narrow-gauge line.
Train Trivia: This star attraction of Darjeeling has been featured in Wes Anderson's Darjeeling Limited and Bollywood blockbusters such as Aradhana, Parineeta, Sagina Mahato, and Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman.
Semmering Railway, Austria
Departing from Gloggnitz, the hour-long Semmering crosses the Austrian Alps’ Semmering Pass to Mürzzuschlag. Completed in 1854—before the age of dynamite and tunnel-drilling machines—it passes over 16 viaducts and through 14 tunnels, all carved by hand into the rock. It’s one of the masterpieces of civil engineering from the pioneering days of railway building.
Train Trivia: The railway is legendary in numismatics: it is featured on many coveted collector coins and medals, including the 25 Euro 150 Years Semmering Alpine Railway commemorative coin.
Insider Tip: Check out the Südbahn railway culture museum in Mürzzuschlag to learn more about the railway’s history and innovative engineering. The old-fashioned carriage-style café offers coffee, pastries, Ghega beer, and Südbahn wine.
El ChePe, Mexico
The most modern, comfortable passenger train in Mexico chugs along the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico, also known as the Copper Canyon Railway. The 13-hour trip connects the mountainous arid interior of northern Mexico with the Pacific coast, passing sheer canyon walls, waterfalls, high desert plains, and the imposing landscapes of the Sierra Tarahumara.
Train Trivia: El ChePe passes through the six Copper Canyons, which, if they were combined, would be four times larger than the Grand Canyon. The ravines and crevices go as deep as 1.25 miles from top to bottom.
Insider Tip: Temperatures are most comfortable from October to March—summers are hot and dusty. Advance booking is essential.
Douro Line, Portugal
The 19th-century steam train, pulled by a diesel locomotive, clings to the steep, rocky ravine along Portugal’s Douro River. The ride, which takes an hour and a half, offers views of the country’s famous Douro wine region (one of T+L's best places to travel in 2016) and its charming villages, vine-covered terraces, and olive groves.
Train Trivia: The steamer stops at Pinhão, where the station is decorated with exquisite blue-and-white glazed tiles, called azulejos, depicting local river and harvest scenes.
The Ghan, Australia
This two-day transcontinental north-south line brings you from the bushlands and pasture surrounding Adelaide through the desert scrub and gum groves of the Clare Valley to the rust-colored Red Centre (home to Uluru rock), and on to the lush tropical zone of the Top End. The ride finishes in Darwin, the laid-back capital of Australia's Northern Territory.
Train Trivia: The name Ghan is an abbreviation of the railway’s former nickname, the Afghan Express, from the Afghan camel trains that trekked the same route in the 19th century.
Insider Tip: If it fits your budget, go Platinum Class. Gold is one-third cheaper, but Platinum seats come with private cabins and en suite bathrooms.
Bergen Railway, Norway
Northern Europe’s highest railway overlooks some of the most pristine glacier-carved fjords in Norway. The seven-hour train crosses the high mountain range between Oslo and Bergen, then runs across the windswept, barren Hardangervidda mountain plateau, the largest protected wilderness area in Europe. Later it descends through lush valleys to the Hanseatic city of Bergen.
Train Trivia: Ninety percent of the energy Nordland Railway uses comes from hydroelectricity or other renewable sources.
Insider Tip: Preorder the tapas menu of trout, salmon, flatbread, cured reindeer meat, reindeer paté, game, and mountain cranberries. For plenty of daylight hours, travel in the summer.
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