The best rail trips in Europe

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Let the train take the strain, says Kate Simon. From luxury railway trips to classic British days out, there are plenty of options to choose from

What's the attraction?

Ever since the first public railway tracks in the world were laid in Britain in the 1800s, we've developed a love for travelling by train. Today, the attraction of the railway endures, not least because – unlike driving a car or flying in a plane – it offers travellers the opportunity to sit back, look out of the window, take in the view and enjoy the journey.

Across Europe there are plenty of spectacular routes to choose from, many of which are packaged up by specialist tour operators, such as Great Rail Journeys (01904 734 473; greatrail.com), Holidays by Rail (0800 033 7960; holidaysbyrail.com), Railbookers (020 3327 0800; railbookers.com), and Treyn Holidays (01904 734 939; railholidays.com).

Whether you're seeking a luxurious experience, or want to join commuters on an ordinary train through an extraordinary landscape, here are some of the great railway journeys that Europe has to offer.

The high line

Make the spectacular seven-hour journey along the Bergen Line in Norway (00 47 23 62 00 00; nsb.no; Nkr499/£58 single fare), Northern Europe's highest mainline railway track. Opened in 1909, the route crosses the Continent's largest mountain plateau, the Hardangervidda, passing through a terrain of forests and fjords on the 308-mile journey between Oslo and Bergen.

Sci-fi fans might recognise the area around Finse, the highest point on the journey, as one of the locations for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Take the steep branch line from the station at Myrdal to the edge of Aurlandsfjord at Flam – the train travels for 45 minutes along the steepest standard-gauge railway in Europe (Nkr280/£33 each way).

British classics

The London to Penzance service offers a thrilling ride from Exeter, running along the seawall between Dawlish and Teignmouth, crossing high above the Tamar at Plymouth (0845 700 0125; firstgreatwestern.co.uk). Down the same line at St Erth, connect for St Ives to trace bird-rich mudflats and the golden sands of Hayle before the big reveal of the fishing village.

Take the train from Settle in North Yorkshire through the Aire Valley to Carlisle for glorious views of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, crossing the 24 arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct along the way (0844 241 3454; northernrail.org).

The journey from Fort William to Mallaig passes through rugged landscapes where Bonnie Prince Charlie rallied his troops, and crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct, as seen in Harry Potter (0845 755 0033; scotrail.co.uk).

The Conwy Valley line from Llandudno trundles through forests and Snowdonia (0845 606 1660; arrivatrainswales.co.uk).

Take me to the river

Take the scenic route between Cologne and Frankfurt in Germany along the banks of the Rhine to discover one of the most beautiful stretches of this mighty river. Slow trains run by Deutsche Bahn (08718 808066; bahn.co.uk) follow each bank, allowing time for proper appreciation of the romantic landscape of medieval castles, palaces and forts and quaint riverside communities with timber-framed houses.

For a rewarding circuit, travel between Cologne and Mainz (€32 single fare) on the west bank and Cologne and Wiesbaden (€34 single fare) on the east bank, changing at Koblenz. The west bank is said to have the edge.

Spanish steps

Climb from the shores of Andalucia, on Spain's south coast, to one of the region's finest examples of a Moorish hilltop town on the train from Algeciras to Ronda (renfe.com; from €11 each way). The train departs the rough-and-ready port, a gateway to Africa, slipping into the mountains for an ascent only made possible by a network of tunnels and viaducts. On the 90-minute journey you'll dip through forests of cork and dwarf oak and skirt iconic white towns before emerging in Ronda, perched high on the edge of a ravine.

Ride the El Transcantábrico Clásico (00 34 902 555 902; eltranscantabricoclasico.com) from León to Santiago de Compostela. The luxurious train, with its private suites and opulent lounges, calls at the great northern cities of Bilbao, Santander, Gijón and Oviedo, and passes through the Picos de Europa on a trip that pauses for sightseeing excursions along the way (seven nights from €2,550, full board).

Insider information

"When you are travelling round Europe by train, make sure you get off it as much as possible. And not just at the big termini. Just wander off at some small town or village station, eat in the nearby restaurant or stay in the little pension and absorb the atmosphere of a lost and often forgotten world, because many of these railway towns will be off the beaten track, well away from the busy motorways and highways."

Christian Wolmar, writer, broadcaster, and author of 'Blood, Iron, & Gold, How the Railways Transformed the World' (Atlantic Books, £10).

Luxury on the line

A love of trains has spawned a healthy industry of luxury railway experiences. The most famous is the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; orient-express.com), with its art-deco coaches, especially the overnight journey from London to Venice (from £1,920 one way, full board). The company also runs tours of the Highlands on the Royal Scotsman (0845 217 0799; royalscotsman.com; two nights from £2,350), and day trips around England and Wales, for adults and families, on the British Pullman and the Northern Belle (from £205 including a meal).

The Danube Express (01462 441400; danube-express.com), which launched in 2008, tours central and eastern Europe in stylish vintage coaches. Its Transylvania East three-night trip departs Budapest bound for Istanbul, crossing Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey along the way (from £2,790 one way, full board).

On the right tracks

Only railway devotees had heard of George Bradshaw's 1913 Continental Railway Guide until former MP-turned-broadcaster Michael Portillo decided to leaf through its pages for his recent BBC2 series, Great Continental Railway Journeys. If you've been inspired by Portillo's retracing of Bradshaw's tracks, Ffestiniog Travel (01766 772030; ffestiniogtravel.com) has created a collection of trips to provide an easy way to explore the routes.

They include the Edwardian favourite, London to Monte Carlo, a five-day journey calling at Paris, La Ciotat, Antibes and Nice, then along the Côte d'Azur to Monaco, costing from £950 per person, including return rail travel and four nights' B&B.

Who said that?

"Birds turn their heads as she approaches / Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches." From "Night Mail", WH Auden

"The rage for railroads is so great that many will be laid in parts where they will not pay." George Stephenson, railway pioneer

"People's backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens and houses that back on to railways are public benefactors." John Betjeman

Climb every mountain

For views of some of Europe's most dramatic scenery, head to the Swiss Alps to join the Glacier Express (00 41 027 927 70 00; glacierexpress.ch; from Sfr149/£104 one way) and make the seven-and-a-half-hour journey through the mountains from Zermatt to Davos or St Moritz, high in the Engadine Valley.

The little red, narrow-gauge train spirals up to the peaks, crossing lofty viaducts and shooting through tunnels bored into the mountains. The most astonishing construction is on the stretch called the Albula Railway, which runs between Thusis and St Moritz, a display of engineering brilliance now officially recognised by Unesco.

Throughout the journey, the train's panoramic windows and skylights guarantee mesmerising views of Alpine meadows, deep gorges, and pine-clad mountains at every twist and turn.

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