My favourite train journeys of all time, by the Man in Seat 61

Mark Smith
·4-min read
"I doubted any 24-hour train ride could be worth more than £2,000..."
"I doubted any 24-hour train ride could be worth more than £2,000..."

London to Venice 

Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Vintage Pullman cars whisk you from London to Folkestone while you are plied with Bellinis and smoked salmon; 1920s sleeping-cars are waiting at Calais for the overnight run to Switzerland and through the Alps to Venice. I doubted any 24-hour train ride could be worth more than £2,000, but this needed research – I took my girlfriend (we hd only been going out a few months). The train worked its magic, and somewhere in a blizzard in the Brenner Pass I proposed to Nicolette. At least, that’s how she remembers it. As I remember it, she proposed to me. Either way, here I am 17 years on, with wife, kids, cats, small dog and large mortgage. Powerful stuff, that train.

London to Venice from £2,650pp, belmond.com. See our guide to the best hotels in Venice.

Moscow to Beijing 

Trans-Mongolian Express

It's a true epic - Alamy
It's a true epic - Alamy

Who hasn’t dreamt of an epic ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Moscow to Vladivostok is seven days of Siberian birch trees (I know, I’ve done it), so instead I suggest one of two weekly trains from Moscow to China, ideally Tuesday night’s Trans-Mongolian. It ambles across Siberia and around Lake Baikal (the world’s deepest freshwater lake) before cutting through Mongolia and the Gobi desert past camels and yurts, reaching Beijing six nights and 4,736 miles later. I hardly needed my copy of War and Peace – too many sights to see and interesting people on board, a party on rails.

Moscow-Beijing £748 in four-berth, £1,192 in two-berth, realrussia.co.uk. See our guide to the best hotels in Moscow.

Chicago to San Francisco 

California Zephyr

Chicago’s Union Station - Getty
Chicago’s Union Station - Getty

Each afternoon, Amtrak’s California Zephyr leaves Chicago’s Union Station on its two-night 2,400-mile run to San Francisco. It toils across the Nebraska flatlands and over the Mississippi, climbs high into the Rockies out of Denver next morning, meanders through wild and beautiful Colorado canyons to Salt Lake City, overnight again to California’s Sierra Nevada and through the Donner Pass to Sacramento and the Bay Area. Colorado rafters salute the train in the traditional manner as it passes – four-year-old Nate thought mooning was the funniest thing, ever.

From $142 (£103) in a reclining seat, $805 in a sleeper (or $515pp for two sharing), amtrak.com. See our guide to the best hotels in San Francisco.

Toronto to Vancouver 

The Canadian

"I turned, gaped, nearly dropped my coffee" - Alamy
"I turned, gaped, nearly dropped my coffee" - Alamy

The Canadian leaves Toronto in the shadow of the CN Tower and heads across the great Canadian Shield, a sparsely populated area of lakes and rocky outcrops. It barrels across the prairies from Winnipeg to Jasper, then snakes through the magnificent Rockies to the Pacific. It’s a four-night odyssey aboard rebuilt stainless-steel cars that have been crossing Canada since 1954, featuring classic North American observation domes. I woke in my sleeper on day three, expecting mountains when I lifted the blind. Nothing. I went to the lounge, poured myself a coffee and climbed the steps into the dome. I turned, gaped, nearly dropped my coffee. We were heading through an avenue of fir tree straight for the eastern face of the Rocky Mountains, lit pink by the morning sun. 

Toronto-Vancouver from around C$444 (£254) in a reclining seat or C$1,109 (£633) in a sleeper, viarail.ca. See our guide to the best hotels in Vancouver.

Chur to Tirano 

Bernina Express

It's an Alpine delight - Andrea Badrutt
It's an Alpine delight - Andrea Badrutt

This narrow-gauge train is an Alpine delight, starting in Chur and climbing up and over the windswept Bernina Pass. It reaches 7,392ft above sea level before descending to Tirano, just over the border in Italy. The 55 tunnels and 196 bridges include the Brusio Spiral and the Landwasser Viaduct, where the train leaps a gorge from cliffside to tunnel. With a connecting train from Zurich and an onwards train to Milan, it’s my favourite route from Switzerland to Italy.

Zurich to Tirano costs CHF92 (£75) plus CHF16 (£13) summer or CHF14 (£11) winter reservation fee, rhb.ch. Tirano-Milan €11.50 (£10.40), buy at the station. See our guide to the best hotels in Zurich.

Belgrade to Bar 

The Tara

Belgrade - Getty
Belgrade - Getty

There aren’t many trips that have taken my breath away for €22. This spectacular all-day ride from the Serbian capital to the Montenegrin Adriatic traverses some of the most rugged mountains in Europe, and includes what was once the highest bridge in the world, the Mala Rijeka viaduct.

Belgrade-Bar costs €22, Serbian Railways, srbvoz.rs, buy at the station

Tell us about your favourite train journeys in the comments section below