The world’s best train journeys for travel obsessives
If you ask us, there aren’t many things cooler than travelling the world by train. Moving around slowly, minimising your carbon footprint and treasuring every experience along the way – whoever tried to tell us that trains were nerdy? Sometimes, the journey itself is just as impressive as the destination. Seriously! To prove our point and show you why we’re going off the rails for train travel, here are eight of the best train journeys around the world that’ll inspire your adventurous soul.
1. Kandy to Ella – Sri Lanka
This is the great train journey you’ve probably seen on your favourite travel blogger’s feed – you know, the obligatory snap hanging out of the window against an epic green backdrop? The Kandy to Ella route is firmly on the backpacker trail, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still an authentic experience, as hundreds of locals squeeze on to every journey. And trust us, it is a squeeze – but that’s all part of the fun! Prepare to be wowed with views of emerald hills, tea plantations, gushing streams and rural villages. If you haven’t reserved a seat, we’d recommend getting on last to score a spot near the doors to dangle out your feet and pose for that photo.
What’s even better is that the towns at either end of this gloriously green route are certified traveller favourites. Kandy is Sri Lanka’s cultural capital that’s packed with impressive Buddhist shrines, colonial architecture and delicious dosas, while Ella is a misty, spiritual village in the hills that’s surrounded by hiking trails and must-visit spots, including Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arch Bridge.
Where backpackers go, awesome hostels follow, and Sri Lanka has them in shedloads. Jay’s Bunks-Kandy Hostel is a cosy spot with a rooftop bar and hangout area that hosts Sri Lankan family dinners for guests to get to know one another and the local cuisine. In Ella, Hangover Hostels offers yoga lessons on their sunny terrace, plenty of social activities and comfy dorms to rest up in after your journey.
- Distance: 65km
- Time: Around 7 hours, but delays are common. Embrace it.
- Price: A second class ticket – our recommendation for minimum squish with maximum views – costs 310 Sri Lankan rupees, or around £1.35.
2. Tazara Train – Tanzania – Zambia
The Tazara is one of the best rail trips you can take across Africa, stretching from Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam to Zambian town Kapiri Mposhi. Don’t expect luxury on this journey, but total adventure. Facilities are basic and the train is slow and bumpy, but for a gritty travel experience and the chance to make real connections with locals, it can’t be beaten. With a first-class ticket (highly recommended unless you want to sit on a bench for 2.5 days), you’ll share a 4-person sleeper carriage with international and domestic travellers who’ll all have their own stories to tell. Bonds are formed over cheap beer in the bar, and the dining carriage is a lively meeting point for people of all ages and cultures. Fascinating scenes unfold outside your window on every leg of the journey, but make sure you’re glued to the views as you past through Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve. You could spot anything from elephants to giraffes or hyenas!
Whether you start or end your journey in Dar es Salaam, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by this busy city. Our advice? Embrace the chaos by exploring local markets and tucking into street food, then hop on a ferry to the island of Zanzibar if it all gets too much! At the opposite end, Kapiri Mposhi is pretty ordinary, but what awaits you in Zambia certainly isn’t. A visit to the magnificent Victoria Falls, or a peaceful sunset cruise along the Zambezi River, are travel highlights you’ll never forget.
In Dar es Salaam, The Slow Leopard Hostel is the city’s best backpacker bar/burger joint, with comfy bunks that you’ll appreciate before or after a 52-hour train ride! Sleepy Kapiri Mposhi doesn’t have any hostels yet, but stay at Victoria Falls Backpackers if pool parties, a climbing wall and adorable pet kittens are your kinda thing.
- Distance: 1,860km
- Time: 52 hours
- Price: $50 (£34) for a one-way, first class ticket.
Check out all of our hostels in Zambia
3. Trans-Siberian Railway – Russia
Now for the undisputed king of great train journeys. The Trans-Siberian is an absolute beast of a railway, stretching from the Russian capital Moscow to hipster Vladivostok in the Far East. On this mammoth adventure you’ll travel thousands of miles, cross mega cities and countryside villages and pass through five different time zones! If you want a real Russian experience that involves visiting lesser known destinations and sharing vodka shots with locals along the way, look no further.
Unless staring out of a train window for seven days straight is your idea of fun, you’re gonna want to plan some stops. The possibilities are endless in the world’s biggest country! Spend a nice chunk of time exploring the fairytale cathedrals and swanky nightlife in Moscow, and don’t get on that train before you’ve caught a ballet show. St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, jam-packed with historic sites like the regal Winter Palace and the Mariinksy Theater. Less famous spots will turn out to be highlights, like Kazan, a city of intricately detailed mosques and markets that haven’t changed in decades. Vladivostok is a trendy port city with a booming underground nightlife scene, and no one should miss Siberia’s Lake Baikal, an ancient lake that was formed 30 million years ago!
You’ll discover awesome hostels at every stop on your Trans-Siberian adventure. There are heaps of hostels in Moscow, like the centrally located Good Mood Hostel that’s got a kitschy, colourful design and a lively atmosphere that’s perfect for solo travellers. In St. Petersburg, Soul Kitchen is a truly special hostel with a family feel, amazing facilities and gorgeous river views. At Lake Baikal, Belka Hostel is an eco-friendly lodge with a Russian banya (sauna) to warm up from the Siberian chill!
- Distance: 9,258km
- Time: 7 days non-stop, but for the richest experience you should plan around 3-4 weeks to explore several stops along the way.
- Price: A second-class ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok costs around £350, but each stop along the way will bump your total up a bit. So, it’s important to do your research and plan ahead.
4. The Jacobite (AKA Hogwarts Express) – Scotland
This train isn’t famous from Instagram, but from your childhood memories. Yep, that steam train you see chugging across Scotland’s Glenfinnan Viaduct is the same one that took Harry, Ron and Hermione from the muggle world to Hogwarts – you’ll recognise the iconic 21 arched bridge from many a magical moment. Potterheads rejoice, because you can ride this rail in real life! Starting from the town of Fort William, The Jacobite travels past Britain’s highest mountain, deepest loch and shortest river, before arriving in the quaint town of Mallaig, where you can grab home-cooked haggis, neeps and tatties in a traditional Scottish pub.
Both ends of the Jacobite line offer up adventure, with Fort William being the gateway to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, which you can hike in around eight hours for the best views of the Scottish Highlands. If you don’t want to return from Mallaig on the Jacobite, you can hop on a ferry and reach the surreal scenery of the Isle of Skye in 30 minutes!
Before embarking on one of the UK’s best train journeys, stop over in Fort William at Chase the Wild Goose Hostel. It’s a cosy, family-run joint with views of Ben Nevis and a sociable atmosphere, surrounded by cafes and pubs.
- Distance: 50km
- Time: 2 hours (one way)
- Price: £36 one way, £43 return
5. Serra Verde Express – Brazil
While Brazil is frustratingly not connected by train (those 35-hour bus journeys aren’t glamorous), it does have an ace up its sleeve that most backpackers don’t know about. The Serra Verde Express descends 900 metres down the mountains from the city of Curitiba to the town of Morretes in Paraná, surrounded by tropical forest that breaks to reveal the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. The train cruises down at a slow place, so you’ll have plenty of time to admire Mother Nature, crack open a beer and capture some spectacular snaps. The left side of the train offers the best views, but as seats are assigned randomly you’ll have to pray to the ticket gods for your fate!
Curitiba, the Serra Verde Express’ starting point, is a modern, urban metropolis that’s all about experiences, not famous attractions. It’s a green city with lively local nightlife, especially in Plaza de Armas where the party happens outside to the sound of buskers. Morretes isn’t exactly a must-visit, but the pretty colonial buildings and riverside promenades are enough entertainment for a few hours before heading back up the Serra do Mar.
Curitiba is all about eco-living, so stay in a hostel to match. O Bosque Hostel is built totally from sustainable materials, right down to its bamboo bunk beds. It’s got relaxing gardens full of greenery and its own peaceful coffee shop and café for guests to chill out with a book or tap away at a laptop. It’s so zen that it’s hard to believe it’s right in the city centre!
- Distance: 900m
- Time: 5 hours
- Price: Tickets start from 26 reais (£5), with more expensive options for a bilingual guide or locally-brewed beers included.
6. Cusco to Puno – Peru
This extraordinary railway spans hundreds of miles across the Peruvian Andes, so expect seriously special landscapes. We’re talking massive mountains, never-ending rivers and green as far as the eye can see. And obviously plenty of llamas – this is Peru after all! You’ll pass indigenous communities and lost villages, and be greeted at station stops by local vendors selling their handicrafts. The train itself is pretty special too, with classic 1920s style carriages, live local music at the start of your journey and fancy AF meals included in the price!
As if this wasn’t already one of the world’s best train journeys, it’s made even more dreamy by the fact that the destinations at each end are on every backpacker’s wishlist. Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake and an incredibly spiritual place that locals believe to be the birthplace of the sun. Cusco needs no introduction, but we’ll give it one anyway. The gateway to the absolutely unmissable Inca citadel Machu Picchu, Cusco is lined with cobbled streets and colonial architecture. It’s packed with healthy, local restaurants and chilled bars perfect for preparing for the trek of a lifetime!
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to hostels in Cusco, but if you’re after a nice balance between chill and party, Ecopackers is a solid option. It’s got a sunny courtyard with ping pong tables and hammocks, a bar and a busy weekly schedule of events and activities. Puno hostels are simple but homely, with Bothy Backpacker Hostel offering free breakfast and views of Titicaca.
- Distance: 338km
- Time: 5 hours
- Price: 650 sol (around £150)
7. Bernina Express – Switzerland
Switzerland is famous for its landscapes that look too good to be true, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s home to one of Europe’s best train journeys. Passengers aboard the Bernina Express are transported from snowy peaks to the sunny Med in a matter of hours, taking in greener-than-green hills, dense forest, bright blue lakes and fairytale villages along the way. The trains run along the spectacular Albula Railway, a track so narrow it can feel like you’re flying – especially when some points are over 200 feet high! Expect plenty of twists and turns as the route soars over valleys and tunnels through mountains, crossing almost 200 bridges along the way.
The adventure starts in Chur, an Alpine city towered over by mountains. It’s got a pretty Old Town, full of boutique shops and cafes to enjoy a Swiss hot chocolate and/or eat your bodyweight in fondue. The end of the line is just across the Italian border in Tirano, a quiet town that’s an hour and a half’s bus ride to the shores of stylish Lake Como, a worthy stop on any European summer itinerary!
Close to Chur, YouthHostel St. Moritz has a sociable games area with pool tables, ping pong and retro pinball machines, plus cheap family dinners and a bar full of backpackers hanging out before they board the Bernina.
- Distance: 122km
- Time: 4 hours
- Price: 64 CHF (£50), although a cheaper regional train is available for around £10-£15 without added luxuries like panoramic windows, food and drink and a local guide.
8. Qinghai-Tibet Railway – Tibet – China
Often described as the ‘railway to heaven’, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is the highest train route in the world, reaching dizzying altitudes of 5,000 metres. It opened in 2006, connecting isolated Tibet to the rest of China, and making this journey still feels like stepping into the unknown. Expect views of remote, undisturbed nature – from the empty, golden plains of the Gobi Desert, to antelope and yak grazing the Kekexili Nature Reserve and the still waters of Tibet’s sacred Lake Namtso. Things start to get icy when the train reaches Tanggula, the highest railway station on earth, flanked by magnificent mountains covered in snow year-round and a mega glacier. The altitude is so extreme here that the oxygen levels drop by 60% – the train is equipped with a pressurised oxygen system to keep passengers from passing out!
To visit Tibet you’ll have to enter on a pre-arranged group tour, but jump through all the hoops required to get a visa and you’ll be one of the lucky few travellers who get to explore this mysterious, spiritual region. The railway ends in capital Lhasa, a centre of Buddhism that’s home to incredible temples and ancient traditions. The people you’ll meet here are curious and welcoming and the atmosphere is serene, a total contrast to the bright lights of China’s biggest cities. At the other end of the railway is Xining, the capital of China’s Qinghai province where Muslim, Tibetan and Han traditions collide, creating a mixture of cuisine, architecture and cultures.
Hehung Hostel is a colourful spot in downtown Xining with heaps of social space, like a cosy pub and a bar full of books in the attic! They serve up local food and organise group events, so it’s ideal for solo travellers. We don’t have hostels in Tibet just yet, but accommodation will be sorted out by your tour provider.
- Distance: 1,956km
- Time: 21 hours
- Price: CNY 808 (£90) for a soft sleeper ticket, CNY 521 (£58) for a less-comfy hard sleeper.
Exploring the world by train offers out-of-this-world views, intimate local experiences, travel flexibility and bargain prices. It’s official, flying is so last year! We want to hear about the best train journeys you’ve taken, especially if you’ve got an amazing story from one of our favourite routes. Let us know in the comments!
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