For many, modern-day train travel conjures images of sweltering subway platforms, sticky seats, and crammed carriages, but in a bygone era, a rail ticket marked the start of a romantic adventure. Cabins were fitted with plush period décor, meals were chef-prepared, and crisply attired attendants mixed martinis from a bar cart. It might seem like a long-lost tradition, but a handful of lines are intent on rekindling the romance of rail travel. Forget about trains as a means to get from A to B. These once-in-a-lifetime scenic adventures prove it’s the journey that counts.
The Journey: Winding through the dramatic landscape between Cusco and Lake Titicaca, the Andean Explorer is the perfect way to glimpse native wildlife and the rugged Andean scenery. The 1920s-inspired décor is surprisingly decadent, boasting mahogany and marble bathrooms, and an open-end car at the back of the train—perfect for taking a quick snap of the scenery as the train whirs past.
Duration: 10 hours.
Packing Tip: Be sure to pack medication for altitude sickness (or soroche, as it’s known in Peru). The city of Cusco is two miles above sea level, which can cause travelers to feel dizzy while they acclimatize.
The Journey: It might only cover 5.6 miles of Swiss countryside, but what Jungfrou Railway lacks in distance it makes up for with spectacular views. The funicular takes passengers from Kleine Scheidegg, a mountain pass near the gorgeous town of Lauterbrunnen, to the highest railway station in Europe atop a snowcapped mountain. Plan your visit on a clear day to ascend through thick cloud cover to crisp blue skies at the peak; then explore the mini ski field and climb to the observation deck for breathtaking 360-degree mountain views.
Duration: While Jungfrou Railway doesn’t cover much distance, the incline is steep and the train is relatively old. The trip from Interlaken, the most popular station to start the journey, takes about two and a half hours, so set aside a full day to explore the mountain.
Packing Tip: Don’t let the powder-topped mountain fool you. On a summer day, the peak of Jungfrau can be surprisingly hot. Pack a jacket to stay warm during the chilly ascent, and store it away when you reach the top.
The Journey: Departing from London, this luxury rail meanders through France, Switzerland, and the Austrian Alps en route to Venice. This is romantic European travel at its best: Art Deco coaches have been delicately restored to show off wood paneling and stunning metalwork. French artist René Prou designed six sleeper cars, as well as the tulip wall lights throughout the 1920s-style train.
Duration: The classic route takes two days.
Packing Tip: Bring a semiformal outfit and heels—the train’s gorgeous dining cart calls for special attire.
The Journey: Japan’s famous bullet train doesn’t offer the amenities of some of its more luxurious counterparts, but this is a journey every traveler should take in their lifetime. “Shinkansen” refers to the network of high-speed lines that zigzag throughout Japan, connecting most major cities. A popular option is between Tokyo and Kyoto, allowing you to explore the lush gardens and traditional temples.
Duration: A short trip between Tokyo and Kyoto takes just two hours, while long-haul options such as the ride from Sapporo to Osaka spans 23 hours with the option of an overnight sleeper cart.
Packing Tip: If you’re travelling on a popular route, such as between Tokyo and Osaka, keep luggage to a minimum. The trains are some of the busiest in the world, carrying 151 million passengers per year, and can become crowded during peak times.
The Journey: The South African service has one of the largest fleets of vintage trains dating back to the 1960s. There are a variety of trips to choose from, including a Namibia safari through the savannas and Dar es Salaam, an epic 15-day journey that starts in Cape Town and winds through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania.
Duration: The trips vary greatly, from a three-day Cape Town sojourn to a two-week adventure to see bordering African nations.
Packing tip: Be sure to keep a camera on hand at all times—some of the rail journeys wind through desert, and lush wilderness, offering the chance to spot a herd of elephants or family of meerkat.
The Journey: From ruby-red desert and lush bushland to glistening sea, it’s difficult for travelers to experience the diversity of the Australian landscape in one vacation. The iconic Ghan railway offers a chance to see the remote heart of the country, all from the comfort of a plush modern suite or fabulous retro-Edwardian dining cart. The trip starts in Adelaide, and then cuts through the center of the continent via Alice Springs—home to the breathtaking spiritual site Uluru—before finishing in Darwin on the North coast.
Duration: Three days, one way.
Packing tip: Use a compact carry-on suitcase. Check-in luggage isn’t permitted in the cabins during the trip, so it’s best to pack essentials before stowing your large suitcase away for departure.
The Journey: This Norwegian vacation starts in Flåm, a tiny village with stunning natural surroundings. The train winds by the fjord—a long, deep sea inlet between mountains—and past waterfalls and snow-capped mountains to reach Myrdal.
Duration: The sharpest incline takes just an hour, while the journey from Oslo and Bergen can take up to nine hours.
Packing tip: Brace yourself for the incline—this is the world’s steepest railway line, so those who suffer from motion sickness should pack medication in advance.
The Journey: Japan’s über-luxe train service, Seven Stars, lives up to the hype. No expense has been spared when decorating the cabin interior: Walls are adorned with intricate latticework handmade by local artisans, and sinks are crafted by celebrated Japanese potter Sakaida Kakiemon XIV. The journey winds through Kyushu, a mountainous island with beaches, hot springs, and a subtropical climate.
Duration: Choose from two- or four-day trips, which explore the five prefectures of the island.
Packing tip: Don’t forget your swimsuit. The train stops off at Yufuin, a small town famous for its steaming hot springs.