Nothing quite beats the romance of travelling on a steam train or shunting through mountains. These rides showcase Europe’s spectacular landscapes
La Rhune, France
Adult fare €19 return
A quaintly old-fashioned rack- or cog-railway sets off from a low mountain pass inland from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to ascend the westernmost peak of the Pyrenees. All the way there are views back over the Basque coast and countryside. Although passengers board in France, on the summit they are greeted by a choice of Spanish bars. The train returns to base, but you might prefer to follow the marked footpath (two hours) down slopes grazed by wild ponies. There are several other curious railways in the Pyrenees to discover.
Glacier Express, Switzerland
Photograph: Christof Sonderegger/Switzerland Tourism
Adult fare From €85 one-way, more expensive for the full route and lunch on the way
The quintessential Alpine rail trip, this train has panoramic windows to make the most of the stunning scenery – be sure to bag a window seat. The full route takes eight hours from St Moritz to Zermatt, crossing 291 bridges, passing through 91 tunnels and reaching an elevation of 2,033m. The same route can be done with more humble trains if you don’t mind figuring out the timetables.
El Transcantábrico, Spain
Photograph: National Geographic/Alamy
Adult fare From €52 one-way
A luxury hotel on wheels travels along the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s north coast but far better is to do the trip on local stopping trains. The route begins at Irún, on the border with France, which can be reached from London by train. Sights include the cities of San Sebastián, Bilbao, and Santander. Other places to break the journey include prehistoric painted caves (the replica at Altamira), the pre-Romanesque churches of Asturias, the magnificent Picos de Europa and endless cute beach resorts. The route ends in Ferrol.
Kalavryta railway, Greece
Adult fare €9.50 return
Most of the narrow gauge lines in the Peloponnese were lost to cost-cutting during Greece’s financial crisis, though fortunately there are two left. One ascends to the historic site of Olympia but far more endearing is this 750mm gauge rack railway, built in 1895, that sets off inauspiciously on the Gulf of Corinth at Diakofto but soon passes through beautiful, wild scenery on its way through a gorge to the mountain town of Kalavryta. Stop off on the way to visit the 4th-century monastery of Mega Spilaio.
Mariazell Railway, Austria
Adult fare From €18 return
Austria has lots of scenic rail routes but the narrow-gauge line from St Pölten (west of Vienna) along the picturesque Pielach valley to the pilgrimage spot of Mariazell is widely considered the best. There is a choice of trains, depending on the time of year; the simplest and cheapest is the modern Himmelstreppe, though it’s more romantic to travel in a steam-pulled carriage, a nostalgic train (hauled by an old electric engine) or in a first-class panorama carriage (weekends over the summer).
Wolsztyn to Leszno, Poland
Photograph: Glyn Fletcher/Alamy
Adult fare From €15 return
In Poland, steam trains have been running non-stop for 110 years. Its “capital” is the town of Wolsztyn, western Poland, which is still served by regular daily services. However, funding cuts are now threatening this glorious, scheduled anachronism. The ageing of train crews, meanwhile, means the end of footplate courses for anyone who wants to learn to drive a steam engine. All of which is a good incentive to ride the rails this summer between Wolsztyn and Leszno, and Wolsztyn and Poznań. It is like the passing of steam all over again.
The Brocken, Germany
Photograph: Emilian Danaila/Getty/iStockphoto
Adult fare €45 return, from any HSB station to the top of the Brocken
The Harzer Schmalspurbahnen is a 140km network of narrow gauge lines in the Harz mountains of the former East Germany. A fleet of 25 steam locomotives are in operation, 10 of which are in service each day. There are special journeys themed around Goethe’s Faust – part of the play is set in this area. Everyone’s favourite trip is from Wernigerode through the woods up to the summit of the Brocken mountain (1,125 metres) which takes around one hour and 40 minutes each way.
‘Children’s railway’, Hungary
Photograph: Agencja Fotograficzna Caro/Alamy
Adult fare £2.20 one-way
Within easy reach of Budapest, the Gyermekvasút has been described as “the biggest trainset in the world”. It is staffed by children aged 10 to 14 (under adult supervision) who are required to take a training course and pass an exam before they are put in uniforms and given a variety of duties, including operating points and making platform announcements. The line runs through beautiful forests of oak, ash and beech. Pets, bicycles, sledges and skis are welcome on board. There are public transport connections at either end for those who want to make a one-way trip.
Bernina Express, Switzerland to Italy
Adult fare £24 one-way
In 2008, Unesco classified the small network of the Swiss company Rhaetian Railway as a world heritage site because of its contribution to opening up the communities of the high Alps. Now, the narrow-gauge line south from Saint Moritz is mostly used by tourists, many of them in a train built for observing the scenery – the Bernina Express. The train reaches a high point of 2,253 metres as it crosses the Bernina Pass into Italy before descending into Tirano, where it runs through the streets into the station as if it were a tram.
Flåm Line, Norway
Photograph: Gjertrud Coutinho
Adult fare £44-54 return
For its wild Scandinavian beauty the journey from Oslo to Bergen is a classic, but for even better scenery get off at Myrdal and take the branch line to Flåm, one of the steepest (a 1-in-18 gradient) and most beautiful train journeys in the world. The route includes a horseshoe or “spiral” tunnel. On reaching Flåm, have lunch before taking the train back, or make it part of a circular tour, including a ferry trip on the Sognefjord.