These 9 train trips spark rail adventures

After three decades of riding trains all over the world—rural China, the Swiss Alps, Latin American jungles—I am still thrilled by a classic rail journey. Take The Canadianwhere passengers can spend a few days watching the countryside scenery from Toronto to Vancouver via glass-domed cars. From the wheat fields to the jagged Rockies to the thickly forested Coast Mountains, it’s one of the world’s most amazing routes.

Train travel offers an appealing alternative to the hassles of flying and road tripping. Rolling through gorgeous landscapes—sometimes with all the comforts of a hotel on wheels—makes the journey just as enjoyable as the destination itself. Traveling by rail is ideal for families, too, giving your brood time to connect stress-free without distractions.

From Australia to Zimbabwe, there are plenty of stellar rides around the world. Here are nine particularly worthwhile train trips not to miss.

The Canadian

On The Canadian, passengers spend four days immersed in one of Canada’s greatest rail journeys. The 2,775-mile passage skirts the Canadian Shield, with the best vistas going east to west, from Toronto to Vancouver.

From inside the original 1950s stainless-steel cars, passengers take in the changing landscape: Ontario’s lakes dissolves into Saskatchewan and Alberta’s prairies, which transition into the soaring Canadian Rockies before the scenery unfolds onto Vancouver’s shimmering west coast.

During pandemic times, The Canadian departs once weekly round trip. Sleeper car bookings include sit-down meals in the dining car, with Prestige Class offering hotel-style accommodations with private bathrooms.

(Here are the best North American train trips for families.)

The TranzAlpine

The TranzAlpine bisects New Zealand’s South Island, racing 139 miles alongside the Waimakariri River and up through the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth.

The nine-hour route has been popular since the train set off as a passenger line in 1987. Now several classes offer multiple ways to take in the countryside. Living up to its name, Scenic Class has panoramic windows and skylights, plus wider spacing around seats that help open up sight lines throughout the carriage.

Rare for passenger trains, the open-air car lets travelers breathe in the crisp Alpine air or feel the mist across steep valleys. An audio tour adds history and context to the wide-open landscapes whizzing by.

California Zephyr

Rolling from the Windy City to San Francisco, the California Zephyr climbs both the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada before descending to the Pacific coast on its 2,447-mile traverse across the heartland of America.

The California Zephyr first ran from 1949 to 1970 and was resurrected in 1983 by Amtrak. Since then, this scenic route linking popular resort towns and America’s railroad and gold rush history has remained popular.

In summer 2021, Amtrak brought back traditional dining to six of its sleeper trains. Now California Zephyr passengers who purchase overnight rooms can sit down to a three-course meal on tables draped in white, while traveling through the American West. For a more immersive experience, passengers can head to Superliner cars, where the glass-domed decks make the most of Colorado River views and towering cliff walls.

(A writer finds peace on this 72-hour train ride across America.)

Train to the Clouds

Pack altitude medication for a ride on northern Argentina’s Train to the Clouds. The third highest rail line in the world climbs to an elevation of 13,800 feet into the rugged Andes Mountains, revealing breathtaking valley views below.

The tour train runs only from the village of San Antonio de Los Cobres to the Polvorilla Viaduct—about 11 miles. But many travelers make it a daylong experience by beginning their trip at the vineyard-laced province of Salta, where they hop on a bus to San Antonio de Los Cobres. From there the vintage line tackles 13 viaducts, 29 bridges, and 21 tunnels—all set against the watercolor Andean landscape.

Glacier Express

Despite its name, Switzerland’s Glacier Express ambles along at a leisurely 24 miles an hour. That slower pace helps distill the Alpine experience into eight hours of snowy peaks, mountain meadows, and storybook villages between the ritzy resort towns of Zermatt and St. Moritz.

Along the 186-mile track, the train meanders through three mountain passes, across 291 bridges, and into 91 tunnels. Key sights not to miss include Oberalp Pass near Andermatt, where the train soars to its highest point among the mountaintops; the Landwasser Viaduct cutting through dramatic limestone cliffs; and the Rhine Gorge, often called the Grand Canyon of Switzerland, where you can glimpse the aquamarine Rhine River.

Travelers can’t go wrong with any seat, but for an extra fee, Excellence Class offers single window seats with panoramic views and white-glove dining service throughout the trip.

The Orient Express

Books and movies helped make the Orient Express one of the most famous luxury trains in the world. But after many economic ups and downs, the line was discontinued in the 1990s, and the train (known as the Nostalgie-Instanbul Orient Express then) was abandoned at a station in Poland. Now, 141 years since its debut in 1883, the iconic locomotive is roaring back to life in time for the Paris Summer Olympics, in 2024.

The resurrected Orient Express includes 17 cars, most from the original Nostalgie-Instanbul trains. The cars have been restored to their Art Deco heyday, complete with the mahogany marquetry woodwork, Lalique glass panels, hotel-like accommodations, and midnight blue exterior lined in gold that the train was known for.

Itineraries have yet to be announced but will likely include parts of the original route from Paris to Istanbul. Until then, passengers can get a taste of the fine furnishings on La Dolce Vitathe 11-car train owned by the same company, Accor, which rolls through Italy in 1960s style, beginning in 2023.

(Learn how the Orient Express became synonymous with glamor and intrigue.)

shongololo express

Combining safaris and upscale train travel, the shongololo express (named for a local word meaning millipede) winds its way through some of Africa’s famed national parks, wetlands, and historic towns.

Three multiday itineraries begin at the private Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria, South Africa, before rolling on to stops in Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe.

On board, passengers settle into elegant dark wood coaches freshened up in 2016 with new drapes, carpets, and paintings adorning cabins. At the back, an observation car offers floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides and a balcony to the outside.

Palace on Wheels

Decked in silk and luxe trimmings, Palace on Wheels offers a glimpse into the lifestyles of ancient royal rulers as it rolls through Rajasthan, one of India’s most iconic states.

The weeklong journey begins and ends in New Delhi and tracks a figure eight route through nine cities, among them Jodhpur, Udaipur, and Agra. Stops sprinkled along the way allow travelers to hop off for sightseeing tours at historic temples, forts, national parks, and World Heritage sites, including the Taj Mahal.

(A husband’s love built the Taj Mahal, but it costs him an empire.)

Aboard, 14 comfortable cars reference some of the 23 princely states that composed the region, known then as Rajputana. Passengers can choose between deluxe and super deluxe accommodations, offering either twin or double beds, respectively.

The Ghan

There’s arguably no better way to explore Australia’s Outback than on The Ghan. Named for the Afghan camel drivers who helped explore the vast bushland in the late 19th century, this historic train cuts through the “Red Center” of Australia from Darwin in the semi-arid Northern Territory to cosmopolitan Adelaide in the south. all told, The Ghan chugs along 1,850 miles, roughly 54 hours, with stops at Katherine, Alice Springs, and Cooper Pedy.

While it’s tempting to stay aboard The Ghan‘s luxury digs, included side excursions such as hikes through desert parks in Katherine are hard to pass up. For an extra fee, travelers can upgrade to private experiences. One outstanding option? A chopper tour over the rust-hued sandstone monolith, Uluru, in Alice Springs.

Go with Nat Geo: Learn more about National Geographic’s expert-led train expeditions through stunning scenery and storied landscapes.

This story first published on July 18, 2017. It has been updated with additional research and writing by National Geographic Travel senior editor Anne Kim-Dannibale.

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