The mystique of the railroad has long captured the dreams of novelists, auteurs and romantics: think "Murder on the Orient Express," on which a train from Paris to Istanbul becomes the scene of a "whodunit," or "Anna Karenina," in which the title character's dramatic interaction with a locomotive is the novel (and movie's) close.
From the first steam locomotive that pulled 70 passengers in Wales in 1804 to high-speed bullet trains that carry hundreds today, the allure of traveling by train has not waned. Traverse Europe on these grand railroad lines that'll show you the adventure of a lifetime.
So accurate that a watch could literally be set by them (trust us, we have), Swiss trains are marked by their cleanliness, comfort and efficiency, and afford picturesque views that look like they came straight off a postcard.
An impressive way to see the Swiss Alps, the Glacier Express goes on a seven-and-a-half-hour scenic journey from St. Moritz to the resort town of Zermatt. It meanders through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges, resulting in breathtaking views of snowcapped mountains, pristine rivers and majestic castles.
A trip to the Swiss Alps wouldn't be complete without a ride on the Jungfrau Railway, which, at more than 11,000 feet, sits at the highest altitude of any European train station. You'll tunnel through rock for nearly five miles of this mountainous journey before ascending 4,600 feet in 50 minutes.
All make way for the chocolate train! More accurate, though, would be the moniker "chocolate-and-cheese" train. This exquisite, first-class-only trip to the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory takes place aboard a vintage Belle Epoche-style Pullman car. There's a stop in the town of Gruyere, known for its extraordinary cheese, on this tasty tour.
France, Germany and Belgium
The most efficient way to roam through France, as well as those countries surrounding it, is The TGV—at 201 mph, it's the world's fastest train. It can take you deep into the heart of Bordeaux wine country or to the glamorous environs of Monaco. If you're looking for a wealth of options, this train doesn't disappoint; it has a network of more than 450 trains. A study in eco-mobility, the aerodynamic design was carefully studied to minimize impact on the environment.
A historic steam train in operation since 1887, the Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme is known as the "sea bathers' railway" and traverses northern France's Picardy coast. Witness the coexistence of nature and technology as the train makes its way through 17 miles of flora and fauna that's been carefully preserved.
The aptly-named Rhine Valley Line showcases the beauty of Germany's Rhine region. This classic line hugs the river's spectacular gorge area and meanders along the west bank. Such panoramas are perfect for the large windows of the sightseeing train.
Connect with any major city in Germany, in addition to those in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium on the high-speed ICE and ICE Sprinter. In all, they connect 32 cities and travel at speeds of up to 200 mph. Quiet time is sacred on these trains which have designed "silent" areas.
In addition to ICE and the aforementioned TGV, Belgium is also served by the high-speed Thalys: a trip from Paris to Brussels takes less than 90 minutes. Other Belgian cities served include Bruges, Ghent, Charleroi, Mons, Ostend, Liege and Antwerp. Hop off and visit one of the country's many historic castles (Belgium has more castles per square mile than anywhere else in the world), historic battlefields and amazing architectural sites, or make your way into the heart of the city. With English as Belgium's unofficial fourth language, it's easy to make your way around the country.
Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic
Austria's modern railway system spans the entire country, making a visit to remote areas that were once inaccessible a reality. On the Zillertalbahn Railroad, which has been in operation since 1902, you'll roll through sloping hills and meadows and pass through classic Tyrolean villages with the Austrian Alps as a backdrop. The ride will give you a chance to slow down and savor the countryside—the train travels approximately 20 mph.
Another impressive Austrian train is the Semmering Bahn. In 1854, it became the world's first mountain railway and is still regarded as a wonder of technology (it was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998) and reaches an elevation of 3,000 feet at its highest point. The train also passes over 16 viaducts (many of which are two-story), through 15 tunnels and across 100 brick bridges.
After soaking in the gorgeous sights of Budapest, take a day trip on the InterCity to the picturesque Lake Balaton (central Europe's largest lake), where you can take a sailboat out or just frolic in the surf. The lakeside town is also known for its wineries and you can take a relaxing mineral soak in Hungary's Kekku region.
The good news of traveling through the Czech Republic is that just about every town here is connected by Czech Railways. A don't-miss stop is Pizen, home to the world-famous Pilsner Urqeull brewery and known as the "Pilsner Capital of the World." Wine more your thing? Then visit Southern Moravia, with its extensive network of vineyards.
No trip to the Czech Republic, however, is complete without a visit to Prague, and the Golden Eagle Danube Express will take you there in luxury. From a harpist in the bar car to sleeping cabins with king-sized beds and double wardrobes, this is the way to visit Eastern Europe in style.
Scandanavia and Russia
Norway's proximity to the Arctic Circle makes a trip on the Nordland Railway a must when visiting the area; the 450-mile ride runs twice a day between the historic city of Trondheim and Bodo, where, in the summertime, the sun never sets. It also runs as a night train. The Arctic Circle is marked by stone pyramids on either side of the track.
Norway's scenic Rauma Line affords a view of the majestic Trollveggen, the tallest rock face in Europe, which looms more than 3,000 over the track.
Those who want to delve deeper into the Arctic Circle and have the chance to view reindeer should undertake Sweden's Inlandsbanan scenic train.
For fans of Leo Tolstoy, here's one for the books: the marvelous Tolstoy Train undertakes a 14-hour nighttime journey from Helsinki to Moscow, laying out pine forests, idyllic countryside and quaint villages before your very eyes. Private cars are available on this train, but whatever option you choose, it's done up in classic-inspired Russian flair.
Spain, Portugal and Italy
The high-speed trains in Spain and Portugal take you pretty much wherever you want to go, so an investment in a Portugal-Spain pass is well worth the money. It'll journey from the heart of major cities such as Lisbon, Bilbao, Seville, and Madrid to quaint countryside towns and beaches. Explore coastal towns along a journey from Madrid to the Portuguese Riviera aboard an AVE train: take a walking tour of the historic Cordoba, a UNESCO site; sink toes in the sandy beaches of Costa del Sol; when crossing over into Portugal, visit the town of Cascais, known for its wineries, olive trees and country estates.
A scenic train traveling between Italy and Switzerland, the Centovalli Express gets the blood pumping—this 90-minute ride winds through the “Hundred Valleys,” a maze of tunnels, deep ravines and hairpin turns with 83 bridges, 348 curves and 31 tunnels.
The United Kingdom
A picturesque journey through the North York Moors National Park, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway winds through 24 miles of Yorkshire's natural scenery, including Goathland (depicted as Hogsmeade in the "Harry Potter" movie series) to the seaside Whitby. Each station along the line revisits a different era in the history of the steam train.
Its locomotive, said to be the inspiration for "Thomas the Tank Engine," the Isle of Man Steam Railway is the longest narrow-gauge (at 15.3 miles long and three feet wide) steam line still in existence in the U.K. Built in 1874, it uses its original locomotives and carriages today. The picturesque, hourlong journey, which is not round-trip, shows off the Manx countryside in all its glory.
Go further north, to the top of Britain and into Scotland, on the TransPennine Express. From Liverpool to Leeds, Edinburgh to Glasgow, there are dozens of options on this vast railroad network. A visit to the charming Lake District gets you in touch with England's glorious natural beauty—in the form of Lake Windermere, Penrith Castle and Scafell Pike.
It may be the world's longest operating railway company, but a trip on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways are a tour through timeless beauty. Both lines tour the Snodownia National Park; travel through pristine pastures, over rivers, past mountains and castles and around tight bends—even through a complete spiral. No wonder it's often visited by engineers.