13 Most Scenic Train Rides in the World

Take a journey through some of the world's most beautiful landscapes with these scenic train rides, from the Rocky Mountains to the Swiss Alps.

TranzAlpine, New Zealand
Photo: Courtesy of TranzAlpine

There's never been a better time to explore the world by rail. Some of the world's most scenic train rides were created mainly to take passengers through beautiful, perhaps inaccessible locales, while others connect cities and towns, replacing air travel for shorter trips with convenient downtown stations and frequent schedules. On some trains, the beauty of the interior décor rivals that of the passing scenery, and many train stations are destinations in themselves, with art, vintage architecture, gourmet dining, and classic cocktail venues. Here are 13 of the most scenic train journeys around the world, from Japan to the United Kingdom.

01 of 13

Pacific Surfliner, United States

Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak
Courtesy of Amtrak

This Amtrak route hugs the Pacific Coast starting from San Luis Obispo, where you can explore the lively college town or venture out to nearby wineries or a historic mission. From there, ride in comfort for 350 miles of ocean views with beaches, rocky coastline, quaint towns, and little between you and the blue Pacific. In San Diego, visit Balboa Park museums or dine in Little Italy or the Gaslamp Quarter. If time allows, take advantage of train stations along the way that are within walking distance of local attractions. In Santa Barbara, head to the nearby beach or Funk Zone, an artsy collection of boutiques, restaurants, and cafes, or sample California wines as you stroll and sip through the Urban Wine Trail. Union Station in Los Angeles is a destination in itself with historic art and décor, or venture out to Downtown L.A. or the Mexican markets on Olvera Street. Dine or enjoy a cocktail at Traxx while you wait to board for your next adventure.

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The Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland

Jacobite Steam Train, Scotland
Alan Copson/Getty Images

Starting in the Scottish Highlands town of Fort William near Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, this 84-mile round-trip train journey winds through green hills, crystal blue lochs, deep valleys, and quaint villages. A highlight of the trip is the crossing of the 21-arched Glenfinnan Viaduct with its graceful curves and towering columns, overlooking Loch Shiel and the Jacobite monument. Harry Potter fans will recognize this view as well as the steam engine and carriages which became the Hogwarts Express, courtesy of West Coast Railways which operates the Jacobite. The train stops briefly at Glenfinnan Station and then passes the lovely towns of Lochailort, Arisaig, and Morar. At the last stop in Mallaig on Scotland’s west coast, passengers have about an hour and a half to explore before the return trip to Fort William. The Jacobite Steam Train runs from April to October, and purchasing tickets in advance is recommended.

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Napa Valley Wine Train, United States

Napa Valley Wine Train
Courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Train

Riding through rows of grapevines, across farmland, and past picturesque wineries with a backdrop of green hills is one of the pleasures of the 36-mile round-trip journey from downtown Napa to St. Helena. Board in an industrial section of Napa and enjoy views of the town’s outdoor contemporary art with murals, sculpture, landscaping, and parks promoted by Rail Arts District Napa. Continue through the towns of Yountville, Rutherford, and Oakville with gourmet meals and wines to enhance the journey. It’s a convenient and safe way to explore and taste wines, with a variety of stops and winery tours available. The train cars themselves are part of the fun, adding to the vintage feel of train travel. Mahogany paneling, polished brass, opulent fabrics, and etched glass partitions were just a few additions in the extensive renovation of the historic cars.

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Grand Canyon Railway, United States

Grand Canyon Railway
Courtesy of Grand Canyon Railway

This 130-mile round-trip journey begins about 30 miles west of Flagstaff in Williams, Arizona and heads north to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. On the way, passengers are encouraged to get into the Old West spirit with musical entertainment, cowboy characters, and other surprises while the terrain changes from the Ponderosa pine forest of Williams to open prairie and back to Pinion pines near the Grand Canyon. In addition to the spectacular landscape, guests might spot wildlife that includes elk, mountain lions, deer, bald eagles, owls, and California condors. The daily departure time is 9:30 a.m., and the trip takes two hours and 15 minutes. Visitors have about three hours to explore the South Rim, starting with the historic Grand Canyon Depot dating back to 1910. Guests can enjoy ranger programs, a scenic walk along Hermit Road or the Rim Trail, the El Tovar Hotel, and magnificent views in every direction.

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The Chepe Express, Mexico

Copper Canyon Railroad, Mexico
Courtesy of Copper Canyon

This journey crosses some of Mexico’s most spectacular terrain, much of it inaccessible by other means. Said to be four times the size of the Grand Canyon, Copper Canyon in the northwest state of Chihuahua is actually several canyons, the deepest at 6,167 feet. The length of the ride depends on where you board, but the trip on the Chepe Express from Los Mochis near the west coast to inland Creel will be about nine hours. Opened in 1961 after several decades of construction, the train crosses 37 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels. The landscape includes rugged terrain, mountains, gorges, deep ravines, and even agricultural areas. A few tips: Book your trip in advance or use a tour company to arrange your visit. When heading eastward, sit on the right side of the train for the best views.

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Metro-North Railroad Hudson Line, United States

Hudson Line, Metro North
PapaBear/Getty Images

This commuter train originates in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and travels along the eastern shore of the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie. The trip takes about two hours and passes through historic towns with views of the river, forests, and stately mansions. While daily commuters might take the scenery for granted, sightseers can enjoy the beautiful round-trip journey for less than $50. Heading north out of Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal — a must-see destination in itself — the train passes Yankee Stadium in the borough of the Bronx and continues along the river through towns well worth the time to stop and visit. Beacon is a walkable artist community offering galleries, boutiques, and the Dia Beacon contemporary art museum. The river and its lush surroundings attracted wealthy individuals to build fabulous mansions, many of which are open for tours. These include Boscobel in Garrison, Kykuit in Sleepy Hollow, Springwood in Tarrytown, the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, and Locust Grove in Poughkeepsie. Check tour hours before stopping, and for the best views, sit on the train’s left heading north.

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Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia

Kuranda Scenic Railway, Australia
Daisuke Kishi/Getty Images

This journey takes guests through one of the world’s oldest rainforests in Queensland, Australia. The two-hour trip begins in Cairns and passes scenery that includes trees, waterfalls, mountains, and ravines. Barron Gorge, one of Queensland’s most popular national parks, can be viewed from the train or by driving a short distance from Kuranda at the end of the train line. In Kuranda, guests can shop for locally made art and handicrafts or stop at a café. A bird aviary, butterfly sanctuary, and reptile park are other attractions. Historic Kuranda Station, over 100 years old, is part of the experience, too. Some visitors choose to take the railway in one direction and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in the other to fully experience the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

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Glacier Express, Switzerland

Glacier Express, Switzerland
Courtesy of Glacier Express

This train travels between Zermatt and St. Moritz, Switzerland, through the Swiss Alps with breathtaking views of mountains, streams, and quaint towns. Starting in the mountain village of Zermatt near the Matterhorn, the journey continues past rocky peaks, crossing the Rhone into the Upper Rhone Valley. The Oberalp Pass, near the source of the Rhine River, is the highest point of the trip at nearly 7,000 feet. From there, the train descends along the Rhine Valley with one of the most dramatic views of the trip, the Rhine Gorge, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of Switzerland.” Continuing south through a narrow valley and through the Albula tunnel, the eight-hour journey ends in St. Moritz, Switzerland’s elegant vacation resort city. The train’s panoramic windows make viewing easy, and headphones are provided for narration. Several classes of service are available, and there’s a snack trolley, full meals, and an onboard bar. With an Excellence Class ticket, exclusive amenities include a premium multi-course meal with local wines and a special seating area.

09 of 13

TranzAlpine Train, New Zeland

TranzAlpine, New Zealand
Courtesy of TranzAlpine

The four-and-a-half-hour journey between Christchurch and Greymouth on New Zealand’s South Island is run once daily by KiwiRail as one of their Great Journeys of New Zealand. Departing Christchurch at 8:15 a.m., the train passes through farmland, past sheep and cattle, and then on towards the Southern Alps. After about an hour, the climb into the mountains begins, across steel bridges over deep gorges and through short tunnels. There’s a short stop at Arthur's Pass station and then a trip through one of New Zealand’s longest tunnels, over a deep valley, and across another river with views of waterfalls. After a one-hour stop in the small town of Greymouth, the train returns to Christchurch, making the coast-to-coast round trip about an 11-hour journey. Reclining seats, panoramic windows, and skylights make the ride comfortable and rewarding. The café offers food, snacks, beer, wine, and spirits. Heading to Greymouth, the best views are on the right side of the train.

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Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka

Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka
deniscostille/Getty Images

This seven-hour trip takes passengers through remote villages, past waterfalls and lush green hills, and through the tea plantations for which the country is known. Originally built by the British in the late 1800s, Sri Lanka’s rail system was originally used to transport tea and coffee for export. Now, the train is a favorite way to explore the country, view the varied scenery, and observe villages and local people along the way. Ella is a hill country village, worth exploring before you board or when you arrive. Kandy, located in central Sri Lanka, is larger with sacred Buddhist shrines and scenic Kandy Lake. Most of the trains offer first-class observation cars with air conditioning, and some provide sleeping berths and reserved seats. From Kandy, the better views are on the right side. Tickets are available at train stations throughout the country, and the schedule can be checked online.

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Rocky Mountaineer Rockies to the Red Rocks, United States

Aerial view of Rocky Mountaineer train along the water during autumn

Courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer

Rocky Mountaineer offers four scenic train routes through some of North America’s most stunning landscapes, complete with luxurious cars outfitted with glass dome windows. The Rockies to the Red Rocks route travels between Moab, Utah and Denver, Colorado, with a stop in Glenwood Springs, where you’ll spend the night to break up the trip. Throughout the two-day journey, you can enjoy incredible views while traveling along canyons, mountains, and rivers and enjoying the food and beverage service on board.

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Seven Stars in Kyushu, Japan

Aerial view of the Seven Stars Kyushu Railway traveling through Japan

Hirokazu Fukushima/Courtesy of Kyushu Railway Company

Travel around the lush Japanese island of Kyushu in comfort on the Seven Stars in Kyushu train from Kyushu Railway Company. The “Seven Stars” name isn’t just a sign of high-quality service; according to the website, it represents the seven-car train, the seven prefectures of Kyushu, and the seven major attractions of the island "nature; food; onsen (hot springs); history and culture; 'power spots' to refresh the mind, body, and soul; humanity; and trains." Pick from four-day, three-night or two-day, one-night journeys that begin and end in Hakata.

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Alaska Railroad Aurora Winter Train, United States

Aurora Winter Train: Anchorage to Talkeetna and Fairbanks
Kerry Tasker/Courtesy of Alaska Railroad

Take in views of the icy Alaska wilderness aboard Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. As you might have guessed from the name, this route gives passengers the exciting opportunity to look for the northern lights once they arrive in Fairbanks, the train’s final destination. The 12-hour journey from Anchorage is long, but large picture windows and comfortable seats make for a cozy spot to sit and watch the frozen scenery pass by.

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