European Winter Holidays by Rail – Our Favourite Destinations
The northern hemisphere winter is a wonderful time to explore Europe. Often less crowded, no oppressive heat and parts of the continent covered in a blanket of snow, it is an ideal season in which to take in the best European rail travel has to offer and to enjoy having some of the most popular destinations to yourself.
Here our some of our highlights:
Travelling through the Swiss Alps during winter is a truly magical experience. From special panoramic trains such as the Glacier Express or Bernina Express, to the mountain railways of the Jungfrau (highest station in Europe) through to the regular services that ply the well-travelled routes of this spectacular country, nothing beats exploring Switzerland from the warmth and comfort of your train seat.
The Glacier Express runs from mid-December all through the winter, and links the famous resorts of Zermatt and St Moritz. Known as the “World’s Slowest Express Train”, it takes in the unbeatable scenery of the Oberalp Pass, the Upper Rhône Valley and the iconic Landwasser Viaduct, under a cover of crisp white snow.
The Bernina Express is widely recognised as one of the most picturesque journeys in Europe. Starting in St Moritz, the train rises to an altitude of 2,328 metres over the Bernina Pass and then down into Italy where you finish at the small town of Tirano.
The Jungfrau Mountain Railway takes you up to the highest station in Europe, Jungfraujoch, situated at 3,454 metres above sea level. The ride takes you on three separate trains, including two cog railways, and the final part of the journey takes you through the north face of the Eiger Mountain on the way up to the summit station.
The Tyrolean region of western Austria boasts a number of scenic rail journeys that are not only attractive in their own right, but also link major cities and important destinations.
If you are travelling to or from Switzerland to the west, you will travel across the Arlberg Pass route which is among the highest standard-gauge railways in Europe, reaching a high-point of 1,310 metres above sea level. Coming from the Swiss border, after taking in the glorious sights of the pass, you arrive into the city of Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol region.
To the north of Innsbruck is the Garmisch Railway, which climbs up the side of the mountains passing through resorts like Seefeld in Tirol and crossing the border with Germany, soon after which you reach the winter resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host of the 1936 Winter Olympics.
Running south from Innsbruck, you have the Brenner Pass route into Italy. The line begins to climb almost immediately out of Innsbruck as you pass through the small villages on the ascent towards the Italian border. The town of Brenner itself marks the crossing into Italy and the line then continues south through the Dolomite mountains and eventually to Verona and Venice.
Winter is a wonderful time to visit Venice. There are no crowds, the air is crisp and clear, the lagoon twinkling blue and the city looks at its finest. You’re not likely to see snow here but if Venice is on your bucket list, please don’t rule out visiting in November, December or January!
Also, in February the famous Venice Carnival comes to town bringing with it a whole host of opportunities for masked balls and other festivities.
The TransAlpin Train: Zurich to Graz
A little-known EuroCity service linking Zurich in Switzerland with Graz in Austria, the TransAlpin travels through some truly breathtaking scenery as it makes its way through Switzerland, even taking in a few kilometres of the tiny principality of Liechtenstein and over the aforementioned Arlberg Pass. After Innsbruck, the train weaves its way through the stunning Austrian Alps stopping at famous ski resorts like Kitzbuhel and Zell am See, and eventually terminating at the important city of Graz in Austria’s south east.
Travellers in First Class are entitled to book a seat reservation in the panorama coach, with glass sides and roof giving you the optimum views of the sensational scenery.
Slovenia’s gem is Lake Bled, surrounded by mountains in the northwest of the country, the lake itself has an idyllic small island at its centre. In winter the snow-topped mountains are reflected in the clear waters of the lake, as is the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary located on the island.
The resort of Bled itself sits along the eastern edge of the lake and has an array of warming bars and restaurants to tempt you in after a bracing hike around the lake’s edge.
Ever popular with Australians, the small town of Cesky Krumlov is located in the southern part of the Czech Republic.
It’s divided by the Vltava River(that also flows through Prague) and dominated by its 13th-century castle. The castle offers panoramic views of the old town and also the river from the top of its distinctive round belfry.
Whilst the town is immensely popular in summer, it is a magical place in winter, with fewer crowds and the landscape coated in a white dusting of snow.