Sleeper trains have always been the most exciting way to travel in Europe.
What could be more romantic than boarding a night train in Paris, waking up to the beauty of the Italian Alps and after breakfast, strolling straight out of Santa Lucia station into the heart of Venice?
Certainly not a pollution pumping plane, right?
But … sleeper trains aren’t practical are they? Night trains can’t get us where we need to be fast can they?
Well yes they are. And yes they can. In their own way.
And European sleeper trains are making a come back, so you can use Europe’s new night trains for everything from simple low carbon family holidays in the sun or on the ski slopes to border busting, flight free European adventures.
New European Night Trains
European night trains have been on a decline. The amazing journeys I took as a kid direct from the Calais and Hoek of Holland ferries through France, Switzerland and Italy are long gone in the age of Eurostar and cheap flights.
But every year now, new sleeper routes are opening and swish new night train rolling stock is being launched all over Europe from Scotland to Turkey. So it is becoming easier and easier to use sleepers to slash our carbon emissions whilst still enjoying travelling.
If you’ve never taken a night train – or last bordered a sleeper as a student interrailing – this list of 15 brilliant European night trains will help you start planning your holiday.
The key thing to remember when planning your sleeper trip is, it’s not like flying : European train travel is at its best when we embrace the difference.
Enjoying Sleeper Travel
Planes can obviously move faster but sleeper trains make much better use of our time. On the shorter routes in this list you’ll actually be on the beach or the ski slope earlier than you would by plane and be fully rested.
On longer routes, it’s all about enjoying the journey, watching stunning scenery and interesting little towns slip by as we nod off or eat breakfast and using the journey to rest and relax and switch off so by the time we get there we’re actually ready to enjoy our holiday.
On more complicated routes we can use the opportunity to stop off on the way and explore cities like Milan, Turin, Barcelona, Vienna and Budapest. The journey really is part of the holiday.
Cool. So let’s get on with this list. There’s something on it for everyone whether its a bucket and spade holiday for little kids to sunshine in the south of France and Spain, romantic journeys across Italy, skiing in Austria, archaeology in Orkney, wild hiking in the Carpathians and grand adventures – in the spirit of the Orient Express – all the way to Istanbul.
15 European Sleepers
1. The Cornish Night Riviera
If you’ve never taken a sleeper train before, this is the easiest one to start with. Simply board the Night Riviera at 10.30 pm at London Paddington and wake up the next morning for breakfast in Penzance.
The Night Riviera stops at several stations in Cornwall before Penzance so you can easily connect to local trains for St Ives or Newquay.
Or for an extra dollop of slow travel romance, connect to the Scillonian ferry for the tiny Scilly Isles sparkling in the Celtic Sea. The quay is just a 10 minutes stroll from Penzance station.
2. The Highlander
On the Highlander – run by the Caledonian Sleeper – you’ll wake up north of Edinburgh to enjoy breakfast looking out over some of Scotland’s most breathtaking scenery on your way to Fort William, Inverness or Aberdeen.
All three towns are gateways not only for exploring the Highlands but also for ferries to the Hebrides, Orkney & Shetland respectively.
(I’ll be sharing details on how to travel to Orkney by train shortly so do follow me on Twitter for updates).
The Caledonian Scotsman introduced brand new trains last year with luxury en suite cabins. The roll out – as we discovered for ourselves – did not go smoothly, but the teething problems appear to have been resolved.
And the journey, I promise you, is worth it.
3. Brussels to Vienna
The new Brussels to Vienna Nightjet sleeper, launched in January, is a game changer for over night train travel in Europe. In fact for European train travel full stop.
Catching the 12.58 Eurostar from St Pancras you will be in Vienna by 8.30 the next morning, ready to enjoy Austria’s grand capital for a long weekend or more. But once you’ve filled up on Vienna the whole of Eastern Europe is sitting waiting for you.
Budapest is just a few hours further by train and Bratislava even less. They’re suddenly doable for a shorter break without flying. As are other Hungarian and Slovakian towns. And if you’re feeling adventurous you can strike out on another sleeper for the unspoiled glories of the Carpathian mountains in Romania (see route 13), Poland, Ukraine & Belarus or in the spirit of the old Orient Express head on for Istanbul (see route 14).
The Brussels – Vienna train runs twice weekly initially but will expand.
4. The Innsbruck Ski Train
OBB’s new Nightjet service from Brussels also runs directly to Innsbruck through the Austrian ski resorts of Kufstein, Worgl & Jenbach.
So hopping on the lunch time Eurostar to Brussels, you can be on the ski slopes before elevenses the next day without a single air mile to your name.
(It’s worth knowing the train stops at Munich just after 7 am, so it’s also very useful if you want to visit southern Germany).
5. The Briancon Ski Train
You can also ski in France without totting up any nasty air miles.
If you catch a 14.20 or 15.30 Eurostar from St Pancras you can be at Paris Austerlitz for the Briancon sleeper leaving at 20.10 which has you in Briancon before 8.30 in the morning.
6. Paris to Toulouse
Sadly, French railways short sightedly closed most of it night trains just a few years ago, but the Paris – Toulouse sleeper is still going strong for summer holidays across the south of France.
The sleeper leaves Paris Austerlitz at 21:58, so you can just get the 16.30 or 17.00 Eurostar trains from London to catch it. It arrives at Toulouse Matabiau bright and early just after 6, from where you can catch connections to the Lot & Garonne or Languedoc and all the way around the Mediterranean coast from Perpignan to Marseille.
The Paris – Toulouse sleeper is a really useful train for British families wanting a flight free holiday in the south of France.
7. Paris To Venice
Arriving at the waterfront Santa Lucia station by night train from Paris truly is the most romantic – and fitting – way to start a holiday in Venice.
And it’s simple. You take a lunchtime Eurostar to Paris Gard du Nord, before boarding the sleeper which leaves Gare de Lyon at 19:15 arriving in Venice at a very civilised 9.30 am the next day.
Its a much lovelier journey than hiking to Stanstead at some unearthly hour in the morning, only to be dropped miles from Venice. And it generates 90% less carbon emissions than a flight.
The Paris – Venice sleeper also stops at Milan, pretty Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padua giving easy connections to the rest of Italy.
8. The Paris Moscow Express
The Paris – Moscow Express is one of the old great night trains of Europe, allowing you to see almost the whole breadth of Europe from your window. Run by Russian Railways – who have an easy to use English site – it has a range of compartments (some en suite) and a restaurant car.
(The Moscow sleeper can also be a wonderful way to reach Berlin, Poland & Belarus by night train but the booking can be trickier. The Man in Seat 61 has tips.)
9. Barcelona To Galicia
The Barcelona to A Coruna night train is a very useful route if you want to enjoy Spain’s Galician & Asturian coasts in the summer without flying.
You can get to Barcelona from London via Paris in 10 hours, enjoy a few nights exploring Barcelona and then head up to the coast. You can then actually enjoy tiny coastal towns car-free using the lovely little narrow gauge Feve trains.
10. Turin to Naples
My first holidays to Italy were on the sleeper train directly from the Calais ferry to Rome where we stayed for a few days before heading to the Bay of Naples. They are precious memories. Sadly those trains are long gone.
But you can do a different flight-free version of the journey today by taking a few days to explore Turin’s fabulous food, palaces, art, antiquities and of course cars on the way. The 9.24 and 10.24 from St Pancras will both have you in Turin (via Paris) in time for dinner.
After enjoying Turin for a night or so you can take the 20.45 night train which has you in the Bay of Naples ready to explore Pompei and the rest for 8.35.
11. Milan To Sicily
The Sicily sleeper is currently unique in Europe as the train is actually taken onto the ferry across the Strait of Messina. Once in Sicily the night train splits part going to Syracuse and part to Palermo stopping at lots of small seaside resorts along the way.
It is a fairly long journey but the route from Salerno – which you go through at roughly breakfast – down the coast is beautiful.
And the Sicily sleeper does let you get to Sicily flight free in just over a day if you get the 5.40 train from St Pancras to Milan via Paris.
Or you could of course truly embrace the spirit of slow travel and taking a later train to Milan, enjoy a few days in the city before heading south.
12. The Adria & Istria to the Adriatic
A sleeper route from Budapest to Split sounds obscure but with the new Brussels-Vienna sleepers (see 3 above) you could combine a few nights in Vienna or Budapest (just 2 hours away) and then head down to the Adriatic coast for sea, sunshine and stunning beaches.
There are two night trains – the Adria Express & The Istria Express – which run in the summer to Split, Rijeka, Opatija and Koper in Croatia and Slovenia. You can find all the details on this helpful little site from Hungarian Railways including onward connections to the Adriatic islands.
13. The Ister Express to Transylvania
This one is for the more adventurous.
We’re not talking luxury sleeper travel with a fancy dining car. But the Ister Express is a chance to hike in some of Europe’s most stunning mountain country in Transylvania.
Again, (as with 12), you get the Night Jet to Vienna (see 3) and an intercity to Budapest. The Ister leaves Budapest Keleti just after 7pm crossing into Romania – double passport checks as you’re leaving the Schengen area – in the very late evening.
Any of the stops between Sebes Alba (5.30 am) and Brasov (10 am) are possible bases for exploring the mountains.
14. Bosphor Express
The penultimate European sleeper is pretty hard core.
The journey is almost 20 hours. There’s no restaurant car & no snack bar. You can’t book online. And unfortunately it’s not accessible for wheelchairs or bikes. But the Bosphor Express does take you all the way to Istanbul.
It is an epic journey across the whole of Europe. You get the Eurostar to Brussels followed by the Nightjet to Vienna and then the Dacia Express to Bucharest before catching the Bosphor Express for the final leg to Turkey. But this is real European travel seeing Europe for itself, not flying over it.
15. The New North West Express
Our very final sleeper is a bit of a tease … it’s not running yet.
But it will be.
Which is brilliant news because as Greta Thunberg, and anyone else who has tried, knows, it is hard to get from London to Scandinavia by train.
Back in the glory days, you caught the ferry to Hoek of Holland for the day time Scandinavia Express or the North West Express sleeper to Copenhagen, Malmo & Stockholm. Sadly the train last ran in 1988.
But Swedish railways have just announced a comeback for the North West Sleeper, albeit via Cologne rather than the Hoek & Rotterdam.
And more new European sleeper routes are expected to follow as we all switch to lower carbon, flight free holidays. Flights do make up a big chunk of our personal carbon emissions and on most European holidays we can cut those emissions by over 80% by taking the train.
I do hope you found this post helpful and have a great time exploring Europe by night train.
Please do share it on Twitter and Pinterest and spread the word about just how brilliant flight free travel can be.Original image source: Oleksii Leonov