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Best European train journeys for families to explore the continent

More than 150,000 miles of railroad connect Europe’s cities and countryside. Travelling by train holds a special allure, and gives you the flexibility to reach almost any destination on the continent.

By Nela Lukic | Last updated Oct 26, 2022

Best European train journeys for families

There are many advantages to hopping on a train for your next family holiday. Not only is travelling by train usually cheaper, it’s also more comfortable. You get plenty of legroom and you can get up and walk around whenever you feel like it. You also get to enjoy the scenery, while chatting with your fellow-passengers. And when you arrive, you’re often right in the action as major train stations are almost always in the centre of cities.

One of the most important advantages of rail travel is that it is comparatively eco-friendly, as trains consume less energy and produce less harmful pollutants than cars or planes. 

However, experienced train travellers agree that there are some disadvantages to rail travel. Trains and stations can be very busy and crowded. Changeovers can be a hassle, especially if your connecting train is late. And it might be difficult to find a spot for your luggage where you can keep an eye on it. Even so, they love travelling by train, and not due to fear of flying either. 

Mumsnet user Mediumred went on a European rail journey with her partner and daughter in pre-pandemic times. The Interrail tickets, she says, weren’t too expensive. Her partner, who was 60, paid a lower rate, as did her daughter, who was 11 at the time. Here are her impressions:

“We went from London to Paris to Lausanne in Switzerland (to see friends), to the Italian lakes, to Milan, then to the coast and caught ferry to Croatia, spent a few days on beach [on the beautiful Croatian island of Brač], then Budapest (to see friends), then Berlin, Amsterdam, spent a few days at Efteling theme park, Brussels and home!

We were really excited about the couple of sleepers, but actually they were pretty uncomfortable and it was lucky that the athletic kid was there to scramble to the top bunk. There were three berths, but I think only a quite fit person could manage the top.”

For a protracted European rail journey you need the luxury of time at your hands; you need to plan your route well; and you need to be prepared for a bit of discomfort every now and then.

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If train travel sounds like something your family would love to experience, we’re here to help: find our selection of the best European train journeys for families, carefully assessed and chosen to suit every budget and a variety of interests. 

The journeys we select are of different durations, ranging from several hours to several days. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you from combining train journeys to spend days travelling by rail, with stops at places you and your family would like to get to know better.

Here’s our Mumsnet guide to family-friendly European train journeys for your next holiday together.

European train journeys for families: quick look

Find your next European train journey, ranging from affordable to luxury, and discover Europe in a new way. Here’s our top five:

1. Best budget: Linha do Douro, Portugal

Linha do Douro

Linha do Douro | Book now

For much of its route, Linha do Douro runs close to the Douro River as it flows through northern Portugal. This railway line connects the city of Porto to the towns of Peso da Régua, Pinhão and Pocinho, where you can see the river and steep valleys filled with vineyards. In fact, the stretch between Régua and Pocinho is considered to be one of the most beautiful and picturesque rail journeys in Europe… And prices start from just €12! As the train makes its way along the banks of the Douro, you can admire the port wine terraces. If you have time, stop at Pinhão station to see its beautiful Portuguese tiles - and it’s a great place to buy gifts and souvenirs to take home.

The Linha do Douro journey is about 100 mi long and the round trip takes a little more than three hours. There are frequent regional, interregional and local trains on this line, also.

Between June and October, you may want to take a half-day Douro Historical Train tour on a steam train from Régua to Tua and back, with a stop in Pinhão. Passengers are welcomed with music, a glass of Port, water and local sweets. This is more expensive than the regular line, but still an affordable option to enjoy together.

What Mumsnet users say

“Douro valley vineyard/Port tour definitely - we just did a day trip tour from Porto but it was lovely. Looked like there were some lovely hotels out there but too pricey for us.” JemimaTiggywinkle

2. Best overall: Odontotos Rack Railway, Greece

Odontotos Rack Railway

Odontotos Rack Railway | Book now

Loved by locals and travellers alike, this train ride runs between Diakopto and Kalavryta in northern Peloponnese and is only about 14 mi long and takes one hour each way. Although short, the sights you will see during your train ride are beyond amazing.

The Odontotos Rack Railway will take you through tunnels and over bridges by the Vouraikos river gorge. The river creates natural pools and waterfalls, at one point plunging almost vertically under the railway bridge. Also impressive are the tunnel constructions carved into the rocks of Helmos mountain, open on one side.  

Odontotos is an electric tourist train. It travels every day, all year round, whatever the weather. Since it is very popular, it is best to buy tickets in advance. You may feel a bit squeezed in, because the seats are rather narrow, although the kids should be fine. But the slight discomfort you may feel is well worth the dramatic and beautiful scenery

3. Best open air journey: The Steam Train of the Cévennes, France

The Steam Train of the Cévennes

La Ligne des Cévennes | Book now

The steam train of the Cévennes takes 40 minutes to cover the distance of around eight miles between Anduze and St Jean du Gard in southern France. It’s a short train journey, but has made this list as a great option for young children wishing to join in the experience.

In French, the name translates to La Ligne des Cévennes and a ride on this steam train is pure joy, especially for young children. What’s not to like! You ride in open carriages, there’s a roof but no windows, and the railings are high enough to prevent any accidents. It’s a treat to get a spot in the carriage behind the engine, albeit a gritty one. All in all, it’s great fun and because everybody else thinks so too, the train can get crowded.

The Cévennes line dates back from 1909. This tourist steam train is not to be confused with the regular La Ligne des Cévennes train route from Paris to Nîmes.

4. Best multi-day journey: El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, Spain

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo

El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo | Book now

Imagine a luxury hotel making its way through the north of Spain, between San Sebastián and Santiago de Compostela (or the other way around). Such a hotel exists, and it is called El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, the most exclusive train in Spain. This glamorous ride spans eight days and seven nights, during which you’ll visit wonderful places such as Santander, Oviedo, Gijón and Bilbao. 

The days are filled with fascinating trips and excursions off train to experience a wide spectrum of the history and culture of northern Spain. Indeed, the pace is quite intense, which makes this European train tour suitable for older children. 

The train stops at night so that nothing disturbs your sleep. Many of the meals are taken in the best restaurants in towns along the way. Excellent breakfast, dinner and, occasionally, lunch are served onboard the train. And the word is, it’s worth taking the trip for the food alone.

5. Best for visiting the Arctic Circle: Inlandsbanan, Sweden

Inlandsbanan, Sweden

Inlandsbanan | Book now

The Inlandsbanan is a scenic train journey that takes you through the middle of Sweden all the way to the Arctic Circle. The route is 807 miles long, and starts in Kristinehamn on the south and ends in Gällivare on the north. The train operates daily from the middle of June until the end of August. Although the journey takes 13 hours, you are free to hop off and on along the way if you fancy a spot of fishing or hiking.

At other times of the year, Inlandsbanan is only open for chartered tours, which are usually 9 or 10 days long. 

This is one of Scandinavia’s great rail journeys and the pace is slow and relaxed. It takes you through lovely scenery of splendid forests and bogs, with the chance of spotting reindeer from your train window. You may sometimes feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Which might be just what you are looking for!

6. Best way to cross the Alps: The Bernina Express, Switzerland

The Bernina Express, Switzerland

The Bernina Express | Book now

The Bernina Express takes you from the rugged mountains of Switzerland to the gentle plains of Italy in about four hours. This is one of the great family friendly train journeys in Europe, and offers spectacular views during the 90 mi long route. The scenery is magically white in winter and dazzlingly green in summer. 

You will pass through many tunnels and over even more bridges as the Bernina Express makes its way from Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy. This is the classic route, but there's also a train from St. Moritz that’s worth considering, too.

In either case, you will experience the striking ascent and the breathtaking descent. In Tirano, Bernina runs through the streets, and traffic lights stop the cars to let the train pass. 

You would do best to bring your own snacks and drinks for the journey. The train does have a trolley bar, but the selection is rather limited, and what they do sell can be expensive.

What Mumsnet users say

“Yes, it was great and well worth it. We did a day trip from Isio in Italy. In the summer the mountains still have snow, but the valleys are full of wildflowers. The train goes quite slow so you are able to take in the beautiful scenery. St. Moritz is mega expensive, with beautiful shops and restaurants. We looked online and chose a restaurant for lunch. We factored the cost into our day trip, so there were no surprises.” Beebumble2 

7. Best long luxury tours: Golden Eagle Danube Express, various

Golden Eagle Danube Express, various

Golden Eagle Danube Express, various locations | Book now

One can never have too much luxury and Golden Eagle Danube Express currently offers five luxurious “rail cruises”, each lasting from 7 to 12 days. This hotel on wheels will take you and your family in comfort and style through central and southern Europe on one of their private rail journeys, stopping for visits to iconic cities and enchanting countryside. 

Among the current tours are: Castles of Transylvania (Istanbul-Budapest), Grand Alpine Express (Budapest-Venice), New Year in Vienna (a round Budapest-Budapest trip) and Balkan Explorer (Venice-Istanbul). All journeys include transfers, food, drinks (all alcohol except premium wines), gratuities and all touring. Some even offer overnight stays in 5* hotels.

The Danube Express carries up to 64 passengers and serves freshly prepared meals at a single sitting in the elegant restaurant car. There is no formal dress code, but bring comfortable clothing and shoes for the excursions.

Oh, and did we mention that the bar car remains open until the last guest retires? 

Plan your trip around the Golden Eagle Danube Express

8. Best overnight train journey: Trenhotel, various

Trenhotel, various

Trenhotel, various locations | Book now

You don’t get to see the sights, but you get to arrive at your destination well rested. This is a great option for your family holiday when you just want to travel from one place to another, and sleep in-between.

The international Trenhotel network connects cities across the northern and central regions of Spain before crossing into Portugal, stopping at Porto and Lisbon. Trenthotel also has several national routes serving Spanish cities internally.

These trains can run at a speed of more than 124 mph, which makes them one of the fastest night trains operating on long-distance routes. There are several coach classes available, to suit any budget. Choose between reclining seats, compartments for two and four persons, and separate rooms with a toilet and shower.

Plan your trip aboard the Trenhotel

9. Best scenic Alpine ride: Glacier Express, Switzerland

Glacier Express, Switzerland

Glacier Express | Book now

The Glacier Express connects the mountain resorts of Zermatt and St. Moritz. It takes Glacier Express eight hours to conquer the distance of 181 miles. No wonder it is known as the slowest express train in the world, but the speed won’t bother you since you get to admire the scenery of the magnificent Swiss Alps, stunning in all seasons. 

Both first and second class coaches have panoramic sealed windows all the way to the roof and you have access to the infotainment system via your smartphone or tablet. Food and drinks are served at your seat. While the food is good, it is expensive, and the drinks are very expensive. However, you are welcome to bring your own.

If you want to splurge, take the Excellence Class. This coach has 20 seats, all by the window. There is a bar area, and passengers get a complimentary five-course meal with wine, plus coffee, juice, snacks and champagne.

What Mumsnet users say

“Yes, very expensive. Some of the trains are rather rattly too. Look out for Coop, Migros and Denner supermarkets especially at stations. If you use buses or mountain lifts, bear in mind they often close for up to 2 hours' "pause" over lunch. In Migros restaurants you can get a good quality buffet meal and pay by weight. Don't stay in Chur, it is really a hub town rather than a resort. If you are travelling from Geneva to Chur you could take in the Bernese Oberland or Lucerne.” LIZS 

10. Best steam train: Brocken Railway, Germany

Brocken Railway, Germany

Brocken Railway | Book now

Located in central Germany, Brocken is the highest peak in the Harz Mountain range and a major tourist spot with a television tower, hotel, restaurants, nature walks, and breathtaking panoramic views. 

Also breathtaking is the ride up the mountain on a steam train dating from the 1950s. The Brocken Railway train has two rows of seats and the windows can open to give you the full experience of steam rail travel, spiced with the smell of coal smoke and the noise of clattering wheels. Each carriage has an open-air platform connecting it to the following carriage, which is for some the best place to be during the three hour long journey from Nordhausen to Brocken.

Rail enthusiasts and children will greatly enjoy this spectacular train journey, and so will the nature lovers. As a consequence, the train can get rather crowded. The Brocken Railway steam train runs daily all year except for a few weeks in November.

Plan your trip to the Harz Mountains

11. Best luxury: Venice Simplon Orient Express, UK

Venice Simplon Orient Express

Venice Simplon Orient Express | Book now

The privately operated Venice Simplon-Orient-Express or VSOE is the most luxurious way to travel from London to Venice, in the carefully restored sleeping cars built in the 1920s. 

You will actually take two trains, one from London, and another from Calais to Venice. But there’s no fuss, at every point of the journey you will get top class service.

If you travel with a baby, bring infant food and a bassinet. Since the ambiance is geared towards adult passengers, the train manager decides whether children may accompany parents in the bar and restaurant cars. With this in mind, it might be best to save this adventure for when your children reach a more suitable age.

Excellent meals are included in the fare, while dinks are extra. A formal dress code applies in the evening. Smart wear is appropriate during the day, while jeans are not acceptable at any time.

The VSOE makes a number of routes across Europe. The traditional and most popular route between London and Venice (in either direction) takes two days, with one night on board.

What Mumsnet users say

“I have done the UK lunch trip and it is very luxurious, the interiors are beautiful and really take you back in time, and a great excuse to dress up nicely! Food was delicious, but for all its splendour it is a train, you whizz past everything really quickly just like a UK train ride and you are eating/sitting in a train dimension sitting area, if you see what I mean! But yes, I would go again, I would love to sleep on it, just to have a little man prepare my cabin into a little berth, dress up for dinner and hear the piano tinkling away in the distance.” bluesky

Plan your trip aboard the VSOE

Interrailing around Europe

If you plan to travel a lot by train around Europe, probably the most economical way is to purchase an Interrail Pass. (Eurail is similar, but it is for non-European citizens or residents). 

Interrail Pass is an all-in-one train ticket that gives you flexible access to most trains across Europe. Free or discounted travel on European buses and ferries is also included.

You can purchase a pass for one country (other than your own) or for several countries (this is called a Global Pass), for a specific number of train-journey days over a specific period of time. Then you can go wherever you want, whenever you want. On most trains, you can simply jump aboard with your pass, but for some high-speed trains and night trains you need to pay extra for a seat reservation. For example, reservation is mandatory for Trenhotel and Glacier Express Switzerland, and is highly recommended for other train routes from our selection of best European train journeys.

Some train routes run by private operators are not covered by Interrail Pass. Among them are Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, Golden Eagle Danube Express and Venice Simplon Orient Express, as well as touristy steam trains such as Brocken.

Your Interrail pass doesn’t give you unlimited train travel in your country of residence, either. You can use a Global Interrail Pass for two domestic journeys: one at the beginning of your trip, and the second at the end of your trip.  

How to keep your kids entertained on a European train journey

The billowing smoke and clattering wheels will be amusing enough for kids on short steam train rides, but what if they get impatient on a longer route? Parents with experience of train travel say that preparation is everything. Here are their recommendations:

  • Pack a lot of snacks and drinks and dole them out at intervals, going easy on sweets and soda drinks. 
  • Bring small toys for toddlers, preferably the ones you kept hidden for a while. Your little ones will be happy to rediscover them.
  • Encourage the kids to get creative with some coloured Play Doh.
  • Colouring books and books will keep preschoolers and older children occupied for quite a while.
  • Play games such as “I spy” or play cards.
  • Walk up and down the train with your children. 
  • When you exhaust the more active pursuits, give them a tablet or a smartphone with downloaded nursery rhymes and videos.

How we chose our recommendations

Recommendations by real parents

Before choosing any destination for our roundups, we first consult the Mumsnet forums. With over 10 million users per month, there’s a lot of suggestions by real parents who have been there, done that when travelling by train across Europe.

Expert guidance and traveller reviews

After we’ve collated our hotel picks, we then turn to the experts and consult the likes of TripAdvisor, Booking.com, and Expedia to see what their recommendations include for family holidays aboard Europe’s finest train journeys.

We also took into consideration travel blogs such as Happy to Wonder, Amazing Places and Provence Beyond, and evaluated tour operators’ portals, including Odontotos Rack Railway and Train à vapeur de Cévennes (take a look at the last one even if you don’t speak French; their video will make you want to be there).

Celebrated hotels

Finally, we cross-referenced all of the above information to find the best European train journeys for families that had won the most awards and recommendations across the board. We feel there’s something here for everyone, to suit every budget.

Why should you trust us?

We work hard to provide unbiased, independent advice you can trust. We do sometimes earn revenue through affiliate (click to-buy) links in our articles. This helps us fund more helpful articles like this one.

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