The 10 Coolest Train Rides in the World

In the 21st century, train travel has been displaced by other modes of transport, like air travel and automobiles. But many travelers laud the experience of train travel; it’s often faster than a car and, unlike air travel, it allows you to see the landscape as you roll along toward your destination. Reflecting this, many train operations now offer luxury tours for travelers who want to ride in style without missing an opportunity for exploration. Combining amazing scenery, national treasures and elegance, here are 10 of the coolest train rides around the world.

10. Maharajas Express -India

Travel through India on this amazing train journey. Five different routes are offered, departing from either Mumbai or Delhi. Choose from a four day journey or an eight day grand tour of some of the most famous and majestic places on the Indian subcontinent. Partake in Hindu rituals at the ghats of the Ganges or witness a polo match played not on horses, but on the backs of elephants. From ancient civilizations to the Taj Mahal, you’ll see palaces and museums, national parks and beaches on the Heritage of India tour. On the Indian Splendor tour, you’ll have a chance to explore an abandoned kingdom and a dinosaur fossil park. Departures are limited, usually once per month between October and April, so if you want to travel on the Maharajas Express, you’ll want to plan in advance.

Photo by: Maharajas' Express
Photo by: Maharajas’ Express

9. Grand Canyon -USA

Train travel is almost synonymous with the American West; train service was the glue that held the nation together until the mid-20th century. The Grand Canyon Railway captures the Old West feel with its stops at historic train depots and the El Tovar hotel, which was built in 1905. The railway has a number of unique passenger cars, including the dome cars that are peculiar to American railways. Two of the luxury parlor cars feature open-air platforms for observation. Trains depart the Williams depot daily and arrive at the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park two hours and 15 minutes later. The trains return to Williams around 3:30 in the afternoon. Along the 65-mile journey, the train passes through diverse terrain of the high Sonoran desert and mountainous areas, and passengers might sight any number of animals, including pronghorns, and a variety of plants.

Grand Canyon Railway

8. The Ghan -Australia

Connecting Darwin at the northern tip of the Australian continent and Adelaide on the southern coast, The Ghan makes one of the most fascinating trips in the world. The Great Southern Rail-operated train travels almost 3,000 kilometers over the span of 54 hours, with a four hour stop over in Alice Springs. The train originally ran between Adelaide and Alice Springs, beginning operations in the late 1890s; it wasn’t until 2004 that Darwin was connected. The reasons are obvious: the route runs through vast swaths of the rugged Australian Outback. With the new train in operation, getting to Darwin and seeing the Outback has never been easier, although delays and track trouble still plague the line. Stops at Katherine and Alice Springs allow time for optional tours. The Ghan generally runs once a week, although two services operate weekly between June and September.

The Ghan, Australia

7. Blue Train -South Africa

The South African Blue Train is world-renowned for its luxury service, boasting butlers, two lounge cars, an observation car and private carriages with gold-tinted picture windows. The train takes passengers nearly 1,000 miles between Pretoria and Cape Town. Originally, the service was meant to connect passengers from Johannesburg to England-bound ships in Cape Town. There was a time when four routes were offered, but all have been discontinued except the route between Pretoria and Cape Town. The train makes at least one stop in either direction, allowing guests to explore the Open Mine Museum at Kimberley Station or enjoy a glass of sherry at Matjiesfontein. The journey takes passengers between inland and coastal areas, showcasing the spectacular scenery of the South African landscape. Passengers will journey across scrubland, through mountain foothills and across rivers in the height of luxury. Bring formal wear for your dinner engagement.

Blue Train, South Africa

6. Trans-Siberian -Russia

Not just a single line, the Trans-Siberian Railway is rather a collection of lines that traverse the huge expanse of the Siberian hinterland, connecting European Russia with the Russian Far East, the Sea of Japan and branching into Mongolia, China and North Korea. It is the longest railway in the world, spanning 5,772 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, and is still being expanded. Even before its completion in 1916, it had become a hotspot for travelers, who then wrote about their experiences. The journey from Moscow takes about six days and crosses seven time zones before dropping passengers on the Pacific Coast. The line is still incredibly important for the transportation of goods and people between Moscow and the Russian Far East, and its historical importance cannot be underscored enough. The journey might not be the most luxurious, but it is certainly a fascinating view of Russia.

TransSiberian Railway

5. Royal Scotsman -UK

If you look at many top-10 lists for rail travel, you’re almost bound to run into the Royal Scotsman, a luxury liner that offers charter tours of the Scottish Highlands in the UK. With a variety of tour options, ranging from two nights in the Highlands to the seven night Grand Tour of Britain, the journey makes plenty of time for stops at local attractions, such as castle ruins, whisky distilleries and iconic natural wonders. Some journeys even include outdoor pursuits like shooting clay pigeons. As you travel, the observation car provides spectacular views of the glens, lochs and villages that make up the Highland vistas. Dining makes use of the best local ingredients and experiences are mixed between formal and informal. Combining luxury with an amazing tour of the Scottish landscape like you’ve never seen before, it’s little wonder the Royal Scotsman ranks highly on so many travelers’ bucket lists!

Photo by: Simon Pielow via Flickr
Photo by: Simon Pielow via Flickr

4. Glacier Express -Switzerland

While the Glacier Express isn’t a very quick trip—in fact, it has a reputation for being the slowest express train in the world—you probably won’t mind as you pass through the Alps between St. Moritz and Zermatt in Switzerland. The 7.5-hour journey takes passengers across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and across the Oberalp Pass. Large portions of the railway use a rack-and-pinion system for ascending through the steep Alpine inclines—up to 6, 670 feet at its zenith! Running east-west almost across the length of the country, the train travels through a number of important sites: the Albula/Bernina section of the trip are part of a World Heritage Site and the train journeys through the Rhine Gorge and up to the Matterhorn in Zermatt. Since the 1980s, the trains have run year-round, which means this spectacular trip can be enjoyed by travelers no matter the season.

Glacier Express, Switzerland

3. Eastern & Oriental Express -Thailand to Singapore

The Oriental Express is an actual train service, journeying through the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and, since 2007, Laos. The tour starts in Singapore and stops in Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth and Kanchanaburi before arriving in Bangkok. A guided tour of the River Kwai and a tour of Georgetown, near Penang, are included on the most popular route, although there are nine routes to choose from. The Singapore-Bangkok route takes three days to complete. The journey has been awarded a place on the Society of International Railway Travelers’ “Top 25 Trains” list, earning points for service, dining, beauty and off-train experiences. The service is operated by Belmond, a renowned name in luxury train travel, and is considered one of the best ways to explore Southeast Asia. In 2015, two new “signature journeys” were introduced.

Photo by: Simon Pielow via Flickr
Photo by: Simon Pielow via Flickr

2. Hiram Bingham -Peru

Hop aboard this luxury liner and ride the rails between the city of Cusco and the ancient Inca capital of Machu Picchu. This ride consistently makes the top-10 lists for travelers visiting Peru, and not only because it heads up to the sacred Inca city. Part of the Orient Express, the train operates in both directions and is named after the discoverer of Machu Picchu. Combine slithering through the soaring Andes in the Incan outback with fine dining and a relaxing four hour trip. Guests have brunch on the trip to Aguas Caliente, and dinner if they catch the late train back to Cusco. A local band provides live entertainment during the trip and guests can sample the Peruvian drink pisco as the train rumbles alongside the Urubamba River, which flows from the Sacred Valley. The observation car features an open deck for passengers to better enjoy the view!

Hiram Bingham, Peru

1. Rocky Mountaineer -Canada

The Rocky Mountaineer isn’t one route, but four routes running between Alberta and British Columbia in Western Canada. Formed in 1990, the company operates the busiest privately owned passenger rail service in North America, with more than one million passengers having boarded the train since its inception. The Rocky Mountaineer is a perennial favorite among train travel enthusiasts, having been named the “World’s Leading Travel Experience by Train” seven times and the Society of American Travel Writers’ top train ride in 2009. All four routes run through the rugged Canadian Rockies, some of them following historic routes such as the Canadian Pacific. In 2013, it was announced that a three day trip from Seattle would be offered. All trains operate during the day, with some overnight stops, between May and September. The “Journey through the Clouds” takes passengers over the Canadian National railway through the Rockies, between Vancouver and Jasper.

Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock.com
Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock.com

12 Modern Day Ruins of the World

Aristotle once said “Time crumbles things”, he wasn’t wrong.
People travel halfway around the world to see the Colosseum, the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall of China. We ponder what people were like, what parallels connect them to us, what changes and remains the same. Like time travelers we can visit a more recent, almost familiar past, full of echoes from not too distant generations that have walked away, leaving their ghosts behind. The great team at EscapeHere has assembled a list of provoking modern-day ruins, I hope they capture your imagination like they did mine.

12. The Ryugyong Hotel

If feels almost too easy to list this as a modern day ruin, but this North Korean hotel has been one of the biggest examples of architectural failure in the last century (and probably this one too). Developed as some sort of state pants-envy indicator for power and progress for the peninsula dictatorship, the Ryugyong Hotel was unable to finish the initial construction schedule when the government simply ran out of money (while their people starved).

Work started on the hotel in 1987 and stopped in 1992, the vulgar pyramid spire sat dormant and dominant on the Pyongyang skyline for sixteen years. Although the structure was “topped out” no windows or fixtures have graced the structure until just recently as construction briefly resumed in 2008. North Korea pledged that the hotel would be finished by 2012 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President”, Kim Il-sung. However, the celebration took place without a shiny new hotel as the work stopped because of political instability.

Viktoria Gaman / Shutterstock.com
Viktoria Gaman / Shutterstock.com

11. The Book Tower

The Book Tower was at one point the tallest building in Detroit, and at 38 stories (not including two basement levels) remains one of the largest skyscrapers in the United States that has avoided demolition and renovation. The Book Tower is unique among the Detroit skyline with its awkward external fire escape, naked sculptures and the storybook crown, the Renaissance style somehow seems out of place in the town that Ford built.

J. Burgess Book Jr. and his brothers were on a mission to turn Detroit’s Washington Avenue into a destination that rivaled New York’s Fifth Avenue, with upscale culture and shopping. Their opening salvo in this endeavor was the Book Tower in 1917. The building was the center of downtown activity until the 1960s when it began its decline with the rest of the city. On January 5, 2009, the last remaining holdout tenant, Bookies Tavern, moved on to a newer location downtown.

Book Tower Detroit

10. Forbidden Discovery Island

Feel adventurous enough to brave waters rumored to be inhabited by alligators and potentially deadly nervous system-attacking bacteria? That’s probably the only way to see this next modern ruin first hand. If you were to make a clandestine trip deep into the interior of the Florida Walt Disney World property and swim, dingy, or scuba to the ominous island in the middle of Bay Lake, you will find the remains of Discovery Island; The Magic Kingdom’s former wildlife sanctuary that went wrong.

Walt Disney purchased the island in 1965 and opened (what was then called) Treasure Island here in 1974. The wildlife sanctuary hosted the largest colony of Scarlet Ibises in the U.S., as well as five Galapagos tortoises, flamingos, lemurs, swans, and brown pelicans. In 1999, the attraction was closed for unspecified reasons (but speculation abounds), and the abandoned attractions can still be seen from Disney’s Contemporary Resort and the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground.

Photo by: imgkid.com
Photo by: imgkid.com

9. Six Flags Jazzland

Just off Interstate 10, on the eastern side of New Orleans sits the home of the now silent but still-standing Cajun attractions like the Zydeco Scream and the Muskrat Scrambler. Jazzland opened its doors as a small amusement park featuring the standard rickety wooden roller coaster, log flume, and other soak-you-with-carnival-water attractions in 2000, two years later the awesome Six Flags corporation bought the joint, upgraded it with various fun and safety additions and marketed it with Mr. Six (the dancing old guy). They had great plans on a water park to be included in 2005, which would have been included in the park admission.

Those plans however were thwarted when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and flooded the park removing all amusement here since. Most of New Orleans has been rebuilt, which is a testament to the vibrant community that lives there, but Jazzland remains, untouched since the storm. As of today you can still see the remnants of the park in its former glory, and some people trespass to capture this unique surreal landscape. If you want to see what remains, head to the Big Easy soon as talks are in place to turn this former fun-town into an outdoor mall.

Photo by: Frank Aymami
Photo by: Frank Aymami

8. The Second-Largest Man-Made Hole in the History of the World (and ghost town)

Deep in Siberia, there exists an open-pit diamond mine reaching 1,722 feet deep and 3,900 feet wide that sits beside the town of Mirny; a town that sits just below the Arctic Circle (bring extra socks). Founded in 1955, there exists today a town that could hold 3500 mine workers and their families (not to mention the people working in other industries needed to make a town run) which sits almost entirely perfectly preserved and empty today.

The people that lived here had to endure some of the harshest winters imaginable, which would typically last up to 7 months at a time, punctuated by short “summers” that turned the ground to slush. It was so cold that even oil froze, rubber automotive tires would shatter, and workers had to routinely use jet engines to thaw the permafrost so they could dig. That being said, the town is generally off limits to outsiders without a special permit but visiting this perfectly preserved modern ruin is not unheard of as universities host modern archaeology tours.

Mirny Town

7. Kolmanskop

If you ever find yourself in Namibia, just outside of the port town of Lüderitz, take some time to visit the ghost town that diamonds built. Kolmanskop is Afrikkans for Coleman’s hill, and the place got this name simply because a transport driver named Johnny Coleman abandoned his ox wagon here, continuing the tradition of “naming places where your rig stops” that has taken place the world over (looking at you, Eyebrow, Saskatchewan). In 1908, when laying some train tracks, some poor schmo found a diamond and showed it to his German Boss, who in turn told some German government official, who in turn named the area Sperrgebiet, or loosely translated “wow this place is worth a lot of money so nobody can come here but us!”.

Like every boomtown, the initial residents were filthy-rich and built themselves a tiny paradise full of super opulent stuff, including infrastructure like ballrooms, a hospital, power station, school, sports hall, casino, ice factory (for their fancy drinks) and the first x-ray station in the Southern Hemisphere. The town declined after the diamonds ran out and today, all that’s left are the incredibly well engineered houses that are slowly being swallowed up by the desert sands once again. To travel to this town you will need to get permission from the Namibian government through their special permit program.

Kolmanskop Namibia

6. Fordlândia

Deep in the Amazon rainforest there sits an abandoned, prefabricated industrial town that was established in 1928 by the industrialist Henry Ford. Ford controlled almost all of the raw materials that went into his automobiles, save for the rubber in the tires, which at that time was monopolized by the British Malay Peninsula. He negotiated a deal with the Brazilian government for a parcel of land the size of a small state, and created a plantation settlement there in exchange for 9% of the profits gained. The project was ultimately a total failure and Henry Ford never actually visited his now abandoned town.

The structures of Fordlândia have been left empty for the decades following the towns’ demise. The only way to reach the site is by boats, which leave the nearby town Santarém from the Praça Tiradentes port Monday to Saturday at 4PM and on Sunday at 2PM. The overnight trip takes 12 hours and costs about $45, arriving early the next morning. You can hang your hammock on the dock until it is light enough to explore the remains of this historical fiasco.

Photo by: Latin America Bureau
Photo by: Latin America Bureau

5. Ellis Island

More than 40% of all US citizens can trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island, being the primary immigration gateway from 1892 to 1954. Located in the Upper New York Bay, east of Liberty State Park and north of Liberty Island, Ellis Island is now a huge decaying complex, featuring what used to be a state of the art hospital center with laboratories, psychopathic ward, power station, laundry building and dormitories. Most of the island is closed to the general public and has been uninhabited for almost 70 years only guarded by patrols of the United States Park Police.

Travel to Ellis Island is limited to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, restored in the 1980s, this main immigration processing building reopened as a facility to chronicle Ellis Island’s role in American immigration history. Due to the recent destruction from Hurricane Sandy, a few parts of the historic main building and museum are closed, but are due to reopen soon.

Ellis Island

4. A.M.A.R.C.

Close to Tucson, Arizona is AMARC; the Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Center. This is the place where the U.S. Air Force stores all of its old planes until needed again, scrapped for parts, or sold to foreign and civilian interests. It’s part of the Air Force’s sales pitch that for whatever aircraft they sell, they will always have spare parts. If you are a military history geek like me, you would have probably had your interest piqued when this location was showcased in movies like Transformers; Revenge of the Fallen, and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro man.

Today there are about 4,000 planes in storage, with the lion’s share of them from the Vietnam War; this location is a testament to man’s ingenuity and creativity. This airplane graveyard speaks to my inner ten year old, full of excitement and mystery. Regular civilians are disallowed from wandering around the aircraft, but you can partake in a bus tour around the facility hosted by the Pima Air Museum, learn more at the official AMARC homepage.

AMARC Tucson
Photo By: U.S. Navy /Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Shannon R. Smith. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Hashima Island

Hashima Island, also known as BattleShip Island is an abandoned island 15 kilometers off the coast of Japan. The Island is known for its abandoned apartment buildings and community infrastructure surrounded by a substantial sea wall (it was even featured in the recent James Bond movie, Skyfall). The abandoned island-city was known for its undersea coal mines and at its peak housed over 5000 residents when it closed in 1974, most of the people left the city with only the clothes on their back and suitcases they could carry shortly afterward.

After the turn of the Millennium, the island has become a favorite destination for ruin enthusiasts, and travel was officially been reopened for limited tourism in 2009. Increased popularity and media exposure to the island has caused the Japanese Government to declare the island a site of industrial heritage, and to petition that Hashima be included as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hashima Island

2. El Caminito del Rey

This site is also known as “The King’s Little Path” and “The Walk of Death” and is located in the Gaitanes Gorge in the western portion of the Baetic Mountains of Spain with walls reaching as high as 700 meters and narrowing to 10 meters. The Gorge itself is fascinating with its sandstone formations, fossilized whale remains and eroded natural caves. All this natural beauty is nothing but an added bonus to the jaw-dropping adrenaline junkie pathway that has the dangerous name attached to it.

The Caminito del Rey is a pathway that was built to transport workers and building materials between two hydroelectric plants situated at either end of the Gaitanes Gorge. The path was built in 1905 out of sand and cement, held in place by metal brackets and festooned with a simple iron rail for “safety”. The pathway gained its regal name when King Alfonso walked along the Caminito and was so impressed that a plaque was erected in recognition of the path’s designer and the momentous day of his journey. During the last century, the pathway has fallen into disrepair and has undergone a full restoration, but it is still listed as one of the most dangerous hikes in the world.

El Caminito del Rey

1. Pripyat Ukraine

Pripyat is the site of one of the most notorious “ruins” of the last 100 years, and is generally what is referred to when the Chernobyl disaster is referenced. “Chernobyl” is how we reference one of the biggest man-made disasters ever recorded but Pripyat is the remaining symbol of this event. Founded on February 4, 1970, Pripyat was designated officially as an atomograd (‘the town of the atomic scientists and workers’), the 9th settlement of its kind in the former USSR. Although this was a former “hot zone”, radiation levels have dropped due to the decay of the short-lived isotopes released during the accident and tours are regularly scheduled.

Ukraine would be a tough sell for a travel agent these days, but if you are determined to see this historic site, you will begin your journey in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, a fantastic city with a fantastic nightlife. After staging there you will travel north to the Chernobyl site after booking a tour in advance, you will need government clearance and the tour company is well equipped to ease you over any bureaucratic bumps. The most reviewed company hosting these tours is Chernobyl Tours, cost is variable depending on the size of your group and it includes transportation.

Pripyat Ukraine