Continue to travel far or give up flying?
Such is the internal dissonance that resonates in the hearts of travelers when they become aware of the carbon impact of air travel.
And yet, when you delve a little deeper into the (impressive) map of the European rail network, you discover that it's possible to reach certain far-flung destinations without taking a plane, travelling in comfort and without having to take (almost) days off to make up for the journey time. Thanks to night trains.
A means of transport that has gradually disappeared over the years, the night train is making a comeback, driven by strong consumer demand for low-carbon travel.
- Leaving Paris in the late afternoon and waking up in Scotland the next morning?
- Cross the Arctic Circle and see the northern lights from your bunk?
It's now possible. The aim of this article is to introduce you to 5 itineraries that will take you to some of Europe's most exotic destinations, previously only accessible by air.
For your information, destinations and itineraries have been selected according to 3 criteria:
- These are destinations that the majority of travelers today reach by air.
- At least 2/3 of the journey is by night train. This criterion is essential, as it is what makes this trip comfortable despite its length (sometimes several dozen hours).
- All our itineraries depart from Paris, France. But it is of course possible to connect the departure of the various night trains from other European capitals.
Happy reading and safe travels!
Norwegian Lapland: polar circle and northern lights
The first route takes you to Scandinavian Lapland, and more specifically to the Lofoten archipelago, a small paradise on earth in northern Norway.
A destination previously only accessible by air, the recent opening of the Hamburg → Stockholm night train, operated by SJ, has changed all that.
Beware: the Northern Lights have to be earned: You'll have to take a 35-hour train ride to reach this end-of-the-world destination. Fortunately, a large part of the journey is made by night train, with very comfortable berths (27 hours out of the 35 hours, to be precise).
But as you'll see, it's well worth the effort.
What to do in Lapland
Lapland is a region stretching across northern Norway, Sweden and Finland.
An adventure destination, it's the place to go to admire the wonders of nature and the wild north.
As you'd expect, the season is an important consideration when planning a trip to Lapland.
Here's a summary of what the region has to offer.
- Northern Lights (winter only, October to March): Lapland is one of the best (if not the best) places in the world to see the northern lights. In fact, it lies beneath the "northern lights belt", the zone where the aurora appears most frequently.
In other words, if the weather is clear, you can potentially see the Northern Lights every evening.
- Midnight sun: Set down on a northwest-facing beach and enjoy the sunset. The sun is slowly descending... and slowly starting to turn to the right. It won't disappear, but will skirt the horizon to reappear behind you, in the east! This "eternal day" is called the "midnight sun". To observe it, you need to go beyond the Arctic Circle between early June and mid-July. More generally, it never really gets dark between May and August.
Finally, the destination offers most of the "Nordic" activities typical of Lapland: dog-sledding, skiing, hiking, etc.
How do I get to Lapland by train?
Stage 1: Paris Gare de l'Est → Hamburg, main station
To get there, the easiest option is to first reach the German city of Hamburg. The journey is easily made by train (several trains depart from Paris Gare de l'Est per day, with a change in Frankfurt) and takes around 7 hours. You can book your ticket on any train booking website (SNCF, Trainline, etc.).
We recommend that you plan to arrive in Hamburg before 7pm, to ensure that you don't miss your night train.
Stage 2: Hamburg-Altona → central Stockholm
This time, it's time for the big departure for Scandinavia.
To get to Stockholm from Hamburg, you need to take the night train from Hamburg-Altona station, which is about 20 minutes by metro from Hamburg's main station (please take into account your connection time).
The night train departs at 9:19pm, arriving at Stockholm Central at 9:55am.
To buy tickets, go to the Swedish railway company's website: https://www.sj.se/en
You can buy several types of ticket:
- Classic seated tickets (the cheapest but least comfortable option)
- Sleeper cabin tickets (4 berths or 2 berths)
The train will pass through northern Germany, Denmark and then reach Sweden via the gigantic Øresund "bridge-tunnel" linking Copenhagen and Malmö.
You'll wake up to a landscape of forests and lakes (frozen in winter), before arriving in Stockholm at 9.55 am.
Interim stage → A day in Stockholm.
Your next night train to northern Norway leaves Stockholm station at 6.10pm. So you've got a good day for sightseeing.
If you'd like to drop off your luggage, there's a locker 5 minutes from the platform. You can leave your luggage on your own. If you've got a big suitcase or skis, you'll also find large lockers in the locker area.
The station is right in the heart of Stockholm, so you can easily reach the main sights and tourist areas on foot.
Stage 3: Central Stockholm → Narvik (Norway)
The last leg of the journey has arrived: the famous "Arctic Circle Train"! This is one of Europe's longest night trains: 18h from Stockholm to Narvik, the gateway to the Lofoten archipelago.
The last leg of the trip is recognized as one of the most beautiful in Europe: you'll spend 1h30 on a mountainside, in the middle of the Norwegian fjords. Sublime scenery in summer and winter alike.
Departure from Stockholm station at 6.10pm, arriving in Narvik at 12.35pm.
As with the previous train, several options are available: reclining seats, 6-berth cabins, 3-berth cabins (which can be booked for 2 people), or even 1- or 2-berth cabins with private washbasin and toilet.
The train also offers a restaurant car (with extremely poor value for money, it must be said).
To buy tickets, visit the Swedish railway company's website: https://www.sj.se/en
You've arrived at Narvik, the gateway to Lofoten!
Several options are available: take the bus from Narvik to the town of Reine, head further north to discover the Tromsø region, enjoy a ski session at the Narvik ski resort (open all year round), etc.
Tips for observing the northern lights:
If the main objective of your stay is to see auroras, it's easier to see them from inland than from the coast.t's easier to see them from inland than from the coastespecially as coastal weather in winter is quite fickle.
So, to get the most out of the region and increase your chances of seeing them, we recommend stopping for a few days in Abisko or Kiruna2 Swedish towns served by the Arctic train. Both towns offer cottage-style accommodation and all kinds of tourist facilities. Don't hesitate to stop there for 3 or 4 days before heading back to Narvik via the Arctic train.
To find out if you're likely to see auroras, download the "Northern Lights Alerts". Very simple to use, the app indicates the probability of observing auroras if the sky is clear, depending on your location.
Scotland: distilleries, castles and bagpipes
The second journey takes you to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper night train.
The Caledonian Sleeper connects London with several Scottish destinations, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William.
The practical aspect of this trip is that it's very quick: if you leave Paris in the late afternoon, you'll arrive in Scotland the next morning.
An express teleport to bagpipes, distilleries and the wilds of the Highlands. A word of advice: book in advance!
What to do in Scotland
Scotland offers a wide variety of landscapes and things to discover.
Must-sees include Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, with its iconic castle and cobbled streets; Loch Ness, famous for its mysterious monster; the Highlands, with their spectacular mountain scenery; the Isle of Skye, known for its breathtaking scenery; and the historic town of Stirling, with its castle and William Wallace memorial. Scotch whisky distilleries are also popular attractions for spirits lovers.
How to get toScotland by train?
Stage 1: Paris Gare du Nord → London Saint-Pancras
The easiest (and least carbon-intensive) way to get to London is, of course, by Eurostar train, which departs from Gare du Nord in Paris and arrives at London's St. Pancras station.
Eurostars depart at regular intervals throughout the day.
- Be sure to book your tickets in advance, as prices can vary considerably (from €45 one way to €300...).
- Bear in mind that it takes about 15 minutes to get to London Euston station (where the night train departs) from St Pancras.
Please note! Since Brexit and tighter customs controls, you'll need to arrive at the station a good hour early (check-in closes 45min before train departure).
Stage 2: London Euston → Scotland
Once you've arrived at London Euston station, you can board one of the Caledonian Sleeper night trains.
Please note that the company charters several trains (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, etc.) which do not depart at the same time.
For example, if you want to get to Fort William, the gateway to the Highlands and closest town to the Isle of Skye, you'll need to catch the 9.15pm train.
When booking your Eurostar, be sure to take your train's timetable into account.
Caledonian Sleeper trains offer several levels of comfort: Seats, 2-person cabins and single cabins. There's also a dining car, and you cantake your bike with you on the train.
Finally, a little tip:
As Caledonian Sleeper prices are very high, we strongly recommend that you take out a discount card. It will give you a 30% discount on the network. Essential if you're traveling with several people. And don't forget to book in advance!
To book your train ticket, click here: https://www.sleeper.scot/
Budapest: thermal baths, architecture and nightlife
Capital of Hungary, Budapest is probably one of the most interesting cities to visit in Eastern Europe, not least for its architecture, spa culture and Europe-famous nightlife.
Although far away, Budapest is very easy to reach by train: Departure from Paris mid-afternoon, arriving in Budapest at 9am the next day. Only one change: Zurich.
What to do in Budapest
As mentioned above, Budapest's great appeal lies in the variety of things to do and see.
For those who love sightseeing: stroll along the banks of the Danube and admire emblematic monuments such as the Hungarian Parliament and Buda Castle.
For those who want to enjoy Budapest's thermal baths: Gellért and Széchenyi are the best-known and most beautiful. Luckily, they're quite large (especially Gellért), which makes for a pleasant experience even during the tourist season. If you're lucky, you may even be able to take part in the famous night parties in the baths... These only happen a few times a year, before the pools are emptied. If this is a must for you, find out in advance so that you're sure to find the right weekend.
Finally, don't forget to try Hungarian specialties such as Goulash and kürtőskalács.
How to get to Budapest by train
Stage 1: Paris Gare de Lyon → Zurich
Our first stop is the TGV Lyria between Paris and Zurich. No surprises here, we're on a classic TGV standard. You can take the train at around 4pm to arrive in Zurich at around 8pm, and catch the night train departing at 9:40pm.
Or take the train a little earlier and enjoy your day in Zurich. The station is centrally located, and luggage lockers are at your disposal, so it's ideal for sightseeing.
Stage 2: Zurich → Budapest
The night train from Zurich to Budapest, the Wiener Walzer, leaves Zurich station at 9.40pm.
As with most night trains, various comfort options are available: seats, berths, single berths. One of the advantages of this train is its low cost compared with other night trains. Expect to pay around €60 for a sleeper with breakfast included. For the most premium options, you'll pay around €100.
To buy your tickets, go to the Austrian rail company's website (yes, they operate the route, even though we're just passing through). Here's the link: https://www.oebb.at/en/
Berlin: modern history, alternative culture and nightlife
For this 4th trip, we headed for Berlin, a relatively unknown capital untouched by tourism.
Since the rise of low-cost flights a decade ago, Berlin has become a popular destination for fans of electronic music and alternative culture.
It's an easy and inexpensive destination if you plan ahead.
Still, we regret the abolition of direct night trains between Paris and Berlin (abolished around 2010). But given the renewed interest in this mode of transport, we can afford to hope that it will soon be re-enabled.
What to do in Berlin
Renowned for its nightlife, the city is best known for its underground scene and electronic music. Yet Berlin also boasts a wealth of culture and history, which differs from what we're used to seeing in Europe because the events connected with it are so recent.
A number of monuments and museums will take you back in time, from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the remains of which still criss-cross the city.
It's also an ideal destination for art lovers, between the Pergamon Museum and Museum Island. Last but not least, the city's architecture is absolutely unique, with a striking contrast between the old West / East blocks and historic buildings such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag.
How do I get to Berlin by train?
Stage 1: Paris Gare de l'Est → Mannheim
The first stage is very simple: Departure from Paris Gare de l'Est for Mannheim.
The journey takes around 3 hours, and can be operated by either SNCF or Deutsche Bahn. (Note that Deutsche Bahn trains are more comfortable).
The night train to Berlin leaves Mannhein at 11.40pm, so you can take the 7.06pm train to Mannheim at 10.17pm.
Stage 2: Mannheim → Berlin
Since Deutsche Bahn discontinued its night train service, OBB, the Austrian company, has taken over night services in Germany. Via the famous "Nightjet".
This train offers a wide variety of classes: Seats, 6 to 1 compartments, Luxury compartments, etc. Prices vary, but the entry fee for a couchette is €59 (6-compartment).
The train leaves Mannheim at 11:42 pm and arrives in Berlin at 7:54 am, at the crack of dawn.
To buy tickets, visit the OBB website: https://www.oebb.at/en/
Sicily: coves, idleness and gastronomy
Finally, one of the most astonishing destinations to visit by night train, as it's... an island! And incidentally, the only "sunny" destination among the 5 proposed.
Thanks to the ICN (InterCityNotte) 1963 link, you can now reach Palermo, Sicily, by night train.
This is made possible by a ferry service, on which the wagons are mounted to enable the crossing of the Strait of Messina, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy.
What to do in Sicily
Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, offers a wide variety of cultural and natural activities.
History buffs can explore Syracuse to discover its archaeological remains and Greek theater, or visit the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, while nature lovers can explore the volcano of Etna.
A lazy destination par excellence, don't forget to take advantage of the Italian Dolce Vita by visiting the beaches of San Vito Lo Capo or Mondello, and of course enjoying the local gastronomy.
Warning: For those sensitive to heat, we recommend avoiding the summer season between July and August, when temperatures can exceed 40°C in places (48.8°C recorded in August 2021...).
How to reach Sicily by train
Stage 1: Paris Gare de Lyon → Milan-Centrale
The first stage of the journey is to Milan, from where the night train to Palermo departs.
There are many trains between Paris and Milan. The only thing to bear in mind when booking is that the night train to Sicily leaves Milan station at 8.10pm.
- Take the direct train chartered by Trenitalia, leaving Gare de Lyon at 07:28 and arriving in Milan at 14:07. This gives you a few hours to stroll around Milan before getting back on the train, and a safety margin in case of delays.
- Go via Switzerland with a TGV Lyria to Geneva, then a train to Milan. This adds an extra connection, but gives you greater schedule flexibility as there are more trains departing from Paris.
Stage 2: Milan-Centrale → Palermo Centrale
Hold on to your hats, as this is the longest of the 5 destinations on offer! A non-stop train journey of 20 hours 45 minutes across Italy from north to south. Even longer than the Arctic train!
The ICN 1963 train departs from Milan-Centrale station at 8.10pm, arriving at Palermo Centrale station at 4.55pm.
Like other night trains, this train offers a range of classes, from single seats to private cabins.
The most original passage being... the crossing of the Strait of Messina, during which the wagons are loaded directly onto a ferry for the crossing.
This route, which is also magnificent, allows you to admire southern Italy, its mountains and coves, throughout the second part of the trip.