Europe's greatest sleeper trains, by Tristan Rutherford
The Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2020
1) Moscow to Nice
A century ago Tsarist aristocrats followed Queen Victoria to the French Riviera. The route was terminated by the Russian Revolution, although a refreshed service now departs from Moscow’s Belorussia station to Nice-Ville SNCF every Thursday morning. Europe’s longest scheduled train journey ploughs westwards through Europe’s distant corners to Minsk. After a brief stretch of the legs (the train pauses regularly for coffee stops and short country strolls), the green vastness of Belarus and Poland unfolds. The eight-country amble takes in Austrian mountains, chichi resorts on the Italian Riviera and a panorama of Monaco before pulling into Nice in time for the Cours Saleya flower market on Saturday. Carriages are modern and smart; the food not so.
The fare: From £320pp in a First Class sleeping compartment (eng.rzd.ru)
2) London to Penzance
The Paddington to Penzance sleeper is a refreshingly cheap lesson in modern luxury. Think boutique cabins and a bacon sandwich on arrival. Kindly staff can wake you for morning stops at Truro, Redruth and Camborne, or advise on your onward journey on the Scillonian or the Skybus to Isles of Scilly. Departure is at 11.45pm. But passengers can sip complimentary non-boozey beverages in Paddington’s First Class lounge from 9pm, before boarding and bedding down at 10.30pm. The service is wildly popular, especially for summer morning views of crashing waves. Advance booking is essential.
The fare: from £55pp based on two sharing a private cabin ()
3) Madrid to Lisbon
Spanish rail operator RENFE's Lusitania Trainhotel does exactly what it says on the tin. Gran Clase sleepers have showers, en-suite facilities, fine linen and club lounge access as part of the package. Preferente cabins boast sinks, swipe card locks and 190cm-long (6ft 3inch) beds. Inexpensive Tourist class four-bed couchettes are perfect for families travelling together. Better still, Madrid and Lisbon are two of Europe’s most cultural capitals – and among the cheapest.
The fare: from £85 based on two sharing a private cabin in Gran Clase ()
4) Warsaw to Kiev
Warszawa Centralna train station was built to impress Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev on his visit in 1975. Presumably by using as much concrete as humanly possible. On the Kiev Express sleeping car, a flavour of the East is furthered with Cyrillic script, a surly carriage attendant, bedside beer bottle openers and a midnight bogey change in a big shed at the former Soviet frontier. There’s an onboard passport check too (friendly Polish guards, curious Ukrainian ones). Come morning the scene is bucolic: hundreds of miles of birch forest dotted with the odd smallholding and onion-domed church.
The fare: from £90pp based on two sharing a private cabin ()
5) Ankara to Lake Van
It’s an exciting time for Turkish sleeper trains. After a five-year hiatus an overnight train from Istanbul to Ankara resumed operations due to popular demand. While a sleep-friendly service along Turkey’s most telegenic line, the Doğu Express to Kars in the far east, was inaugurated in 2019 with sightseeing stops en-route. Trains even run under the Bosphorus, allowing travel from deepest Asia to dreachest Scotland without stepping of a platform. Few tourists board the mighty Van Gölü Express. It bumbles for 25 hours through palm plantations and vineyards, through dusty plains and snowy steppe, to Turkey’s enchanting island-dotted Lake Van. Given that this route is Europe’s best value long-distance rail journey, standards are high. Expect big picture windows and freshly prepared Turkish meze onboard.
The fare: from £16pp based on two sharing a private cabin () or try a specialist agency like Efendi Travel ()
6) Oslo to Trondheim
By day, this journey is a six-hour spectacular, crossing mountain ridges, tunnels, bridges and Norway’s lonely lake district. Passengers may even glimpse a few giant moskus, a fluffy bison, en-route. And unlike most everything else in pricey Norway, the trip is extremely good value, with tickets starting at £20. Money saved can be splashed out onboard on Norwegian 'tapas': elk sausage, reindeer paté and lefse potato flatbread. By night, a luxury sleeper is hauled along the same route, pulling into Trondheim, the charming ex-Viking capital of Norway, for breakfast. It’s also possibly to ‘check-in’, find your sleeping couch and install yourself in the dining car 30-minutes before departure.
The fare: from £61pp based on two sharing a private cabin (
7) Brussels to Vienna
As Germany’s Deutsche Bahn withdrew its sleeper services, Austria’s ÖBB totted up 27 overnight routes across Europe. It’s Nightjet operation offers two levels of sleeper comfort. One-, two- and three-person sleeping cars (from €109.99 per person) include an at-seat bar service (a pint of Goldbräu costs €3.40). Plus a complimentary Viennese breakfast. Four-person couchettes (from €59.99) are ideal for families. From 2020, a new twice-weekly service linked the Eurostar hub at Brussels with Vienna, allowing Brits easy passage to Central Europe and beyond. The 14-hour ride allows for delicious panoramas over three nations before a leisurely 8.30am arrival in Vienna.
The fare: from £92pp in a private cabin ()
8) Paris to Venice
Private rail operator Thello operates two of Europe’s most fabulous routes. Its Marseille to Milan service soaks up the sun via Cannes, Nice, Monaco and Genoa. While its Paris to Venice night train allows for early morning stops in Milan, Verona and Padova. All passengers can enjoy a dining car that dishes up baked cod (€11) and tiramasu (€4.50), plus a free breakfast. Three levels of sleeper service range from four-person couchettes to standard sleepers (with washbasin) and brand new premium sleepers (with ensuite toilets and showers). The best bit? The morning rattle across the Venice lagoon to Stazione di Santa Lucia - the most splendidly sited terminus in Europe.
The fare: from £88pp based on two sharing a private cabin ()
9) Paris to Moscow
It’s classiest way to cross the continent. Each Thursday evening, the Russian Railways train rattles out of Paris Gare de l'Est, arriving in Moscow in time for Saturday breakfast. Time differences grant each passenger an extra hour of sleep on both nights. That’s just as well, as ultra-modern First Class sleepers offer dual bunks, lockable doors, wash basins and waiter service - there are even private showers in the pricier VIP section. Better still, Europe’s second-longest train route (Moscow-Nice is a shade lengthier) offers a taste of the five nations it passes through. Expect German beers at Berlin, a Polish buffet carriage from Warsaw, then a Russian dining car from the old Soviet Border at Belarus.
The fare: Russian Railways (eng.rzd.ru) offers one-way tickets in a First Class sleeper for around £400pp
10) Malmo to Berlin
The sole direct train from Sweden to Germany includes a night cruise across the Baltic Sea. At 5pm the Berlin Night Express putters through Malmo’s leafy suburbs enroute to the Swedish port of Trelleborg. Here carriages are literally eaten up by a special train-ferry, before trundling out four hours later in the ritzy period resort of Sassnitz (from where direct ferries once departed for the USSR). Passengers can watch sunset from deck or snooze in their couchette. The final leg is a straight shot through former East Germany to Berlin for a 7am breakfast.
The fare: Snalltaget () operates the Berlin Night Express. Sleeper berth tickets cost £43pp.
Tristan Rutherford writes train travel stories for The Daily Telegraph and other journals.