Is there any finer feeling than the thrill of embarking on an overnight rail journey? We don’t think so. Here we round up 11 of our favourite overnight rail adventures, from the Blue Train in South Africa to the classy Paris–Moscow line.
1. Blue Train, South Africa
There are some journeys that you don’t want to end. One is South Africa’s luxurious Blue Train between Cape Town and Pretoria. An additional 10 hours are being added to the schedule giving passengers a second night and allowing a visit to Kimberley’s famous “big hole” for diamonds. A new observation car is being added to the train set that lacked one, bringing them both up to the same standard.
A one-way journey on the Blue Train between Cape Town and Pretoria costs from £1,067 through Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400; ffestiniogtravel.com).
2. Shosholoza Meyl, South Africa
There are faster and smarter ways of travelling the length of South Africa, but none offer as much luxury on a budget as Shosholoza Meyl’s Premier Classe service. The train trundles up and down the same route between Johannesburg and Cape Town as the legendary Blue Train, but at a fraction of the cost. Single, double and four berth compartments with sleeper couches are comfortable and there are two restaurants and lounge bars.
One-way tickets with meals cost R3210 from JB Train Tours (0027 11 913 2442; jbtours.co.za).
3. Baltic Sea sleeper, 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 en route to the Swedish port of Trelleborg. Here carriages are eaten by a special train-ferry, before trundling out four hours later in the ritzy German period resort of Sassnitz. The final leg is a straight shot through the former East Germany to Berlin for a 7am breakfast.
The Berlin Night Express operates in spring and summer. Sleeper berths cost £43 (0046 40 669 62 00; snalltaget.se).
4. Silver Meteor, NY to Miami
Each afternoon the Silver Meteor glides out of New York’s Penn Station on a 1,389-mile (2,235km) voyage to the sun. Depending on the season, the train’s panoramic windows may frame a sunset in Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington DC, before passengers bed down in Viewliner rooms with en suite facilities. Overall the near 30-hour service passes through 33 cities in 11 states, allowing passengers to jump off at Savannah for southern soul food, or Orlando for Disney World. The luxury service began 80 years ago, with wartime intelligence operative Ian Fleming one of its early passengers. His East Coast route is fictionalised in Bond novel Live and Let Die.
Amtrak offers one-way journeys for the full length of the Silver Meteor for £370, including a luxurious viewliner bedroom and free meals (001 800 872 7245; amtrak.com).
5. Silk Road Railway, Baku to Anatolia
This autumn, passenger carriages will rattle from the former USSR into central Turkey along the recently opened 514-mile (827km) line. The planned two-night sleeper service (using coaches made by Swiss firm Stadler with en suite showers) begins at Baku’s sparkling new train station. It will then skirt the Caspian Sea and cross the Caucasus, allowing passengers to alight at Tbilisi. The final leg continues to the Turkish city of Kars near the Unesco-listed archaeological ruins of Ani. A connection between Baku and Istanbul is expected further down the line.
The Baku-Kars line is in operation for freight, with passenger services due to start later this year. Sleeper berths from £60 (tcdd.gov.tr).
6. Stimela Star, Zimbabwe
The first tourist train in Zimbabwe launched last year, taking passengers in style from Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park in refurbished classic Fifties rolling stock of two sleeping cars, a lounge car and a dining car. After dinner the train stops overnight at Dete for a motionless night’s sleep before continuing on to Hwange. There is also a connecting railcar, the Elephant Express, for those staying at safari lodges along Hwange’s northern border at Camelthorn or Bomani.
Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com) offers an eight-night package using the train to reach Bomani Lodge, from £2,735pp, excluding flights.
7. Caledonian Sleeper
Britain’s longest night train service connects London’s Euston station with Inverness, Fort William and Aberdeen. The ambience on board is convivial, with decent haggis and neeps, and malts available in the lounge bar. The train has traditionally been an old diesel that produced a nice rocking sound, running slow so customers needn’t get up at the crack of dawn. New cabins with en suite lavatories and double beds are being rolled out in May. The real wonder of the trip is raising the blind – perhaps as brekky is delivered – to see the mountains in morning mist.
One-way from £150 (sleeper.scot).
8. Paddington–Penzance Night Riviera
Cornwall is always further than you think! Flawed as it is – the down train doesn’t stop at Totnes, but the up does, and the 4.14am arrival on weekdays in Exeter is grim – this service to the South West is kept going thanks to stalwart users and a shortage of flights linking London to Devon and beyond. Agatha Christie – resident of Greenway, on a branch line off the main GWR – would have been underwhelmed by the couchettes, but they’re clean and smart after a slick fashion.
From £45 to share a cabin, £70 for one for yourself, one-way, plus your ticket (gwr.com).
The old “Metropol” Berlin-Budapest/Vienna via Prague service, discontinued in December 2017, is being brought back to life in the form of a new “Metropol” run between Berlin and Budapest/Vienna, with the Berlin-Vienna portion now under Austrian Railways’ control and upgraded to one of its Nightjets. There will also be a revival of the Berlin-Krakow sleeper service.
10. Mussoorie Express, India
The fascinating old British hill station of Mussoorie offers a pleasant weekend break from Delhi, particularly to escape the summer heat. Reach it on the daily Mussoorie Express, which leaves Delhi mid-evening and arrives in time for breakfast at Dehra Dun, the nearest station to Mussoorie. From there, take a taxi for a 20-mile (32km) drive up a twisting, turning road with ever more amazing views over the plains you’re leaving behind. The return journey to Delhi is also overnight.
Around £10 in Second Class AC (bedding provided). For full details, see seat61.com.
This is the 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. 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, a Polish buffet carriage, then a Russian dining car from the old Soviet Border at Belarus.
Russian Railways (007 495 505 6325; russianrailways.com) offers one-way tickets in a First Class sleeper for around £400.