The 10 most amazing train rides in the world, for discerning gay travellers

Getting to where you need to be rarely comes as such as joy, but today we bring you some exceptions. It’s not about the destination but the journey, as some of the world’s wisest will tell you and our selection of the best train trips in the world will quickly prove. Avoid the stress and the CO2 emissions of a domestic flight and instead opt for rail, allowing several days to leisurely wend your way from packed cities and over epic landscapes before arriving at your end point with a new perspective. Choo-choo-choose to relive 1900s European glamour for trips on the Orient Express or gain insight into Japanese precision on the super-fast Shinkansen, whichever it is, it’s sure to be just the ticket.

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1. Venice Simplon Orient Express: Paris to Istanbul

Known as one of the best train journeys worldwide, boarded by the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Trotsky and Tolstoy and immortalised in mystery by Agatha Christie, the Venice Simplon Orient Express has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, the 10-night journey starting in Paris and stopping off at a number of European cities en route to Istanbul does not disappoint. Costing slightly under a gulp-inducing $8,000 USD for a double cabin, the full Orient Express experience is for special occasions only, though tighter budgeters do have the option of taking a cheaper train and hopping on and off at their favourite cities as they please, for around $700-800 USD total. For glamour abound, however, the Orient is the only way, allowing for luxury stopovers in Budapest, Romania and Bulgaria before reboarding to finish the 2,700 kilometre journey from the comfort of art-deco carriages furnished in polished wood and antique fixtures. On arrival in Turkey, plan what to do with yourself with our handy Istanbul travel guide.

Photo: Dominik Scythe

Photo: Dominik Scythe

2. The Ghan: Adelaide to Darwin, Australia

The best journey in Australia according to many follows the route of Afghani cameleers who trekked the outback to build infrastructure 150 years prior. Named ‘The Ghan’ in honour of those pioneers, the train journey runs 2,797 kilometres past some of the nation’s most unforgiving (yet magnificent) terrain, through the Red Centre of the outback from Adelaide to Darwin, stopping at Alice Springs and Katherine along the way. The full journey will take a total of three days and two nights, and while the Gold Service will see you splashing out almost $5000 AUD ($3,800 USD) you’ll find nothing wanting, thanks to the provision of private sleeper cabins and luxury dining carriages to take dinner and maybe a nightcap in view of Australia’s ever changing landscapes. As well as counting Uluru in your sights, you’ll also pass by terracotta plains, salt pans and the rugged MacDonnell Ranges, with night-time stops allowing for unbeatable stargazing opportunities, before approaching the verdant city of Darwin.

Alice Springs | Photo: Hans Müller

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The Ghan runs 2,797 kilometres past some of the nation’s most unforgiving terrain, through the Red Centre of the outback from Adelaide to Darwin, stopping at Alice Springs and Katherine along the way

3. TranzAlpine: New Zealand

Highlighting the beauty of the South Island’s Southern Alps, TranzAlpine is a short yet sweet journey from Christchurch to Greymouth, coming in at just under five hours total. Sit back as the train follows along the Waimakariri River, moving from the Canterbury Plains, up through the mountain-flanked valleys of Arthur’s Pass National Park, and finally towards the warmer subtropical climes of the west coast rainforests before halting at the historic mining town of Greymouth. At any time you can also pop out to the outdoor viewing carriage for a breath of fresh air amidst the unmitigated grandeur of New Zealand’s natural landscapes, brushing shoulders with both locals and internationals. Book in advance to avoid disappointment, particularly in the summer months (December – February). If you’re lucky enough to have longer in NZ, follow our ultimate New Zealand itinerary for two weeks in paradise.

New Zealand | Photo: Tim Marshall

4. The Tokaido Shinkansen: Tokyo to Osaka, Japan

The speediest train you’ll see in this list (and the third fastest in the world) the Shinkansen is very much an icon of Japan, connecting the country with stylish efficiency since 1964. More relaxing than its 285kph top speed might suggest, the Tokaido Shinkansen offers an experiential journey through the highlights of Honshu Island, starting in Tokyo and ending in Osaka. The 515-kilometre journey can be completed in just two and a half hours (via the superfast Nozomi model) or up to four hours (via the Kodama), whisking you from urban sprawl to rice paddy-laden countryside in moments, with a flash of Mount Fuji on the way. Though the Shinkansen may not be the perfect way to sightsee, there are various other advantages, most notably the tranquil onboard experience which sees passengers board in single file and quietly enjoy ekiben lunch boxes in peace. Join the locals in this custom, buying the meticulously arranged meals from any of the onboard vendors (or rice artistes as they deserve to be called) who mould local and seasonal produce into bamboo-packed works of art.

Tokyo Station | Photo: Fikri Rasyid

Photo: Ramon Kagie

5. The West Highland Line: Glasgow to Mallaig, Scotland

Appropriation it may be but wearing a skirt is never more acceptable than when travelling the highlands of Scotland. The best way to move through the region meanwhile is via the West Highland Line which heads 200-kilometres northwards of Glasgow. Along the way, you’ll move through the remote wilderness of Rannoch Moor, along the side of Ben Nevis and up into Oban and Fort William before switching rails and moving westward over the Glenfinnan Viaduct which you may recognise from countless Harry Potter movie reruns. The entire trip from Glasgow to the port town of Mallaig costs a modest figure of around £30-60 GBP ($40-85 USD), though investing in the more expensive Scottish Rail Pass (£149-189 GBP, $205-260 USD) will entitle you to unlimited train travel through the whole nation for eight consecutive days. Out of all Scotland’s train rides, however, the West Highland Line is guaranteed to wow you, particularly if taking the Jacobite Steam Train (AKA The Hogwarts Express) to live out your Ron Weasley fantasies. Upon disembarking at Mallaig, consider taking the short ferry ride over to the Isle of Skye or look at our ultimate gay Scotland 10 days itinerary for more inspiration.

Photo: Blake Cheek

Photo: Roland Losslein

6. Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West, Canada

One train journey that my own mother won’t stop going on about is the Canadian Rocky Railway, going by the lengthier name of ‘Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West’. But we need not take her word for it, because this trip is breathtaking by all accounts, covering the picturesque region of southern British Columbia between Vancouver and Banff. After a few days soaking up the cosmopolitan vibes in Vancouver City, set off into the mountains for a front-row seat overlooking the crashing waters of Hell’s Gate in Fraser Canyon, peering down the snowy banks at Thompson River from the plush comfort of your carriage.

At some stage everything will go dark upon entering the Spiral Tunnels but before you know it you’ll have hopped the Continental Divide and be closing in on the lakeside city of Kamloops, where most passengers disembark for a welcomed night’s sleep. The next day you’ll gladly board once more, enjoying a gourmet breakfast and lunch while listening to commentary on the region, hearing stories of ancient glaciers and pioneers who gave their names to the most prized natural wonders like Rogers Pass in the Selkirk Mountains. Once safely in Banff, stay busy by ticking off Mr Hudson’s list of things to do in Banff in Winter.

Canadian Rockies | Photo: James Wheeler

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The luxury French-designed carriages will ensure lasting comfort, with wooden booths and brass finishes in the style of 1920s parlour rooms with a splash of Peruvian colour

7. Belmond Hiram Bingham, Peru

The railway named after the American explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu, Belmond Hiram Bingham is a celebration of all the Andes have to offer, from ancient Incan kingdoms to tiny village settlements like Ollantaytambo. Though the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu lies as the centrepiece (and endpoint) to your Peruvian journey, there are so many more marvels along the way, starting in the urban centre of Cuzco before gliding through verdant valleys carved by the Urubamba River, held sacred by the Inca people. While tracking to ever higher altitudes, the luxury French-designed carriages will ensure lasting comfort, with wooden booths and brass finishes in the style of 1920s parlour rooms with a splash of Peruvian colour. As well as enjoying welcome cocktails before departure, the fun continues with brunch and gourmet lunches of South American flavours, followed by traditional live music and dance in the Bar Car. After spending the day in the Lost City of the Incas it’s time to return from whence we came, seeing the sights from a whole different angle in dusky pink hues before sunset.

Peru | Photo: Evan Sanchez

Photo: Cole Keister

8. Rovos Rail’s Namibia Safari, South Africa

A five-star rail safari running 3,500 kilometres through the desert lands of Namibia and down into South Africa, Rovo’s Rail’s Namibia Safari is nine days of luxury spanning some of Africa’s most interesting natural sights. You’ll start in Walvis Bay on the Namibian Atlantic Coast, hopping aboard to find a deluxe cabin with full ensuite and shower. More than comfortable for two, with 24-hour rooms service and complimentary toiletries, should you need, Rovos Rail does train hospitality to a T. One of the safer ways to travel southern Africa, the train will take you through diverse savannah and the dune-laden landscapes of Namib Desert before stopping off for a brief jaunt in the vibrant capital of Windhoek.

Taking initiative along the journey will allow for day trips around other attractions including Etoshi National Park or the Big Daddy of Sossusvlei desert (FYI, he’s a mountain), though staying aboard to witness watering-hole action from your carriage window is also a given. Upon crossing into South Africa through the Kalahari you’ll see the sights of the Northern Cape and Fish River Canyon before hitting Kimberley, the former diamond-rush town, home of the famous Big Hole mine. Finally, it’s at Pretoria that we disembark, the cultural heart of South Africa lined with lilac Jacaranda trees and flanked by the brilliant Magaliesberg Mountains.

Namibia | Photo: Eelco Bohtlingk

9. The Flåm Railway, Norway

Somewhat shorter, coming in at just an hour-long, Norway’s Flåm Railway manages to pack a whole lot into the journey. What the railway lacks in distance, it makes up for in height, rising a lofty 2,831 feet into the mountains of Western Norway, coming to rest at the hill station of Myrdal before returning to the pretty town of Flåm. While the destination is a literal and metaphorical high point, it’s the Flåm Valley sights along the way that make this trip what it is. Seen from vintage carriages, the old village scenery gives way to pristine river views and waterfalls which ice over in winter to impressive effect. Stop off at Kjosfossen waterfall for a brief photo sesh, looking out for mythical goddess Huldra dancing in the ravines in the warmer months.

Photo: Jennifer Latuperisa Andresen

Flåm, Norway | Photo: Abbilyn Zavgorodniaia

10. Trans-Siberian Express: Russia 

Our longest route so far and our finishing act is the Trans-Siberian Express which takes passengers a whopping 9,289 kilometres across the entire breadth of Russia, from Moscow to Vladivostok. Upon seeing Russian landscapes up close you’ll quickly come to terms with the scale and diversity of the place, gawking as you make your way over the Ural Mountains and through thick Siberian forest, crossing over the River Ob into Novosibirsk and curving around the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal. To see all of this from a second class cabin, expect to pay around $1,000USD, following in the footsteps of literary greats and meeting other enthusiastic travellers among the various dining carriages. An alternative if you don’t fancy the brittle chill of Siberia is to try the Trans-Mongolian Express which moves from the Mongol capital of Ulaanbaatar all the way through the Gobi Desert, where you’ll spot the snaking rock of the Great Wall long before arriving in Beijing. Both routes allow for various stop-offs along the way, following Moscow time (MSK) for the duration.

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Photo: Irem Dursun

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