The most romantic way to travel in Europe – and why it’s having a renaissance

Sleeper trains will stay here - Moment RF

Sleeper trains will stay here – Moment RF

Snuggled up in clean, fresh sheets, reading by the light of your bunk as a steel wheel glides along the steel rail beneath you – the sleeper train has been Europe’s most romantic way to travel for over a century. Once common, since the 1990s they have been struggling in the shadow of low-cost airlines. Their lowest point was in 2016, when the largest operator, Deutsche Bahn, pulled the plug on the City Night Line sleeper network, saying it was impossible to make sleeper trains run commercially.

However, a much smaller Austrian operator stepped in and took a huge risk. The ÖBB (Österreichische Bundesbahnen) bought Deutsche Bahn’s sleeping cars, took over many of its routes and launched Nightjet, its own night service. The gamble paid off. ÖBB is currently the largest sleeper operator in Europe and the Nightjet network is in the black. As climate-conscious travelers increasingly seek a time-efficient alternative to flying, the ÖBB has carefully expanded its sleeper routes, bringing back sleeper railroads from Vienna to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Berlin, and from Amsterdam to Zurich. They often leave full.

The ÖBB is now investing in new trains, and last September I was at the Siemens factory in Vienna when the first of 33 all-new Nightjets was unveiled to the media. These sleek new trains feature toilets and showers in all single and double sleeper cars, traditional four-berth couchettes for families and friends, and innovative individual “mini-suites” reminiscent of Japanese capsule hotels for those who want a bed and privacy on a budget.

Nightjet train in Amsterdam - AFP

Nightjet train in Amsterdam – AFP

ÖBB is not the only operator restoring sleepers. France has reintroduced night trains from Paris to Nice and Lourdes. Italy orders new sleeper trains. Start-up operator European Sleeper is promising a new overnight train from Brussels and Amsterdam to Berlin from late May 2023, perfect for an overnight journey from London to the German capital. And just days before the event in Vienna, I was riding the inaugural departure of the new Hamburg-Stockholm sleeper, commissioned by the Swedish government to provide a time-efficient rail link between Western Europe and the homeland flygskam (“flight shame”).

It was not without its initial problems: there is a lack of rolling stock to extend the night service, and refurbished sleeping cars were not ready in time. But the couchettes were comfortable, my traveling companion and I chatted over wine until midnight, slept well, and woke up in the sun-drenched Swedish countryside before we pulled into Stockholm on time. It reminded me why I love sleepers and why I’m glad they stay here. A much nicer experience than flying with a fraction of the emissions, and because they leave in the evening and arrive the next morning, they take fewer hours in the day than flying. And bunk beds on the train, what’s not to like?

Here are eight of the best night lines – two in the UK and five outside.

Fall asleep in London, wake up in Cornwall

Imagine your favorite Cornish guesthouse on wheels. Leaving Paddington Station before midnight daily except Saturday, Night Riviera offers cozy single and double rooms, a cozy lounge car and great staff. Wake up at Truro Cathedral and St Michael’s Mount before you drive into sunny Penzance.

Details: From £114.90 for a single room, £104.90 per person for twin beds (gwr.com).

Fall asleep in London, wake up in the West Highlands

Caledonian Sleeper departs London Euston at 21:00 Monday to Friday and 21:15 Sunday to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Enjoy haggis, neeps, and tatties in the lounge as you exit the Big Smoke, then wake up to gnarled oaks, bubbling burns, and deer moving away from the train. The Caledonian Double even has a double bed, toilet and shower.

Details: From £140 for a single room, £170 for a twin room (sleeper.scot).

caledonian sleeper trains - Peter Devlin/ DevlinPhoto ltd

caledonian sleeper trains – Peter Devlin/ DevlinPhoto ltd

Fall asleep in Paris, wake up in Nice (or Cannes)

The overnight Intercités, today’s incarnation of the legendary Train Bleu, leaves Paris Austerlitz at 21:20, with first-class couchettes with four berths and second-class couchettes with six berths. Wake up to rocky promontories, yacht-filled bays, and millionaire villas as the train winds its way along the Côte d’Azur to reach Cannes at 08:38 and Nice at 09:08.

Details: From €29 (£25) in a Second Class couchette, €69 (£60) in a First Class couchette (sncf-connect.com).

A couchette on a train from Paris to Nice - AFP

A couchette on a train from Paris to Nice – AFP

Fall asleep in Paris, wake up in Salzburg

Take the Eurostar train at 14:31 from London to Paris Nord and walk to Gare de l’Est. The Sleeping Nightjet leaves Paris Est at 19:58 on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays and arrives in Salzburg at 07:26, with four- and six-person couchettes and single, double and triple sleepers, some with shower and toilet.

Details: Eurostar from £52 one way (eurostar.com). Nightjet from €59.90 (£52) with couchette or €159.90 (£139) single bed with breakfast (oebb.at).

night train Vienna Paris - Getty

night train Vienna Paris – Getty

Fall asleep in Milan, wake up in Sicily

Western Europe’s longest sleeper train, the InterCity Notte to Sicily, leaves the splendid Milan Centrale station at 20:10 every night, with sleeping cars and couchettes to Palermo, Catania and Syracuse, arriving the following afternoon. The train is transferred to a ferry to cross the Strait of Messina to Sicily, a unique experience.

Details: From €39.90 (£35) in a 4-berth couchette or €89.90 (£78) in a single bed (trenitalia.com).

Fall asleep in Brussels, wake up in Vienna

Depart London by Eurostar at 15:04 for Brussels arriving at 18:05. The Sleeping Nightjet leaves Brussels at 19:32 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, arriving in Vienna at 09:19, with four- and six-person couchettes and single, double and triple sleepers, some with shower and toilet.

Details: Eurostar from £52 one way (eurostar.com). Nightjet from €59.90 (£52) with couchette or €159.90 (£139) single bed with breakfast (oebb.at).

night train travel - Harald Eisenberger

night train travel – Harald Eisenberger

Fall asleep in Hamburg, wake up in Stockholm

Introduced on September 1 last year, the SJ EuroNight train leaves Hamburg Altona at 21:55 every day and arrives in central Stockholm at 09:55 the next morning. It has four- and six-person couchettes, single and double sleeping places will be added at a later date. In Stockholm, the amazing Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se) is worth a trip alone.

Details: From €44.90 (£39) in a six-seater bunk, €69.90 (£61) in a four-seater (sj.se).

Fall asleep in Brussels, wake up in Berlin

From 25 May 2023, new rail operator European Sleeper will offer an overnight train from Brussels and Amsterdam to Berlin, with an easy connection from London via Eurostar.

Depart London by Eurostar at 15:04 for Brussels arriving at 18:05. The new European Sleeper train will depart Brussels at 19:22 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, arriving in Berlin at 06:48, with four- and six-person couchettes and single, double and triple sleepers. He will return from Berlin to Brussels on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Details: Eurostar from £52 one way, www.eurostar.com. European Sleeper from €79 with couchette or €159 in a single bed with breakfast (www.europeansleeper.eu).

Do you like traveling around Europe on sleeper trains? Share your experiences in the comments below

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