The most romantic way to cross Europe, and why it's having a renaissance

·6-min read
sleeper trains europe rail journeys travel caledonian sleeper nightjet eurostar holidays overnight travel - Getty
sleeper trains europe rail journeys travel caledonian sleeper nightjet eurostar holidays overnight travel - Getty

Snuggling between crisp clean sheets, reading by the glow of your berth light as steel wheel swishes on steel rail beneath you – for over a century, the sleeper train has been the most romantic way to cross Europe. Once commonplace, they’ve struggled in the shadow of budget airlines since the 1990s. Their nadir came in 2016, when the largest operator, Deutsche Bahn (German railways), pulled the plug on its City Night Line sleeper network, claiming it was impossible to make sleeper trains work commercially.

However, a much smaller operator stepped in and took a huge risk: ÖBB (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, Austrian railways) bought DB’s sleeping-cars and took over many of its routes, rebranding them and its own sleeper routes 'Nightjet'. The gamble paid off. ÖBB is now the largest sleeper operator in Europe and the Nightjet network is in the black. As climate-conscious travellers increasingly seek a time-effective alternative to flying, ÖBB has cautiously expanded its sleeper routes, reinstating sleepers from Vienna to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Berlin and from Amsterdam to Zurich.

They often leave fully booked. ÖBB is now investing in new trains and earlier this month I was at the Siemens factory in Vienna when the first of 33 brand-new Nightjets was presented to the media. These smart new trains feature a toilet and shower in all one- and two-bed sleepers, 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.

ÖBB is not the only operator reinstating sleepers. France has restored overnight trains from Paris to Nice and Lourdes. Italy is ordering new sleeper trains. And just days before the event in Vienna I rode the inaugural departure of the new Hamburg-Stockholm sleeper, procured by the Swedish government to provide a time-effective rail link between western Europe and the home of Flygskam (‘flight shame’).

It was not without its teething problems: rolling stock to expand sleeper services is scarce and the refurbished sleeping cars weren’t ready in time. But the couchettes were comfortable, and my travel companion and I chatted over some wine until midnight, slept well, and woke to the sunlit Swedish countryside before rolling into the Swedish capital bang on time. It reminded me why I love sleepers and why I’m glad they’re here to stay. A far more enjoyable experience than a flight with a fraction of the emissions, and by leaving in the evening and arriving next morning they take up fewer daylight hours than flying. And bunk beds on a train, what’s not to like?

Here are seven of the best overnight lines – two in Britain and five beyond.

Fall asleep in London, wake up in Cornwall

Imagine your favourite Cornish B&B, on wheels. Leaving Paddington station before midnight daily except Saturdays, the Night Riviera has cosy one and two-bed rooms, a convivial lounge car and great staff. Wake to Truro Cathedral and St Michael’s Mount before pulling into sunny Penzance.

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

Fall asleep in London, wake up in the West Highlands

The Caledonian Sleeper leaves London Euston at 21:00 Monday-Friday and 21:15 on Sundays for Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Enjoy haggis, neeps and tatties in the lounge as you leave the Big Smoke, then wake to gnarled oak trees, bubbling burns and deer bounding away from the train. Caledonian Double rooms even boast a double bed, toilet and shower.

The details: From £140 for a single room, £170 for a twin (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)

Intercités overnight, today’s incarnation of the fabled Train Bleu, leaves Paris Austerlitz at 21:20, with first-class four-berth couchettes and second-class six-berth couchettes. Wake to rocky headlands, yacht-filled bays and millionaires’ villas as the train snakes along the Cote d’Azur to reach Cannes at 08:38, Nice at 09:08.

The details: From €29 (£25) in a second-class couchette, €69 (£60) in a first-class couchette, (sncf-connect.com).

Fall asleep in Paris, wake up in Salzburg

Take the 14:31 Eurostar from London to Paris Nord and stroll to the Gare de l’Est. A Nightjet sleeper leaves Paris Est at 19:58 on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays arriving in Salzburg 07:26, with four- and six-berth couchettes and one-, two- and three-bed sleepers, some with shower and toilet.

The details: Eurostar from £52 one-way (eurostar.com). Nightjet from €59.90 (£52) with couchette, or €159.90 (£139) in a single sleeper, breakfast included (oebb.at).

nightjet train vienna paris - Getty
nightjet train vienna paris - Getty

Fall asleep in Milan, wake up in Sicily

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

The details: From €39.90 (£35) in a four-berth couchette or €89.90 (£78) in a single-bed sleeper (trenitalia.com).

Fall asleep in Brussels, wake up in Vienna

Leave London on the 15:04 Eurostar to Brussels, arriving 18:05. A Nightjet sleeper leaves Brussels at 19:32 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, arriving in Vienna at 09:19, with four- and six-berth couchettes and one-, two- and three-bed sleepers, some with shower and toilet.

The details: Eurostar from £52 one-way (eurostar.com). Nightjet from €59.90 (£52) with couchette or €159.90 (£139) in a single sleeper, breakfast included (oebb.at).

nightjet trains travel - Harald Eisenberger
nightjet trains travel - Harald Eisenberger

Fall asleep in Hamburg, wake up in Stockholm

Introduced on September 1 this year, the SJ EuroNight train leaves Hamburg Altona at 21:55 daily, arriving at Stockholm Central at 09:55 next morning. It has four- and six-berth couchettes, one- and two-bed sleepers will be added later. In Stockholm, the amazing Vasa Museum (vasamuseet.se) is worth the journey on its own.

The details: From €44.90 (£39) in a six-berth couchette, €69.90 (£61) in a four-berth (sj.se).

Do you enjoy travelling across Europe by sleeper trains? Please share your experiences in the comments below