A European tour from London to Paris via Vienna on the Eurostar and Nightjet sleeper train
A cab to the airport at 4am. Endless lines at security. And at the end of it all, a cramped, stuffy plane ride.
It’s easy to feel that there’s no romance left in travel, but across Europe there has been a shift in thinking, a new vision for how we travel: a series of overnight train routes connecting cities as distant as Paris and Vienna, Hamburg and Stockholm.
There are numerous advantages to hopping on a train rather than queuing for a flight. Besides the clear environmental benefits, there’s also the fact that boarding a train in one city, sipping a glass of cheer as it eases its way into the night and waking in the heart of another place, has enduring appeal for incurable romantics.
UK-based operator Byway has become a one-stop shop for these slow travel enthusiasts, offering tailor-made trips across the continent, with sleeper services, hotels and connections all included, making what could be a logistical headache utterly seamless. Travellers even get a dedicated WhatsApp contact for any queries.
In 2016, Austria’s national rail operator, OBB, took on old German rolling stock. And since then, for anyone with the inclination to romanticise their journey, its Nightjet services have become the perfect way to travel across Europe.
First-class destination: Joe Minihane takes a slow travel route from London to Paris via Brussels, Frankfurt and Vienna (pictured) with the UK-based tour operator Byway
One of its most idyllic trips connects Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof station with Paris’s Gare de l’Est, a 14-hour ride which leaves the Austrian capital as night falls and arrives in the 10th arrondissement in time for a mid-morning espresso and croissant.
If you’re planning an entire European jaunt with your feet firmly on the ground, Byway’s route to Vienna first delivers you to Brussels via the Eurostar.
In the Belgian capital there’s time for rocket-fuel-strength coffee in the delightful Kaffabar, just a ten-minute stroll from Midi station, before boarding the Deutsche Bahn Ice high-speed train to Frankfurt for three hours of dreamy contemplation as the Low Countries glide by.
That’s all before a night in the hip 25 Hours Hotel, a short hop from the main station (its bar also serves up some of the best Israeli mezze this side of Jerusalem). The following morning, the route from Frankfurt to Vienna passes through eastern Germany’s brooding pine forests, allowing thoughts to drift to Gothic fairytales.
It may take much longer than flying, but that’s the point. Travel like this is the apotheosis of the journey being more important than the destination – and it’s far more enjoyable than marvelling at the clouds from 39,000ft.
And when darkness descends, a good book and the chance to stretch your legs and grab a glass of wine from the dining car proves far more preferable to the mid-air urge for a gin and tonic in a plastic cup.
By the time you arrive in Vienna you feel a sense of achievement in having come so far without taking to the skies.
Vienna is a city made for flaneurs – those who love aimless walking – an art seemingly lost in the age of the smartphone. So following a superb dinner at Filipino restaurant Lolo & Lola, and a night spent sleeping off the day’s train ride in the opulent Josefshof am Rathaus Hotel, it’s time to head to Innere Stadt, the old town.
Joe recommends visiting Mumok, Vienna’s home of cutting-edge modern art
Above is Amalienbad, Vienna’s stunning Art Deco indoor swimming pool
Joe says you must stroll through the Swiss Gate of Hofberg palace in Vienna
This area is chock full of some of Europe’s best-preserved architecture, and ripe for a morning’s exploration. Stroll through the Swiss Gate of Hofburg palace, past the spires of St Stephen’s Cathedral, and take the time to look up and marvel. Throw in scrambled eggs at the delightful Kleines Cafe and you’ve got the makings of the perfect start to the day.
The good news is that Vienna’s walkable centre and excellent U Bahn and tram system mean you can squeeze in plenty more before the 7.40pm departure to Paris.
Take your pick from world-class art galleries, such as the Albertina and Mumok, the city’s home of cutting-edge modern art, and you’ll still have time for a swim at Amalienbad. This spectacular example of Art Deco architecture, replete with glass roof, is a 15-minute U Bahn ride from the centre, Stephansplatz. Dating to the early 1920s, when Vienna’s local government went on a fabulously idealistic building spree, its pool and saunas are the ideal way to ease off the day and ready yourself for your cross-continental journey.
All Nightjet tickets arranged by Byway come with access to Austrian Railways’ lounge at Vienna Hauptbahnhof. Sitting high above the concourse, it looks out on to the huge departure board, its distant destinations adding to the excitement. There are trains to Rome, Berlin and Prague – but it’s the train to Paris that’s calling.
In the Austrian capital, Joe boards a Nightjet sleeper train headed for Paris
Pictured is one of the Couchettes cabins on a Nightjet train
Joe explores the colourful streets of Montmartre in Paris (pictured), before heading back to London on the Eurostar
This three-night trip from London to Brussels, Frankfurt, Vienna and Paris, including hotels and sleeper service, costs £806pp based on two travellers sharing a room (byway.travel).
A guard takes your ticket and ushers you into your berth, which is your own space for the duration of the trip. Here you’ll find three spacious seats and a wash basin, with three bunks that can be folded down by staff once you decide it’s time to turn in.
As the train thunders out of the Austrian capital and you stretch out your legs, it’s impossible not to feel as if you’ve stepped out of time into a more languid way of getting from A to B.
The wide, cosy beds and the motion of the train clattering along help lull you to sleep. And when you wake and pull open the blinds on to the vineyards of France, there’s still an hour or so to sip coffee and devour fresh bread and cheese before pulling into Gare de l’Est. You’ll then have plenty of time for a walk around the artistic district of Montmartre before catching the Eurostar back to London.
It may be a slower way to get around, but seeing Europe like this, all booked and without any hassle, feels like the perfect way to step back in time – with all the convenience of the future.
The jet-free way to explore the cream of Europe
Those who want to explore more of central Europe can take OBB’s overnight service from Austria’s Graz to Berlin, which runs via Vienna.
In just under 15 hours it then makes its way through Czech Republic and Poland before finally swinging west into Germany.
These are the same cars you’ll find on the Vienna-to-Paris Nightjet train, with options ranging from a basic couchette to a private berth with your own shower.
You’ll be offered a glass of sparkling wine as you board and a continental breakfast before pulling into Berlin Hauptbahnhof, one of Europe’s finest railway stations. Sleeper cabins cost from £120pp (nightjet.com).
Overnight trains aren’t just about avoiding flights. Belmond’s luxury Orient Express between Paris and Venice is a five-star hotel on wheels, featuring three restaurants and an invitation for passengers to dress to impress.
With a four-course dinner, continental breakfast and lunch served as you wind your way south, this is about as opulent as train travel gets. The Art Deco cabins come with full-sized beds and concierge service. Costs from £3,530 for a cabin based on two sharing (belmond.com).
A flight-free epic journey between London and Sicily can be tailored depending on whether you love arts and culture, food or are travelling with children.
It takes a series of trains from London to Rome via Paris and Turin.
You then board the spectacular sleeper service to Palermo – it is loaded on to a ferry to travel across the Strait of Messina.
Take a slow ride around the island on local services before heading north from Syracuse in Sicily and then on to Milan. The 14-day trip costs from £1,813pp (byway.travel).
Gilded glamour: A suite on the Orient Express, ‘a five-star hotel on wheels’
Europe’s coolest new overnight service operates between Hamburg and Stockholm, travelling north via Odense and Copenhagen before crossing over to Malmo. Operated by SJ, Sweden’s national train carrier, this is a great way to get into the heart of Scandinavia without having to fly. Services have been timed to coincide with Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed Ice trains, meaning you can make connections to and from Berlin, Frankfurt and Cologne.
The latter is well connected with Brussels for Eurostar services to and from the UK.
Second-class sleeper compartments start from £132pp (sj.se).
Czech Railways offers an overnight service from Prague to Zurich – heading west to Frankfurt before turning south to Switzerland. Taking 14 hours, it’s a joint operation, teaming up with OBB Austrian Railways and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn.
There’s the promise of new rolling stock and more comfortable beds this year.
A private, single sleeper starts from £120pp (cd.cz).
Overnight services aren’t just about exploring mainland Europe. The Caledonian Sleeper service from London to Scotland has been fully revamped, with improved cabins and a revamped restaurant car.
You can choose to head to Glasgow, Inverness or – for some of the best views – Fort William.
On this route you’ll wake up overlooking the majestic Loch Lomond and have the chance to view the wild expanse of Rannoch Moor as well as the dazzling Munros of the Highlands.
Caledonian Sleeper starts from £345 for a double cabin for one, rising to £410 for two (sleeper.scot).