Memorable Christmas by rail
There are many benefits of taking the train during holiday travel. Ride along and visit with family and friends without having to coordinate cars or navigate crowded roads. Enjoy the beautiful scenery. Tend to infants and toddlers without frequent pit stops. Save yourself the money for fuel, the time of travel, and the stress and frustration of finding parking. Partake in the mulled wines and holiday brew at Christmas markets without the need of a designated driver. These are but a few of the practical reasons for taking a railway between Christmas excursions.
Riding a train can also be a romantic, nostalgic and historic part of your holiday festivities. Many historical railway systems are still in operation in Europe, offering special holiday excursions. Ride on the world’s oldest railway or the world’s oldest suspended train. Take nostalgic steam engines through winter wonderlands. Or, travel to some of the most beautiful settings for some of Europe’s most enchanting Christmas markets.
Read on for tips on navigating the train system, and start mapping fun holiday destinations. The journey is more than just point A to point B; when you ride by rail, it’s half the fun.
How to ride the rails
Europe’s rail system is exceptional, and its population relies heavily on them. High-speed trains such as the U.K.’s Eurostar and Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB) Intercity Express (ICE) cut travel time and provide comfortable, even luxurious riding conditions. In fact, Germany’s rail system is considered one of the best and most efficient in the world. The trains are clean, comfortable and usually on time. And, every major town and most of the smaller towns along the way have rail stops.
There are many ticket and pass options, from individual, one-way tickets to passes for a day, week, month or specific number of days during select time periods. You can buy group and family passes or passes that cover states, countries, regions or all of Europe. Tickets are also priced a lot like airline flights; they fluctuate with supply and demand. They increase during peak travel and are less expensive if bought in advance. To keep from going into too much about purchasing tickets, visit www.gettingaroundgermany.info and www.seat61.com. Both explain the German and U.K. rail systems and other public transportation methods. You can figure out how to buy passes for rail, ferry and bus lines, etc. They also provide tips on changing trains, navigating busy metro stations, best and worst times to travel and more.
Where to ride
Here are a few sample destinations that could make your 2016 Christmas the most memorable yet:
Germany’s Black Forest - Take a weekend trip to Konstanz (Lake Constance), traveling along the Baden Black Forest Railway. This 93-mile, historic railway runs through the heart of the Black Forest from Offenburg to Singen; here it connects to the Upper Rhine Valley Railway for Konstanz. Not only is the railway one of the oldest mountain lines in the world, it’s also one of the most beautiful. The train ascends more than 2,000 feet as it passed through 39 tunnels and across two viaducts. Stop at Gengenbach, a hidden treasure. Besides the romantic charm of the medieval town square, half-timbered homes, boutique hotels and intimate restaurants, Gengenbach’s 200-year-old city hall transforms into what is claimed as the world’s largest Advent calendar. Then, head toward Hornberg, Triberg and St. Georgen, the most breathtaking part of the trip. Have your camera ready.
The beautiful Lake Constance lies within Germany, Italy and Switzerland, and provides year-round entertainment ideas. The city’s Christmas market attracts more than 400,000 visitors. Stretching to the harbor, its 130+ booths provide diverse wares and food from various artists within the Upper Rhine Valley. Board the docked Christmas Ship for a continuation of market booths.
During the week of Christmas, stop by Triberg’s Christmas Magic festival. More than 1 million lights create an enchanting Christmas village in the forest Dec. 25-30. The program includes singing, dancing, musical performances and more. Visit www.triberger-weihnachtszauber.com for details.
Saxony by steam - Saxony’s steam railway line is the largest in Germany, and connects several treasured holiday regions. Ride the nostalgic Fichtelberg Railway from Cranzahl through the Ore Mountains to Oberwiesenthal. At 3,000 feet, Oberwiesenthal is Germany’s highest town and part of the Erzgebirge mining region, home of the world-famous, handcrafted Erzgebirge Christmas ornaments and decorations.
Harz Mountains by steam - The Harz Mountain region is the highest mountain range in northern Germany; Brocken, the tallest peak, is 3,743 feet above sea level. During the holidays, take a scenic ride to the summit on a narrow-gauge steam railway. The ride begins in Wernigerode and travels to the summit. Visit Wernigerode’s market before you leave. On the way, stop at Goslar’s market and Christmas Forest and Quedlinburg’s Christmas market; both towns are UNESCO world heritage sites, and their Christmas festivities reflect the history. For more information about Harz Mountains, accommodations and train service, visit this very informative site, www.thisisharz.com.
Wuppertal’s suspended Schwebebahn -After visiting Cologne’s wonderful markets, take a regional DB to Wuppertal. This beautiful little town has two Christmas markets connected by the historic Kaiserwagen, a suspended Schwebebahn; the unique system is the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world. The cars hang approximately 40 feet above the Wupper River, and the trip takes about 30 minutes. Kaiser Wilhelm II rode in the monorail’s inaugural trip before it opened to the public in 1901.
Special excursions beyond Germany
The original North Pole Express - Catch Tanfield Railway’s original North Pole Express through the Causey Valley in northeast England. The railway is the oldest railway in the world; the first line was constructed in 1725 as the Tanfield Waggonway, more than 75 years before steam engines. Hot drinks and mince pies are served in the tearoom during the four-hour ride to Santa’s Magic Grotto; sodas, snacks and a gift from Santa are for the kids. Trains for the North Pole leave from East Tanfield station, from the A6076 Sunniside to Stanley Road. For information, dates/times of departure and reservations, visit www.tanfieldrailway.co.uk.
The Glacier Express and Golden Pass through the Alps - For the ultimate winter wonderland experience, travel through the Alps in panoramic, glass-roofed rail cars.
The 7.5-hour Glacier Express passes through historic towns and 91 tunnels, crosses 291 bridges and climbs the 2,033-meter Oberalp Pass; you’ll probably hold your breath as the train clears the summit pass. But don’t close your eyes; it’s an exhilarating experience.
You’ll see Lucerne, Interlaken and Montreux on the Golden Pass; be sure to take the Jungfrau line to experience a once-in-a-lifetime view as you summit the Jungfrau. There are several tour companies across Germany, Switzerland, France and the U.K. that offer special tours for the region. Book soon because there are only a few trips made on the Glacier Express during the winter, and only one a day on the Golden Pass.
Hope you enjoyed these rail excursion ideas, and are well on your way to planning or booking your own.
For more great holiday ideas, including Christmas river cruises, see the links below: