Tunnel through the Alps: Semmering railway
Europe’s first standard-gauge mountain rail line, the Semmering – which connects Vienna with southwestern Austria – became the first transport route to be designated a Unesco heritage site. Completed in 1854, the line crosses 16 viaducts and passes through 15 tunnels, and provides a breathtaking vision of the Austrian Alps as it clings to the icy mountainside and sweeps above the snowy valley floor thousands of feet below. It is a world-class experience that costs around £38, for a return ticket from Vienna to Semmering, and can further be enjoyed with a two-course meal with wine and coffee for an extra £20.
Steam into 2020: North Yorkshire Moors rail
One of Britain’s finest preserved railways, the North Yorkshire Moors line runs from Pickering to Grosmont over the North Yorkshire dales to join Network Rail’s line to Whitby. This season, the railway is operating New Year specials on 29 December and 1 January. Starting at Pickering, otherwise known as Gateway to the Moors, the steam trains trundle past snow-covered hills and valleys before dropping you at Whitby for two hours to enjoy the seaside. Visit Whitby Abbey and graveyard, which feature in the novel Dracula (Bram Stoker was a visitor). Then, as the winter gloom gathers, you head back to cosy Pickering.
• Return tickets from £31
Caledonia on ice: West Highland line
Britain’s most beautiful rail line, from Glasgow to Fort William and on to Mallaig, is not just a summer treat. In winter, the line heads through a gloriously austere, icy white landscape and crosses snow-covered Rannoch Moor. The line’s rolling stock is old, drafty and offers little more than crisps and tea in terms of catering. By contrast the Caledonian Sleeper has introduced double beds and showers. Although beset by introductory problems, the sleepers are now operating smoothly. Get on at Euston, have a whisky and wake up 12 hours later for breakfast as you sweep through the Highlands.
• Sleepers from £140, sleeper.scot
Three-in-one: scenic Switzerland
Combine Switzerland’s three greatest rail journeys in one golden trip across the Alps from London St Pancras. The week-long voyage starts with the spectacular Jungfrau railway that takes you to its mountaintop station, the highest in Europe at 11,333ft. From here you join the Glacier Express that climbs up the Rhône Valley on a narrow-gauge line – past frozen lakes and frosted peaks – towards Chur. The last leg of your journey on the Swiss Big Three is completed on the Bernina Express that takes you to the village of Poschiavo and then back to Chur via some of the most spectacular winter mountain vistas you can experience by train.
• Tickets from £1,675, planetrail.co.uk
Snooze until spring: Moscow to Nice sleeper
Track the change from winter to spring in under 48 hours as you head from freezing Russia down to the Côte d’Azur. The service was used by aristocrats to enjoy the Mediterranean until it was halted by the Russian Revolution – but then restored in 2010. You can choose a VIP suite, twin sleeper, or four-berth tourist room. After a night onboard you reach the Czech border before heading to Vienna and then Milan. After your second night, you reach Nice – just in time for breakfast on the Promenade des Anglais.
• One-way tickets in a luxury twin couchette around £350 per person. Trains run once a week, pass.rzd.ru
The polar express: Nordland railway
The Nordland line runs up Norway’s west coast from Trondheim, for 450 miles, to Bodø, just inside the Arctic Circle. The early morning train, with reclining seats and huge observation windows, sweeps past fjords, paper mills, frozen waterfalls and painted wooden houses in towns called Grong, Dunderland, and – best of all – Hell. By late afternoon, you pass an ugly-looking dome: the Polarsirkelsenteret (Arctic Circle Centre), which means you’ve reached the Land of the Midnight Sun. The line then plunges westward into Bodø. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch the Northern Lights.
• Tickets from £49.50, vy.no
Shopping on a Pullman: Canterbury and carols
The swish way to do your Christmas shopping. Enjoy brunch on the outward journey from London on white linen table tops in vintage Pullman coaches. At Canterbury you are escorted to the cathedral for a carol concert with time later for festive shopping. The return journey features a champagne reception and a four-course dinner. Seats available for 17 December from £457 (belmond.com)
Narrow-gauge, thick snow: Harz line, Germany
Winter is the perfect time to travel on the Harz line as it ascends Brocken mountain and joins one of the world’s most spectacular networks of narrow-gauge steam lines. The route is thick with snow and you spend three days criss-crossing the area and exploring the medieval market towns of Goslarm, Quedlinburg, and others.
• Seven-day trips from London from £1,395, greatrail.com
A luxurious New Year: Danube Express
Celebrate New Year in style on the Golden Eagle Danube Express on a round journey from Budapest through the Austrian Alps and across Central Europe. Spend five nights on board (and three in hotels) as you pass through a series of stunning cities as you loop into snow-encrusted Austria: first Graz and then Vienna before you head on to Prague, Kosice and finally back to Budapest. The highlight is a New Year’s Eve gala dinner at Vienna’s city hall with a performance by the Wiener Hofball Orchestra.
• Departs 28 December, £7,895pp for a deluxe compartment, goldeneagleluxurytrains.com. Bookings now open for 2021
Escape the snow: head to sunny Siracuse
If winter is just too dispiriting, the 8.31 Eurostar from London will get you to Paris in time for the TGV to Milan. After a night there, take the high-speed train to Rome, then the sleeper to Sicily. You breakfast on the train as it heads south past Etna on one side and views of the Mediterranean on the other. From Siracuse, visit the Greek temples at Agrigento, enjoy the glories of Alcantara National Park – or loll about in the winter sun while Northern Europe shivers.
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips