Italy’s Scenic Routes by Train 🇮🇹

Italy, which boasts a vast national rail network, is well known for its modern ‘Le Frecce’ high-speed services; but what about those people who like to take it slowly and enjoy the scenery that a train journey has to offer? The fastest journeys aren’t always the most picturesque. Here is a compilation of ten of the routes which offer splendid views across the country, that should not be missed.

1. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Florence 🇮🇹 (the slower route)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Regionale | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to LuccaRight Hand Side (recommended)
Lucca to FlorenceLeft Hand Side (recommended)
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Firenze SMN via Lucca and Pistoia

Pisa to Florence is served by fast and frequent trains departing in each direction at least every half an hour with journey times that take anywhere between 51 minutes to 1 hour 21 minutes on the most direct route. However, departing four times a day, there are direct regional services with much less attractive journey times for the same end-to-end journey which most passengers probably avoid on this basis. Taking more than 2 hours, there is a route which offers a much more spectacular landscape to enjoy than the faster route that travels via Lucca and Pistoia offering green, mountainous terrain and picture perfect villages. A true investment of time.

2. Pisa 🇮🇹 to Genova 🇮🇹 via Cinque Terre (towards Côte d’Azur, France 🇫🇷)

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciabianca (ETR.460)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Pisa to GenovaRight Hand Side – Mountains and Villages of the Cinque Terre
Left Hand Side – Ligurian Sea
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Pisa Centrale to Genova Piazza Principe via La Spezia

This route is a real treat for scenery lovers. Trains glide past (and some call at) the five fishing and wine-making villages of the famous Cinque Terre, now home to much tourism. Think lush green mountainsides and steep-drop rocky coves on the Ligurian Sea glistening in the sunshine. Idyllic.

Please be aware that there are a number of tunnels on this route especially after La Spezia Centrale, so it’s a case of ‘blink and you miss it’ scenery and quite tricky to take shots with the camera, but fantastic when you do snap up a glimmer of sea or lush mountainous terrain.

If you’re doing the whole route, InterCity and Frecciabianca trains operate and are recommended, these offer greater comfort but don’t call at the all five villages of the Cinque Terre. There are regional trains available too with an easy change of train required at La Spezia Centrale.

3. Naples 🇮🇹 to Siracusa 🇮🇹 via the west coast

Onboard Trenitalia’s InterCity Notte (Deluxe)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Agropoli to Villa San GiovanniLeft Hand Side – Tyrrhenian Sea and Italian Villages (recommended)
Right Hand Side – Views of the Apennines and Countryside
Messina to SiracusaLeft Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a journey on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Sicily in the morning from Sapri and following the route to Sicily in daylight

Italy offers two impressive rail routes which spans the west and east coasts of the mainland from top to bottom. A particular scenic part of the west coast route (in addition to the Cinque Terre route mentioned above) is the leg south of Naples towards Villa San Giovanni – the town where passenger trains board a ferry to Sicily. This is a must-do trip in its own right. At the time of writing this is the only passenger train that boards a ferry as part of its scheduled journey in Europe.

Here is a link to a special trip report on the InterCity Notte from Milano Centrale to Siracusa which takes in the sights of this very route and the unique experience of boarding the ferry.

The route from Agropoli to Villa San Giovanni hugs the west coast and offers irresistible views to look at across the Tyrrhenian Sea as well as some moments of steep-sided mountains as well as towns and villages popping up en-route – all on the coast side of the train. Delightful.

After the ferry crossing and landing in Sicily, switch sides for more sea views – this time of the Ionian Sea. Alternatively stay put to marvel at the incredible active volcano of Mount Etna – that has a long history of destruction.

4. West-to-east: Naples 🇮🇹 to Foggia 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.485)| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Naples to CasertaRight Hand Side – Mount Vesuvius
Caserta to FoggiaLeft Hand Side – mountainside
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Naples to Termoli via Caserta, Ariano Irpino and Foggia

One of Italy’s jaw-dropping cross-country routes. On this journey you pass Mount Vesuvius in the distance on your right and then cut through the Apennine mountain range with beautiful views. The fastest journey times are as little as 2 hours 30 minutes with a change of train required from a regional train at Caserta and a Frecciargento train from there to Foggia, but important to check before travel as some journey times are considerably longer and involve a bus.

5. Italy’s East Coast 🇮🇹

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciargento (ETR.700) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Foggia to RiminiRight Hand Side – Adriatic Sea (recommended)
Left Hand Side – green fields, some hills
Recommendations based on a journey on the route from Foggia to Bologna Centrale via Termoli and Rimini

Often favoured less compared to its west coast counterpart, Italy’s east coast should not be overlooked as it offers fantastic sea views of the Adriatic Sea for almost all of the journey from north to south. It is served by high speed, high comfort Frecciargento and Frecciabianca trains – ideal for relaxing in a large, comfortable seat, enjoying a glass of wine and getting lost in a good book.

6. Verona 🇮🇹 to Bolzano 🇮🇹 (towards Austria 🇦🇹) on the Brenner Railway

Onboard Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa (ETR.500) and DB-ÖBB EuroCity | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Journey LegViews
Verona to BolzanoLeft Hand Side – mountains and most of the River Adige (recommended)
Right Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Verona Porta Nuova to Bolzano Boden

The advertising poster at Verona Porta Nuova station doesn’t need to try hard to sell this journey… simply stunning and my favourite Italian railway route to date. This route is the gateway from Italy to Austria and the excitement continues long past Bolzano, where it reaches the border of the two countries at the Brenner Pass. This is the steepest point on the Italian and Austrian standard gauge rail networks at an ear popping 1,371 metres.

Upon departure from Verona, the train soon becomes engulfed by spectacular mountain scenery on both sides. And if that wasn’t enough you can also be confident you are heading in the right direction as the route follows the River Adige for the entire journey to Bolzano.

Please find a link to a special video featuring this journey onboard the Frecciarossa 500 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

7. Milan 🇮🇹 to Domodossola 🇮🇹 (towards Switzerland 🇨🇭)

Onboard Trenitalia’s EuroCity (ETR.610) | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️

Journey LegViews
Milano to DomodossolaRight Hand Side – views of Lake Maggiore
Left Hand Side – mountains
Recommendations based on a northbound journey from Milano Centrale to Domodossola

One of two routes from Italy to Switzerland is this route via the border station of Domodossola. This is the most direct route across the border from Milan with trains travelling to the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva via the Simplon Tunnel and Brig. The full route is served by comfortable and modern looking pointy-nosed pendolino trains.

Soon after departure you’re spoiled for choice for views on both sides of the train, from views of Lake Maggiore on your right and mountains on your left of the Ossola Valley with views of the Italian Alps. Bring your own food and drink as the bar on the train doesn’t open until Switzerland.

8. Circumvesuviana 🇮🇹, Naples Circular around Mount Vesuvius

Onboard Ferrovia Circumvesuviana FE220 and ETR211 | Scenery: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️✖️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Garibaldi to Barra

Yes that’s right – this is one of two railways in Italy that travels around the full circumference of a volcano. An interesting, but a scary concept! This one is called the Circumvesuviana and with its metro style operation, it serves local communities around Mount Vesuvius.

The full route isn’t designed for tourists as such, but you can enjoy views of Mount Vesuvius by sitting on the right hand side when travelling clockwise and tie this in with a visit to Pompeii or Herculaneum, which both have nearby stations with a frequent service. You will need to change trains at Poggiomarino to complete the full circle.

Please be aware to complete the full circumference you can purchase a 180 minute ticket for €4,90, however if you break the journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum then separate tickets must be purchased – there is no ‘day’ ticket.

9. Circumetnea 🇮🇹, Catania Circular around Mount Etna

Onboard Ferrovia Circumetnea| Scenery: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️✖️ | Comfort: ⭐️⭐️✖️✖️✖️

Journey LegViews
Catania to Giarre Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

The second railway in Italy that circles a volcano is around Mount Etna in Sicily. This impressive narrow gauge railway, the Ferrovia Circumetnea, is one of those journeys where you’re rewarded for your patience, as the most scenic part of the journey is along the routes most northern point. You can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise on this route, but best to check times in advance as there is a change of train required at Randazzo and limited journey opportunities for travelling the full circle. There is also a required journey on the mainline from Riposto to Catania (separate ticket required), which also has scenic views of the Ionian Sea.

Few people use the route to travel the full circle, but if you do it’s probably the best €10,30 you will spend for 4 hours and 30 minutes of travel. I found it to be mainly locals travelling from A to B on the first section of the Ferrovia Circumetnea from Catania to Randazzo and I was the only customer travelling for the Randazzo to Riposto leg, the most scenic part. A fantastic experience.

10. Tirano 🇮🇹 to St Moritz 🇨🇭

It would be rude to exclude this spectacular railway journey across the Swiss Alps, the route designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This route is the more touristy route taking longer in journey time but with delightful scenery to match. Pictures will be coming soon (once I’ve been on the journey to take them!).

Have I missed any scenic railway routes in Italy? Let me know your recommendations!

This article was first published in January 2021.

Europe’s Only Train-on-a-Ferry route – Mainland Italy 🇮🇹 to Sicily 🇮🇹 direct

Italy is well known for its expansive railway network, but one intercity route stands out as being particularly unique. There are trains that start in the major cities of Milan and Rome and travel for up to 20 hours direct to stations in Sicily – terminating in Siracusa on the south coast and Palermo in the north. Trains on these routes board a ferry as part of the trip and are the only passenger trains in Europe to board a ferry as part of the journey. A truly unique travelling experience.

I opted for the InterCity Notte, or night, from Milano Centrale to Siracusa, mainly for the opportunity to witness the ferry crossing during sociable hours and to take advantage of a longer journey duration and distance that is rarity for European sleeper trains. This train offers sleeping cars and couchette cars where I opted for the former.

I made a video of the journey that includes the process of the train boarding and leaving the ferry crossing the Messina Strait, the excellent coastal views you can expect as well as the accommodation and service onboard.

The trip took place during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel was permitted from the UK to Italy.

This article was first published in December 2020.

Japan 🇯🇵: an introduction by rail 🚆 – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Niigata, Tokyo

This was my first time visiting Japan. A beautiful country with a welcoming culture and an inspiring transport network! The one thing I couldn’t wait to try was the Shinkansen, or bullet train, that Japan is so highly renowned for. Rest assured, there would be plenty of train trips planned in this jam-packed week-long visit.

My Japan premiere (and therefore this blog post) features:

  • Flying with LOT Airways London City Airport to/from Tokyo Narita Airport via Warsaw Chopin Airport
  • Tokyo Narita Airport to Central Tokyo onboard the Narita Express
  • Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen Hikari
  • Exploring Kyoto including Hozu-gawa river boat ride
  • Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura
  • Exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima
  • Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen Kodama and Limited Express Yakumo
  • Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train
  • Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen Max Toki

London City (LCY) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

Staying over at London City airport, we kicked things off early for our Premium Economy experience through to Tokyo with LOT Polish Airlines.

Our first leg departed London City at 8am sharp, taking two and half hours to Warsaw Chopin airport onboard an Embraer-190 plane. This had the same type of seats and legroom for all classes, which was a little cramped, however we were treated to our own private cabin with Business Class customers separated from the Economy cabin by a curtain drawn shortly after departure.

Peculiarly, myself and my friend Ed, sat in row five, were the only customers travelling in Premium Economy. In the front row, a gentleman was travelling Business Class to Israel.

Upon departure, our dedicated Cabin Crew member delivered us a welcome orange juice and much to our surprise, a cooked breakfast. This was the second breakfast of the day, having also ate at the airport, but naturally we were on holiday so felt zero guilt for eating this too. We expected only a snack for this leg.

We arrived into Warsaw airport with three hours to kill before our next flight direct to Tokyo. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable with the waiting areas being small and cramped. Premium Economy doesn’t come with business lounge access, but we were able to pay a 120 PLN (c.£23.16) supplement per person. We were able to relax in there enjoying even more food, wine, beer and soft drinks. It was a busy lounge, but it was well worth paying the supplement for the duration we were in Warsaw.

We then departed Warsaw at 14:40 on our 787-Dreamliner, travelling overnight and arriving at 09:20 Japan time. The total journey time of this leg was ten hours and 40 minutes.

The service with LOT on both flights was second-to-none with meals on the Dreamliner fusing European cuisine with Japanese, making for some interesting dishes. Also on the Dreamliner, there was a basket of goodies that was always available. Drinks were plentiful with a glass of bubbly being offered upon boarding, another drink offered shortly after (I had a G&T), then the first meal being served with wine then tea or coffee afterwards.

Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express train

We wasted no time before travelling on our first train. We travelled on the Narita Express straight into the heart of Tokyo. The train is non-stop and takes approximately 54 minutes. We visited the JR booking office where we exchanged our JR Pass Exchange Order for the real deal – the dated JR Pass. We opted for an Ordinary Class pass over the Green Car (Japan’s First Class equivalent), the difference in the service being the seat and 3+2 seating vs 2+2 seating. The pass gave us total freedom to go anywhere we wanted to in Japan! A great feeling.

We also obtained free seat reservations for the day including the compulsory reservation for the Narita Express.

Immediately while arriving at the train station, the efficiency of the Japan Railway became apparent. We found our platform and the inbound service from Tokyo arrived and we were asked not to board. A staff ‘squad’ boarded the train at different carriages and pulled a belt across the door behind them, why? Their mission was to go through the train as quickly as they could, wiping down tables, the floor and turn around every seat with a lever so it would face the direction of travel. It was a fine art and fascinating to watch.

We boarded the train and by the entrance doors were luggage racks. Not only was there plenty of room for cases of all sizes, there were wires to wrap around the suitcase handle where you self-set a number lock to ensure your case wouldn’t be stolen. I couldn’t imagine a theft for one minute in Japan, but it’s best to be safe and we were going to the capital city afterall. If you forgot your number there was a process – travel to the final station and speak to staff who will release it. They thought of everything.

Within the passenger saloon with its spacious, reclining seats there were screens detailing information about the train’s journey featuring pages about the various weather disruption incidents across the JR East network. Line closures due to typhoons and earthquakes popped up!

Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen

This would be our first ride on the Shinkansen, travelling to Kyoto on a Shinkansen Hikari service in two hours, 40 minutes. We asked the Booking Office Clerk at the airport to make us a reservation on the side of Mount Fuji. She did so and thanked us for showing interest in the beauty of her country. Throughout the week, this culture of gratitude kept popping up.

Onboard the Shinkansen, just like the Narita Express, all the seats were facing the direction of travel. Ten minutes into the journey, a trolley manned by a very polite lady came through the carriage. She turned and bowed to customers in the carriage as she walked in and out of each carriage – that’s a lot of bowing she must do in a day’s shift! We purchased lunch from her selection of Ekiben (train bento boxes) which were shown to us on a menu complete with pictures. A delightful meal which was beautifully presented, and part of the fun is there’s always something which you’re not quite sure what it actually is!

We passed Mount Fuji in the distance, capped with snow, and took a snap.

We arrived on time into Kyoto station. The station boats an impressive array of shops – perfect for bagging that souvenir of your visit. Also don’t miss the very long ride up the escalators to the top floor of the station, where the Cube food court is. I enjoyed pork cutlet.

Exploring Kyoto

Kyoto is a very walkable city. Everywhere you walk you can see Shinkansen trains gliding past. In fact one 16-car N700 Shinkansen series train alone weighs 715 tonnes – it was unreal to think that was flying above your head!

It is worth spending time visiting at least one Buddist temple or Shinto shrine – there are many around the city. We went to one of the oldest – the Tō-ji temple, built in the year 796.

While wandering around admiring the architecture, statues, plants, ponds and art work a lady invited us into her temple for a morning prayer and blessing. We took our shoes off upon entering, took part in the ceremony listening to her instructions throughout. It was a very relaxing experience and made me slightly envious that her morning routine started this way every day.

We visited the wonderful Kyoto railway museum in Shimogyō-ku spending three hours wandering around the exhibits. It had everything from the first Shinkansen to a mock control centre and a museum shop.

Hozu-gawa river cruise

The following day we started with a ride onboard a JR Ltd Express train from Kyoto to Kameoka, the starting point for the must-do river boat ride along the Hozu-gawa river.

Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Express Hashidate train

At Kameoka, the river boat terminal is a five minute walk from the station. The Tourist Information Office is within the station and they provided invaluable help with directions to reach the terminal. You purchase your ticket there and then wait for your number to be called out in order of purchase. We had roughly a 20 minute wait and there was a very enthusiastic man holding the board with the ticket numbers calling them – no chance of missing your number!

The ride was exciting, dealing with varied water currents. There were three men rowing the boat however only Japanese was spoken, but the scenery alone was enough to enjoy the trip. There were many bridges where you could observe trains passing and a boat arrived towards the end selling soup and drinks.

The boat journey finished in Arashiyama some ten kilometres from central Kyoto. It was delightful to walk around this area with temples, looking out for Geisha, see the manned level crossing in action and stroll in the Bamboo forest. Then we took a regional train to travel back to central Kyoto.

Our few days in Kyoto concluded and we then headed to Hiroshima.

Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen

There are direct trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima however these are Shinkansen Nozomi services which are marketed as the premium bullet train services. These services cannot be used with the JR Pass. Therefore we would have to complete the journey with an easy change of train at Shin-Kobe station on the same platform and board the next train.

The change of train is a good chance to stretch the legs, if anything, and gives the opportunity to purchase an Ekiben bento box from the station kiosk. The trains used on the majority of Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura services are actually formed of the same N700 series Shinkansen as the Nozomi services, so comfort levels are exactly the same. The journey time is also the same but with some extra minutes for the change of train.

Our first leg for this journey was on a Shinkansen Hikari service taking 28 minutes. Then, with an eight minute change at Shin-Koke, we boarded the Shinkansen Sakura to travel a further 73 minutes direct to Hiroshima.

After arriving into Hirsohima we headed straight to the left luggage lockers to store our baggage – these lockers proved invaluable on our trip to Japan, being available at all major stations costing from 200 yen/day to 600 yen/day depending on luggage size.

Day trip to Miyajima (Itsukushima)

Trains depart Hiroshima every 15 minutes for Miyajimaguchi which is on the JR Sanyo line. Then it’s an easy five minute walk to the JR Ferry terminal for the 10 minute boat ride to Miyajima. Both trips are included with the JR Pass.

Miyajima is the perfect place to bag your souvenir with lots of shops selling Japanese gifts. The island is famous for its Momiji manjū cakes which are made of buckwheat and rice powder, they are shaped like maple leaves and contain a red bean paste. Look out for these and for the thousands of friendly Skia deer wandering the streets.

Once you have finished at the shops, it is well worth a trip on the Miyajima Ropeway to see the view from the top of Mount Misen. The cable car is a 15 minute walk away from the centre of Miyajima and is a mean feet of engineering taking the strain off climbing 350 metres of the mountain’s 535 metres.

At the top of the mountain the views of Hiroshima Bay are fantastic with green islands dotted around the water and the city of Hiroshima visible in the distance. Absolutely delightful on a clear day. There is also a café at the top which we enjoyed.

Exploring Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a city which resonates with most people worldwide because of a devastating event that took place in 1945. On 6th August an atomic bomb made of uranium was dropped on the city by American forces during World War II, ultimately killing a total of 140,000 people. Another atomic bomb was dropped days later in Japan but on the city of Nagasaki this time.

I wanted to learn more about what happened so spent a day visiting the extensive Peace Memorial Museum and Park situated alongside each other. I recommend spending the full day visiting both, the Atomic Bomb Dome alone really hits home.

The museum actively supports the movement against nuclear weapons asking visitors to sign up to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN).

Hiroshima has one of the most impressive shrines in Japan, also a World Heritage Site. The Itsukushima Shrine is significant because its torii-gate and shrine are in the middle of the sea! No photos however as we ran out of time.

Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen and Ltd. Exp Yakumo

Izumoshi, also known as Izumo, is probably a place you’ve never heard of, we hadn’t neither. Izumo is a small city on the northern coast of Japan. We went to visit not only to get a taste of a non-tourist region of Japan, but also a chance to use our JR Pass for another day and to pick up the Sunrise Izumo sleeper train which starts its journey here.

Our fastest option, and what we perceived to be the most scenic option, to go from Hiroshima to Izumoshi was to travel on a Shinkansen service to Okayama and change onto a Yakumo train direct to Izumoshi there. The day before, booking seats for the fast Shinkansen Sakura trains proved to be a challenge with trains fully reserved and we were advised in the booking office to queue very early for the unreserved cars if we wanted to travel on this.

Instead, we found the option to travel on a slower Shinkansen to Okayama. This Kodama service had plenty of seats available but a longer journey time of 86 minutes instead of 46 minutes. This was operated by the nice retro, swift looking 500 series Shinkansen, which I have to say was my favourite! Just look at that nose! It was nice to see this train, which features in the Railway Museum in Kyoto, on a passenger service.

There is no green car on the Kodama service, however just by reserving a seat you can get a reservation in a car which used to be the Green car! The 500 series Shinkansen was degraded from the fast Nozomi services in 2010 to these stopping Shinkansen Kodoma services, because of their age, but I do feel it was well worth the extra 40 minutes of travel at least for the space we had onboard.

After the break in Okayama we boarded the Ltd. Exp Yakumo train bound for Izumoshi. This journey leg took three hours, seven minutes and is a beautiful ride through mountains as the train heads north then, as the train reaches the coast it heads west past rivers and lakes of Nakaumi and Lake Shinji. Before boarding we bought lunch to enjoy with the views – another Ekiben bento box of course!

Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train

One of the last remaining sleeper trains in Japan is the Sunrise Izumo. The train actually joins to the one other sleeper train in Japan en route, the Sunrise Seto. The eastbound trains couple together at Okayama and complete the rest of the journey to Tokyo as one train. The westbound trains split at Okayama and follow their respective routes to Izumoshi and Takamatsu.

We joined the Sunrise Izumo in Izumoshi at the start of its journey, departing at 18:51, taking 12 hours and 17 minutes in total and arriving into Tokyo at 07:08.

A variety of accommodation is available priced according to comfort. The most basic option, which is actually free to use with the JR Pass (reservation required), is the Nobinobi sleeping area. This is described by the Japan Railways as a “seat”. This is in fact an open-plan carriage with carpeted areas on two floors for lying down and a section per person. Each “seat” has a window and limited privacy dividers to cover your face.

We had enquired about travelling in the Nobinobi area, but all spaces were sold out (reserving 6 nights before, travelling on Thursday night). We decided to treat ourselves to the other option, a twin sleeping berth, at a total cost of ¥22,000 / £164.30. Just like European sleeper trains – though with a shared WC at the end of the corridor.

We did have a problem with fitting our suitcases in the cabin but once we had been creative with our space challenge we managed fine.

The train had showers and a small seating area with a vending machine selling soft drinks. In order to use the shower there was a dedicated vending machine where you pay ¥320 / £2.39 for a shower card. Then you insert this into the shower and your timer starts for six minutes. This doesn’t sound long, but actually it was plenty of time for a refreshing hot shower.

Life suddenly got busier when stepping off the train into Tokyo. Advertised everywhere was the upcoming 2020 Olympics with a countdown clock outside the station.

Tokyo is a bustling metropolis that boasts an impressive 160,000 eateries. Its attractions include the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, which both have observation decks, shrines and temples.

The weather in Tokyo didn’t live up to much, so for our last full day in Japan we dropped sightseeing and searched the country for sunnier climes. We also wanted one final trip on a Shinkansen train. Niigata on the northwest coast seemed a good candidate so we boarded a Max Toki Shinkansen service.

Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen

We boarded a Shinkansen Max Toki service direct to the port city of Niigata via the Jōetsu Shinkansen, taking two hours and nine minutes. These double-decker E4 series trains were quite retro (for Japan anyway) dating back to 1997. Each one has a pay-phone located onboard, unmissable due to its luminous green colour!

Shinkansen Toki services operated by single-decker E2 series and newer E7 series trains also operate on the route. We travelled back on an E7 series.

The journey in itself is a delight taking in mountainous scenery cruising past Mount Tanigawa, Mount Naeba and Mount Aizu-Komagatake – be ready with your camera.

Although there’s things to see, Niigata city itself isn’t so much a tourist destination, but for a taste of typical Japanese city (with a small town feel) with a river walk, we had an enjoyable stroll in the sunshine for a few hours.

Tokyo Narita (NRT) to London City (LCY) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

The end of the trip was in sight, and the time had come to reflect on the incredible week that we enjoyed in Japan.

The journey back was similar to the way there. We started at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in the morning for a LOT flight departure at 11am bound for Warsaw Chopin Airport taking 11 hours, 25 minutes. Then we had a two hour layover before our connecting flight to London City Airport taking two hours, 40 minutes.

In true Japanese style, this airport was very zen. It was quiet (for an airport) and less hustle and bustle than most airports. There weren’t just seats available for all passengers, but loungers available too – a great way to relax before your flight!

Food wise we had three delicious meals just like we enjoyed on the way there, again incorporating a mix of European and Japanese cuisine. We made use of the attentive service in Premium Economy and in total enjoyed 10 drinks including wine, gin and tonics and Irish Cream on the two flights!

Train Tickets

If you’re planning to travel for a week or more, then without a doubt the Japan Rail Pass is what you need. This is only available for tourists residing outside of Japan. Passes are available for 7 days, 14 days and 21 days continuous travel and the prices can be found in the table below. You are required to purchase the Japan Rail Pass via a travel agent in advance of travel who will send you an exchange order. Then, when you arrive in Japan, you are required to visit one of the ticket offices to swap it for your train pass. We purchased ours via International Rail, a reputable travel agent in the UK.

Japan Rail Pass2nd Class1st Class (Green Car)
7 Days Continuous£217£289
14 Days Continuous£345£468
21 Days Continuous£441£608
Prices correct at 30th March 2020
TrainSupplement with JR PassFull Price without JR Pass
Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
Tokyo to Kyoto by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥8,360 / £62.82

—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,960 / +£37.27

Reservation
+¥5,690 / +£47.25

Green Car
+¥10,360 / +£77.84
Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Exp Hashidate trainFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥420 / £3.16

—————————-
No reservation
+¥660 / +£4.96

Reservation
+¥1,390 / +£10.44

Green Car
+¥1,960 / +£14.73
Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen (change at Shin-Kobe)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥6,600 / £49.59
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,170 / +£31.33

Reservation
+¥4,900 / +£36.82

Green Car
+¥8,360 / +£62.82
Hiroshima to MiyajimaguchiFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥420 / £3.11
Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima ferryFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥180 / £1.33
Hiroshima to Okayama by Shinkansen (Kodama or Sakura)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥3,080 / £23.14
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,530 / +£19.01

Reservation
+¥3,260 / +£24.50

Green Car
+¥5,330 / +£40.05
Okayama to Izumoshi by Ltd. Exp YakumoFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥4,070 / £30.58
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,420 / +£18.18

Reservation
+¥3,150 / +£23.67

Green Car
+¥6,610 / +£49.67
Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train*Nobinobi “Seat” (carpeted bed): Free, but reservation required.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05
Ticket Price ¥12,200 +
Seat (carpeted bed): ¥4,030 / £30.10 for reservation.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05

Tokyo to Niigata by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Niigata to Tokyo by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Tokyo to Tokyo Narita Airport by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
*Sleeper seats were fully reserved 1 week in advance in our experience. Fares and exchange rates from ¥ to £ correct April 2020

This article was first published in May 2020.

Belgrade, Serbia 🇷🇸 to Bar, Montenegro 🇲🇪 by sleeper and direct day train

Having seen pictures of this journey, I was inspired to take this train journey when myself and a friend decided to visit Montenegro for a week. This journey features in a number of those ‘Top 10’ railway journeys in Europe books for its amazing scenery through the mountains so we were excited to experience this journey for ourselves.

There are two options for travel between Belgrade (Serbia) and Bar (Montenegro) – one day train and one night train which are both operated jointly by state-owned Serbian Train (Srbija Voz, “SV”) and Railway Transport of Montenegro (Željeznički prevoz Crne Gore, “ŽPCG”). Both trains run in both directions every day all year round.

There are two train sets which comprise the day train, running in the opposite direction each day. One is formed of Montengrin compartment cars, the other a mix of Serbian compartment and open saloon cars. What you get is a mystery for the day of the trip itself. The sleeper train is more uniform, with both train sets comprising a mix of Serbian and Montenegrin cars.

We decided to take the sleeper train from Belgrade to Bar, enjoy a week in Montenegro and then take the day train back to Belgrade one week later. Although our return train starts in the port city of Bar, we planned to depart from the capital of Montenegro, Podgorica.

Our itinerary looked like this:

Journey TrainDuration
Leg 1Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸 to Bar 🇲🇪
Sleeper (433 Lovćen)10h58
Leg 2Podgorica 🇲🇪 to Belgrade
Topčider 🇷🇸
InterCity (430 Tara)10h10

Belgrade Main Station (Železnička stanica Beograd Glavna)

All services to/from Montenegro now depart from Belgrade Topčider which is 4km+ from the centre of Belgrade. The old Belgrade Main Station has been closed since June 2018. We decided to visit and this is its current condition – only a few offices remain open (including a ticket office) and no more tracks… sad times. It is worth a visit though, especially as there is the impressive locomotive from Tito’s Blue Train still stabled outside.

Also, in the old booking office, we noticed that the railway timetable is being kept up to date for the other Belgrade stations which was good to see  – a number of services blanked out with stickers because of track work north of Belgrade on the line to Hungary.

Belgrade Topčider

Also built in the 1880s (and still open thankfully) is Belgrade Topčider station which is some 4km from the main centre of Belgrade. This is the main station in Belgrade now where to catch international trains to/from Montenegro. In terms of facilities, there is a waiting room, ticket office and toilets.

All aboard the night train, Lovćen

The sleeper train had 12 coaches which consisted of a combination of Serbian and Montenegrin sleeper coaches, 1st and 2nd class couchette coaches and seated coaches. Also there were two motorail coaches for carrying cars at the rear of the train.

There was no Cafe Bar or catering provided on the train so it was good to take bottles of water and food. We packed some M&S emergency biscuits for the trip before leaving the UK, but ate them all straight away on this train.

Toilets on the train were of varying cleanliness. Some had soap, some had toilet roll, and some had paper towels, but none had all three! Plus, supplies of loo roll and paper towels were not re-stocked during the journey so our top tip is to bring your own supplies – as nothing can be guaranteed especially towards the end of the journey.

We opted to travel in a private sleeper berth with two bunk beds and were reserved in Coach 406 which was a former carriage from the communist era. It featured its own TV room and had a map on the wall of Yugoslavia – a real blast from the past! 

The beds in the sleeper berth were very comfortable and clean bed linen was provided. The room however was not air conditioned and despite the window being wide open it was very hot before the train departed.

Once the train started to move the air came through which was delightful but the slide down window had a habit of closing itself with the draft. My friend risked a pair of his socks in the corners of the window to keep it open. This was a complete success for us as the socks stayed in place and the window didn’t close on its own accord any longer. This resulted in pleasant cool conditions onboard.

The train departed promptly at 21:10 but encountered unexplained delays en route which meant the arrival into Bar was two hours late. Having read reviews in advance, this seemed to be normal practice, so we gave ourselves plenty of time to wait for a train back up the line to Podgorica to collect our hire car for the week.

Onboard the train we had our passports checked twice on the journey, once by the Serbian police at 03:14 at Prijepolje (the last stop in Serbia) and once by the Montenegrin police at 04:28 at Bijelo Polje (the first stop in Montenegro). Each stop is scheduled for 30 minutes, however there is no need to get out of bed – the border police will come to you in your cabin.

We enjoyed the views waking up in Montenegro that morning after a relatively comfortable night’s sleep – note the expert positioning of the socks in the left corner of the window!

Admiring the view from the sleeper berth window

All aboard the day train, Tara

The train left Bar at 09:00 and we joined the train at Podgorica at 10:00, albeit 20 minutes late in arriving. Our journey would take over 11 hours.

This train consisted exclusively Montenegrin compartment carriages (all air-conditioned which was a treat) and one Motorail coach. The only non air-conditioned passenger coach was the Cafe Bar carriage in the middle of the train. There were five passenger 2nd Class coaches in total, some were marked 1st Class coaches but weren’t and didn’t differ at all from the other compartments marked as 2nd Class.

The Cafe Bar’s menu was limited, so we were glad to have brought our homemade sandwiches featuring the much-loved prosciutto in Montenegro. There was however the very nice Montenegrin Nikšićko beer available for €1.50 so we made several trips to the bar to keep our supplies up!

As per the outward train journey there were passport checks conducted at the last station in Montenegro and the following station in Serbia, each stop lasting 30 minutes. The stations were Bijelo Polje (Montenegro) – the same as the night train in the other direction and Vrbnica (Serbia), a different station this time.

The Montengrin officials checked passports within the compartment, but the Serbian officials took the passports away to another compartment for stamping. The Montenegrin officials were supposed to stamp our EU British passports but didn’t despite us asking. So, officially we’re still in Montenegro! I hope I can go back one day.

A Serbian lady, Vesna, joined us in our compartment at the border, after her trip to her holiday home, and we soon made friends raising a can of beer or three and taking lots of pictures of the view. Here are some of the sights we enjoyed… absolute bliss.

Generally each compartment was occupied all the way to Belgrade, but not all seats were taken meaning there was plenty of space to stretch out.

As per the outward train, this train was also delayed arriving into Belgrade Topčider 1.5 hours late. It did mean we could enjoy the sun setting over the countryside from our comfortable compartment.

Safety expectations

The train maybe old, but it did feel safe. Journey speeds were very slow for most of the journey, but faster towards and through the two capital cities. This enabled us more time to take in the beautiful countryside!

A different sight to the UK was witnessing rail staff drinking beer together on the night train and people smoking on the train, though people generally seemed to respect other passengers and smoke at the ends of the carriages.

Tickets

To travel on the direct international trains from Belgrade to Bar, customers are required to purchase a ticket as well as a compulsory reservation. These range from €3.00 for a seat to €45.00 for a single berth cabin. The options illustrated are the 2-berth “double” sleeper on the night train and the 2nd Class seat on the day train.

Belgrade <> Bar FaresFIP Rail Staff Ticket PricePublic Ticket Price
Day Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Night Train€10.50 each way€21.00 each way
Fares updated April 2020
Belgrade <> Bar Reservation Fees2nd
Class seat
6-berth couchette4-berth
couchette
3-berth
“tourist” sleeper
2-berth “double” sleeper1-berth “single” sleeper
Day Train+€3.00N/AN/AN/AN/AN/A
Night Train+€3.00+€6.00+€9.00+€15.00+€20.00+€45.00
Fares updated April 2020

A note about language

English is widely spoken in Belgrade and across Montenegro which made being an English tourist easy, though it’s always fun to try and speak a bit of the loco lingo.

My understanding is that both countries have the same language but different pronounciations for some words. The Serbians however prefer to use the Cyrillic alphabet while the Montenegrins prefer to use the Latin alphabet, though both is taught in schools in both countries.

This article was first published in July 2019 and updated in December 2019.