The best books about rail journeys

Who am I?

Jules Brown wrote travel guides for Rough Guides for over thirty years – if there’s a railway timetable somewhere he hasn’t studied, he’d like to know about it. He took his first InterRail trip around Europe when he was seventeen and, as a travel writer, he’s been on trains around the world, from Norway to New Zealand. Jules is the author of two travel memoirs, Don’t Eat the Puffin and Never Pack an Ice-Axe, which – after a lifetime of travel – are still the best bits of advice he has for anyone heading off on a journey.


I wrote...

Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave

By Jules Brown,

Book cover of Not Cool: Europe by Train in a Heatwave

What is my book about?

Jules found his old InterRail pass one day in a box in a cupboard. Inspired by the train trips of his youth, he came up with a new plan to visit nine cities in nine countries in nine days. He should have known better. And he should have checked the weather forecast.

It soon turned into a hot and steamy adventure (no, steady on, not that kind) by rail across Europe, taking in Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Liechtenstein, Zürich, and Milan. A tale of relaxing train rides to famous tourist destinations and guidebook sights? Not so much. All aboard for an offbeat travel adventure with a very funny writer seriously in danger of losing his cool.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Around the World in 80 Trains

By Monisha Rajesh,

Book cover of Around the World in 80 Trains: A 45,000-Mile Adventure

Why this book?

A new voice in travel writing also offers a fresh perspective on rail travel – not the usual ruminations of a middle-aged white male (guilty), but the honest, witty, observant reflections of a woman of colour. Rajesh’s seven-month, 45,000-mile journey around the world, starting with the 14.31 from London St Pancras to Paris and ending on the Orient Express, starts off looking for the romance of the rails but turns into something much more valuable – a hard-earned, slow-travel celebration of the planet’s landscapes and peoples. Together with her fiance, Jem, she travels from place to place on a meandering itinerary – Mongolia, Toronto, New Orleans, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam – via a series of encounters that are never less than fascinating, often hilarious, sometimes deeply unsettling.


Italian Ways

By Tim Parks,

Book cover of Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo

Why this book?

An English novelist, a long-time resident of (and writer about) Italy, Parks is well placed to offer his hugely entertaining take on rail travel in Europe’s most gloriously maddening country. It’s neither fully a history book nor travelogue, though Parks writes divertingly and inspiringly about both history and travel. Instead, it’s partly an attempt to appreciate Italy through its railways – as he says early on, “if someone wanted to understand Italy, they might start by understanding how the train ticketing system works.” For anyone who has ever wrestled with the intransigence of an Italian rail conductor, stood forlornly waiting for an inexplicably delayed train, been crammed into a corridor with furiously smoking army conscripts, or been fed oranges by a garrulous Sicilian family, this book is a joy of recognition, despair, and delight.


The Great Railway Bazaar

By Paul Theroux,

Book cover of The Great Railway Bazaar

Why this book?

Theroux pretty much invented the genre with this ground-breaking travelogue, first published in 1975, that went on to sell millions and establish his reputation as a train-travelling travel writer. As an account of the overland trip from Europe through Asia and back on the Trans-Siberian railway, it’s surprisingly hopeless for anyone looking for inspiration for the journey itself – the destinations are given fairly short shrift in favour of the recording of chance encounters and random conversations with a cast of highly memorable characters. It’s a bit of a period piece – highly literary, often acerbic, occasionally grumpy – but it’s never dull. And in many ways, anyone who writes about train travel is trundling along in Theroux’s tracks.


Oi! Get Off Our Train

By John Burningham,

Book cover of Oi! Get Off Our Train

Why this book?

Most books about train journeys follow the same pattern – off goes the writer, describing destinations, meeting characters, learning about or interpreting the world. But here comes John Burningham from an entirely different angle, with a charming children’s book that uses the train to weave together a story about species survival. The characters are all endangered animals, attempting to board a little boy’s fantasy dream train as he chugs through different landscapes, playing with his pyjama-case dog. And what do you do when an elephant or a sea lion tries to get on? Well, no idea what Paul Theroux would do, but any right-thinking child joins in with bellowing “Oi, get off our train!” until we learn the reasons why we have to let them climb aboard.


Europe by Rail

By Nicky Gardner, Susanne Kries,

Book cover of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide

Why this book?

Back in the day, no self-respecting InterRail traveller would leave home without the iconic red Thomas Cook European timetable and while it’s still available in different formats these days, apps and websites have removed the urgency of travelling with a big book of timetables. But this sterling work, updated regularly, fills the gap between inspiration and destination – full of the nuts and bolts of European rail travel (what tickets, where, and how to buy) while featuring over fifty routes, complete with descriptions, diversions, recommendations, and discoveries. It’s brilliant for the armchair traveller, and invaluable for anyone eyeing a leisurely ride on the rails around Europe.


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