If I ever had a reputation for sleeping in, it would be because I’ve always been drawn to the romance of European sleeper trains. For a time, however, my crush on sleeper berths was curbed, when budget flights became everyone’s darling and many slumber parties were cut short. Fortunately, my loco-libido can be satisfied once again. As many travelers see the benefits of traveling without flying, train companies are dusting off their rolling stock and refreshing their bedding.
My most recent rail awakening was on the Great Western Railway (GWR) Night Riviera between Paddington station in London and Penzance in Cornwall. Starting my journey to Paddington at 10pm on a Friday evening, my heart raced when the welcoming host on the train showed me to my cabin, with a crisp white duvet all pulled down and ready to be pulled out.
Night train adventures tend to get people talking, even on English trains
“If you’re heading to the bar, I’ll come take your breakfast order up there,” the host told me, adding, “and I recommend that you get up around 7 a.m. and head upstairs. living room with your breakfast, so you can watch the sun come over the coast”.
I slept like a baby in my two-berth cabin that I chose to have all to myself, because privacy is a price I was happy to pay. The car was also gloriously quiet, the train lulling me to sleep after a nightcap at the bar, where the atmosphere was cheerful. Night train adventures tend to get people talking, even on English trains, which aren’t known for being too familiar.
The Night Riviera’s single occupancy cabin costs £90 (€108) and, if you’re traveling with someone else, a double occupancy cabin costs £120 (€144). However, you also have to pay for your actual travel ticket, so it can add up. The secret to getting cheap travel tickets with the Night Riviera is to book in advance, although the cabin fare is fixed. You can book up to 12 weeks in advance, so keep an eye out for cheap train tickets as they come out. At the time of writing these were from £39.10 (€46.90) one way.
Another option on the overnight train to Cornwall is to book an airplane style seat instead of a cabin, and pay only the regular train fare. Many people do this, equipped with blankets, cushions and hoping no one reserves the seat next to them for them to lie down on. I was traveling in early fall and there was definitely plenty of room to stretch around that time.
Breakfast, included in the cabin price, wasn’t going to rock my world – but in all honesty, Covid-19 has dampened GWR’s dining options. It was delivered to my door at the recommended 7am, by the host, who still sported his welcoming smile; Instant coffee and Lavazza porridge are always on point. The host was also aware of the sunrise view. Even though it was quite foggy, I understood the photo well. And, as we arrived bang on time at 08:00, the historic fishing town of Penzance, overlooking the tidal island of St Michael’s Mount, was quite the picture.
There are no showers on board the Night Riviera, but you have the option of showering free of charge in their lounges at Paddington and Penzance stations. You can also enjoy complimentary tea, coffee and snacks if you want to kill time before late night boarding or before you start your day. However, one of my specific reasons for visiting Penzance was to experience the art deco Jubilee Lido. The lido was only a 10 minute walk from the train station and with my session booked for 9am I washed the sleep from my eyes with seawater then lounging in its section heated by geothermal energy, doing hot-cold for a good hour or so. And breathe, I had struck gold – locomotion and lido love in one brief vacation adventure.
My other hopes for this sleeper train trip to Cornwall were to hike, see some Hepworths and get some much needed head space. A bit of hedonism too, spending two nights at the Chapel House boutique hotel in Penzance, with a view of the sea from my free-standing bath no less.
Hiking is easy in this part of the world, straight off the train on Cornwall’s South West Coast Path, a 1,014km marked trail around the entire peninsula. One day I headed east to St Michael’s Mount, an extraordinary, elevated village on an island accessible by causeway when the tide is out. The next day, a more remote 22km hike to Lamorna Cove, through the idyllic village of Mousehole, along old smugglers’ trails and through ancient forests. It’s all very Daphne du Maurier, with her cast of steamingly beautiful seascapes.
Last but not least, and there really has to be a climax to this story, I took the train from Penzance to St Ives, just 40 minutes away, with a station overlooking a long bay of white sand and inviting turquoise waters, even in autumn. After a quick dip, I set off in search of the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden which, along with the Tate St Ives, are cocoons of Cornish creativity. Sitting in the gardens of Hepworth’s studio, gazing out through one of his iconic bronze sculptures out to sea, I just didn’t want to leave. The joy of getting the sleeper train back that night was that I really didn’t need it. This beautiful corner of Cornwall was mine until around 9pm that night, when my bed was waiting for me.
Book the Night Riviera night train, operated by GWR between London and Penzance in Cornwall at gwr.com/travelling-with-us/night-riviera-sleeper. Individual cabins from £90 (€108), excluding train fare.
Rooms at the Chapel House Hotel cost between £160 (€192) and £220 (€264) per night, B&B, chapelhousepz.co.uk. For a budget rather than a boutique option, head to the Premier Inn, just next to Penzance station, premierinn.com.
Five other sleeper trains in Europe to savor in 2022
The Caledonian Sleeper between London’s Euston Station and the Highlands of Scotland is a spectacular journey. There is a train leaving the Big Smoke at 9.15pm, splitting off en route to take you to Inverness, Fortwilliam or Aberdeen. Caledonian beauties include Aviemore, gateway to the Cairngorms National Park and Fortwilliam, at the foot of Ben Nevis. Renovated at the end of 2019, it is top notch, with a range of cabins with sinks, showers, bunk beds or double beds, as well as accessible cabins. If you are traveling solo, you don’t have to share with a stranger, just book a Standard Classic Solo ticket. Prices from £45 (€54) for a straight seat, £140 (€168) for a single cabin or over £400 (€480) for a superior room with bathroom; sleeper.scot.
The Paris-Nice sleeper train, or Intercités de Nuit, seems more glamorous than it is, but its real treat is that you wake up in the south of France clinging to the coast for much of the journey. . . Also the fact that it has only just been revived after being discontinued in 2016. Leave Paris Gare d’Austerlitz at 9:20 p.m. and opt for Cannes, Antibes or finally Nice, at 9:08 a.m., like some of the pretty jumpers-off points. These are all shared ‘berths’ (although you can request ‘female only’ if you book a six-berth second class ticket. First class just means having four berths and a bit more legroom (and strangely no option for women only ).The bed linen is a bit of a flimsy sleeping bag so it’s not private luxury but in many other ways it’s totally dreamy. sun for as little as € 29. Not bad; fr.oui.sncf/fr/intercites/intercites-night.
Nightjet is the sleeping car brand of Austrian State Railways (ÖBB), which takes you through the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Its most exciting recent development is the new sleeper train from Paris to Vienna, launching in December 2021. With four-berth and six-berth shared berths from €49.90, it also offers single and double rooms from €89. €.90. It leaves Paris Est station at 7:58 p.m. and takes you to Vienna just after 10:00 a.m. You can get off earlier in Salzburg for breakfast in some of Europe’s best traditional cafes at 07:30. You can also take a Nightjet from Amsterdam to Vienna which takes almost 14 hours or from Amsterdam to Zurich in 11 hours. Nightjet is running on all cylinders at the moment; nightjet.com.
Another welcome revival in 2021, by RegioJet, is the overnight train from Prague to Split in Croatia, via Bratislava, Budapest and Zagreb, not that you’ll see much of it if you’re loved in your leaba. This guarantees you a long night’s sleep as you cover 1,406 km in less than 21 hours. In 2021 it ran twice a week in May, June and September, and during high season it ran daily. Depending on Covid travel restrictions, it hopes to offer the same service this year. But it’s a space to watch, if you fancy a long European night of the soul; regiojet.com.
Travel overnight between Stockholm, Hamburg and Berlin between April and September only, with a private operator, snalltaget.se, launching summer 2021. Departing Stockholm Central Station at 4:15 p.m., arriving in Hamburg Hbf at 5:31 a.m., with a 9 a.m. terminus at Berlin Hauptbahnhof. Sleeping compartments are six berths, with upright seating too if you are on a budget. Fares for the latter start at €49 and a sleeper berth at €74. A family or group traveling together can book the entire berth for €295.
Top tips for sleeper trains
Always bring earplugs for sleeper trains. Some snacks too, in case the menu is limited.
Keep your pajamas and toiletries handy as there isn’t much room to change, especially in a shared cabin.
Use seat61.com to find everything you want to know about the best seats on all trains, wherever you are.
Treat yourself to a subscription to Hidden Europe magazine. Written by two travel writers and train goddess gurus, their Twitter posts are still on track.
Consider getting an Interrail card. You may have to pay extra for sleeper trains, but if you want to venture further afield, it’s well worth it.