Bucket List Must: Riding the Rails on the Orient Express

While the Orient Express is a bit of a relic, a reincarnation now runs in Europe. If you're a sucker for opulence and history, this might just be the ticket.Read More

The Orient Express

If you’re anything like us, the mention of The Orient Express immediately conjures visions of nouveau riche socialites luxuriating on velvet couches while sipping Sherry from crystal schooners. If you’re not anything like us, you might be wondering what this Orient Express business is all about.

Let us explain…

A brief history of The Orient Express

In 1886, the railway dubbed The Orient Express was born, primarily to shuffle travelers between Paris and Constantinople (now Istanbul). For almost a century — during a period when travel was notoriously difficult and dangerous — the rail line carried passengers to and from the near East, spanning some 1,700 miles. At its peak, it docked at multiple major European metropolises, including London, Rome, Vienna, and Paris.

This web of efficient travel was truly astounding in the late 19th century, but what really secured the train’s spot in history was its style. Juxtaposed with plebian crawls by carriage, boat, and animals — all of which were clumsy at best and often dirty and tumultuous — travel by The Orient Express was blessedly effective and clean. Originally, service on the train was nothing especially decadent, but as new lines opened to accommodate more travelers in the 1930s, several of those lines began serving well-to-do patrons. To meet their needs, Orient Express travel between Innsbruck, Budapest, Vienna, Bucharest, and Athens began offering world-class, multicourse dining; plush sleeper cars; and obsequious service befitting of royalty.

Orient Express
A rendering of what The Orient Express’s communal cars might have looked like in the early 20th century. (Source: iStock / ZU_09)

This beloved era of Orient Express travel would not last long, however; the rail line quickly suffered from changing geography and political upheaval in Europe. WWII put a temporary hold on the railway’s service, while the subsequent rise of Communism in the Eastern Bloc cut up the train routes that once tied Western Europe and the Orient together. During the 1960s and 1970s, lines were gradually cut until, by the early 2000s and the launch of high-speed trains, the Orient Express was all but defunct. Gracefully, The Orient Express took its final bow as it pulled into the Strasbourg station in 2009.

The Orient Express lives on

While the original OE is a fascination of the past, a reincarnation now serves travelers across the European continent. Under the name Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (which falls under the Belmond hospitality banner), the train leisurely transports passengers between a handful of European cities: Vienna, Verona, Paris, and London. It needs be said that travel by VSOE in the 21st century is neither expedient nor affordable; treks take at least a day and cost upwards of $5,000. If it’s speed and affordability you want, book a flight.

If you’re a sucker for opulence and history, however, this might just be up your alley. The train is composed of masterfully restored vintage train cars (unearthed by the train company’s founder, James B. Sherwood) and features exquisite details, including gold filigree, polished wood paneling, inlaid Art Deco mosaics, and plush full-sized furniture, much of which showcases decadent floral prints. Grand Suites — the crown jewel of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express — also offer cozy dining nooks, lounging couches, and bars, not to mention full-sized beds. Is it any wonder The Orient Express was the choice of Agatha Christie’s famously fussy Hercules Poirot?

Orient Express
While OE’s sleeper cars offer grand suites, most travelers enjoy cozier — but always comfortable — sleeping quarters. (Source: iStock / kmn-network)

The best part of the restored OE is the variety; train cars, while always artistically appointed, may feature anything from a collection of Baroque furniture with 17th-century fleurs-de-lis embellishments to suites draped in silk and dotted with lamps capped with Venetian shades.

Dining is, as one would expect of train service that calls on the name “Orient Express,” absolutely indulgent. Breakfasts of smoked salmon, caviar, truffles, and flaky pastries transition to sumptuous three-course lunches and, eventually, four-course dinners featuring foie gras, more truffles, filets of fish, tournedos of beef, and tongue-curling desserts. Between meals, you can sip on bubbly in the Champagne bar while living out your many Gatsby-esque fantasies.

Elaborate meals and ornate suites aside, the best part of the VSOE adventure is stepping back in time. For a whole day, you can really imagine being an archduke or princess, sharing meals with mustachioed business moguls and entertainment mavens. You can live, for a few moments, shoulder to shoulder with men and women of history. Perhaps above all, that is the alluring charm of The Orient Express.

Book a trip

To experience the majesty of this legendary railway, book tickets for The Orient Express on belmond.com. Once you have tickets in-hand, you’ll receive exclusive discounts to hotels in various cities, as well as deals on companion fares. Our one piece of advice: If you decide to spend your hard-earned dollars on a VSOE experience, dress the part — and yes, that means spats, vests, elbow-length gloves, and positively radiant evening gowns.

If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, why not sate your sweet tooth while enjoying amazing scenery? We recommend the Chocolate Train in Switzerland.