I love a good train trip and have travelled by rail across Europe and beyond. But there are plenty of fantastic rail adventures close to home in the UK too, from scenic seaside trains to journeys through the wild Scottish highlands. And the country’s relatively small size means you can pack a lot into a short time. So here are five great itineraries for exploring Britain by train, all of which you can do in a week. Whether you’re looking for history and culture, coast and countryside scenery or the UK’s coolest cities, there’s the perfect British rail trip to suit you.
Five itineraries for exploring Britain by train
London > Salisbury > Bath Spa > Oxford > Stratford-upon-Avon > York
This rail trip takes you across England and back through time, featuring some of the country’s most impressive castles, cathedrals and colleges. Start off with a full day in London, choosing from its selection of historic buildings, museums and monuments, including the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, British Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe.
Then catch a morning train to Salisbury (1.5 hours) with its 13th-century cathedral, where you can take a tour of the tower and see one of the surviving copies of the Magna Carta. Then travel on to Bath Spa (1 hour). The city is known for its Roman history, so don’t miss the Roman Baths – and soak yourself in the modern version at the Thermae Spa. There’s also the beautiful Georgian architecture of the Royal Crescent and whole festival dedicated to Jane Austen.
Travel on to Oxford (1 hour 20 mins), one of the UK’s most famous university cities. Take a tour of the college quads – Harry Potter filming location Christ Church is the star attraction, but All Souls, New College and Hertford are my favourites. Call in to Oxford’s quirky Pitt Rivers Museum to see its shrunken heads before catching the train to Stratford-upon-Avon (1.5 hours).
Spent the afternoon in Shakespeare’s home town – you can visit his birthplace, school and the houses his wife and mother lived in, and see one of his plays at the RSC theatre. Then finish your trip in York (4 hours). Walk the Roman city walls, visit the Minster, explore the cobbled lanes of the Shambles and have a traditional afternoon tea at Betty’s before heading home.
Read the full Historic England by train itinerary
Edinburgh > Glasgow > Fort William > Mallaig > Isle of Skye > Inverness
This Scottish rail itinerary takes you from the lowlands to the highlands via rugged coastlines, lakes, moors and castle ruins. Start off in Edinburgh and spend the day discovering the city’s highlights, from Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and views from Calton Hill. Or discover hidden gems like the underground street of Mary King’s Close.
Then catch the train to Glasgow (1 hour), where the focus is on art, design and culture – from street art trails to the eye-catching modern Riverside transport museum along the redeveloped waterside. Next head north to Fort William (3 hours 45 mins), a lochside town that’s a hub for adventure sports in the nearby Nevis Range. The journey takes you into the Scottish Highlands along the West Highland Line, rated as one of the most scenic rail trips in the world.
Rejoin the West Highland Line to travel across the Glenfinnan Viaduct to Mallaig (1.5 hours) – or between April and October you can upgrade to a ride on the Jacobite steam train, made famous in the Harry Potter films. Then leave the train behind and cross over to the Isle of Skye by ferry. Explore the island by bus or tour before crossing the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Catch the train from Kyle of Lochalsh to Inverness (2 hours 40 mins), the capital of the highlands. The Kyle Line is another of the UK’s top scenic train routes, passing lochs, mountains and herds of deer. Explore Inverness’ castle and riverside, or take a trip monster-spotting on Loch Ness or to the historic Culloden battlefield. Finally you can catch the train back to Edinburgh (3.5 hours) – or if you’re heading to London there’s an overnight sleeper train (11 hours).
Read the full Scenic Scotland by train itinerary
The Cornish coast
St Ives > Falmouth > St Austell > Newquay > Looe > Plymouth
This UK train trip takes you to the far south-west of England, along some of Cornwall’s most beautiful coastal and countryside railways. Start your trip in the arty seaside town of St Ives, home to the Tate and Barbara Hepworth galleries along with beautiful beaches and coastal walks. If you’re travelling from London you can get there on the overnight sleeper train (8 hours), changing at St Erth onto the St Ives Bay Line past the golden sands of Carbis Bay.
Then travel east to Falmouth (1.5 hours), changing in Truro onto the Maritime Line which runs through unspoilt countryside to the coast. Visit Falmouth’s castle and maritime museum or take a boat ride along the Fal River, then catch the train to St Austell (1.5 hour). Change onto a bus to reach the Eden Project, whose two giant biomes bring the tropics to Cornwall.
Head back to St Austell to catch the train out along the Atlantic Coast Line to Newquay (2 hours). Check out some of Newquay’s 11 beaches, watch the surfers in action on Fistral Beach – or give it a try yourself. Then travel on to the pretty fishing village of Looe (3 hours). The Looe Valley scenic train line connects Liskeard and Looe, running along an estuary full of birdlife.
Walk the South West Coast Path or visit the marine nature reserve of Looe Island, and make sure to try some fresh local seafood and a traditional Cornish pasty before travelling on to your final stop in Plymouth (1 hour). Take a walk along the city’s waterfront, visit the aquarium and climb Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse before heading home – or exploring more of Devon.
Read the full Coastal Cornwall by train itinerary
London > Brighton > Bristol > Manchester > Liverpool > Leeds
This city-centric train route takes you to some of the UK’s coolest cities, with plenty of coffee shops, vintage shops, street art and quirky bars along the way. Start off in London and head to the East End’s most hipster neighbourhood – Shoreditch. Visit Brick Lane market, take a graffiti tour and try food from around the world at the Box Park shipping container pop-up market.
Then catch the train south of London to Brighton (1 hour 15 mins) for the day. Visit the Brighton Pavilion, shop the narrow streets of the Lanes and play the slot machines on the pier before tucking into fish and chips on the beach. Next travel west to Bristol (1 hour 40 min). The city’s a centre for independent food, art and craft businesses – try tasty street food at St Nicholas Market or at Cargo in Wapping Wharf, and go Banksy spotting in Stokes Croft.
Catch the train north to Manchester (4 hours). This north-west city famous for its football music is a great place to catch a gig or shop for vinyl and vintage fashion before a night in the Northern Quarter’s bars and clubs. Or visit the museums and media hubs of Salford Quays. Then from Manchester, it’s only a 45-minute train ride to local rivals Liverpool.
Check out the exhibits at the Tate Liverpool and Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock, or take a Beatles tour and the ferry across the Mersey. Then finally travel north-east to Leeds (1.5 hours). Follow the Leeds Welcome Art Trail, visit the Corn Exchange for indie shops in a stunning setting, sunbathe in Roundhay Park and take a tour of Leeds’ craft breweries.
Read the full UK cities by train itinerary
Wales and the borders
Cardiff > Shrewsbury > Aberystwyth > Harlech > Llandudno > Chester > Cardiff
This final Britain by train itinerary takes you across Wales from the capital to the coast and mountains, through the unspoilt Welsh Marches. Start off in Cardiff and spend the afternoon exploring its old side at the castle and its new in Cardiff Bay. Then catch the train north to Shrewsbury (2 hours), a traditional market town across the border in England that was the home of Charles Darwin. Visit its castle and shop for local gifts and produce at the Market Hall.
Then head back into Wales and the coastal town of Aberystwyth (2 hours). It’s been a seaside holiday favourite for generations, with a sandy beach, Victorian promenade and Wales’ oldest pier. Next catch the scenic Cambrian Coast Line which runs north through Snowdonia National Park to Harlech (3 hours). Watch out for the stunning views as you cross the estuary at Barmouth along the way. Explore Harlech’s hilltop castle or take a trip to the Italian-style village of Portmeirion (the closest station is at Minffordd, 15 mins from Harlech).
Next head to Porthmadog (25 mins) where you can change onto the Ffestiniog Railway’s historic steam trains to travel to Blaenau Ffestionig in vintage style (1 hour 15 mins). Then rejoin the 21st century and journey on to Llandudno (1 hour 15 mins), another of Wales’ Victorian seaside resorts. From there travel across the border to Chester (1 hour). Explore the city’s Roman ruins, walk its walls and shop the medieval black and white Rows. Then finish the trip by heading back to Cardiff (3 hours), passing the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct along the way.