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 the country and back through time, featuring some of England’s historic castles, cathedrals and colleges. Start off in London and spend your first day exploring the city – it’s packed with museums and historic buildings so choose a few places to visit, like the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, Globe Theatre or the royal parks and palaces. Then catch a morning train to Salisbury (1.5 hours) to visit its 13th-century cathedral – take a tour of the tower and see one of the surviving copies of the Magna Carta.
Next take the train on to Bath Spa (1 hour). The city is best known for its Roman history, so don’t miss the Roman Baths – and soak yourself in the modern version at the Thermae Bath Spa. Bath also has some beautiful Georgian architecture around the Royal Crescent, and whole festival dedicated to Jane Austen. Then catch a train to Oxford (1 hour 15 mins), one of the UK’s most famous university cities. Take a tour of the college quads – Christ Church is the star attraction (not least for being a Harry Potter film location) but All Souls and Hertford are my favourites.
Call in to Oxford’s quirky Pitt Rivers Museum with artifacts from around the world before catching the train to Shakespeare’s home town – Stratford-upon-Avon (1.5 hours). You can visit his birthplace and the houses his wife and daughter lived in, and see a play at the RSC theatre. Then finish off your trip in York (3 hours 45 mins). Walk the Roman city walls, visit the Minster, explore the cobbled lanes of the Shambles and have tea at Betty’s before heading home.
Edinburgh > Glasgow > Fort William > Mallaig > Kyle of Lochalsh > 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 the Castle and the Royal Mile to the views from Arthur’s Seat and hidden gems like the underground street of Mary King’s Close. Then catch the train on to Glasgow (1 hour 15 mins), 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 into the highlands to Fort William (3 hours 45 mins), a lochside town that’s a hub for adventure sports in the nearby Nevis Range. It’s also the starting point for the famous West Highland Way train route. Catch the train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct to Mallaig (1.5 hours). Or between April and October you can ride 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 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 cathedral, 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 a nightly sleeper train (11 hours).
The Cornish coast
London > St Ives > Falmouth > Newquay > Looe > Plymouth > Exeter
This UK train trip takes you down to the far south-west of England, along some of Cornwall’s most beautiful coastal and countryside railways. Start your trip in London where you catch the overnight sleeper train down to Cornwall (8 hours). Arrive into St Erth early next morning and change onto the St Ives Bay Line for the 15-minute journey along the coast past the golden sands of Carbis Bay to St Ives. This arty seaside town is home to the Tate gallery and Barbara Hepworth sculpture museum and has some beautiful beaches and coastal walks.
Next leave St Ives behind and head 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 before catching the train back to Truro and out along the Atlantic Coast Line to Newquay (3 hours). Join the surfers off Fistral Beach and check out the town’s seven miles of beaches. Then carry on to the pretty fishing port of Looe (2.5 hours). The Looe Valley Line scenic line connects Liskeard and Looe, running along an estuary that’s full of birdlife.
Make sure to try some of Looe’s fresh seafood before heading on to Plymouth (1 hour). Take a walk along the city’s waterfront, visit the aquarium and climb Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse. Then finally catch the train from Plymouth to Paington (1 hour) where you’ve got time for an ice cream before carrying on to Exeter (45 minutes) along the Riviera Line. Running right along the shore, it’s been rated as one of the UK’s most spectacular train journeys.
London > Brighton > Bristol > Manchester > Liverpool > Leeds > Glasgow
This city-centric 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 in the Box Park shipping containers. Then catch the train south of London to Brighton (1 hour 15 mins). Shop the narrow streets of the Lanes and play the arcades on the pier before a walk along the seafront to neighbouring Hove.
Next take the train across the country to Bristol (3.5 hours). The city’s a centre for independent food, art and craft businesses – try tasty food at St Nicholas Market and Wapping Wharf or go Banksy spotting in Stokes Croft. Next head north to Manchester (4 hours). The north-west’s city of music is a great place to catch a gig or shop for vinyl before a night in the Northern Quarter’s bars and clubs. Or visit the museums and media hubs of Salford Quays.
From Manchester it’s only 45 minutes by train to Liverpool. Check out design icons at RIBA North and Tate Liverpool or go classic with a Beatles tour and the ferry across the Mersey. Then head north-east to Leeds (1.5 hours). Visit the Corn Exchange for indie shops in a stunning setting, sunbathe in Roundhay Park and take a craft brewery tour. Finally take the train to Glasgow (4 hours) to finish your trip in Scotland’s city of culture. Explore its museums and galleries, and eat your way around some of the city’s best restaurants in Finneston.
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.