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10 Trains to Catch for Polar Express Magic This Holiday Season

Pining for a holly, jolly Christmas journey straight out of a movie? Climb aboard!

Train travel isn’t anything new and that’s precisely why we love it. What could be more nostalgic than taking a vintage streamliner home for the holidays? Or waking in a cozy bunk on Christmas morning as a winter wonderland glides past your compartment’s window?

Ever since The Polar Express landed on bookshelves in 1985, riding the rails in December has been filtered through soft-focus nostalgia. The season is upon us. We can’t be the only ones with visions of snow-blurred travel and spiked hot chocolate dancing in our heads. So we’ve made a list (and checked it twice!) of the most magical holiday train rides around the world this year. Whether you’re on board to spend $5 or $15,000, we’ve got the railway for you.

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PHOTO: ©Visit Rovaniemi
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Santa Claus Express Night Train

WHERE: Helsinki, Finland

Imagine arriving at the train station bundled in layers, holiday packages in hand. The day has been one long twilight—a silent night before the festivities. The train slides quietly into the station. Warm light from the windows beckons. The passenger cars are clean, even utilitarian. But if you’re on the Santa Claus Express, you’re more concerned with the journey than the destination. All that matters is resting deeply, waking in time to watch the Northern Lights dance before your final stop: Lapland capital Rovaniemi, where real reindeer and Santa Claus Village await.

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PHOTO: THE POLAR EXPRESS™
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The Polar Express

WHERE: Chicago, Illinois

Fans of the movie, rejoice! Chicago Union Station’s rendition of the Polar Express is every bit as grandiose as the film, with elfen greeters, golden tickets, and dancing conductors. Train staff serves hot, hot chocolate (we got it!) while the film’s soundtrack bops in the background. This cinematic train ride will elicit wide-eyed wonder from young passengers—and a giggle or two from adults willing to eschew cynicism for technicolor indulgence.

INSIDER TIPRiders, especially young ones, commit to recreating the movie scenes as accurately as possible. So, throw on your flannel pajamas and look your Christmas morning best!

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PHOTO: 1800 Train
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Black Hills’ Holiday Express—Spiked!

WHERE: Hill City, South Dakota

Baby, it’s cold outside, and do we need a better excuse for boozy hot chocolate? Aboard the Holiday Express 1880, festivities take place in themed train cars that wind through the Black Hills toward the “North Pole.” The 1800 Train has been a crowd favorite for more than 50 years. Though kid-friendly rides are available, the Holiday Express Spiked promises adults-only Yuletide merriment including cookies, storytime, and schnapps-spiked sips.

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PHOTO: Michigan Steam Train
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Michigan’s North Pole Express

WHERE: Owosso, Michigan

Riders might not be flying across Arctic ice sheets in northern Michigan, but that doesn’t dim the magic of a steam-powered journey on the North Pole Express. Built in 1941, the Pere Marquette engine transports merrymakers to the Village of Ashley for the annual Country Christmas festivities. At the bustling village center, you’ll tuck into a hearty warm meal, shop for handmade holiday trinkets, and rest your feet during a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.

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PHOTO: Photo by Marc Hermann/ Courtesy of the New York Transit Museum
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Nostalgia Train NYC

WHERE: New York City, New York

Have you ever wanted to live in the age of the Christmas crooners? Now you can! Step off the F platform and back in time this holiday shopping season. Thanks to the New York Transit Museum, a fleet of 1930s metro carriages runs in regular Sunday service alongside modern cars between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The affectionately-dubbed “nostalgia rides” whisk passengers to shopping destinations like Columbus Circle and Rockefeller Center. The best part? All you need to access this heady mix of nostalgia and shopping mayhem is a swipe of your NYC MetroCard.

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PHOTO: Roaring Camp Railroads
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Northern California’s Holiday Lights Train

WHERE: Santa Cruz, California

At 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the average December temps in Santa Cruz don’t offer much hope for a white Christmas. But there’s more than one way to dream up a winter wonderland. Every year, workers at Roaring Camp Railroads deck the vintage train cars with their favorite things: wreaths tied up with strings, jingling bells, and colorful lights. Holiday music drifts through the open-air train cars and out to city streets as the locomotive rolls through town.

And on one extra special December evening, the holiday train transforms into a “Chanukkah Train,” complete with kosher snacks, dreidel spinning, and a sendoff party centered around lighting the menorah.

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PHOTO: ©Glacier Express AG
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Switzerland's Glacier Express

WHERE: Zermatt, Switzerland

Santa might circumnavigate the world at the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean we should, too. The Glacier Express is widely noted as the world’s slowest express train—perfect if all you want for Christmas is some peace and quiet. Sink into a plush seat, pop open a bottle of bubbly, and order a three-course holiday dinner while the train traverses dizzying heights and 91 mountain tunnels.

INSIDER TIPPining for Alpine scenery at a quicker tempo? Hop on one of the regular passenger trains that use the same tracks as the Glacier Express. You’ll ditch some of the calm but keep the merry and bright.

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PHOTO: Afbeelding van Robson Machado via Pixabay
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Aurora Winter Train

WHERE: Anchorage, Alaska

Glide over the river and through the woods to Fairbanks, Alaska, on Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train. Passengers can catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the open-seating dome car, thaw out with hot chocolate in the dining car, and feast on views of Denali National Park as the train chugs through the wintry wilderness. The bow on top? Fairbanks is just a 20-minute drive from North Pole, Alaska, where candy-cane street lamps light the way to jolly old St. Nick’s holiday home.

INSIDER TIPSpring for an Alaska Railroad winter holiday package to turn a magical day trip into a week-long arctic adventure.

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PHOTO: Bath Christmas Market
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English Christmas Market Steam Train

WHERE: London, England

Built in 1948 by the North British Locomotive Country, the 61306 Mayflower steam train brims with reminders of Christmases past. That’s what makes it the perfect transportation mode to the famous Bath Christmas Market, where craftsmen set up shop under twinkling lights in traditional Georgian streets. The Steam Dreams Rail Company will roll the engine out of the station for Bath on December 1 only. But fear not—Steam Dreams has journeys scheduled to other Christmas markets throughout December.

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PHOTO: Trans-Siberian Express
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Trans-Siberian Express Winter Wonderland

WHERE: Moscow or Vladivostok, Russia

Have you been especially good this year? Even topping the “Nice” list might not bag you enough coin to buy a ticket for the extravagant 14-day Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express journey across Russia. Tickets for the luxury journey start at $18,195. But it might just be worth it: we’re talking an all-inclusive extravaganza of all things sumptuous and cozy while you trundle through parts unknown. Whistle-stop highlights include peering over the frozen edge of Lake Baikal (the deepest freshwater lake in the world) and conjuring visions of Dr. Zhivago as you take a dog-sled ride across the frozen tundra.

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