Experience the best funicular railways that Europe has to offer.
There is nothing quite like scaling a hill in a funicular: not only do you save your breath, but you’re part of a city’s history. And in Europe, funiculars are still modes of public transportation—more often than not used by locals and not really known as attractions to be included on a travel itinerary. But they should be, as they often are an integral part of a city and offer you spectacular views on the trip up or at least once you’ve reached the top, all while saving your strength.
WHERE: Paris, France
No visit to Paris is complete without a trip up the Butte Montmartre to see Sacré Coeur, enjoy the views across the city, and meander through the small village filled with artists. But climbing up the hill with its numerous stairs can be a hard ask after a day’s sightseeing. So why not amble up half the hill from metro Anvers and then hop on the funicular for the rest of the way? Originally built in 1900 as a steam-powered water-filled counterweight funicular train, this system soon proved not efficient enough and after two upgrades, today’s funicular is capable of carrying some 2,000 riders per hour, and an impressive two million annual visitors up to Sacré Coeur, which is the second most visited sight in Paris after Notre Dame. Especially picturesque in the snow, the 90-second ride takes you up 118 feet, alongside a 220-step staircase, one of the shortest ones you’ll find on the steep hill overlooking Paris.
Buda Hill Funicular
WHERE: Budapest, Hungary
When you look up from the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube to Buda Castle on top of the hill, it does not look so bad to take the scenic walk up the hill, but it is steep and after a long day, or after too much goulash, it can be daunting. Luckily, back in 1870, Odon Szechenyi, son of Count Istvan Szechenyi, thought so too and built the pretty funicular to carry people up the 164-foot elevation to the castle. Looking like a three-tiered wooden train, the funicular trundles up the hill to the top. It was only the second funicular built in Europe, after Lyon, but unlike in Lyon, while you ride up, you get stunning views across the Danube, its bridges and the Pest side of Budapest.
WHERE: Istanbul, Turkey
Tünel, simply meaning tunnel, is one of Istanbul’s underground funiculars. It runs from the transportation knot Karaköy, where trams, buses, and ferries meet, up through the Beyoglu neighborhood to the Galata Tower and the popular shopping street Istiklal Caddesi. The pretty, bright red Tünel was inaugurated in 1875, making it the second oldest underground urban rail line behind London’s Underground. The funicular rises 203 feet, with two cabins—one slightly older and prettier than the other—on the move in opposite directions, transporting around 12,000 people each day. At the top, you can either walk down to see the Galata Tower or catch the old tram and ride along Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square.
WHERE: Kiev, Ukraine
When you want to visit two great areas of Kiev on top and at the bottom of a very steep hill which gets very slippery in the winter snow, you will be pleased to hear that they are connected by a very pretty funicular. Historic, oh-so Parisian Uppertown with its ornate churches and an arty street market is connected with the young and hip Podil full of cafes and concept stores, by the funicular dating back to 1905, with its two lovely stations. The journey in one of two turquoise carriages working along a pulley system takes a mere 2.5 minutes but offers great views across the Dnieper River and the large park on Volodymyrska Hill, which is worth exploring. A perfect case for walking or sliding down and riding up.
WHERE: Baku, Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has a history dating back several millennia, but to reach its youngest history, the modern Flame Towers that stand above the city and at night offer a colorful spectacle, the funicular is a great way to reach the top. The most modern of this round-up, dating back to a relatively recent 1960 with a complete overhaul in 2012, the funicular—the only one in Azerbaijan—is clean, fast, efficient and offers spectacular views across the bay and the Caspian Sea. The glass stations and the four-minute ride are worthwhile alone, but wait until you get to the Flame Towers and see the panoramic views from the park with its Shahidlar Monument. It’s the best spot in town.
WHERE: Tréport, France
The funi, as the locals call it, takes you up the white chalk cliffs of Tréport to an impressive vantage point with spectacular vistas. First inaugurated in 1908, the steep railway was put out of action in the Second World War due to the heavy action this part of the English Channel saw, but was relaunched in 2009. The tiny capsule that holds up to 10 passengers climbs an impressive 250 feet on a 67% slope, partially outside, and partially inside a tunnel. Once up the cliffs, you can enjoy views across the seaside town of Tréport with its colored houses sitting like a toy arrangement around the harbor and walk the cliff path. If you squint, you might make out the English coastline on a good day, but you will certainly spot the impressive Château d’Eu, a rather posh former royal residence.
WHERE: Lyon, France
Dating back to 1862, Lyon once had five shafts tunneling through the steep hills of the old city. Two are left today, with bright red carriages climbing past Roman amphitheaters to the top of the hill and to the impressive La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière that towers above all of Lyon. The upper town is just as exciting as the lower one, so to properly explore and save some time, the funiculars are ideal. But don’t use it for all trips, as Lyon is also riddled with traboules, hidden stairwells that were once used to get from the rivers below to the top of the hill without being exposed to enemies and the elements.
WHERE: Prague, Czech Republic
Running from the lower town, Mala Strana, up Petrin Hill to the Petrin Lookout, the funicular dates to 1891. It changed from a water balance system to being electrified in 1932 and ran until 1965, when severe landslides halted it for 20 years. Up on Petrin Hill, you’ll find not only a small copy of the Eiffel Tower, but also a maze, cherry orchards, a rose garden, and of course, fabulous views across the city. There is a second, quite unknown funicular in Prague, run by the NH Hotel in Smichov that connects two parts of the hotel. The tiny carriage, which looks like a telephone booth on a slant, is self-operated and open to those who want to ride it.
WHERE: Lisbon, Portugal
There are three funiculars inching their way up Lisbon’s steep hills, but Gloria has the cutest name, so it gets prime space. All three, Lavra, Gloria, and Bica, look like the old-fashioned trams that trundle along the narrow streets, only that they are set at an angle and only go up short but steep slopes. Dating to the late 1800s, Gloria takes you up to the Place des Restauradores, which at night is hopping with bars and street performers. The alley and Gloria herself are a canvas for street-artists (usually the graffiti-spraying kind) and tend to be rather colorful. The funiculars are only part of Lisbon’s many ways to ascend the murderously steep hills on either side of the main square. There are also the very ornate but extremely popular Santa Justa elevator, and the less ornate but also less popular Loureiro and Castello elevators. But if you’re in Lisbon for a few days, you’re bound to try them all eventually.
WHERE: Guttannen, Switzerland
Going up an incline of 106%, this funicular is one of the world’s steepest, and it is not enclosed in glass. Scary does not begin to describe this funicular, but it guarantees an adrenaline rush, or two. Originally built in 1926 as a transport railway to get building materials up the mountain to build the Gelmer Lake Dam, it now has a second life as a tourist attraction. While some stretches meander up through green meadows, others look like you’re at the business end of a rollercoaster. But the views are spectacular with snow-topped mountains all around, and once up, you can calm yourself down again by walking around the lovely lake.
WHERE: Zagreb, Croatia
From the steepest to the shortest funicular. Only 216 feet long and built in 1890, it was the city’s first mode of public transport and was originally steam-powered. Very classist, the cabins used to be split into three sections, with the two outer ends being for first-class passengers getting the nice views, whereas the commoners were stuck in the middle. But considering it is a one-minute ride to connect the Lower Town with the Upper Town, it wasn’t all that bad. Worse was that the funicular often used to get stuck and the passengers, probably those in the middle, had to get out and push. Might as well take the stairs.
WHERE: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Initially, it was the purposeful advantage of the 11-12th century castle towering over Ljubljana to be unreachable. After all, you wouldn’t want marauding invaders coming up on the hill, would you? But as things settled down historically, and the castle was bought by the city in the early 1900s, thoughts turned back to a letter received by the mayor of the city in the late 1800s, suggesting a means of transport for people who wanted to enjoy the views. Alas, it took until 2006 for the funicular to finally be built. And it proved the original letter writer right: since opening the funicular it has carried some four million passengers to and from the castle’s vantage point.
WHERE: Porto, Portugal
Though it was inaugurated in 1891 and used mostly to carry goods–in particular Port wine–up the steep hill by the Douro River, the funicular sadly closed after a serious accident just two years later. It was not until 2004 that the small funicular re-opened. This time it was for passengers rather than wine. Trundling up the steep hill it overlooks the immense Louis I Bridge, designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel. As is not surprising for a funicular designed to carry cases of Port wine, on the short three-minute ride, you’ll see plenty of wine lodges and can mark them for later explorations. Although most of the track follows a 20% gradient, in places up to 45%, this is reportedly the world’s steepest counter-balance funicular.
Funiculaire de Pau
WHERE: Pau, France
Probably the cutest of these funiculars, this one’s origins date back to 1906. After a brief period of closure and several safety upgrades, the current light-blue boxes that carry passengers for free from the Pau city center to the castle, date to 1961. From the lovely little station at the bottom, near the railway station, the rather precarious short ride passes some palm trees, crosses a busy road, and offers good views across some lovely Art Nouveau architecture before reaching the top station after a mere 328 feet. At the top, rather than a station, there is a wrought-iron entrance to the Royal Square with its Château de Pau and views across to the snow-capped mountains of the Pyrenees.
WHERE: Zurich, Switzerland
The bright-red funicular carriages in Zurich, with both an indoor space and a tiny outdoor viewing platform, have had a checkered life. Inaugurated in 1889 and water-driven, it changed to being electric in 1897. Working on a loss for 20 years between the 1950s and 1970s, the funicular was sold to a banking conglomerate and in 1996 was completely overhauled. It is now a very popular attraction and carries more than two million annual passengers from the Limmat River by the central railway station up to the University campus with views across Zurich’s many church spires. Because of the popularity with students, it has been dubbed the Student-Express. Noteworthy is that this is a funicular popular with tourists, but not for tourists, as is proven by the fact that it does not run on a Sunday.