Photos by Sara Button
Courtesy of Belmond
The remodeled carriages on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express were all built in the early 20th century.
Tips on how to pack, when to eat, and what else to expect on the European rail trip of a lifetime.
For a lot of people, a journey on an antique luxury train such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) is a dream come true, even if they’ve never read or seen Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The ride is an opportunity to return to the golden age of travel, when passengers passed off their steamer trunks to white-gloved stewards and dined on porcelain plates.
Each itinerary has its own rewards, and indeed, every night is different depending on where you’re going and who you’re with. Here’s what I learned during a trip from Venice through Vienna to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express with Belmond.
The original Orient Express ran between Paris to Istanbul, but on Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, there are nearly two dozen journeys you can take. In 2020, a five-night itinerary from Paris and Istanbul, which includes three nights on the train, is offered in August (a return trip is available a few days later for the ultimate train ride). At other times, trips include stops in such cities as Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague.
Note that if your itinerary includes London (which many do), you’ll actually take a bus through the Chunnel before picking up a train on the other side. In England, passengers ride a Belmond British Pullman, in Europe, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Knowing what I know now from riding from Venice to London with the Chunnel interruption at the end of the trip, I would do my itinerary in reverse to experience more of a crescendo: Start in London with a stay at Belmond’s stylish new Cadogan Hotel in Chelsea, ride on the Pullman, then take the more luxurious VSOE to Venice. To top it all off? A night at the dreamy Belmond Hotel Cipriani on the Venetian island of Giudecca.
As you book, think about how much time you want to spend on the train and how the journey itself will unfold. If you board in the afternoon and get off again early the next morning, you’ll miss more of the scenery via train and may not get to enjoy a leisurely breakfast or brunch—but you’ll have more time in your final destination.
If you board in the morning and arrive at your destination late the next night, you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the VSOE but be prepared for a lot of sitting around. My favorite leg of the trip was when I had about 24 hours riding rather than rushing to disembark on time.
Guests are informed of the dress code in advance of the trip. Jeans and tennis shoes are not acceptable daywear, and formal attire is requested for dinner. It’s no joke. I saw folks dressed in tuxedos and floor-length ballgowns and wearing antique jewelry. My advice? Embrace it. I was a bit intimidated by the idea of dressing up. But it turned out to be fun, almost like putting on a costume.
During the day, I wore a couple of simple linen dresses; for dinners, I brought two cocktail dresses. The train is a great opportunity to recycle wedding party attire you thought you’d never wear again or to check out the vintage section of a thrift shop. Services like Rent the Runway let you wear fancy clothes without having to buy them.
All that being said, try to fit everything in an overnight bag and a carry-on suitcase. The train compartments are authentically small, with only narrow overhead luggage racks and a couple of hangers for long garments. Large suitcases will be put into the train’s storage, and you won’t have access to them during the ride. I was fine fitting my beloved Osprey Meridian carry-on (sans day pack) and a Steve Madden weekender bag in my compartment.
Riding on the VSOE truly is like being inside a time capsule; each car was built between 1926 and 1949 and has been meticulously restored. Read the placards that describe each carriage’s history (car 3544 was reportedly used as a wartime brothel), track down car 3309 to admire the art deco marquetry panels by lauded French designer René Prou, and make time to admire such details as the painted flowers adorning your ceramic wash basin.
It’s a lot easier to enjoy the views, get to know fellow passengers, or write postcards (anything posted from the train itself will get a special Venice Simplon-Orient-Express stamp) when you’re not looking at your phone.
There are so many magical elements on the VSOE, it’s hard to keep track. I took plenty of pictures of the train, but once I got home I realized that I only had a couple photos of myself. As a solo traveler, I wish I had asked fellow riders to help me document the occasion. I had gotten dressed up after all, and sometimes a selfie just won’t cut it.
Most overnight itineraries include afternoon tea, dinner, and breakfast or brunch the next day. When I boarded in Venice, I was welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine, then served afternoon tea with five different sweets. Only a couple hours later, there were snacks for cocktail hour, and supper was a four-course meal.
There are two dinner seatings on the VSOE: one around 7 p.m., the other around 9 p.m. The maître d’ will note your seating preference in the afternoon and will also ask if you’re open to sitting with other travelers.
Eat early and you’ll have more time to digest all five courses before going to bed. Eat late and you’ll have to wait until the first shift finishes up in the dining cars.
The resident pianist plays in the bar car from 6 p.m. to midnight nightly, sometimes longer if folks are still enjoying themselves later than that. Either way, there’s plenty of time for drinks before or after dinner—the bar car doesn’t close until the last guest has left.
Because of my route, I was able to try dinner at both times and personally, I ended up liking the later seating more; there was a bigger gap between afternoon tea and dinner, and I felt like I had even more time to make friends in the bar car before heading to the meal seating than during the earlier seating.
Yes, a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the trip of a lifetime. But you’re still riding an antique train. Unless you’ve booked one of the three new grand suites, you’ll have to use the toilet at the end of each car. Twin cabins have bunk beds; if you’re traveling with someone else, your compartment will be, well, intimate. There is an option to book a double cabin, which adjoins two singles and allows for more space.
As comfortable as the beds may be, there will be some jolts and bumps during the night. If the clacking of the tracks will keep you awake, bring earplugs.
Many different types of travelers ride on the VSOE. I met couples, a mother-daughter duo, a family with two young children, former college roommates, and another solo female traveler. Some were Agatha Christie buffs, others wanted to bask in the atmosphere. Those looking for a bit of serenity could relax in the comfort of their cabin and dine alone or with only their traveling companions. Others could dine with strangers or chat in the bar car. Striking up conversation is easy—just start with, “What brought you on the train?”
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