11 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Going on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

Tips on how to pack, when to eat, and what else to expect on the European rail trip of a lifetime.

Exterior of one carriage of Venice Simplon-Orient-Express train

The remodeled carriages on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express were all built in the early 20th century.

Courtesy of Belmond

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 train travel, when passengers handed 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 my own train journey from Venice through Vienna to London on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express with Belmond.

There are several routes—research the itinerary that’s right for you

The original Orient Express ran between Paris and Istanbul, with stops in Hungary and Romania, but on Belmond’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, there are nearly two dozen journeys you can take. A five-night itinerary from Paris to Istanbul is offered only a few times in the spring and summer and includes three nights on the train. The 2024 dates are May 31 to June 5 (Paris to Istanbul), June 7 to June 12 (Istanbul to Paris), August 23 to August 30 (Paris to Istanbul), and August 30 to September 4 (Istanbul to Paris).

At other times, trips include stops in such cities as Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Verona, Amsterdam, Florence, Rome, Brussels, and Innsbruck.

Left: Gardens at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani; Right: Laundry hangs above a street in Venice.

Left: Gardens at the Belmond Hotel Cipriani; Right: Laundry hangs above a street in Venice.

Photos by Sara Button

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. Passengers ride another Belmond train, the British Pullman, in England and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in Europe.

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 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.

Staff of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express lines up to greet guests as they board the train.

Staff of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express lines up to greet guests as they board the train.

Photo by Sara Button

There’s no such thing as too dressy . . .

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.

. . . but don’t panic if you’re not a fashionista

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.

Pack light

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.

(Though the Meridian is no longer available, the Osprey Fairview wheeled travel pack is similar.)

Take in the details

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. One of the most celebrated design moments onboard is the intricate glass windows in the dining car, designed by René Lalique in a Côte d’Azur style in 1929. The Grand Suites, meanwhile, are a masterclass in art deco style with hand-beaded embroidery, rich color palettes across plush fabrics, and special design elements inspired by Orient Express destinations like Paris, Istanbul, and Vienna. To step into one of the historic cabins is to be instantly transported to the 1920s.

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.

The bar car 3674 was refurbished in 2016, with empty plush seats in blue and white pattern and royal blue pillows

The bar car 3674 was refurbished in 2016; guests socialize here until late into the night.

Photo by Sara Button

Unplug . . .

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.

. . . but don’t forget to take some photos

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.

Be prepared to eat—A LOT

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.

Decide if you’re an early bird or a night owl

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 passengers 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.

Breakfast aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express includes fresh fruit, pastries, tea or coffee, and juice.

Breakfast aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express includes fresh fruit, pastries, tea or coffee, and juice.

Photo by Sara Button

Manage your expectations

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 six 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 that can be combined as a double bed allowing 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.

Interior of a Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, with a double bed and patterned woodwork walls

Grand Suites on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express have a double bed and en suite toilets.

Courtesy of Belmond

Meet your fellow passengers

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 a conversation is easy—just start with, “What brought you on the train?”

This article originally appeared online in 2019; it was most recently updated on October 13, 2023, to include current information.

Sara Button is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience.
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