Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Unveils an Over-the-Top Sleeper Carriage

Not yet on the rails, the new L’Observatoire carriage by French street artist JR made its grand debut at the Venice Biennale.

JR stands atop his L'Observatoire sleeper car in front of the famed Venice skyline.

JR stands atop his L’Observatoire sleeper car in front of the famed Venice skyline as part of this year’s Venice Biennale.

Photo by JR

Just in time for the 60th Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the art world, one of the most glamorous trains in the world unveiled an exclusive art-filled carriage loaded with design Easter eggs. The famed Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, A Belmond Train, just revealed L’Observatoire, a new sleeper carriage conceptualized by the acclaimed French photographer and street artist JR. And the announcement was every bit as splashy as you’d expect from the VSOE: The sleeper car was installed on a barge moored in the Venetian Lagoon, and art lovers could peek in through eye-shaped portholes to get a preview of the carriage before it goes into service.

“With L’Observatoire, people can enter my imaginary world,” JR said in a press release, adding, “I wanted to create so many hidden details and layers that can help inspire that sense of wonder, your inner child—whether that’s hidden compartments or secret messages that some guests will notice, and others will miss. There’s so much in this carriage that will be impossible to explore in a single trip.” In an Instagram post, JR said he took design inspiration from his personal studio, astronomical observatories, and Renaissance-era cabinets of curiosity.

The spacious, private carriage features a bedroom with a double bed, an en suite bathroom, a wardrobe, a reclining daybed, a lounge area, a library with a selection of books by French publisher Gallimard, and a secret tea room with a fireplace. It’ll be by far the largest accommodation on the train, a step up from the Grand Suites, each of which is inspired by a different European city.

A man in dark sunglasses and a fedora writing at a table covered in drinking glasses and a ceramic teapot and cup, with an elaborate decorative wall in the background

The artist JR sitting in L’Observatoire, which is filled with hidden details and secret compartments.

Photo by JR

Trains have featured heavily in JR’s previous work, including Women Are Heroes (2007), in which he pasted some of his large-scale photographs of eyes on the roofs and sides of trains in Nairobi, Kenya, and Mind the Gap (2017), a massive installation of 700 train figurines on an endless loop, creating an optical illusion of faces moving.

“I have a very long story with trains—they’ve always been a canvas for me,” JR stated. “When I was a kid, I would sit by the window and just watch the world go by. There is something about viewing the changing landscape from a bubble, as if you are traveling through different worlds.”

It’s not the first time the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has partnered with artists on its interiors. When the original carriages were built in the 1920s and ’30s, the well-known art deco designers René Prou and René Lalique were commissioned to decorate the cabins. Some of their pieces, including tulip-shaped lamps and the glass paneling of the Côte d’Azur restaurant car, can still be seen on board.

A train car on a barge in front of a cathedral in Venice

L’Observatoire made its grand debut with dramatic flair during the Venice Biennale.

Photo by JR

L’Observatoire will not be added to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express rake until sometime in 2025, and there’s no word yet on how much the opulent carriage will cost. Post-pandemic, Belmond has been bullish in revamping its luxury trains and adding new itineraries. Already, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express has rolled out a new route from Paris to the French Alps and will kick off a new Paris to Portofino, Italy, itinerary in June.

Similarly, as of this February, guests can now book passage on The Eastern & Oriental Express, a sister train to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which, after a four-year hiatus, is back chugging through Singapore and the Malaysian countryside.

Starting in May, guests will be able to stay in the two new Grand Suites of the Royal Scotsman, another train in the Belmond ecosystem, designed by Tristan Auer, a French interior decorator. The over-the-top accommodations (think a double bed, a separate seating area, an en suite bathroom, and panoramic windows) are meant to evoke the aesthetic of a country manor, with dark-wood paneling and upholstery from Scottish textiles brand Araminta Campbell. That’s in addition to the Dior Spa, which launched in April 2023 on the same train.

Bailey Berg is a freelance travel writer and editor, who covers breaking news, trends, tips, transportation, sustainability, the outdoors, and more. She was formerly the associate travel news editor at Afar. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the Points Guy, Atlas Obscura, Vice, Thrillist, Men’s Journal, Architectural Digest, Forbes, Lonely Planet, and beyond.
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