The Orient Express: A Famous Train Ride Across Europe That Made History

By Karen Harris

The Orient Express at the Salzburg station. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Perhaps the best-known train in the world, the Orient Express conjures images of luxury, exotic locations, and thanks to a famous Agatha Christie novel, murder. The train is as famous as the Polar Express and Little Red Caboose, but it was—and still is—a real passenger train that carried well-to-do travelers from Paris to Istanbul.

(WLDiffusion/Wikimedia Commons)

The Golden Age Of Train Travel

In the mid-1800s, traveling by railway was the hottest mode of transportation. It was certainly the fastest, and it didn't take railroad designers long to determine that they could attract more wealthy passengers if they transformed their railcars into exquisite parlors and stately dining rooms, promising their guests a luxurious experience.

George Mortimer Pullman, for whom the Pullman car is named, introduced his opulent train to Great Britain in 1864, and travelers flocked to ride the rails from London to Brighton. Pullman even secured a deal to connect his rail passengers with ferry services that took guests across the English Channel, where they could continue their travels on France's railway system. For the rich and famous, this became the preferred method of travel between London and Paris.

Pullman's success inspired the designer of the Orient Express, George Nagelmackers, to develop his own luxury railcars. He envisioned a "ribbon" of rails spanning the European continent, and he was the first to offer dining cars on continental trains and private sleeping carriages. The first Orient Express opened for business in 1883 on a route from Paris to Vienna.

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

An Opulent Inauguration

On October 4, 1883, just a few short months after its soft opening, the train that was not yet called the Orient Express left for its endpoint in present-day Istanbul for the first time. The departure was met with much fanfare and full coverage by the press, who gave the train its nickname. In reality, the train barely reached Asia, but Nagelmackers adored the name anyway.

He certainly had a talent for capturing the attention of the press. He started by parking an old, dilapidated Pullman car on the tracks right next to his Orient Express to illustrate to his guests just what an upgrade they were getting and gave tours of the train cars to the journalists, allowing them to experience such fine details as plush leather armchairs, silk bed sheets, intricate wooden trim, and expensive glassware meant for the finest wines. The reporters breathlessly compared the train to the swankiest hotels of Europe. 

(Jules Chéret/Wikimedia Commons)

The Famous Orient Express

During its heyday, the Orient Express was a favorite mode of transportation for Europe's royal families and political leaders, and many of their voyages made a lasting impression. King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria famously spent one of his rides in the train's bathroom following an attack of paranoia about assassins, Czar Nicholas II demanded the construction of private cars for his exclusive use whenever he traveled to France, and Leopold II of Belgium used the Orient Express to crash a Turkish man's harem in Istanbul. Much later, Paul Deschanel, the president of France, took a fall from one of the train cars in the dark of night. He was so ridiculed for his clumsiness that he eventually resigned from office.

The train was, of course, ridden by such fictional luminaries as James Bond, Hercule Poirot, and the characters of Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train, but they weren't the only spies and sleuths to ride the Orient Express. During World War I, an English gentleman named Robert Baden-Powell boarded the train under the guise of a butterfly collector, complete with detailed drawings of butterfly wings that he said he recorded from a collecting trip to the Balkans. In actuality, the sketches were code that he intended to pass on to the British and Italian navies.

The train had cameos, in fact, in both World Wars. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed surrender documents aboard the Orient Express in the sleeper car of an Allied commander. It was displayed in Paris until June 1940, when Hitler ordered the railcar to be moved to the precise spot where the interaction had taken place. Four years later, during the death rattle of the Nazis, he ordered its fiery destruction so it couldn't be used once again as a symbol of Allied victory. 

(Lucaok/Wikimedia Commons)

The End Of An Era

World War II brought the Orient Express, along with most other forms of transportation in Europe, to a temporary halt. By the time the war ended, the demand for luxury travel had greatly decreased, and a cheaper, faster method had emerged in the commercial airplane, so the original Orient Express line closed in 1977. Within eight years, however, it was reborn, offering service from London to Venice aboard meticulously restored railcars that continues to run to this day. For roughly $2,500, guests can ride the train, stay overnight in one of the sleeper cars, enjoy the fabulous meals and drinks, and hopefully come away with at least one new organ.

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.