Picture-Perfect Train Trips to Take From Philly This Fall
You haven’t done leaf-peeping right until you’ve done it from a train. Here are nine trips perfect for taking in nature’s fireworks — and a whole lot more.
Montreal is just a scenery-filled train ride away.
THE JOURNEY: Imagine leaving Philadelphia in the morning and having dinner in one of the largest Francophone cities in the world without the hassles of flying — and for half the cost. This is precisely the service the Adirondack line offers: Hop a 6:37 a.m. train in Philly, and transfer to the route at New York City’s Moynihan Train Hall, with a total trip time to Montreal of just over 13 hours. That may seem like a long ride, especially considering that only coach class is offered between NYC and Montreal. But this is a train. You can walk around as much as you want and spend most of your day in the cafe car with a good book or, if you have a companion, a Scrabble board. Wherever you sit, take in the dramatic vistas of changing leaves in the Hudson Valley, the picturesque Hudson River, and the ridges and peaks of the mountain range that gives the line its name. Once you clear the border (bring your passport!), it’s only a bit further to Montreal’s Central Train Station. You’ll arrive just after 8 p.m. — and considering that like major European cities, this is a town that starts the evening on the later side, it’s perfect timing to begin your adventure, whether for a long weekend or a midweek getaway.
THE DESTINATION: Old Montreal is the quaint riverfront neighborhood where you’ll wind up spending most of your time, and Hôtel Gault (rates from $315) is where you should stay there. It’s a thoroughly modern property in an area that otherwise tends to be stodgy when it comes to hotels. You’ll be steps away from the historic port as well as the massive Notre-Dame Basilica — a must-visit. When it comes to food, Montreal specialties like poutine and smoked meats are in abundance. (These shops are everywhere, like cheesesteaks in Philly. You can ask a friendly local for recs.) For dinner, Joe Beef regularly lands on lists of the best dining establishments in the world. (It’s one of Marc Vetri’s favorite destination restaurants.) You should splurge on its Quebecois fare, though you should not post on social media that you tried le cheval (translation: horse) unless you want to become public enemy number one — as one Philly Mag staffer discovered — before your trip even really gets going. — Victor Fiorillo
Savor a sortie through New England that’s just as picturesque as your mountain-town destination.
THE JOURNEY: If you’re heading north for a quick trip before winter settles in, trade all the traffic you’ll hit on the road for a ride on the Vermonter. The route extends more than 600 miles across nine states and features awe-inspiring vistas of mountain terrain. Starting in D.C. and ending in St. Albans, Vermont, your trip includes stops at 30th Street Station and in NYC, New Haven, Connecticut and Montpelier. Though the daily passenger train has no sleeper cars (business and coach classes only) the cafe and quiet cars offer some creature comforts, such as tables for spreading out a bit and peace from folks talking too loudly. But most of your 11-hour trip from Philly will be spent gawking at the scenery just outside your window anyway. Golden rays crest over the ridges of the Green Mountains in the morning, sunset reflects off the water of the Connecticut River in the late afternoon, and you’ll drink in lush tree coverage and wildflower fields in between. Stops of interest include Greenfield, an eclectic city in Western Massachusetts with Portlandia vibes; sites visible from your seat include the Riverfront Park in Springfield, Connecticut, and the Green Mountain Boston & Maine Train Bridge. It’s an absolute mouthful, but there’s a lovely waterfall underneath.
THE DESTINATION: Renting a car or arranging for a local ride service may be your first order of business when planning a few days in the more northerly destinations on the route, such as Stowe — the third-to-last stop and an undeniably rural yet vacationer-focused hamlet at the base of Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in the state. There is no Uber to speak of here. Luckily, the depot is only about 15 minutes by car to the downtown district as well as the Brass Lantern Inn (rates from $135). Perfect for bed-and-breakfasters, the family-owned getaway serves homemade meals each morning and has a private hot tub from which you can take in mountain scenery. In a somehow even more twee vein, fans of The Sound of Music should book a room at the Trapp Family Lodge (rates from $249), a resort established by the real-life von Trapp family that inspired the 1965 film. In the fall, enjoy hiking, biking and pickleball. The 2,600-acre property also houses von Trapp Brewery & Bierhall, though it’s worth heading into town to try Plate, a California-inspired farmhouse-chic eatery, or browse contemporary art at the Current. And if a vacation means outdoorsy excitement to you, don’t miss a zigzagging drive on the Auto Toll Road up Mount Mansfield, with its unforgettable views of Lake Champlain. — Shaunice Ajiwe
Mountain and valley vistas await when you take the long way to Chicago.
THE JOURNEY: It’s easy to look at the two-hour flight between Philly and Chicago and think, “I’ll fly.” But if you have the luxury of time to spare — it’s a 26-hour journey — try the Cardinal route. The line operates three days a week and picks up from 30th Street Station, taking you into Maryland, D.C. and Virginia before turning toward West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. If you’re traveling straight through, reserve a larger accommodation, such as a roomette — with seats that turn into beds, an attendant, and complimentary meals. But if you’re planning to hop on and off (you’ll have to book separate tickets for each leg), a coach seat will do. Either way, you’ll be treated to stunning scenery — the hills and gorges of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains are filled with trees bearing vibrant autumn leaves and form a backdrop to historic depots, farmland and vineyards. (Stop in Charlottesville to explore the wine scene, including at Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard — it has an Airbnb with rates from $200 per night on the property.) In West Virginia, the land gets craggier, with rocky outcroppings lining the tracks and the Allegheny Mountains rising out of the clouds. You’ll travel further along the New River and into Cincinnati — with its Art Deco train station and museum — before ending in the Windy City.
THE DESTINATION: If you’ve made it all the way to Chicago, reward yourself with a stay at the St. Regis (rates from $700), which opened in May. At 101 stories, it’s the tallest tower ever designed by a woman (Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang). For dinner, try Sifr for Middle Eastern fare — best enjoyed on the terrace if the weather is nice. And a Chicago River architectural cruise is a must. But if you aren’t going quite as far, spend a weekend at the Greenbrier (rates from $409), a National Historic Landmark in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. (The train depot is across the street and houses the Christmas Shop — so get your gifting done early.) The property began drawing attention in 1778, when visitors were lured by the idea of restoring their health at the region’s sulfur springs. Today, the hotel is a treasure for any grandmillennial due to its decor by Dorothy Draper (think flowers on flowers and ornate plaster moldings). And the on-site spa offers treatments like a soak in the mineral waters (the sulfur smell is minimal) to reduce inflammation — perfect before you head back to the train. — Kristen Schott
Explore North Carolina’s Research Triangle, taking in a diverse swath of the Mid-Atlantic along the way.
THE JOURNEY: Stretching more than 700 miles across seven states, Amtrak’s daily-running Carolinian travels from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina. There are certainly speedier ways of getting from Philly to the Research Triangle — collectively, the area anchored by the cities of Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. But fall, when temps dip into gloriously pleasant territory and the region’s wooded hills are ablaze with colors, is the perfect time to slow down and take it all in.
The 12-hour daytime route lacks the sleeper accommodations of longer journeys, but both coach and business-class seats come with power outlets and a cafe car for onboard snacks. From 30th Street Station, take in Maryland’s quaint waterfront towns, then glide through cities like Baltimore, spotting Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and D.C., where you can zip off the train for a quick spin around Union Station before heading south. Past Richmond, Virginia, the landscape gives way to farmland and forests and finally the Raleigh skyline as you roll into the Triangle.
THE DESTINATION: Part of the Piedmont Region that’s nestled between North Carolina’s coastline to the east and mountainous terrain to the west, the Triangle is a hub for technology research and home to universities including Duke, UNC Chapel Hill and NC State. Spend three nights hopping around Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh — easy enough via GoTriangle bus or Uber — to explore streets lined with bookstores and cocktail bars, a thriving food scene, and botanical gardens and sprawling green spaces in which to stretch your legs before getting back on the train.
Disembark in Durham and drop your bags at the 21c Museum Hotel (rates from $149) — set inside a historic Art Deco building designed by the architects behind the Empire State Building — before exploring the city’s nightlife. Find close to a dozen spots within a three-block radius, including Alley Twenty Six, which is nationally recognized for its bar program and serves burgers and elevated snacks like caviar and tots. Check out the American Tobacco Historic District, a former industrial area that’s now home to the Durham Performing Arts Center plus restaurants and art installations.
In Chapel Hill, make your way downtown to Franklin Street, the charming hub on the northern edge of the UNC campus. Breakfast at the Carolina Coffee Shop, where, since 1922, generations of Chapel Hill locals and college students have gathered. Afterward, browse the staff recommendations at Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews, an indie bookshop and cafe, then walk around the Coker Arboretum, a five-acre oasis of wildflower-trimmed pathways on campus.
For your last stop in the Triangle, head to Raleigh, the state capital and home to a cache of cultural institutions, like the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, which hosts the 67-million-year-old skeleton of a T. rex. Seek out lunch at nearby Standard Beer + Food, a lively neighborhood spot with brewed-on-site IPA, and pop into Edge of Urge next door to browse curated gifts. In the afternoon, visit Dorothea Dix Park to stroll the expanse of green before heading to Raleigh’s Union Station to hop aboard the train home. — Regan Fletcher Stephens
3 Closer-to-Home Trips
Want a train ride without all the … well … travel? Opt for one of these railroad adventures.
Departing from the 1891 Witch’s Hat station, the train rolls along a 45-minute route through rural Bucks County to Lahaska. (Through early November, ride in the open-air car.) To see what train travel was like during Prohibition, consider the 90-minute speakeasy train experience, featuring three bevvies and light bites.
This circa-1832 steam train is the oldest continuously operating railroad in the U.S. and takes you on a 45-minute trip- through the Lancaster County countryside to Paradise. Book the wine-and-cheese tasting for sips from Waltz Vineyards — or try this month’s Legacy of Sleepy Hollow ride, which brings the legend to life on board.
It’s worth the roughly 90-minute drive to Jim Thorpe in the fall to see the Poconos put on their finest show during a 45-minute narrated excursion into Lehigh Gorge State Park. Reserve a seat in the recently restored Car 3; the early 20th-century Pullman has hand-carved wood, a tin ceiling and two fireplaces.
A Starr-Powered Acela Ride
Do yourself a favor: The next time you take the Acela to NYC or D.C., reserve a first-class seat and dine on the new Stephen Starr menu — far superior to the typical hummus or cheese plate in standard coach. The partnership with the Philly restaurant mainstay brings you dishes from establishments like the Continental Midtown (chilled sesame noodle salad) and Buddakan (black pepper beef).
The Belmond’s Royal Scotsman
For those who really want to get away
Yes, it’s quite a bit farther than PA — and you’ll have to fly out of Newark into Edinburgh — but if you’re looking to splurge on a train trip, The Belmond’s Royal Scotsman is for you. The luxury sleeper train this year unveiled its new Dior Spa in one of its carriages.
It has two treatment rooms and a menu of tailored seasonal services inspired by the country’s many foggy days — which you can enjoy on your absurdly gorgeous journey through the Highlands.
Published as “Rail Good Views” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.