I woke to a snowy landscape whizzing past my window. Tucked up in bed, I had views of white-frosted trees and calm lakes en route to Stockholm. I was on an overnight train, and I’d left the blind up because, as much as I love a train moment – the big windows, the gentle trundling, the lack of air travel rigmarole, such as checking hand luggage dimensions and keeping within liquid allowances – I don’t enjoy confined spaces. Prior experience with a sleeper train left me feeling like a tinned sardine.
Now I felt ready to revisit the overnight rails, which is how I found myself standing on the platform at Hamburg-Altona railway station on a drizzly Monday evening, booked in for a night aboard the SJ EuroNight. Eye-catching in its blue-and-green livery, the Swedish-operated rail company officially launched its sleeper compartment service between Hamburg and Stockholm on 20 February. The route will extend to Berlin from 31 March. Further SJ connections could launch if this year proves a success, said Pernilla Hultsten, SJ’s head of international sales.
Navigating the narrow corridor and stepping into my compact cabin, I understood that “new” defines the route for SJ, but not the carriages themselves. My first-class compartment had two neatly made beds and a few small boxes of drinking water, but the toilet in my private bathroom refused to flush.
A neighbouring passenger said there was a faulty thermostat in her cabin and she spoke of “sauna-like” temperatures during the journey. It is simply not possible to acquire brand-new sleeper carriages, though: the production back order is years-long and rail operators have no choice but to source and refurbish older wagons.
However, on the EuroNight’s inaugural run, excitement appeared to trump discomfort as I wandered between carriages and chatted to other passengers.
“It’s my first time on a sleeper train,” Helmar Frei, a solo traveller from Dresden, told me. He was bound for Stockholm to catch an onward ferry to Finland; a place he’s been visiting regularly for 15 years, but never before by train.
This sounded familiar. I’ve been travelling between Germany and Sweden for years and this was also my first time making the journey by rail. My trip would take more than three times as long as it usually takes by plane. Arriving at Stockholm Central Station mid-morning, in the city centre and ready to begin the day, I considered that it may be three times as thrilling to save the cost of a hotel night and simply wake up in a different city, to say nothing of the vast carbon savings of choosing rail over air.
Stockholm – with its 14 islands, 13th-century origins, and 80 museums documenting everything from the success of Abba to the plight of a warship from 1628 – makes for a rewarding getaway, but this year is particularly enticing. The city is the 2023 European Capital of Gastronomy.
“It’s all about what we like to call sustainable pleasure,” said Martin Wall, head chef of the restaurant at Fotografiska, a photography museum located in a former customs house. Wall acknowledges that plant-based menus and less carbon-intensive delivery chains mean little if the resulting dishes aren’t enticing.
As such, his team focuses on flavour and texture as much as on seasonal and local ingredients. He’s interested in food technology (think hydroponic gardens in which plants are grown without soil) and advocates “taking care of each other and the land”.
This ethos is prevalent throughout Sweden’s capital. Sustainability runs through food, fashion, and startup funding.
The same goes for entertainment. Royal Djurgården, the island home to Stockholm’s Gröna Lund amusement park (which reopens in spring) and the first-ever open-air museum, Skansen recently earned a Green Destination Platinum Award for its alignment with United Nations sustainability goals.
Eco-minded visitors will further appreciate the city’s public transport. Its museum is a treat for tram enthusiasts, while Stockholm’s subway system is claimed to be the world’s longest art gallery.
Back on the SJ EuroNight for the return to Hamburg, I chatted to passenger Gustaf Rydevik about the convenience of night trains before holing up in my second-class cabin (which I was surprised to find had marginally less space and a more functional layout than the first-class compartment). Rydevik lives in Edinburgh and was on a multi-country, month-long rail journey with his wife.
“The sleeper train cuts a day’s worth of travel and gives us some space between visiting family in Sweden and Luxembourg,” he said, adding that he’d only flown once in the past 12 months due to climate concerns.
Now that the SJ EuroNight links Stockholm to another waterfront city, it is worth adding a night or two in Hamburg. Germany’s largest port city has regional farmers’ markets, ample green spaces and cycling paths and sustainable restaurants.
A stroll at sunset, when the evening light reflects off the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, is even more enjoyable when paired with one of Hamburg’s fish sandwiches and a salt-tinged breeze.
Hamburg’s highlights this year include an exhibit on graffiti at the Museum for Hamburg History and Reeperbahn Festival of music (20-23 September) in the St Pauli district. Plus, there’s a recent addition to the miniature city of Miniatur Wunderland: a replica of SJ EuroNight.
By linking Stockholm and Hamburg, the sleeper route offers a double city break with a smaller carbon footprint and more enjoyable and leisurely journey.
SJ EuroNight Hamburg–Stockholm. Ticket prices vary based on demand. Second-class sleeping compartment starts from 1892 SEK (£150) one way, sj.se
Downtown Camper by Scandic has double rooms with breakfast from £152, scandichotels.com.