Rail-ly good: Top 5 European city adventures by train
These days, it's easier than ever to travel across Europe by train. There's more to discover by train than Paris...says ecotravel expert Kate Andrews. Head to the station and pull away to one of her easy European escapes for the summer.
Thu 31 May 2018
There are hundreds of cities within reach of the UK by rail. Some are on our doorstep, others just over the Channel.
And now, thanks to international services to new destinations, even cities that are further afield are within reach for a short break by high-speed train.
With all these options, it’s now possible to look beyond the usual suspects of Europe to get a true flavour of European culture. Here’s my pick of the best European city breaks by train this summer.
Famed for its tree-lined canals, café culture and gung-ho cyclists, Amsterdam has long attracted admirers from all over the world.
This is a city that makes you feel instantly at home, as you quickly adapt to the locals’ way of life – whether it’s relaxing in a kerbside café, renting a bike, or devouring delicious pancakes.
Its compact centre is steeped in history, packed full of museums to meet every taste – art, history, cheese, sex or tulips – whatever floats your boat.
It’s worth planning ahead for the most popular attractions - Anne Frank’s House and the Van Gogh museum are often fully booked on the day - so get your tickets in advance to fast-track the queues and make sure you don’t miss out.
Nearby Utrecht, one of the Netherlands' oldest cities, is also worth a visit. Cited by some as a mini Amsterdam, go for a day to explore the medieval old town and indulge in some canal-side dining. It’s just 25 minutes by direct train from Amsterdam.
Read our reviews of Amsterdam's best ecohotels.
How to get there
Eurostar launched its much-anticipated direct train from London to Amsterdam in April 2018. There are two services every day, with a journey time of just three hours 40 minutes, so hop on the morning departure to arrive in Amsterdam in time for lunch. When you alight from the train, head west from the station to Jordaan for lunch away from the crowds that gather in the centre.
Just two hours further than Paris by train, Lyon has enough attractions – not to mention fantastic gastronomic delights – to give the capital a run for its money.
Take a stroll along the banks of the Rhône and the Saône, and explore the cafes and restaurants of the regenerated docklands. The city is famed for its food and of course, the wine is fabulous, making Lyon ideal for a long weekend of appreciating the very best of French culture.
How to get there
It has never been easier to travel by train to France’s capital of gastronomy since the city is served by a direct Eurostar from London to Lyon. The direct train, which takes just in four hrs 41 mins, previously ran during summer months only but, due to its popularity, now runs year-round.
Cologne is Germany's fourth-largest city, known for its most obvious attraction, the immense Gothic cathedral whose twin spires soar 157 metres skyward. Described by Lewis Carroll as 'the most beautiful of all the churches I have ever seen, or can imagine', it certainly makes an impression, even today.
Cologne has a great balance of activities for a weekend break, all easily explored on foot. Visitors will find a liberal, cosmopolitan city with a raft of world-class museums. Cultural excursions aren’t compulsory; when you’ve had your fill of Romanesque churches and Renaissance crucifixions, head down to the cobbled old town and Altmarkt to relax with a beer in one of the city's many beer houses
How to get there
With a journey time of four hours and ten mins, the train from London to Cologne is surprisingly fast. And thanks to the Sparpreis (Saver) ticket, which bundles Eurostar and onward ICE trains, it’s low cost too. Tickets are available six months in advance, starting at £54 one-way.
If Amsterdam and Cambridge had a baby, it would look a bit like Bruges.
Pretty wooden-clad buildings along the canals hark back to its medieval heritage while a market square flanked by grand trade houses recall its former heavyweight status in European trade. But look beyond the medieval buildings and you’ll find much to enjoy in Bruges that is contemporary.
The capital of West Flanders has plenty going to make it worthy of a city break. Take a tour of De Halve Maan Brewery, an authentic family-brewery in the city that’s been in production since 1856. It now pumps its beer three kilometres through an underground pipeline to be bottled! Wander along Bruges Art Route to discover monuments, artists' studios and galleries - every day, more than twenty locations are open to the public, absolutely free of charge.
Unsurprisingly, Bruges is generously endowed with chocolate shops. But for something more unusual, visit The Chocolate Line to sample the unlikely flavour combination of self-proclaimed "shock-o-latier," Dominique Persoone. Think ganache perfumed with Havana cigar leaves or caramel with Cabernet-Sauvignon vinegar and pine nut praline…
How to get there
From London and the south-east, the easiest way to reach Bruges is by train via Brussels. It’s a wonder that anybody travels there in any other way.
It’s good value too, thanks to the 'Any Belgian station' ticket that starts at £70 return. This ticket combines Eurostar with an onward local train to, you guessed it, any Belgian station. It’s valid on any Intercity train within Belgium within 24 hours of your arrival/departure. You could even use it as part of a whistle-stop tour of Belgium – with a trip to Ghent during the day, before catching an evening Eurostar back to London.
A savvy choice for a short city break by rail is Strasbourg, the capital of France’s Alsace region. Located on France’s eastern border with Germany, it’s easily reached by train in a day even if your trip starts outside of London.
The city has a unique blend of Germanic and Gallic charm, a stunning gothic cathedral and compact maze of canals and cobbled streets in Petite France, its Unesco-listed old town. The blend of German and French influences make Strasbourg interesting and incredibly picturesque. And that’s before you’ve ventured out into the stunning countryside that surrounds the city.
There are plenty of activities to fill a weekend, including museums, boat trips down the Rhine and wine tours of the Alsace region. For culture, head to 'Opéra national du Rhin. For politics, take a tour of the Parlamentarium to discover how the European Parliament affects the daily life of its citizens.
How to get there
TGVs to the Alsace depart from Gare de l'Est so you get there on foot (10 mins walk) from the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord. This makes Strasbourg a great choice if the idea of changing trains in Paris fills you with dread.
Kate Andrews is a self-confessed train geek, a committed overland traveller with a personal passion for rail, and the creator and COO of Loco2 – the award-winning booking engine for train tickets in the UK and Europe.