Budget flights aren’t really so cheap when you factor in all the add-ons, so why not travel by train instead and make the journey part of the adventure?
When travelling by train, security queues are faster, you only need to turn up an hour before departure, and mainline train stations are all conveniently located in the city centre – making your journey often quicker than it would be by air. Here are our favourite destinations in Europe that are not only easily accessible by train, but rank high in cultural attractions too.
Eurostar can whisk you from St Pancras to Antwerp in just over three hours, changing at Brussels. Belgium’s coolest city has a charming medieval centre, an impressive cathedral and some first-rate museums, including Rubenshuis, Peter Paul Rubens’ former home and studio, and the ModeMuseum, which is dedicated to fashion. Another draw for visitors is ready availability of the best of Belgium’s rather eclectic beers: Bierhuis Kulminator has over 800 brands, most of them Belgian.
A journey to Strasbourg takes around five hours from London; from Paris, take a train from Gare de l’Est, which is conveniently located just an eight-minute walk from Gare du Nord. This city on the banks of the Rhine may be the capital of Alsace in France, but its close proximity to Germany has resulted in a highly photogenic mix of both countries, from medieval half-timbered houses straight out of the Brothers Grimm to elegant Gallic-style mansions. Its compact size means it’s easily walkable; highlights include the magnificent Gothic Strasbourg Cathedral and the medieval art collection at the Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame.
Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, and foodies from around the world flock to world-famous restaurants like Paul Bocuse’s three Michelin-starred Auberge du Pont Collonges. You can still eat well on a budget here, though: bouchons, the city’s version of a bistro, offers delicious and hearty fare; La Garet (7 Rue du Garet) is regarded as one of the best. Walk off the excesses at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, which features art ranging from Egyptian antiquities and sculptures to paintings from the 14th to mid-20th centuries. Eurostar trains travel directly to Lyon in under five hours, except in the low season, when you’ll need to change in Lille.
One of Germany’s oldest cities – it was founded by the Romans in 50 A.D. – Cologne is around five and a half hours from London, with a change in Brussels; happily, all the major sights are located close to the train station, and the city’s soaring Gothic cathedral will orientate you wherever you find yourself. Fans of contemporary art are well served at Ludwig Museum, but in fact the most popular cultural attraction – perhaps unsurprisingly – is the Imhoff Chocolate Museum. Farina House Fragrance Museum explores the history of cologne, for which the city is named.
Despite its small size, the most southerly city in the Netherlands has a booming restaurant scene and the kind of lively nightlife that befits a university city. Wander the cobbled streets of the medieval city centre, explore the ruins of Lichtenberg Castle, which has incredible views down on the River Meuse; for boutiques, art galleries and hip cafes, head to the district of Wyck. The Eurostar will get you to Maastricht in just under six hours, with a change at Brussels.
You can reach the capital of the Loire Valley in only an hour from Paris on a high-speed TGV train, although if you want to visit the fairytale chateaux for which the region is famous you’ll probably need to hire a car. The city itself is eminently walkable, though, especially around the cobbled streets of the old town, and there’s plenty to do and see, from the Museum of Fine Arts to a botanical garden and arboretum. Tours is known for its street markets: besides the central food market in Les Halles, there’s a gorgeous flower market on Boulevard Béranger and a flea market in Place de la Victoire.