European city breaks by rail

In the plane vs train stakes the train often wins hands down, or should that be wheels down, when it comes to total travel time from city centre to city centre. For journeys beginning in London this only applies to the cities nearest to the Channel Tunnel. Places like Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam immediately come to mind. However, Cologne, Strasbourg and Lyon can be reached in little more than it would take to fly there.

Rail Travel 001
Thalys trains, part of Europe's network of high speed railway network © Ale Sasso - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When the issue of comfort, no baggage fees or restrictions (within reason), high speed city centre to city centre journeys are taken into account travel by train becomes a far more inviting option. I have travelled on the high-speed Eurostar, TGV, ICE and Thalys trains across some of the European network and have chosen 6 cities worth considering for a rail break.

Paris and Brussels are Eurostar destinations and where most high-speed connections from London to the cities in the list below are made. For now I will leave these two for a future post.

Rail to Amsterdam
You can take a canal tour from right outside Amsterdam Centraal.


Amsterdam’s central station, like most of the city centre, is in close to the canals for which it is famed.  You can leave the station, cross the road and take a boat tour of the canals. However, Amsterdam is also a very walkable city and Anne Frank’s House, the Floating Flower Market and Dam Square are all easily reached on foot from the railway station.

The city was home to the painter Rembrandt and it is worth visiting the Rembrandt House Museum as well as the Rijkmuseum. Two or three days is not enough to fully explore the city and certainly is not if you wish to explore the nearby bulbfields, the Kinderdijk windmills or The Hague.

Journey time: 4h:38m; Route: London-Brussels-Amsterdam; Trains: Eurostar + Thalys

Rail to Cologne
Cologne Cathedral seen from the Rhine


Cologne is a hip, fun loving and youthful city with a history stretching back to Roman times. The main railway station, one of the busiest in Europe is right beside the magnificent cathedral or dom. The bridge over the Rhine by which the trains enter the station is covered in padlocks. Cologne claims to have the first of the love lock bridges that have sprung up across Europe.

Padlocks on railway bridge
Tens of thousands of padlocks adorn the busiest railway bridge in Europe

Underground and in a museum next to the Dom there are Roman ruins and relics to be seen. On the banks of the Rhine there is a chocolate museum and chocolate cafe to pass a few indulgent hours. It is de rigueur for anyone visiting the city to visit the house where that famous perfume, Eau de Cologne, was first made.

Journey time: 5h:17m; Route: London-Brussels-Cologne; Trains: Eurostar + Thalys

Rail Strasbourg


Strasbourg is known for being the headquarters of a number of European institutions, most notably the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. It is also famous for its historic centre on the Grande Île with the half timbered houses typical of Alsace region of France and its towering cathedral. The district known as Petite France is home to some of the prettiest and most photogenic narrow cobbled streets especially from spring onwards when the half-timbered houses are bedecked with flowers. A great deal of Strasbourg is pedestrianised and is easily explored on foot or by bike.

Journey time: 6h:10m; Route: London-Lille-Paris-Strasbourg; Trains: Eurostar + TGV

Rail to Lyon
Lyon, Gastronomic Capital of France


They say that if Paris is the heart of France then Lyon is its stomach. It certainly is a gastronomic destination and you cannot visit Lyon without sampling some of its many restaurants from the simple fayre served good in the bouchons to the Michelin starred restaurants.

Rail Lyon 002
Le Bistrot de Lyon

Wandering around Old Lyon exploring the hidden passages or traboules is a great way to spend an afternoon. There are numerous murals right across Lyon and searching them out is a great way to explore the city.

Lyon always surprises; it has plenty of wide open squares and parkland and a thriving cultural scene both classic and contemporary. It is a destination in its own right and not just a stop on the route south.

Journey time: 5h:25m; Route: London-Paris-Lyon; Trains: Eurostar + TGV

Further afield

The next two destinations are well over the six hours of travelling mark so the train is unlikely to beat the plane even allowing for all the waiting at airports and journey between city centre and airport. I have included them because the getting there is an enjoyable part of the break.

Nice by rail
Old Nice, the flower market and the sweeping curve of the Promenade des Anglais


The next two destinations are well over the six hours of travelling mark so the train is unlikely to beat the plane even allowing for all the waiting at airports and journey between city centre and airport. I have included them because the getting there is an enjoyable part of the break.

Turin by rail


Turin is an important cultural and manufacturing centre in the Piedmont region of Italy famous as the home of FIAT and the Turin Shroud. It is a city of beautiful squares and wide boulevards lined with numerous Baroque style houses, palaces and villas. Many of the streets are arcaded with stylish 19th century cafes and boutiques. This is the place to sample Italian cafe society as it once was. Turin is also the birthplace of Nutella which was originally made as a poor man’s chocolate. It became popular with everyone and expanded into the global success it is now. Another Turin institution is Bicerin a drink that is a mix of chocolate, coffee and cream served in layers in a glass. The best place to try it is in Caffe al Bicerin where it was invented.

Journey time: 9h:34m; Route: London-Paris-Turin; Trains: Eurostar + TGV France Italy

Europe by rail
Rail travel in Europe is quick, easy and efficient

These are just some of the cities across Europe that can be reached by rail in under 10 hours. There many more lesser visited cities that are on my list to visit. What are your experiences of city breaks by rail? Do you have any suggestions as to where to go?

Michael Portillo’s series on European train journeys follows routes recommended by Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide (£) published in 1913 (available as a 2012 reprint). 

For those who would like to read more about European cities reached by rail I can highly recommend Tom Chesshyre’s book Tales From The Fast Trains; Europe at 186mph (£). He covers far more cities, and in more depth, than I have room for in this post.

You can get an Interrail pass and book tickets with (£)

Declaration: There are several links in this post some of which are affiliate links. These are indicated by (£) after the link. There are also banner ads that are affiliate links. Affiliate links mean that the companies mentioned pay me a small percentage of anything purchased through that link. It is not much but it helps towards the running cost of this website and does not cost you, the reader, a thing. Even though I use affiliate links I maintain my editorial independence

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