There are few better ways to see Europe than by rail. Budget flights might abound, but nothing can match the experience of travelling by train. Forget about tedious airport transfers and unsociable departure times, by rail you’ll get glorious views, spacious seats and – best of all – the ability to hop off a train right in the centre of a new city.
Whether you’re planning an epic rail tour or just looking for a weekend break, this is our pick of the best places to visit by train in Europe.
France’s gourmet capital has never been more accessible, with a direct Eurostar link to London and TGV connections that will whisk you to Paris or Marseille in under two hours.
Compact and instantly likeable, the city is perfect for getting to grips with in a weekend. Stroll the old streets of Vieux Lyon, test your adventurous palate with local specialties such as tablier de sapeur (breaded tripe), then hit up the hip Croix-Rousse district for super-cool coffee bars and cocktails.
Do: Shop at the city’s famous indoor market, the Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse. It’s the ideal place to pick up a train picnic.
Stay: Stylish mini-chain Mama Shelter have opened their latest outpost here, offering boutique design at budget-friendly prices – including iMacs in all the rooms.
Looking to get ruined? No, we’re not condoning bachelor party excesses, but embracing one of Budapest’s most famous attractions, the ruin bar.
These rambling bars have taken over abandoned buildings in the city’s seventh district, filling their dilapidated interiors with quirky decor, murals, art installations and more. You won’t find another night out in Europe quite like it.
As for getting there, direct rail links put you in easy reach of Vienna’s more sedate charms or the chilled-out Croatian coast via Zagreb.
Do: Take a bath. Budapest has long been known for its magnificent thermal pools; Gellért and Széchenyi baths are two of the best.
Stay: The sleek but affordable Soho Boutique Hotel is perfectly located for Budapest’s two train stations, and the best of the city’s nightlife.
For more than 140 years, the Caledonian Sleeper Highland Route has run from London to Scotland’s far north, calling in at Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
It’s undeniably one of the most spectacular journeys in Europe, passing through some of the Highlands’ most glorious landscapes, be they carpeted with snow in winter or dotted with wildflowers come spring.
Do: Allow yourself at least three days to explore Scotland’s rugged beauty. The adventurous can use “outdoor capital” Fort William as a base to climb Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest peak.
Stay: Splash out on a night at Inverlochy Castle, one of Scotland’s most luxurious hotels on the site of a thirteenth-century fortress.
Approaching Spain by train, most travellers make a beeline for Barcelona or Madrid. But those who venture further south are handsomely rewarded.
It’s just a two-and-a-half hour journey from Madrid to the Andalucían capital, one of the country’s most enchanting cities. With its Moorish architecture, majestic cathedral and narrow, atmospheric streets, Seville is a joy to wander – especially in June and July when there’s an average of 12 hours sunshine a day.
Do:Go on a tapas tour, either planning your own route or joining an organised group.
Stay: The small but welcoming Hotel Alminar is ideally located for sightseeing; it’s right by the cathedral and has a roof terrace perfect for summer evenings.
Picture Venice and a train is probably the last image that comes to mind. Yet with direct links to Florence, Milan, Munich and more, rail is both a convenient and quick way to reach the city.
The station sits right on the Grand Canal, mere meters from the vaporetti and water taxis that will take you anywhere in the city. There no better way to crank up the romance than cruising beneath the Rialto Bridge, past some of the city’s finest palazzo and on to the famous landing stage at San Marco.
Do:Explore the other islands in the lagoon. The Lido’s beaches are great for sunny afternoons, while Murano is (unsurprisingly) the best place to pick up Murano glass souvenirs.
Stay:Boutique hotel Ca' Pisani in Dorsoduro offers four-star service away from the crowds across the Grand Canal.
The Bavarian capital comes alive once temperatures begin to fall. First there’s the legendary Oktoberfest, which actually takes place at the end of September, and sees funfairs, beer tents and unbridled merriment overtake the city.
A few months on, as November draws to a close, the first signs of Christmas start to appear. Munich’s Weihnachtsmärkte is one the best in Germany, with hundreds of stalls radiating out from Marienplatz.
Do: Even if you’re not in Munich over Oktoberfest, make sure to visit the famous Hofbräuhaus for a stein.
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