Six Places to Travel by Train In Europe
Forget the hassle of flying — immerse yourself in the old-school way of traveling the continent.
With the advent of discount flights, the default way of travelling around Europe seems to have become flying.
Trying to cram everything into a small carry-on suitcase, having to limit your liquids to small bottles that won’t trigger any security alerts, getting to the airport at least an hour before you leave, standing in endless queues, and trying to stay upbeat and positive when everyone around you is become increasingly irritable and grumpy. There’s not much to love about flying.
Train travel however is a different ball-game altogether. While on the face of it, the journey may seem to take a little longer, when you add in all of the waiting around that you do with flying then actually it’s usually fairly comparable and a lot more comfortable to travel by train in order to get to where you need to go.
There are so many great European cities that are easily reached by train, which means that you can take as much luggage as you like, and kick back and relax as you speed along to your destination.
Train travel — relaxing, romantic, and the best way to see the cities of Europe.
Let’s take a look at six of the best destinations reachable by train:
One of the main stops on the high speed train line that connects France, Germany, and The Netherlands, Cologne is a lively destination that starts with its enormous cathedral but offers something for everyone.
The nightlife in Cologne is particularly good, and the Christmas markets are hugely popular.
When it was finished in 1994, the tunnel that connects Paris to London suddenly opened up a whole new world of train travel, making it possible to board from St Pancras station in London and get off anywhere across Europe.
Paris remains the most popular destination and it’s no wonder — the stunning buildings and architecture combined with the cafes, the restaurants and lifestyle makes this the city that in many ways defines Europe.
It’s easy to underestimate Brussels. The downtown area can feel a little soulless and unexciting, but head uptown and you’ll find the boutique stores, the luxury chocolate shops, the markets, and grand residential areas that make this the heart of Europe.
With a high-speed train connection direct from Paris, Marseille is surprisingly easy to get to by train.
Discover this ancient port and explore the surrounding region — stunning coastline, the rolling fields of Provence, or the national park of the Camarque. Feast on enormous bowls of Bouillabaisse washed down with glasses of crisp white wine as you relax in the sun.
Amsterdam remains one of Europe’s top destinations, and one of the best ways to get there is by train.
This city of canals is no longer the preserve of stag-dos and party-lovers, the laid-back pace of life makes this the perfect city if you just want to hang out for a couple of days, visit the galleries and museums, and dodge the speeding and strangely aggressive cyclists.
If you change trains at Brussels, you can soon find yourself in the picturesque town of Bruges with its romantic canals, bridges, and narrow brick buildings.
Wander through the streets of Bruges and you will feel as if you have stepped back in time to old-world Europe, and a time before discount air fares changed the way that the world travelled.
The best place to live in Europe
One of my little travel fantasies, which I never really put much more effort into than some occasional day-dreaming, is to go and live somewhere in Europe for a while — not just a quick mini-break or passing through on a holiday, but actually to move somewhere to live, to immerse myself in the pace and rhythm of the place, to learn the language, take cooking classes, and paint landscapes.
This particular fantasy requires me to have enough money saved up so that I don’t have to be distracted by anything tedious like getting a job, so it does clearly remain in day-dream land. But indulge me, where would be the best place in Europe to live? How would you decide? What criteria would you use?
Here’s the list that I’ve been working on to help narrow down the options.
I’d like to live somewhere where I could at least feel that I was getting to grips with some of the local language. Having grown up in Australia I am starting from scratch with all European languages, but thankfully English will get you a long way in most places. However I’d like to be able to at least order dinner in a restaurant or ask for directions with a basic grasp of the key words.
Madrid could be attractive. Copenhagen is a beautiful city but Danish words seem incredibly difficult to pronounce.
I’m looking for a city that ticks my romantic-fantasy boxes. Somewhere where there is some decent weather occasionally, where they serve good coffee, where I can sit in a park and write poetry — that kind of thing.
Barcelona definitely has a lot of appeal, or maybe Marseilles, but then again Berlin would be fairly amazing even though the weather can be a bit bleak. It’s a compromise isn’t it — do you go for the cool edgy, urban attitude of Berlin or the laid-back beach party vibe of Barcelona?
The cost of living
It would be amazing if money was no object, but however well-off you are there has to be some consideration given to the cost of living in the different cities that are being considered.
On the whole, European cities are fairly developed and there aren’t too many bargains to be had, but some cities have cheaper housing (a huge factor), some cities have expensive transport systems, and other cities are so cold that you spend a fortune on heating.
I’ve become a bit obsessed recently with an online tool that helps you compare the cost of living in different cities in Europe. You start with £1,000 and then it calculates in which city your money would last the longest. For example, my £1,000 would last a bit over 10 days in Paris, just under 7 days in London, but a whopping 20 days in Prague.
The bottom line is that my travel fantasies require me to do a bit more research, to try and learn a few conversational phrases in some of the key European languages, but (perhaps most importantly), I’m going to need to save a bit more money.
Great train journeys of the world
While in many parts of the world, train travel is simply the fastest and most efficient way to travel from point A to point B. But there are still some train journeys that exist merely because they are a pleasure in themselves, that they offer a unique insight into the landscape that the train takes you through, or because they perfectly encapsulate the old saying that the journey is more important than the destination.
There is something very old-world about the pace and style of this type of train travel.
In this article we take a look at three of our favourite train journeys.
The Bergen Line
This train in Norway takes you from the capital city Oslo all the way to Bergen — it is considered to be one of the mot beautiful, exciting and scenic train journeys in the world.
One of the unique aspects of this train is that it travels across Europe’s highest mountain plateau — the Hardangervidda, travelling above the tree line through this rugged terrain.
This train is surprisingly busy in winter as it is one of the main points of access for Norway’s winter sports resorts.
One of the most popular places to stop en route is the small town of Finse — this was the location that George Lucas used to create the ice planet Hoth in the 1979 movie The Empire Strikes Back.
The Glacier Express
An express in name only, this unique train journey in Switzerland holds the dubious honour of being the slowest express train in the world.
While it is express in the sense that you don’t have to change trains at all, it will take you nearly eight hours to travel the 291 kilometres of this journey from St Moritz to Zermatt.
The reason that the journey is so slow is because the train is traversing the steep mountainsides of the Swiss Alps and the scenery is spectacular.
The Glacier Express has become such a tourist attraction that the train’s first class carriages have now been fitted with panoramic windows that extend right up over the ceiling of the carriage making your journey through the stunning mountain ranges jaw-droopingly exciting.
The Orient Express
It’s impossible to think of journeys on the Orient Express without bringing to mind the famous murder/mystery novel written by Agatha Christie.
Thankfully murders are quite rare on this incredibly historic train, but it is an exciting way to travel nevertheless. Dating back to 1883, the route of the Orient Express has changed many times over the years, but it’s name has become synonymous with luxury train travel across Europe.
Today’s Orient Express travels from London to Venice, and features some of the original carriages from the historic Orient Express trains.
If you are not in a hurry, if you are more interested in immersing yourself in the world around you than dashing off to your next meeting, then you should definitely consider embracing the old world charm of some of the great train journeys in the world.
How to avoid flying
Maybe it is a sign that I am getting older and grumpier, but after years of travelling on airlines around the world, I am fed up with flying.
I can remember a time when getting on a flight to go away on holidays was exciting and a bit glamorous. People dressed up and wanted to look nice for their flight, the air stewardesses were stylish, friendly, and flirty, and you made sure you got to the airport in plenty of time so that you could soak up the experience.
It hit me the other day that this is no longer the case — in fact, flying seems to have become almost the opposite of everything that it used to be. Passengers dress for maximum comfort (a.k.a. sweatpants), the staff are surly and obviously wish that they were somewhere else, the security requirements mean that you are virtually strip-searched before you are allowed into the departures area, and their always seems to be a drama about how much luggage you can take or whether you’re trying to smuggle through liquids that exceed the amount considered to small to construct a bomb. It’s all a bit miserable.
So I’ve decided to try and avoid flying. However this doesn’t mean that I have given up on going away on holidays, or that I am confining getaways to driving holidays in Devon. The UK may be an island, but there are ways of escape if you put your mind to it.
The Eurostar service out of London’s St Pancras station is pretty phenomenal. Not only does it get you under the channel and into Paris in a matter of hours, but you can then easily change on to the fantastic rail services that criss cross Europe — in no time you can be whizzing down to the South of France, or heading East to Amsterdam or Germany. Of course the best thing about the trains is that you don’t have to stress about your luggage — take as much as you can carry and they don’t care if you’ve stashed some liquids in there.
Not just for holidays when you are taking the car, from the UK you can jump on the ferry to Spain, or France, or lots of other destinations. It’s a bit like taking a mini-cruise. The pace may be a little slower, but it is definitely a relaxed and enjoyable way to travel.
The Cruise Ships
Why not make the journey the holiday itself? Lots of cruise liners have services that start, end, or just call into one of the UK’s ports. Who needs to get anywhere! Just jump onboard and sail into the sunset.
Imagine if there was a volcano in Iceland, spewing lots of ash into the air, grounding all the flights across Europe. The good news is that there are other ways to travel — get practising now and you’ll probably find that you enjoy it. It sure beats the hassle of crowded airports and being treated like third class citizens in the back of a plane. Start your holiday with a pleasant journey and you will have got things off on the right foot.
An adventure on the Orient Express
Although Agatha Christie’s murder/mystery novel helped cement the old-world glamour of the Orient Express firmly in our collective consciousness, murders are actually fairly rare on this fantastic journey across Europe.
The Orient Express is however the perfect way to share a unique travel expedition with a romantic liaison, friends, or family — taking you back to a time when train travel was the only way to get from one country to the other, and the Orient Express was the way to do it in style.
The Orient Express journey that was described by Agatha Christie can perhaps be seen as the classic route that was originally taken by the train.
Having first begun in 1883, over the years there have been a number of changes to the route taken and the operator of the service. The journey that you can make today is known as the Venice-Simplon Orient Express and it will take you from London to Venice. This journey takes two days and one night (much shorter than the original trip to Istanbul). There are two different trains involved in this journey — firstly a British Pullman takes you from London Victoria station to Folkestone in Kent, then from Paris you board the Orient Express train with its sleeper cabins for the overnight travel.
The route taken
From Paris the train heads into Switzerland where it stops at Buchs, and then on into Austria for a stop at Innsbruck, before heading into Italy through the picturesque Dolomites. There is a brief stop at Verona before the journey ends at Santa Lucia station in Venice.
Travelling with children
Journeys on the Orient Express work surprisingly well as a family holiday. If your children are under the age of two then they travel for free. If your children are aged between two and eleven, and they are sharing a double cabin with one adult, then you will receive a twenty per cent discount off the full fare price. Unfortunately the train is not suitable for people who require wheelchairs due to the age and configuration of the train. If you have walking difficulties it is recommended that you are accompanied by an able-bodied passenger to assist you as required.
Meals and Service Levels
A cabin steward is allocated to you throughout your journey on the train. The cabin steward is there to assist you with any requirements such as changing the configuration of your sleeping cabin from day-mode to night-mode. It is the cabin steward who will serve you breakfast and afternoon tea in your cabin, lunch and dinner are served in the restaurant cars. On your journey the other staff that will be assisting you include the Maitre d’ who will assist you with your lunch and dinner reservations. All meals on your journey are included in the cost of your fare. If you have any specific dietary requirements it is best to discuss these at the time of booking — the on-board chefs will generally be able to cater for all requirements. The train manager will also be on hand to assist you with any queries. Additional travel services such as accommodation or transfers can be booked for you.
All aboard the Orient Express — one of the world’s great train journeys and the perfect way to experience a different pace of travel.
My essential apps for travelling
The developments in technology in recent years are amazing, and a bit overwhelming. We have so many new ways of keeping in touch, keeping us on track, and keeping us amused that it is hard to remember a world before computers, a world before smart phones, a world before being constantly connected.
Travel is one of those parts of our lives that has really been transformed by technology — and generally for the better. Here’s a short list of some of my favourite apps that I like to have at my fingertips when travelling.
There used to be a time when you were planning a holiday or an expedition you had to buy the latest guide book and lug it around with you. Those days are gone. Now there are a multitude of apps and sites that give you all the local information that you need and ensure that it is always updated.
There is nothing more satisfying than rocking up into a new city and being able to impress your friends with being able to find the top five cafes, the nearest bar, or navigating your way to a hard to find museum. This is why I love technology.
I like the hipster guides that Adam Groffman has created for Travels of Adam; I also find lots of useful information in the downloadable guides from Travel Gay Europe.
Pretty much the first thing I do when I wake up each day is check the BBC news — it’s a quick way of checking that the world hasn’t blown up. However, for longer and more in-depth news I generally look to Discors — it brings together long-form journalism and provides background briefing context on the more complicated stories that aren’t going to be grabbing the daily headlines but are probably more important to understand in the long-run.
One of the inevitabilities of travelling is that sometimes things don’t go to plan. Your flight will be cancelled, your train will be delayed or there will be some reason why you find yourself sitting around killing time. It’s at moments like these that I opt for mindless games. The perfect way to kill a couple of hours in an airport. My fall back option is Bubble Island or Jelly Jump — they’re not high-brow, they don’t require any skill or intelligence or creativity, but they’re a useful stress-release when things aren’t going your way.
Keeping fit when you are travelling is always a real challenge. This isn’t such an issue when you are away on holidays, but when you are travelling frequently with work you quickly fall out of your normal fitness routines and your body and your health starts to pay the price. There are a huge range of apps out there designed to make keeping fit easy and fun. I have to admit that my fitness regime is completely off the rails at the moment, but I have good intentions of getting back on track. I use to use the app GymJam to help keep me focused while travelling, I’m sure that there are plenty of other options out there also.
Wherever you are travelling, whatever you are doing, use the technology available to help make your journey just a little bit easier.
The secret to travelling light
For me, travelling has always been a bit exciting, a bit of an adventure, something to look forward to and plan for and talk about and discuss.
One of the key stages of planning for a holiday is the packing. I’ve always been one for taking everything. I think it probably traces back to the family camping holidays that we always embarked on when growing up. Whether we would be going for a weekend or a couple of weeks, the strategy was always to ram as much stuff as possible into the car because you’d never know if you need it. “Do we need to take all the board games?” “Have we got enough torches?” “I’m going to stash this fruit cake in the spare tyre compartment” were all serious discussions in the final throes of packing for family holidays.
For years I have always prided myself on the size of my suitcase, I always look for a suitcase that will allow me to pretty much take the entire contents of my wardrobe with me on vacation. “I know it’s a beach holiday… but what if we get invited to a smart barbecue?” It is always best to be prepared for any eventuality. But that was the old me. I’ve changed. I now travel light. I now only ever travel with hand luggage.
The case for hand luggage
One of the game changers was the increasing popularity of budget airlines and their determination to charge you for everything that they could. Checking in luggage costs extra. If you can cram everything you need into your hand luggage, then you are saving money that will be better spent on cocktails.
There’s also the logistics of the airport. Airports chew up a lot of time even when things are all running smoothly. There is nothing more depressing though than waiting for your luggage to appear on a slow-moving carousel — the quicker that you can be off the plane, out the door of the airport and on your way then the better your holiday is going to be.
The challenge of liquids
The decision by the security services of the world’s airports that bottles of liquid posed a terrorism risk has certainly complicated things for the world of hand-luggage travellers (especially women). Thankfully my beauty regime is almost non-existent so I can easily survive on a small tube of toothpaste. But also if you find that you need something specific when you get there, they will have shops wherever you are going.
The key to being able to travel with hand luggage is to be able to pack fairly strategically. Of course you wear your big bulky coat on the plane with you (even if it’s clearly too hot to wear a coat), but you need to be able to cram as many essential items into your bag as possible. Shoes always seem to take up a lot of room, so I always wear the biggest pair of shoes that I’ll need (hiking boots are hard to fly in but it’s been done), and then try and limit myself to only one pair of additional shoes. I also take a handful of clothes that I wouldn’t mind throwing out — so you can wear them, but if for some reason you find yourself tight for space, you don’t need to bring them home with you.
The challenge of travelling light. A new dimension to planning your holiday expedition.