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Top train destinations in Europe, for a flight-free summer

Much of Europe is easily accessible by train (Shutterstock / CrispyPork)
Much of Europe is easily accessible by train (Shutterstock / CrispyPork)

There’s something old-world romantic about journeying by train. And whether you suffer from flygskam (flight shame), are worried about the rising price of European flights or just like the sound of taking things that little bit slower, you don’t have to be limited by destination when booking a summer escape on the rails. From city to coast, culture to beach, our getaways tick off the lot.

Avignon, France

Enjoy flowers in bloom by the Pont d’Avignon (Xuan Nguyen / Unsplash)
Enjoy flowers in bloom by the Pont d’Avignon (Xuan Nguyen / Unsplash)

Is the south of France calling? All it takes is a simple station transfer in Paris and you can be revelling in lavender-scented, sun-soaked Provençal cities such as Avignon or Marseille. The former is romantic and old-world, with its vast Palais des Papes (once the seat of the papacy), ray-warmed squares and *that* famous pont (bridge) from the children’s song. Onward bus connections to romantic towns such as Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and trains to nearby Arles – home to an impressive Roman amphitheatre – let you explore more of what the region has to offer without needing to hire a car.

Fastest travel time: 5 hours 45 minutes, via Paris

Eat: Surprise after surprise – all contemporary, all seasonal, all delicious – pours from the exacting kitchens at Pollen (pollen-restaurant.fr), where chef Mathieu Desmarest changes the Michelin-awarded menu every week.

Stay: Housed in a former cardinals’ palace, La Mirande (la-mirande.fr, from £364) pairs Marie Antoinette-luxe rooms with a celebrated restaurant and cookery school.

Barcelona, Spain

Take the train all the way to beachy Barcelona (Lucrezia Carnelos / Unsplash)
Take the train all the way to beachy Barcelona (Lucrezia Carnelos / Unsplash)

Must your hols be a proper beach break? Put in the slightly extended travel time and you can make it all the way to Spain’s coast on the rails — hitting the golden beaches of Catalan capital Barcelona the same day you leave London. Spread your towel on bustling Sant Miquel or Somorrostro, and once the sun sets sip sangria in the Gràcia district or bar-hop in El Raval. If you’re itching for sightseeing, you can still do it all outdoors. Take in Gaudi’s Park Guëll, raid La Boqueria market for a picnic or explore the manicured maze at Parc del Laberint d’Horta.

Fastest travel time: 10 hours, via Paris

Eat: A refreshing alternative to some of the tourist-trap eateries of beachy Barceloneta, Casa Maians (casamaians.com) serves Catalan rice dishes with freshly landed seafood.

Stay: It doesn’t get any closer to the seafront than Hotel Arts Barcelona (hotelartsbarcelona.com, from £225), where you’ll get sweeping Med views, a top-notch pool and a cool neutral aesthetic.

Tangier Morocco

The former home of Yves Saint Laurent restored by Jasper Conran (Villa Mabrouka)
The former home of Yves Saint Laurent restored by Jasper Conran (Villa Mabrouka)

A less straightforward trip (and not strictly all by train) but worth the slow approach — plus it almost counts as two holidays in one with several nights spent in Spain en route. Start at St Pancras to Paris before transferring onto a train to Barcelona. Stay the night — no hardship — before chugging on to Madrid or Granada (we’d always recommend charming Granada for beauty and value for money) and then the coastal Andalucian town of Algeciras (very cheap), where you’ll hit the beach, snack on chicharrones and spend the night. From here hop on the ferry to Tangier, one of the hottest destinations for 2024. September is a good time to visit, when the Tanjazz music festival will bring the vibes.

Fastest travel time: 2.5 days but why not take longer to soak up the charms of Spain along the way?

Eat: Join Tangier’s creatives at Alma Kitchen & Coffee (almatanger.com) for pared-back interiors and hearty Mediterranean bites. Or join the substantial queue of in-the-know locals at quaint seafood spot Le Saveur de Poisson for the five-course set menu.

Stay: the stunning Villa Mabrouka, once home to Yves Saint Laurent and exquisitely brought back to life by Jasper Conran (villamabrouka.com, from £385)

Bruges, Belgium

After the train, boat rides await in Bruges (Pieter D'Hoop)
After the train, boat rides await in Bruges (Pieter D'Hoop)

Accessible by train via a quick change in Brussels, UNESCO-listed Bruges feels lifted from a fairytale with its turreted Gothic architecture, medieval laneways and winding merchant canals. Just mooching about its compact centre feels like sightseeing – whether you hop on a hire bike to roll along the tree-lined city ramparts or simply wander through the maze-like cobbled streets. Tick off a couple top of the sights (the Belfry, the Basilica) then settle onto a pub terrace off the central Markt square with a locally brewed beer in hand.

Fastest travel time: 3 hours 10 minutes, via Brussels

Eat: Locàle (locale.be) bucks the typical offering of mussels and stews to serve up innovative confit kohlrabi with sea buckthorn and veal ribeye with tarragon.

Stay: Boutiquey The Pand (pandhotel.com, from £159) echoes the city’s trademark old-world charm with chandeliers, gilded mirrors and classy-kitsch wallpapers.

Milan, Italy

Milan is closer than you think by train (Ouael Ben Salah / Unsplash)
Milan is closer than you think by train (Ouael Ben Salah / Unsplash)

Time your connections right and you can go from London St Pancras to sun-soaked Bel Paese in a little under 11 hours. A hols in northern Italian city Milan comes with Campari spritzes outside its iconic Duomo, shopping in the elegant Brera district, and wanders around the contemporary Prada Museum. What’s more, if you’ve the time, plenty more Italian wonders await by easy onward train connection. Clooney-favourite Como is less than an hour on the rails, art-packed Florence is two and capital Rome is three.

Fastest travel time: 10 hours 40 minutes, via Paris

Eat: In hip Isola, Ratanà (ratana.it) combines a knock-out wine list with contemporary takes on trad Milanese favourites – for example, saffron risotto with ossobuco.

Stay: With its rooftop pool and walking distance to Parco Sempione, Hotel VIU Milan (hotelviumilan.com, from £274) makes a great base when the weather warms.

The Hague, Netherlands

Hit the beach at The Hague (Nationale-Beeldbank)
Hit the beach at The Hague (Nationale-Beeldbank)

Amsterdam has capital appeal, Rotterdam has gritty port charm – but low-key The Hague makes a perfect summer break thanks to its combo of high culture and 11km of beaches. Moments from the historic city centre, broad Scheveningen awaits with sandside bars and a promenade, while Zuiderstrand appeals for water sports. Sun acting shy? Take in the world-class architecture and museums. Palace Noordeinde is the working royal residence of the House of Orange, the International Court of Justice sits in the north of town, and Mauritshuis showcases world-famous Vermeer painting Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Fastest travel time: 4 hours, via Rotterdam

Eat: Go full diplomat-level elegance at Michelin-starred Central Park (centralparkvoorburg.com), where caviar, wagyu beef and truffle all feature on the menu.

Stay: The opulent environs of Hotel des Indes (hoteldesindesthehague.com, from £180), built in 1858, has hosted tsars, kings and even Winston Churchill.

Cologne, Germany

Take in the views over the Rhine River in Cologne (Francesco Carovillano / GNTB)
Take in the views over the Rhine River in Cologne (Francesco Carovillano / GNTB)

From its eclectic array of architecture to its dozens of lauded museums and galleries, Cologne is a culture-lover’s dream – and very straightforward to visit by train. Reached from London via zippy connection in Brussels, it’s do-able in just a long weekend, though you’ll want more to take in all the sights, from twin-spired Koelner Dom cathedral to the Picasso-packed Ludwig Museum and the five-and-a-half-acre botanical gardens. Cologne’s nightlife isn’t half bad, either – try Odonien for a beer garden and events, or Seiberts for cocktails.

Fastest travel time: 4 hours, via Brussels

Eat: Get a contemporary taste of Rhineland cuisine at Christoph Paul (christoph-paul.koeln), a leader in German farm-to-fork eating.

Stay: Affordable 25hours The Circle (25hours-hotels.com, from £95) gives cool 60s energy and overlooks the timeless peaks of the cathedral.

Paris, France

Paris is the ultimate train destination (Alamy Stock Photo)
Paris is the ultimate train destination (Alamy Stock Photo)

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before: there’s real magic in boarding the Eurostar at St Pancras and disembarking in Paris just a couple short hours (and a bottle of M&S train wine) later. The City of Light is the ultimate easy-breezy rail escape and a perfect candidate for a last-minute jaunt abroad. Though with the Olympics and Paralympics in town from 26 July, this summer it requires a bit more planning than usual.

Focus your energies on lower-key neighbourhoods that are less likely to be overrun. That means swerving the Louvre and Tour Eiffel to hone in on Canal Saint-Martin for cafes and boutiques, Oberkampf for nightlife, Bois de Boulogne for park walks and picnics or SoPi for trendy restaurants. Shop in Saint-Germain-des-Prés rather than Champs-Élysée and see impressionist art at Musée de l’Orangerie, not oversubscribed Musée d’Orsay.

Fastest travel time: 2 hours 16 minutes direct

Eat: Cheese souffle and crêpes Suzette at recently refurbished Maxim’s (restaurant-maxims.com), an opulent Belle Époque bistro and see-and-be-seen nightlife spot.

Stay: Elegant Left Bank grande dame Hotel Lutetia (hotellutetia.com, from £1,789), an art deco masterpiece with modern balconied rooms overlooking Saint-Germain-des-Prés and – in some cases – the Eiffel Tower.

Edinburgh, UK

It’s not abroad, but Edinburgh is easy to reach on the train (Kate Bielinski / Unsplash)
It’s not abroad, but Edinburgh is easy to reach on the train (Kate Bielinski / Unsplash)

OK, so it’s not technically abroad. But in summertime the Scottish capital has enough star quality to convince you to linger in the UK. In the four hours, 15 minutes that it takes you to traverse the 534km between the Big Smoke and Edinburgh, you’ll pass beautiful architecture in York and Durham, wild coast and field upon field of fluffy sheep. On arrival, you can tuck into all of the city’s delights, from whisky drams at Johnnie Walker Princes Street to hikes up Arthur’s Seat and tours of Edinburgh Castle. Visit in August, and you’ll have the buzz of the Fringe Festival, International Festival and epic Military Tattoo to keep you busy, too.

Fastest travel time: 4 hours, 15 minutes

Eat: Heron (heron.scot) in waterside Leith serves Scottish produce with globe-trotting touches – think Orkney scallop with hazelnut and caviar or Arbroath smokie with caper and egg.

Stay: Go full Scottish with a stay at Gleneagles Townhouse (gleneagles.com, from £330), featuring cool floral-print rooms and a wellness space offering 40 complimentary classes.