Imagine a holiday where you don’t need to arrive hours before departure…where there are no expensive taxis to inconvenient out-of-town locations or extra charges for daring to bring a medium-sized suitcase, and where the journey begins on time.
All this is well within the realms of possibility – and has been for decades. Train travel is enjoying something of a revival. Although the travel time is longer on paper, you often find you win hours back, as the train takes you to/from a central location without a wait for your luggage and a bumpy transfer bus at the other end.
More often than not, the journey itself is an adventure. So what are you waiting for? Here are seven ideas for a rail-based escape.
Barcelona and Girona, Spain
Journey time: around 10h
The high-speed rail line from Paris to Barcelona is not one you need to bring a book for.
This romantic route zips you through the vineyards of Burgundy, flirting with the banks of the Rhone, the outskirts of Avignon and various national parks before plunging down to the Mediterranean coast - the Pyrenees in the backdrop.
The last two stops on the line are Girona and Barcelona. Barcelona has the riches of Gaudi architecture, galleries spilling over with Picassos, Mirós etc and a handy beach.
Its less familiar sister, Girona, is something of a hidden gem. There’s a crumbling Roman fortress, a Medieval walled Old Quarter and a stunning food scene. Across the province of Girona 21 Michelin stars are sprinkled across 16 restaurants.
The Spanish Grand Dame hotel, Hostal de La Gavina, is an ideal place to stay. Sitting on the coast a little outside of Girona, it has a high-end spa and sports club offering kayak excursions, tennis and water skiing. The enormous pool overlooks the turquoise Bay of S’Agaró.
There’s also a bus which takes you directly to Barcelona if you don’t fancy heading back into central Girona for the train.
Reach the two Catalan cities by taking the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, then crossing the city to the Gare de Lyon for the twice daily train to Spain. The journey costs from £166.
Journey time: 3h52
Amsterdam is one of the easiest city breaks to do by train. Alongside Paris and Brussels, it is one of the destinations you can reach via the trusty Eurostar with return tickets starting from £40 and an enviable journey time of just under four hours.
For a standout location amid the city’s Baroque canal houses, book yourself into the Pulitzer Amsterdam hotel.
Located in the chichi Nine Streets neighbourhood, you’re surrounded by stylish boutiques, smart cafés and are just a short hop from the main sights. The hotel itself is a delicious Dutch labyrinth - made up of 25 interlinked canal houses from the Dutch Golden Age, with each room having its own distinctive style. Make sure to try local delicacies such as North Sea crab toast and shrimp croquettes in the Jansz restaurant next door.
To begin exploring, hop on the free ferry departing from behind the Centraal station with your cycle and head over to the uber-trendy northern district (Amsterdam-Noord) with its craft breweries and artist workshops.
Journey time: around 5h
If busy Paris doesn’t catch your fancy, in just an hour or so extra you can be in the rolling vineyards of Champagne, sipping bubbles in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Depart the Eurostar and walk around five minutes to the Gare de L’Est. From here regular trains depart for Champagne-Ardenne. Tickets cost from £150 return.
Base yourself around Épernay – the unofficial capital of Champagne, which is surrounded by the bucolic Montagne de Reims national park. The place to stay to enjoy both town life and nature is the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, which sits on the outskirts of Épernay. The hotel has a designated driver who can drop you off at all the best local Champagne houses, while the concierge team can organise tasting and harvesting sessions with local producers.
You can also enjoy local wines paired with exquisite food matches at the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
Journey time: around 8h
Reaching the Swiss mountains by train is far from the most convenient route on this list (it involves four changes), but it is spectacular.
Hop on the Eurostar to Paris, changing from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon before boarding the TGV to Basel, Switzerland. Here, you jump on a local train to Interlaken Ost.
Once in Interlaken, you’re in the heart of the Swiss Jungfrau region - which gravitates around the highest peak in the area, the spectacular Jungfrau.
Even here the trains don’t stop. Board the new Eiger Express cable car to reach the starting point of the Jungfraujoch, a train line which zooms up you to Europe’s highest railway station for never-ending views over the snow-covered glacier and surrounding lakes and peaks.
In Jungfrau’s historic town of Grindelwald is the Bergwelt Hotel – a cosy wooden chalet from the outside, sleek modern bolthole on the inside.
Journey time: around 10h
In the winter season, the Eurostar runs direct night trains St Pancras International to Bourg-Saint-Maurice and Moûtiers – departing Friday night and arriving to fresh snow Saturday morning.
Bourg-Saint-Maurice is then just a bus ride from one of Europe’s best known ski resorts: Val d’Isère. There’s plenty to do here in the summer too, including hiking around the Vanoise National Park (home to lynx, wolves and rare birds), swimming in waterfalls and cycling through primordial gorges.
Packages for the Eurostar Ski Train are on sale for travel between 17 December 2022 and 8 April 2023. Outside of ski season you can get the Eurostar to Paris, then local trains to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, changing at Chambéry Challes-les-Eaux. The trip costs from £141 return.
Milan and Florence
Journey time: around 13h
Another dynamic duo of cities reachable by train, Milan and Florence hardly need an introduction but are home to many of Italy’s finest artistic and architectural treasures including Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and a myriad of cathedrals and palaces.
Following a Eurostar to Paris and a change to the Gare de Lyon, it’s a seven-hour train ride to Milan.
Stop off here for a whizz around the cathedral, an aperitivo by the canal and a kip in the ultra-lux Principe di Savoia, Milan. In the morning you’ll have time for a swim in the hotel pool before hopping on a two-hour train to Florence.
Meander round the Uffizi gallery, drink in the Duomo di Firenze and then slurp gelato at Vivoli (one of the city's oldest gelaterias).
City lovers should stay in the heart of town at the Helvetia & Bristol with its secret internal courtyard and terraces. If you’re all about the Tuscan countryside, the Villa La Massa – a 13th century manor with bookable rooms – has a shuttle bus that runs guests to-from Florence in 15 minutes, depositing them among the olive groves, cypress trees and the estate’s garden of rare irises.
The train to Milan costs from £150 return. The local train running between Milan and Florence costs from £17 return.