Train travel is one of the best ways to see Europe – the continent’s fairly compact so it’s easy to get around, and you can sit back and soak up the stunning views with a picnic. But if you’re planning a rail trip, most of the suggested itineraries seem to be geared up for Interrailers on month-long trips. It doesn’t have to be this way though – you can have a mini European rail adventure too. Pick a region and a few destinations and get route planning (the Seat 61 and Deutsche Bahn websites are great for routes and timetables).
Five itineraries for exploring Europe by train
Or if that sounds too much work, here are five of Europe’s best one-week rail trip ideas to get you started. Each route is possible in a week, but if you’ve got more time then you can take it slower and spend more time in each place. The idea isn’t to wear yourself out trying to see everything in every destination, but to take in the highlights and get a taste for each place (and if you find somewhere you love, you can always come back for longer).
Northern Europe – Canals and chocolate
Amsterdam > Bruges > Paris > Chur > Milan
Start off in Amsterdam and spend a couple of days checking out the city’s canals, cafés and museums. Then take an early train on to the pretty Belgian city of Bruges (3 hours away). Spend the afternoon feasting on local chocolate and beer, then climb to the top of the Belfort tower or take a boat trip along the canals the next morning before catching an afternoon train to Paris (3 hours). You’re totally spoilt for things to do in Paris – museums, history, food and shopping – so choose a few favourites to fill the next couple of days.
Then take the train to Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city on the banks of the Rhine (5 hours) for the night. Catch the Bernina Express the next morning, one of Europe’s most scenic train journeys through spectacular Alpine scenery to Tirano in Italy, where you change to a local train to connect to Milan (total 7 hours). Then spend your last morning shopping and sightseeing in the Italian fashion capital before heading home.
Italy – Palaces and pizza
Venice > Florence > Rome > Naples > Sicily
Begin your trip with a couple of days in Venice – cruise the Grand Canal, get lost in the backstreets and brave the crowds at St Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace. Then take an early train on to Florence (2 hours) and spend the afternoon gallery-hopping. Finish getting your fill of Renaissance art the next morning before taking the short journey on to Rome (1.5 hours) for the afternoon. Spend the next day seeing the historical sights of Rome before travelling south to the gritty coastal city of Naples (1 hour 10 mins).
Stuff yourself in the home of pizza and if you have time to spare you can catch the Circumvesuviana railway to visit nearby Sorrento, Herculaneum or Pompeii. Finish off with a couple of days on the island of Sicily – you can take the train all the way as it travels right on to the ferry for the 30-minute boat trip across the Messina Straits (takes 6 hours 45 mins to Taormina, 7.5 hours to Catania or 9 hours to Palermo).
Eastern Europe – Concerts and cake
Budapest > Bratislava > Vienna > Ljubljana > Zagreb
Arrive into the Hungarian capital Budapest for a couple of days soaking up the culture, steaming in the thermal baths and partying in ruin pubs. Then catch a train on to Bratislava in Slovakia (2.5 hours), a compact city on the banks of the Danube. Spend the afternoon and next morning checking out the city’s mix of 18th-century and Socialist-era architecture. Then travel on to Vienna in Austria (1 hour by train – or if you fancy a change from rail travel the two cities are also connected by a boat along the Danube).
Visit an ornate palace, catch a Mozart concert at the opera house and fill up on delicious sachertorte at a coffee house. Next travel on to Ljubljana in Slovenia (6 hours) for a couple of days exploring the charming old town, or you’re also only an hour by train from beautiful Lake Bled. Then end your trip in Zagreb, across the border in Croatia (2.5 hours), with a day visiting its museums, galleries and churches.
Spain & Portugal – Paella and port
Barcelona > Valencia > Madrid > Lisbon > Porto
Start your trip in the Spanish coastal city of Barcelona and spend a couple of days checking out Gaudi’s handiwork and catching some rays on the beach. Then take an early train down the coast to Valencia (3 hours) where you have the afternoon and next morning to explore the city’s mix of ancient and modern architecture, and try a paella in the city where it was first created. Take a short train ride inland to Spain’s capital Madrid in the afternoon (1.5 hours) and spend the next day visiting its parks and galleries.
Then catch the Lusitania overnight train that evening, leaving Madrid just before 10pm and arriving into Lisbon at 7.30am the next morning. Spend a couple of days in Portugal’s capital, spotting street art and feasting on seafood – or you can take a short day trip to the palace at Sintra (30 mins each way). Then finally travel north to Porto (3 hours) to end with a day of port-tasting on the banks of the Duoro.
Scandinavia – Fjords and funiculars
Copenhagen > Stockholm > Oslo > Flåm > Bergen
Begin your route with a couple of days in the Danish capital Copenhagen – cycle around the cobbled streets and check out the design shops and Michelin-starred restaurants in Nyhavn. Then take the train over the Öresund Link bridge and tunnel into Sweden and on to Stockholm (5 hours). Spend a day exploring the city, from medieval Gamla Stan to the 30,000 plus islands in the Stockholm Archipelago.
Then travel across the border to Oslo in Norway (6.5 hours) for a dose of Scandinavian culture at the city’s museums and art galleries. Take the scenic rail route towards the coast next – first the mainline train to Myrdal (4.5 hours) and then the Flåmsbana mountain railway to Flåm (50 minutes). Spend the night on the edge of the fjords and take a cruise out into the Sognefjord before travelling on to Bergen the next day (2 hours). Finish off with a trip to the fish market and great views from the funicular to Mount Fløyen.
So which would be your favourite route? Get lots more inspiration for travel by train in Europe in the On the Luce ‘European Rail Travel Ideas Book’, launching 2019.