This journey through Northern Europe by train takes you from the canals of Amsterdam and Bruges to the cosmopolitan cities of Paris and Milan, and through the Alps on board one of Europe’s most beautiful train journeys. This itinerary will show you which trains to take, how much they cost, how to book and what to see along the way. Take the trip in summer for Alpine flowers, sunset boat trips and picnics under the Eiffel Tower, or try it in winter for Christmas markets, ice skating on Amsterdam’s canals and snowy Swiss mountain scenery.
One-week Northern Europe by train itinerary
Day 1: Amsterdam
Start your trip with a full day exploring Amsterdam. Take a walk around the UNESCO-listed Canal Ring, with its 50km of canals and 1500 bridges lined with gabled houses and colourful flower boxes. Museum-hop your way through world-class artistic treasures at the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh museums, or go back in time at Rembrandt and Anne Frank’s houses.
Relax in the green oasis of the Vondelpark on a sunny day, with open-air music and theatre performances during the summer. Or hire a bike and explore some of the city neighbourhoods away from the crowds, like cool De Pijp and the Albert Cuyp Markt, or Amsterdam-Noord with its redeveloped industrial buildings home to the EYE Film Insititute and NDSM Wharf.
Where to stay in Amsterdam: Dutch brand citizenM are known for their colourful style and quirky décor, with only one category of compact but comfortable room. Their Amstel Amsterdam hotel is on the edge of the canal ring, with a communal lounge, café and bar.
Read more: Visiting Amsterdam on a budget
Day 2: Amsterdam > Bruges
The next morning, take an early train across the border into Belgium and the pretty city of Bruges with its canals, cobbled streets and medieval towers. Amsterdam to Bruges takes 3 hours 15 minutes by train – catch the 08.15 high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam to Brussels Midi, then change onto the 10.29 InterCity train which arrives into Bruges at 11.30.
Spend the afternoon exploring Bruges. Visit the historic Grote Markt (market square) and climb to the top of the 13th-century Belfort belfry tower’s 366 spiral stairs for panoramic views out across the city rooftops. Or closer to the ground you can take a horse and carriage ride around the old town and check out Belgian and Flemish artworks at the Groeningemuseum.
Bruges is famous for its beer and chocolate. If the first takes your fancy then visit De Halve Maan for a brewery tour and beer-inspired lunch, and try some of the ‘t Brugs Beertje pub’s 300 different Belgian beers. Or if you prefer chocolate then the Choco-Story Museum tells the story of chocolate-making, and you can taste quirky flavour combos at The Chocolate Line.
Where to stay in Bruges: B&B Bariseele is located 10 minutes from the Grote Markt. It has three large en-suite rooms with kitchenettes, and has been certified by the eco-friendly Green Key scheme. Rates include a tasty continental breakfast which can be served in your room.
Read more: How to spend the perfect weekend in Bruges
Day 3: Bruges > Paris
Finish your time in Bruges with a boat trip along its canals. It’s known as ‘Venice of the North’ (along with a fair few other places!), with canals built in the Middle Ages as a trade link to the North Sea. Start from the Rozenhoedkaai (Quay of the Rosary), which is probably the city’s most photographed spot, for a 30-minute tour past bridges, waterside houses and gardens.
Then catch the train from Bruges for the 3-hour journey to Paris. Take the 13.10 Belgian InterCity train from Bruges to Brussels Midi where you change onto the 14.43 high-speed Thalys service, which arrives into Paris Gare du Nord at 16.06.
Spend the evening in Paris – you could climb to the top of the Montparnasse Tower to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle on the hour over a cocktail in the Ceil de Paris bar. Take a dinner cruise along the Seine to see the city lights. Catch a performance at the Paris Opéra or cabaret at the Moulin Rouge. Or just feast on French food and wine at one of the city’s restaurants.
Where to stay in Paris: Le Relais Montmartre is in the heart of Paris’ arty hilltop neighbourhood of Montmartre, close to Sacré-Cœur Basilica and the Place du Theatre. Rooms are cosy, colourful and full of character with a peaceful patio where you can escape the city crowds.
Read more: Visiting Paris on a budget
Day 4: Paris
Today’s a full day in Paris. You could climb the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe, visit big-name museums like the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, shop for books along the banks of the Seine, get your portrait painted in Montmartre, admire the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, drink coffee in pavement cafés, eat macarons from Ladurée or shop the boutiques of the Champs-Élysées.
Or if you’ve already seen the city’s big-name sights, why not explore some of Paris’ more unusual attractions? Take a walk along the Promenade Plantée or La Petite Ceinture, both former railway lines which are now parks. Or visit quirky museums dedicated to fairground rides, sewers and stuffed animals, and discover Paris’ steampunk-inspired Metro station.
Day 5: Paris > Chur
Next morning, take the 5 hour 30 minute train journey into Switzerland and the city of Chur. Catch the 10.17 high-speed TGV Lyria train from Paris Gare du Lyon to Zürich Hauptbahnhof, where you change onto the 14.37 InterCity train which arrives into Chur at 15.52.
Take an early evening walk around the car-free old town of Chur. Switzerland’s oldest city lies on the banks of the Rhine and is surrounded by vineyards and mountains. Climb up to the Haldenhüttli for the best view over the city before refuelling with some traditional local dishes, like cheesy fondue, barley soup and capuns (dumplings wrapped in a chard leaf).
Where to stay in Chur: The Romantik Hotel Stern is a traditional-style hotel in a 300-year-old building which has a cosy Weinstube (German tavern), a good range of different room categories, and they offer free pick ups from the train station in a vintage Buick.
Day 6: The Bernina Express
Spend the next day travelling to Milan on board the Bernina Express, one of Europe’s most scenic train journeys. Catch the 08.32 Bernina Express train from Chur which arrives into Tirano Rhätische Bahn station across the border in Italy at 12.49. Then cross the square to Tirano Trenord station where you catch the 13.08 train to Milan Centrale, arriving at 15.40.
The Bernina Express runs through the spectacular scenery of the Swiss Alps, passing hilltop castles and traditional mountain villages and crossing bridges and viaducts as it follows the River Plessur. After passing the swanky ski resort of St Moritz it climbs up into the Upper Engadin valley to its highest point at 2253 metres before descending back down to Tirano.
To ride the Bernina Express panoramic train, you need to pay an extra reservation fee on top of the usual ticket price (otherwise you’ll be in a normal train and have to change along the way) – this varies through the year from CHF 16 (€14) in summer, CHF 14 (€13) in spring/autumn or CHF 10 (€9) in winter. Then from Tirano a local train takes you on to Milan for the evening.
Where to stay in Milan: The Sina The Gray boutique hotel is close to Milan’s Duomo and overlooks the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. Rooms are smart and modern with African-inspired touches to the décor, and some have their own private gym or Turkish bath.
Day 7: Milan
Then spend the final morning of your Northern Europe train trip shopping and sightseeing in the Italian fashion capital. Explore the lavish monuments of the centro storico or shop the grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the world’s oldest and most glamorous shopping malls. Then if you’re flying back home, the Malpensa Express train connects the city’s Cadorna, Central and Porta Garibaldi train stations with Milan Malpensa airport, taking 43 minutes.
If you’ve got more time to spare, it’s less than an hour by train from Milan to the lakeside town of Como, where you can take a boat ride across the lake to glam waterside villages like Bellagio and Varenna. You could also head 3 hours south to Levanto and pick up the coastal train which runs through the five villages of Italy’s Cinque Terre. Or travel 2 hours 30 minutes east to Venice where you can add on the one-week Italy by train itinerary to make a two-week trip.
How much does it cost?
When you’re planning a European rail trip, you can either book individual tickets or get a railpass, which can be a better deal if you’re under 28, want more flexibility or are booking late. Here’s how the prices break down for the two different options on this route.
Ticket prices vary depending on how early you book, with a limited number of cheap tickets available. So book as early as possible – on most routes you can book 3–4 months in advance – but beware these tickets are non-transferable so you’re tied to a specific train. Using the cheapest fares available, the total cost for trains on this route starts at €242 per person.
- Amsterdam > Bruges: from €36
- Bruges > Paris: from €56
- Paris > Zürich > Chur: from €29 + CHF 41 (€39)
- The Bernina Express: from €56 + CHF 16 (€14)
- Tirano > Milan: €11.50
The railpass option
InterRail (for European residents) and Eurail (for non-European residents) have a range of rail passes, which cover individual countries or the whole region and are valid for different periods of time. The Northern Europe by train itinerary involves four travel days across five countries, so the best option is the Global Pass for 4 travel days within 1 month. This costs €246 for adults, €185 for youths (aged 12–27) or €221 for seniors (aged 60+) in second class.
As well as the pass, you also need to pay an extra compulsory reservation fee in some countries and for certain trains – usually high-speed or sleeper services. For this trip, the reservation fees come to €84, broken down as below, meaning the overall railpass cost starts from €269.
- Amsterdam > Bruges: €15
- Bruges > Paris: €20
- Paris > Chur: €35
- The Bernina Express: CHF 16 (€14)
I’ve recommended the quickest and easiest routes. But you can often avoid reservation fees by taking local trains which usually don’t require reservations – though beware that these are likely to be slower and you may need to make more changes along the way.
How to book
There are a variety of websites where you can book European train journeys, but often the best deals are though the official railway company sites for each country. For this trip these are:
- Amsterdam > Bruges: B-Europe
- Bruges > Paris: B-Europe
- Paris > Zürich: TGV Lyria
- Zürich > Chur: Swiss Railways
- The Bernina Express: Swiss Railways
- Tirano > Milan: Trenord
Or if you want an easier option you can book tickets for all journeys via Rail Europe – the advantage is that you don’t have to make multiple transactions, the site’s in English, you can use international credit cards and often print your own tickets, but there is a small booking fee and it doesn’t cover all trains so you may need to make some bookings with local sites.
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