European train trips are a must in summer. There are few ways more quintessentially European to travel. In Australia we like to hit the road, but in Europe we take to the rails. These are the train trips you should do this summer.
During the eight years we lived in the UAE, around this time each year we’d be on a flight from Abu Dhabi or Dubai to Europe. And whether it was Venice or Milan, Athens or Amsterdam, it wouldn’t be long before we’d be boarding a train somewhere.
The beauty of European train travel is how convenient, easy and affordable it is. Train stations are often centrally located and they’re incredibly well organised in Europe, with all sorts of amenities that railway stations just don’t have in Australia. Train services are frequent, fast and affordable.
And it’s always such a joy to travel by train too. They even let you take picnic meals and wine on board in Europe! What are you waiting for?
European Train Trips to Take This Summer
These are some of our favourite European train trips to take in summer, the routes that scream European summer holiday to us. You could focus on one country at a time or combine two or three (rail passes allow you to do this; see our tips at the end). Or you could combine all of the destinations below together, and I’ve structured the post in the order in which you could do this, to create a once-in-a-lifetime European grand tour by train.
Italy By Train
Italy. Sigh. It’s hard to beat Italy. The phenomenal food and wine. Fantastic markets. Rich history and culture. Exquisite art and architecture. The museums, the churches, the parks, the gardens. The bucolic countryside, enchanting hilltop towns and villages, alluring islands, postcard beaches. The effortless style and sophistication of Italians, who really have their priorities right, and know how to lead ‘the good life’. Aperitivo hour! Sigh…
Italy and Spain are our two favourite European countries, but I think Italy has to be our favourite destination for travel by rail. Perhaps because it was where we embarked on our first European train trip together. Soon after moving to the UAE we did an intensive two-month summer journey covering Italy, Spain and Portugal in which we moved every two days. It’s not how we like to travel at now but back then it was our first European adventure together and when you’re young you want to see it all and see it all at once.
Italy has brilliant inter-city rail connections and so on that first trip we covered the greatest hits by train: Milan, Venice, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Naples, Pisa, and Genoa. That itinerary was the perfect introduction to Italy. Back then journeys could take 4-6 hours, but now, it takes just an hour or two to get between many of those cities by train. So your travel time never eats into your days as it can when you fly. In some of those cities it can take the same amount of time to get to the airport as it can to take a train the next city.
On subsequent trips over the years we focused on different regions, sometimes combining trains with ferries, buses and local trains to explore, say, the Amalfi Coast or the Cinque Terre (pictured above) with their pretty pebble beaches and pastel-coloured houses that cascade down the hillside. Or hiring a car to discover a particular area more deeply as we did with the hilltop towns and Roman ruins of Sicily and the glittering Italian Lakes north of Milan. In Europe, car rental offices are often located at or near train stations, which is handy.
One especially memorable trip was from Bari via Rome to Venice in first class on the high-speed Trenitalia trains. The interior was sleek and stylish with comfy seats, good-sized tables with powerpoints and complimentary refreshments, including a glass of Prosecco and crackers. But you don’t have to travel first class to eat and drink well on Italian trains. Europeans frequently take picnic lunches on board trains, including little bottles of wine, and Italy with its beautiful cured meats and cheeses is perfect for that.
Switzerland by Rail
From Milan in northern Italy you can be in Brig, Switzerland, in two hours, or Bern or Zurich in 3-4 hours on a EuroCity train. It’s a scenic journey but it only gets better once you arrive. Some of the most breathtaking European train trips we’ve done have been in Switzerland – the serene lakes and snow-capped peaks are stunning in both summer and winter.
While the inter-city trips are picturesque – on our first Swiss holiday we travelled between Zurich, Lucerne, Basel, Bern, Lausanne, and Geneva, spending 1-2 nights in each city (the trips took from 30 minutes to 3 hours) – the epic mountain journeys (these can sometimes take a whole day), which hug sheer rocky cliff-sides, cross hundreds of dramatic bridges, and whizz through scores of tunnels, are simply jaw-dropping.
The best known, and the most gobsmacking, are the Glacier Express, from Zermatt, a ski resort near the Matterhorn, to posh St Moritz (you can also get this train from Brig if coming from Italy); the Bernina Express from Chur via St Moritz to Lugarno; and the Willhelm Tell Express, which includes a steam ship cruise on Lake Lucerne. While Terence would rather be here in winter, I actually prefer the mountains in summer.
It’s also now possible to do an 8-day Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, which includes all three journeys, along with a trundle up the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe. Switzerland also boasts some of the finest trains with panoramic windows that stretch around to the ceiling so you never miss a photo op.
Germany by Train
Just over the border train travel in neighbouring German is of a similar standard to Switzerland with sleek trains and fast, frequent services. On the Swiss side, Basel is a great launching pad for Freiburg and explorations into the beautiful Black Forest, while Zurich is the best departure point for Munich and inter-city trips.
The Black Forest is enchanting with its dense forests, lush meadows, and quaint farmhouses and really is the stuff of fairy tales (it was the inspiration for the Brothers Grimm). There are enchanting journeys you can do on the Black Forest Lines using your Eurail Pass, taking in Freiburg, Seebrugg, Offenburg, Donaueschingen and Konstanz, which will carry you along one of the steepest lines in Germany, trundling over high bridges across deep ravines on the way to Titisee Lake and spa town.
Home to many lakes and rivers, the Black Forest is the source of the Danube River, however, one of my favourite European train trips is further north through the Rhine Valley, Germany’s great wine region, between Mainz and Koblenz. The train trundles beside the river offering stunning views of the vineyard-covered slopes. The wonderful wine aside, this region is home to an array of castles and fortresses, one of the prettiest of which is Pfalzgrafenstein Castle on an island in the river.
For me, Germany’s cities are some of the most compelling in Europe, from the sophistication of Munich, that boasts brilliant shopping and even better food – from refined cuisine to fantastic bread and sausages and beer – to Berlin, for its laidback urban lifestyle, rich cultural history, and cosmopolitanism. From Berlin you can stop at elegant Hannover, with its countless gardens, on your way to Dusseldorf for its innovative architecture, art and fashion.
A bit too grey and depressing for me in winter, Germany’s cities really come alive in summer when everyone is out and about sunning themselves in the parks and riverside beaches Trains of course are the best way to zip between them and onto other European cities.
France by Rail
From Dusseldorf it’s less than four hours to Paris. Paris. Paris is blissful in summer, when Parisians love to picnic by the Seine and laze about reading books in parks or by fountains. It’s also one of the busiest times to visit. So once you’re ready, you have an array of rail lines to choose from that will transport you on comfy fast trains to delightful destinations.
In less than an hour you can be sampling French bubbles on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay, on the main line east of Paris to Strasbourg. Not far from the train station, the street is home to the finest champagne houses, including Moet and Chandon.
Or you could be tasting the country’s famous big reds in Bordeaux, in the southwest, just three hours away by high-speed TGV. France’s super-fast TGV trains can also whisk you to the foodie destinations of Lyon in two hours, Avignon in just over 2½ hours, and Marseille in a little over three hours.
The fast trains have also brought the sunny Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera, on the southern Mediterranean coast, a lot closer to Paris. In 5½ hours you can be by the sea in gorgeous Nice, from where it’s a short trundle along the coast on regional and local trains to Cannes, Saint Tropez (via Frejus and car), and Monaco and Monte Carlo, then onto the Italian border.
But I have to say that one of my favourite European train trips is from Paris to Perpignan – with a couple of days in this fantastic foodie city of course – and then from Perpignan on a charming antique of a train to Barcelona.
Spain by Train
After Italy, Spain is probably our next favourite country for train travel. It’s not just because of the scenery, but also the speed and ease with which Spain’s trains take you to some of the country’s finest food and wine destinations, all of which are at their most alluring in the summertime.
We’ve long been smitten with Barcelona and we’ve been many times over the years and visited in every season so trust us when we say that summer is the best. The streets are lively with locals out until late at night and the laidback beach scene makes the city a lot more relaxed and fun. When you’re ready to move on, train is by far the best way to explore.
Home to Cava, Spain’s favourite sparkling wine, and a superb wine museum in Villafranca, the Penedés region is less than an hour southwest of Barcelona, accessible by local and regional train. It takes just under 40 minutes on the AVE to get from Barcelona to Girona, a gastronomic centre northeast that’s home to one of the world’s best restaurants, El Celler de Can Roca. The city also boasts plenty of other eateries, both cutting-edge and traditional, while there are wonderful restaurants, as well as artisanal producers, and wineries in the surrounding countryside.
From Barcelona it’s an easy five hours via Pamplona to San Sebastian, with its sparkling harbour, sandy beaches, and surf culture. Another of our favourite summer destinations, it’s also a culinary capital – this time of the Basque region – and from here it’s an hour by train to Bilbao, famous for its food as much as its outstanding art museum.
The first time I went to Spain in the late 1990s – on my way to South America to do research for my Masters degree – it was a long slow 7-hour journey between Barcelona and Madrid that was best undertaken at night if you were a traveller. These days the high-speed ATV will hurtle you there in less than three hours, and on to the wonderful sultry southern cities of Cordoba and Seville in 2-2.5 hours.
One of our most memorable European train trips was actually an overnight journey we took from Jerez via Madrid to Barcelona on the outstanding Trenhotel – not for any scenery obviously, but for the fantastic three course dinner and wine included in the ticket price, when you book the supremely comfortable sleeper. We slept like babies and woke refreshed and ready to eat our way through Madrid – another wonderful European summer destination for the balmy evenings which locals spend outdoors, snacking on tapas, and sipping vino.
And, of course, from Spain you can trundle by train into Portugal…
Our Top Tips for Your European Train Trips
- If you are only travelling between two destinations or you want complete flexibility then buy point to point train tickets, however, if you have your itinerary worked out roughly and plan to do a lot of rail travel then a Eurail Pass is a must and will save you money in the long-run.
- There are different types of passes, so if you’re travelling in three neighbouring countries, buy a Eurail Select 3 Countries Pass, if you’re travelling to four countries opt for the Eurail Select 4 Countries Pass, etc. You can also buy single-country and regional passes and if you want to do it all, there are Global Flexi and Global Continuous passes, which will enable you to cover up to a whopping 28 countries over anything from 5 days to up to 2-3 months.
- When planning your itinerary note that a day of rail travel is a 24-hour period from midnight to midnight, which means you have an unlimited amount of travel on any number of trains in that period, which is fantastic if you need to make some miles.
- If you’re a family, keep in mind that for every adult one child aged 4-11 gets to travel free (kids under 4 only travel free if they’re not occupying a seat) and you can also save money if there are 2-5 adults travelling together at all times.
- The Rail Plus site allows you to book Eurail Passes and tickets on Eurostar Thalys, Trenitalia, SNCF, Renfe, Italo, Britrail, and DB, as well as take advantage of discounts on hotels and museums, and cheap or free ferry tickets.
- Check if you need to make seat reservations and if you do, reserve in advance. Note that there will be an extra cost. Don’t forget to check this as there’s nothing worse than being booted out of your seat mid-journey, especially on a crowded summer service.
- Don’t forget to validate your pass at the train station before the first trip.
- Travel with carry-on wheelie bags – you definitely want wheels because you often have long walks down the platform to reach your carriage, and a carry-on bag is best as it can be easily lifted onto the overhead rack or squeezed under your legs, or between the seat backs if you’re on an older train.
- Ensure your luggage and valuables are always within sight on board and locked up tight when you’re on platforms, buying tickets, or arriving and departing – European railways stations are rife with pickpockets and there’ll often be several working together to distract you. Pickpockets often don’t look like pickpockets these days – one group we saw at work in Spain looked like three normal, middle class friends going out together in the evening.
- Be prepared on long journeys: take picnic lunches, snacks and drinks (it’s allowed on most European trains), recharge batteries, take spare drives for your camera and have a charged power-pack for your iPad or iPhone. Trust us: you will want to take lots of photos. Good old-fashioned books are a great back-up.
Have you travelled in Europe by rail during the summer? Do you have any favourite European train trips?