European train trips are a must in summer. There are few ways more quintessentially European to travel than by train and few forms of transport more enjoyable than European trains. In Australia we like to hit the road, but when we’re in Europe we love to take to the rails. These are the European train trips that we love that you should do this summer.
During the eight years we lived in the Middle East, around this time each year we’d be booking our end of June flights from Abu Dhabi or Dubai to a destination in Europe for the summer. And whether it was to Venice or Milan, Barcelona or Paris, 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 most trains in Europe. How civilised. What are you waiting for?
Before I tell you all about our favourite European train trips to take this summer, I have a favour to ask. Grantourismo is reader-supported. If you find our travel guides, itineraries and posts informative and inspirational, please consider supporting Grantourismo.
If you’re planning a trip, please consider using our affiliate partner links to book flights with CheapOair, Kiwi.com and Etihad; book a hire car with rental cars; or book train tickets with RailEurope. We may earn a commission but you won’t pay extra.
You could also browse our Grantourismo store for eco-friendly mugs, fun face masks, travel notebooks, phone cases, laptop sleeves, and more, designed with Terence’s images. Now let me tell you all about our favourite European train trips and share our tips to taking trains in Europe over the busy summer season.
European Train Trips to Take This Summer
Below you’ll find some of our favourite European train trips to take in the summertime – the train routes that scream European summer holiday to us, all tried and tested.
You could focus on one country at a time or use rail passes to combine two or three countries.
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.
Tips to Travelling Europe By Train this Summer
Buy Train Tickets and Rail Passes After You Buy Flights
So many travellers spend weeks, even months, researching and monitoring flights and booking well in advance of their trips. Then they wait until they arrive in their destination and rock up to the railway station half an hour before their train is due to depart expecting to buy train tickets – which is fine for most of the year, but risky in summer.
As soon as you’ve locked in your European flights, buy your European train tickets online with RailEurope. It makes no sense to wait until you arrive at your destination these days. In fact, we used the site for all our European train trips way back in 2010 for the yearlong grand tour that launched Grantourismo. They were excellent and having been around so long, they are even better now.
RailEurope has partnerships with all the top European train operators, including Eurail, Interrail, Eurostar, TGV (France and Italy), Trenitalia, Renfe and SNCF (Spain), Renfe, NTV Italo, Thalys, SBB, RDG, National Rail, Deutschebahn (DB), and more. So you can buy train tickets and rail passes covering all the major European train journeys online.
For summer travel by train, we strongly recommend buying your European train tickets as soon as you buy your flights. If possible, buy first class train tickets to avoid the overcrowded train carriages that are typical of summer train travel in Europe, especially in Italy.
Make that mistake once and spend a 5-hour journey sitting on your suitcase in the aisle, squished up like sardines in a tin, unable to move either side of you, and you’ll never make that mistake again. It’s extremely unpleasant. Especially as you get close to your station and find you can’t move at all.
Buy Point-to-Point Train Tickets for Popular City-to-City Routes
If you are only travelling between two European destinations or you want complete flexibility, buy point to point train tickets. Rail Europe sells point-to-point train tickets for all major European train routes between cities.
Point-to-point train tickets cover the most popular train routes such as London to Paris, Paris to London, Amsterdam to London, London to Amsterdam, Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Paris, Paris to Basel, Basel to Paris, Basel to Zurich, Zurich to Basel, Zurich to Paris, Paris to Zurich, and regional trains from Florence to Rome, Rome to Florence, etc.
Buy a Eurail Pass for a Train Focused Trip
If you have your itinerary worked out and you plan to do a lot of rail travel, a Eurail Pass is a must and will save you lots of money in the long-run. You can buy the Eurail Gold Pass and Eurail Pass on Rail Europe, as well as the Swiss Travel Pass and Swiss Half Fare Guide.
If you are 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.
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.
Make Seat Reservations in Advance
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.
The Most Important European Train Travel Tip of All!
Don’t forget to validate your train ticket or rail pass at the train station before the first trip. This is a mistake made by so many train travellers from outside Europe who assume that the train conductor who checks your ticket will do this.
If in doubt, ask the train station staff at the ticket office before you head for the platform, and in their absence ask the nearest person who looks like a local, not another traveller! This is a very common problem that could get you in trouble.
Buy Travel Insurance Next
We recommend you buy travel insurance after your’ve bought your flights and any other major travel tickets. You might have your favourite travel insurance provider, but we recommend Safety Wing travel insurance as they have excellent Covid cover.
Don’t even think about going anywhere without buying travel insurance so that you’re covered in case of flight cancellations, missed connections, lost luggage, and delays that might impact your travels, including your train travel.
Book Your Accommodation After Your Flights and Train Trips
Keep in mind that during the European summer holidays accommodation can be booked out months in advance, so book accommodation straight after you book flights and buy train tickets.
We have long used Booking.com, Agoda, Expedia, Wotif, lastminute.com, ebookers, and Trip.com for hotels, as well as flights and transfers. We also find Luxury Escapes is excellent for luxe holidays for far less than you’d normally pay, and we adore PLUM for booking beautiful homes and apartments.
Our top accommodation booking tip for train trips from many years of travelling in Europe: if you’re booked on a train departing during morning peak hour, book accommodation within walking distance of the train station.
That’s the only time we ever recommend staying near a railway station, especially in European cities, where you really want to be staying in interesting local neighbourhoods, and in small European towns, where you want to be in or near the historic centres.
Book Guides and Guided City Tours Next
If you want to kick off a 3-day stay in a destination you’re visiting for the first time with a guided tour or history walk or street food tour, all of which we highly recommend, then book a guide or guided tour next.
The best guides and tours are booked up during Europe’s peak summer travel periods and you don’t want to miss out on something that can really enhance your experience of a place, especially if it’s a food experience!
Book locals guides and guided tours on Get Your Guide, which is a one-stop-shop for tours, transfers, tickets to attractions, sights, monuments, and museum, especially after-hours museum tickets, which are a must during summer in Europe.
Book cooking classes, food tours and meals with locals on EatWith, which also the place for booking insider experiences, such as private supper clubs and chef-ran cooking classes at local restaurants.
Luggage and Packing Tips for Train Travel
Travel with carry-on wheelie bags – you definitely need 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 once you’re on board the train, and that they’re locked up tight when you’re on platforms, buying tickets, or arriving and departing from train stations.
European railways stations are rife with pickpockets and there will 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 for Long Train Journeys
Get organised for long train trips, as it will make your journey so much more enjoyable if you’re prepared: take picnic lunches, snacks and drinks, all of which are allowed on most European trains, while meals are often included or available to purchase in first class.
Recharge batteries, take spare drives for your camera, have a charged power-bank for your phone, laptop and other gadgets. Load up on podcasts. Good old-fashioned books are a must!
European Train Trips to Take This Summer
Travelling Italy By Train
For many, Italy is the ultimate European summer destination. There’s the phenomenal food and wine. Fantastic markets. Rich history and culture. Exquisite art and architecture. The museums, the churches, the parks, the gardens.
Then there’s the bucolic countryside, enchanting hilltop towns and villages, alluring islands, and 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!
And Italy is best experienced travelling by train. No argument. 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 all 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, those train journeys in Italy could take 4-6 hours, but now, it takes just an hour or two to get between many of those Italian cities by train. That means 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 the Amalfi Coast or the Cinque Terre (pictured above) with their pretty pebble beaches and pastel-coloured houses that cascade down the hillside.
Or, once we arrived in a city or town, by hiring a car to explore a particular area more deeply, as we did with the hilltop towns of Calabria, the Roman ruins of Sicily, and the glittering Italian Lakes north of Milan. In Italy, car rental offices are often located at or near train stations, which is super-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 power-points 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. Italians 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.
Travelling Switzerland by Train
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.
Travelling 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. You’ve got the sophistication of Munich, which boasts brilliant shopping and even better food – from refined cuisine to fantastic bread and sausages and beer.
Then there’s Berlin, with 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.
Travelling France by Train
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. But summer is also one of the busiest times to visit Paris.
So once you’ve organised your flights to Paris, book your France train trips. 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.
Travelling 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.
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, 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…
If you’re travelling in Europe by rail this summer, these are some of our favourite European summer escapes, some off the beaten track European summer destinations, and the underrated European cities we love, an A-Z Guide. Have you travelled Europe by train? Do you have any favourite European train trips?
Published 15 July 2016; Last Updated 6 June 2023.