The resurgence of rail travel is one of the guaranteed trends we will be seeing more of the in the 2020s. Once shrinking and overlooked due to cheap plane tickets and a plethora of undiscovered destinations abroad, train travel has now regained a sense of prestige thanks to our growing interest in protecting the environment and the slow travel phenomenon. Having jet-setted our way through the early 2000s, it seems we’re ready to slow our travel down. Here’s where to go from London:
London To Avignon
Hop on the train from St Pancras in the morning and be in the south of France just in time for lunch. The Papal seat in the 14th century, although as you may learn by going on a tour of the Papal Palace not all behaviour at the time even from the Pope’s themselves was entirely pious, Avignon is a destination with something to offer everyone. After visiting the Palace, amble down the cobblestone streets to the Pont d’Avignon bridge overlooking the Rhone, where if you’re craving a bit more activity you can kayak or make your way to one of the national parks for various cycling and walking trails on the surrounding hillsides.
Avignon, much like all of Provence, is a place of almost compulsory sensory exploration. Sample the wines from the vineyards of Southern Rhone, visit the local food market for plump fruit, an array of goat cheeses and perfected tapenades, and breathe in the scent of fresh lavender from the surrounding fields or the sweetness of honeysuckle dotted around the city. If you’re in the mood for some art, aside from the Petite Palais across the square from the Papal Palace which has a great collection of Renaissance and medieval Italian art, 20 km from Avignon in St Remy de Provence is where Van Gogh painted The Starry Night (and famously spent a year at the asylum).
Train tip: It’s worth remembering as with all Eurostar trips, each train has a two bag limit – with no weight or liquid restriction. So, as long as it fits in your cases, you can bring back as much cheese, wine and lavender as you like. What’s not to love?
London To Amsterdam
From London to Amsterdam Centraal Station in under four hours, this route on the Eurostar takes you from city centre to city centre, and according to the Eurostar emits 80% less greenhouse gas emissions per passenger than the equivalent short-haul flight.
Once in Amsterdam, one of the best ways to absorb the buzz of the narrow streets and windings canals is to live like the locals and embrace life on two wheels. If the occasionally ‘death of glory’ cycling culture is too kamikaze for your liking, then step down into one of the many long boats that leisurely make their way around the waterways, giving you a thorough tour of the varying districts and architecture Amsterdam has to offer at a much more relaxing pace.
There are plenty of word class museums to peruse showcasing the best of Dutch and international art, an interesting old Jewish quarter and of course Anne Frank’s house, a landmark that is usually teeming with tourists so it’s best to book in advance.
Foodie tip: From a food market to an indo-dutch feast, check out our guide to Amsterdam’s best eateries here.
London to Bruges
Head for a weekend to the beautiful chocolate box city of Bruges. Only 3 hours on the train from London (you change in Brussels) Bruges is an easy destination for a quick escape that still feels a world away.
Bruges is best in the off season or mid-week if you can do it. Without the crush of the crowds, the streets open up and a wander around the gothic architecture of the old town, a UNESCO world heritage site since 2000, is much more enjoyable without being jostled by other tourists trying to take group photos or re-enact scenes from ‘In Bruges’ for social media.
Belgium as a whole is known for its chocolate and Bruges is no exception. You can’t go that far wrong on the cocoa front, with a multitude of great chocolate shops and even a Chocolate museum to delve into. However, if you also enjoy a beer, then the De Halve Maan Brewery is worth a trip. The brewery dates back to the 16thcentury and also has a great panoramic view from the roof and beer tasting session afterwards. Just be careful on the stairs.
London to Venice & Verona
For a piece of old time luxury hop on the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Glide through the changing landscapes and alpine scenery of France, Switzerland and Northern Italy, while enjoying the plush cabins and gastronomy of the famous Belmond service.
A ticket includes a three course lunch, four course dinner, and breakfast served in your cabin at a time to suit you, with local and seasonal ingredients picked up along the way to ensure their freshness. Each carriage has been designed to be the epitome of art-deco elegance, and there are a variety of cabins to choose from to suit your needs – and your budget.
A journey that takes you back to the height of luxury rail travel, the Orient express is an experience to remember.
In light of recent events, you may want to avoid Venice for a while. So instead you can take the train to Verona. Just as romantic, with the oldest library in Europe, fantastic food and plenty of ancient churches, Verona is often overlooked or misrepresented in the shadow of Shakespeare. To escape the crowds around the Romeo and Juliet balcony, walk across any of the Adige bridges and discover a different side to this ancient city. Including one of Italy’s best landscaped gardens, Giardino Giusti, a hidden gem of Verona that’s been visited by Mozart, a Tsar of Russia and of course this being Italy, Cosimo De Medici. It also has a great view out over the city. It’s worth mentioning as well that once you’re in Verona, Lake Garda is only a short hop away. Which should go without saying, is worth it.
London to Edinburgh
Getting to the airport, and flying up to Edinburgh would probably, in the end, take about the same amount of time as simply getting the train. The LNER fast trains go from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh in around four hours 20 minutes. Dropping you off directly at the meeting point of Edinburgh Old Town and New Town, Waverley Station. The journey takes you through some of the UK’s most attractive countryside, and if you book in advance tickets can go for as little as £27.
Once in Edinburgh, walk up the extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat for a view over the city, take a tour around Edinburgh Castle for a bit of history and head down to Leith, also known as The Shore, for some fresh seafood, Michelin star restaurants and lively bars filled with goers of the Leith theatre, a space that dates back to the 1930’s and has as colourful a past as some of the shows that occur within it.
Train tip: If you’re going for the Fringe or Hogmanay, then the train is certainly a more gentle option than flying, especially if you’re nursing a bit of a headache. Reserve a seat in advance and then you can sleep, unbothered, all the way back down.
London to Paris
Taking just two hours and sixteen minutes, this is perhaps undoubtedly the most civilised way to travel to Paris. No restrictive baggage allowance, dehydrating plane cabin or hassle at the other end working out how to get from Paris-Charles De Gaulle to your hotel. The Eurostar picks you up from central London and drops you off at Paris Gare Du Nord in central Paris, with you feeling non the wearier.
Head to the Louvre for some art, go survey the damage at Notre Dame – and visit the Angelina teahouse which is only a short walk away for some sublime hot chocolate, or walk the streets of Marais for private mansions from the 17th century, the Musée Victor Hugo, and fashionable boutiques.
Foodie tip: Head up the crooked cobblestone streets of Montmartre to La Boîte aux Lettres. This small restaurant is a bastion of quality French food that, unlike many in Paris, has been untouched by the often negative impact of tourist trade. I’m so fond of this eatery I almost didn’t include it. Selfishly wanting to keep it a secret in an, perhaps misguided, attempt to help it retain its local charm. As much as it pains me to reveal this delight of French fare, if you only have one night in Paris this is where to spend it. Reserve or the locals will get in before you.
Life On The Rails
Once you reach Paris or Brussels, you can get a train to anywhere in Europe. Whether Spain, Istanbul, Switzerland or even so far north as Norway, the possibilities once crossing the channel are endless.