It's easier than ever to take the train to the continent - and capital cities are by no means the only destinations available to those planning a city break by rail.
The train journey between London and Paris, Brussels, Calais or Lille each clock in at less than 2 hrs 30 minutes, making city breaks from the UK by rail to France and Brussels easier than they've ever been. But thanks to Europe's vast high-speed rail network, our neighbouring countries and their capitals are by no means the only destinations available to those planning a city break by rail from London.
There are literally hundreds of cities within reach of London of by rail, some on Britain's doorstep - either within the UK or just over the Channel - others further afield. Looking beyond the capitals and big names of Europe makes it easier to find the best value city breaks, and some of Europe’s liveliest cultural scenes are in its smaller cities, too.
We've picked our favourite city breaks in Europe, and poured over the rail timetables to find the most convenient locations, each of which can be reached by train within a day from London. So whether you're eyeing a romantic weekend, a short break with a bit of culture or something a little more action-packed, read on to find out just how easy a city break by rail can be.
City breaks by rail to France
Thanks to Eurostar services from London, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to the continent, France is within easy reach of travellers from the UK. But the London to Paris train isn't the only option.
Eurostar now offers direct services far beyond the capital and easy transfers in Paris or Lille onto high-speed TGV, Intercity or even regional trains means that few parts of France are beyond the reach of the excellent SNCF rail network. This opens up a whole host of opportunities for city breaks by rail in France. We've picked a few of our favourites:
Cultural city break - Lyon, France
Only slightly further than Paris by train, Lyon is packed with attractions that give the capital a run for its money for a city break. There are many museums, from the traditional Museum of Fine Arts, to the modern Mac gallery, the recently opened Musée de Confluence and that's just for starters.
Take a stroll along the banks of the Rhône and the Saône, and explore the cafes and restaurants of the regenerated docklands. The city is famed for its food and of course the wine is fabulous, making Lyon ideal for a long weekend of appreciating the very best of French culture.
The city is served by a direct Eurostar from London to Lyon, making it an easy choice for a short break by rail. The direct train previously ran during summer months only but, due to its popularity, now runs year-round. The direct Eurostar bypasses Paris so you can travel from London to Lyon by train in 4 hrs 41 mins. Trains depart once a week on Saturdays in winter and three or four times a week in spring and summer.
Romantic city break - Aix en Provence, France
Beautiful gardens, sparkling fountains, grand avenues and café terraces make Aix en Provence a great spot to linger for a city break in the sun. Best in spring and summer when the city's many parks and gardens are in full bloom. Explore the classical French garden of Parc Jourdan, one of the biggest parks in Aix, split into two parts by an enormous staircase. Or stroll around the grounds of 17th-century Pavillon Vendôme.
Head out of town to visit Paul Cézanne's studio or take a day trip to one of the beach resorts for which the French Riviera is famous. For something less full on, explore the many picturesque fishing villages of the region, all easily reached by local train. And if you have time, the Blue Coast Train from Marseille to Miramas is nearby, one of our recommended coastal train trips.
It is very easy to travel by train from London to Aix-en-Provence. The journey normally has two parts: a ride on Eurostar from London to France, and then an onward connection on a high-speed TGV to the French Riviera. We generally recommend changing trains in Lille to give Paris a miss, but both are viable options with a journey time of 7 hours or less.
Alternatively, depending on your preferred day of travel, it's also possible to travel from London to Marseille by direct Eurostar, which takes a little over 6 hours. From Marseille, regular regional TER trains run all day to Aix-en-Provence.
Short city break - Strasbourg, France
If time is of the essence, a savvy choice for a short city break by rail is Strasbourg, on France’s eastern border with Germany. Strasbourg is also one of our recommended European winter city breaks by train.
The city has a stunning gothic cathedral and preserved old town surrounded by canals and cobbled streets. Sitting near the German border, the culture and architecture blend German and French influences, which make it incredibly picturesque. There are plenty of activities to fill a weekend, including museums, boat trips down the Rhine and wine tours of the Alsace region. You can squeeze all this into a short city break or linger for longer.
It’s easy to take the train from London to Strasbourg since the 5 hour 41 minute journey requires a simple change of stations from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est in Paris, possible on foot in just 10 minutes. You'll travel from London by Eurostar, with time for coffee in Paris before hopping on a double-decker TGV Duplex to Strasbourg.
For more information and additional destinations, check out our guide to Trains to France.
City breaks by rail to Italy
Many of the iconic cities of Italy are easily reached by train, either by high-speed TGV direct from Paris or overnight sleeper train. Once you arrive, the excellent rail network - of high-speed ‘Red Arrow’ Frecciarossa trains, or slower, regional services - await to deliver you to every corner of Italy.
We've picked just a few Italian destinations, each one brimming with art, history, food and fun to inspire a city break by rail in Italy.
Foodlover's city break - Turin, Italy
Served by high-speed TGV from France to Italy, Turin is a fantastic choice for a city break by rail since it's easily accessible from the UK. There's plenty to keep you occupied with masses of culture, outdoors activities, great food and drink (perfect for foodies) and a lively nightlife.
Take in the sights and enjoy an aperitivo at one of the city's many cafes whose buffets are so delicious you could probably forego dinner altogether! But if you do still have an appetite, immerse yourself in Turin's slow food movement and savour the food and drink of northern Italy. From fresh pasta, tasty regional dishes, Mediterranean seafood and Bicerin Torino, the city's signature drink of melted chocolate, espresso and whipped cream...yum. If you're there during Autumn, check if your trip coincides with the bi-annual Slow Food festival.
Travelling from London to Turin by train takes 10 hours by Eurostar and TGV with a quick change in Paris. It is also possible to travel overnight by Eurostar and Thello night train to Milan, then high-speed Frecciarossa. The 12-hour journey isn't the most luxurious (we look forward to the completion of Thello's renovation, expected in 2016) but it is an effective way to save on accommodation costs and gain an additional day of holiday.
Lesser-known city break - Padua, Italy
A city emerging from the shadow of neighbouring Venice, the canals, porticoed streets, fresco-packed churches and daily markets of Padua make it well worth a visit. Though perhaps not big enough to entertain for more than a couple of days, being so close to Venice means that Padua is often overlooked by tourists - making it a perfect place to get away from the crowds and appreciate the sights at your leisure.
Ramble around Padua's old town centre, poke your head into the antiques and artisan shops of the Ghetto, the city's medieval heart, visit the Sant'Antonio basilica and the magnificent Palazzo della Ragione before retiring for an aperativo and al fresco dining in one of the ciity's many squares.
There are several ways to travel by rail from London to Padua. The direct overnight train from Paris to Padua is a cheap and easy way to travel between the two cities. With this option, you arrive in Padua at a civilised hour – just after nine in the morning.
Or you can travel entirely by day from London to Padua by train, by Eurostar and high-speed TGV to Turin. In Turin you alight at Porta Susa station, from where there is a convenient direct train to Padua. It’s a long journey for one day, but easily done with an early start from London.
For more information and additional destinations, check out our guide to Trains to Italy.
City breaks by rail to Germany
The excellent London Saver fare (formally known as 'London Spezial’), means that you can snap up a train ticket from London to any city in Germany for just £50. And thanks to - dare I say it? - typically German efficiency, coordination between Eurostar and onward high-speed ICE trains in Brussels trims the journey time to many western cities to six hours or less.
At just four hours, Cologne is emminently reachable for a weekend break by train. And other unusual destinations like Stuttgart are worth a longer visit, not only for the city itself but as a base to explore nearby towns of Tubingen and Baden Baden.
Weekend break in Cologne
With its main railway station (the Hauptbahnhof) nudging up against Cologne’s celebrated cathedral, this Rhineland city is a place that takes trains seriously. For visitors arriving from Britain (or for that matter, from nearby Belgium and the Netherlands), Cologne offers a wonderful first taste of Germany.
Cologne has a great balance of activities for a weekend break, all easy to explore on foot. Visitors will find a liberal, cosmopolitan city with a raft of world-class museums. Culture is not compulsory; after you’ve had your fill of Romanesque churches and Renaissance crucifixions, head down to the cobbled old town and Altmarkt to chill over a beer or two in one of the city's many beer houses.
The train from London to Cologne takes little more than four hours, making rail a great alternative to flying for a short break. Start with a Eurostar from London, and after a short hop between trains in Brussels, you arrive by high-speed ICE train into Cologne less than 2 hours later.
Visit Stuttgart by train
Vineyards and cars are the lifeblood of Stuttgart. The city is home to Porsche, Mercedes and lots of hi-tech industry but is at the same time, a leafy place with acres of parkland, including the lake at Max-Eyth-See (pictured). The suburbs slip into the vineyards and forests which surround the city – all in all, a pleasant mix.
If it's your cup of tea, the Mercedes-Benz and Porche museums rate highly with petrol heads. Or, for our kind of geeks, take a trip on the rack railway for a tour of the city at local prices, or head to the Standseilbahn funicular for a ride to the forest cemetery on a retro cable car.
Stuttgart also makes a great base for travelling around Baden-Württemberg. The towns of Tübingen and Heidelberg are both around an hour away by train. The spa town of Baden-Baden takes a little longer, around 90 minutes, but still doable in a day. We highly recommend the Stuttgart's interactive guide for finding other things to do in and around the area.
The journey by train from London to Stuttgart takes around six hrs, 30 mins by Eurostar and ICE. The easiest route is via Brussels with another change at Frankfurt. Though it takes a little longer, it's also possible to go via Paris from where direct TGV head to Stuttgart. It departs from Paris Est, which is just ten minutes on foot from Paris Nord where the Eurostar arrives - so a not-too fussy change of trains in the French capital.
For more information and additional destinations, check out our guide to Trains to Germany.
City breaks by rail to Spain
Travelling from the UK to Spain by train became so much easier in December 2013 with the launch of the new high-speed rail service from Paris to Barcelona. The double-decker TGV Euroduplex train sadly meant the end of the popular Elipsos night train that operated on the same route but, with up to four trains plying the route every day, many more people are now able to travel in style and comfort to the Costa Brava by train.
Only a few of Spain's cities are within easy reach by train from London in a day, but that shouldn't stop you exploring Spain by rail. We've featured those that are feasible in 12 hours or less, but with an overnight stop in Paris or Barcelona (woe is me!), you can easily get further afield.
Girona city break by train
The penultimate stop on the Paris to Barcelona TGV, Girona is only an hour away from Barcelona and often overlooked in favour of its noisy neighbour. But Girona is a city worth visiting in its own right. Arguably better looking, and certainly more laid back, this ancient city has many of the charms of the Catalan capital without the trappings of fame.
Stroll along the banks of the Onyar river, enjoying the colourful modernist building that flank its banks. Or hop up onto the restoried city walls - called Passeig de la Muralla - that snake around the city, with fantastic views of the city below. If architecture's your thing, the musueam dedidicated to Rafael Masó - Casa Masó - is worth a visit. Or if, like us, you want to get out and explore, get out into the Catalan countryside with a bike tour.
The journey from London to Girona by train takes just over 10 hrs by Eurostar and high-speed TGV. Your train through France speeds through Burgundy and the Rhône Valley towards Avignon, then west along the Mediterranean coast, with great views of the Pyrenees after Perpignan.
Main image: Eurostar, all rights reserved.
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