Avoid airport delays by travelling by train. But once you've done the obvious Eurostar destinations of Paris, Lille and Brussels, where to next? Here are five more great accessible European getaways
With the weather causing flight cancellations, risk of airline strikes and increasing awareness about the environmental impact, taking the train is an increasingly attractive holiday option. It's easy to get across the Channel by Eurostar to Paris, Lille or Brussels. But once you've been there, here are five more destinations that make great long weekend trips and are easily to get to by train from the UK.
Experience culture, canals and cafés in Amsterdam. You can wander alongside the network of canals for hours (though watch out for bikes…) or get an overview of the city from the water on the Canal Bus (+31 (0)20 623 9886; www.canal.nl). These hop-on-hop-off boat tours are a good way of getting around the city, with 24-hour tickets costing €19.80. Especially during spring, stop off at the Bloemenmarkt floating flower market on the Singel canal. It’s a riot of colour with stalls selling tulips or bulbs to ship home.
There’s no shortage of museums in the city – with the Rijksmuseum (Jan Luijkenstraat 1, Amsterdam; +31 (0)20 674 7000; www.rijksmuseum.nl) for a huge collection of artefacts from Dutch history, and the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 1071 CX Amsterdam; +31 (0)20 570 5200; www.vangoghmuseum.nl) for some of the artist’s greatest works and the story of his life. Another must-see is the Anne Frankhuis (Prinsengracht 263, Amsterdam; +31 (0)20 556 7105; www.annefrank.org), the typical Amsterdam canal house where Anne Frank wrote her famous dairy as her family hid from the Nazis.
There are boutique shops throughout Amsterdam, often hidden down side streets among the canals. The Jordaan area is home to artists’ studios and galleries, jewellers and clothes shops. It has a village style feel with lots of cafés to relax in. It also holds food and antique markets in Noordermarkt square. And in the evening, visit a traditional ‘brown café’. These cosy bars are found all over the city and get their name from their dark wood panelling.
How to get there: take the Eurostar to Brussels (1 hour 50 mins, from £69 return). Then take a train on to Amsterdam, with Thalys fast trains taking just under 2 hours. Return tickets normally start from £60.
Where to stay: The citizenM Amsterdam City (Prinses Irenestraat 30, 1077WX) is a cool design hotel in the centre of town with doubles from €80. Rooms are compact but well designed, with an electronic 'mood pod' that lets you control the lights, blinds and TV. Or for a taste of life on the water, Houseboat Hotel (www.houseboathotel.nl) rents out houseboats on the canal from around €125 a night.
The ‘capital’ of the Champagne region, Reims is a great place to visit if you’re a fan of bubbles. Many of the big Champagne houses have head offices there, including Veuve Clicquot, Pommery and Taittinger. Walkable from the centre of town, they all offer tours and tastings. We did the Taittinger tour (9, Place Saint-Nicaise, 51100 Reims; +33 (0)3 26 85 45 35; www.taittinger.com), which takes you through the cellars and bottling plant, and shows you how champagne is made, ending up with a tasting (1 hour tour costs €10). The champagne houses also hold special events and concerts, including the Reims Jazz Festival during November (details of this and other events at www.reims-tourism.com).
For food and drink, Place Drouet d'Erlon has a host of bars and restaurants, with the pavement cafés a great spot for a glass of champagne to start your evening. The street is also home to a Christmas market in winter. And for a bit of culture, the city’s spectacular gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame (Place du Cardinal-Lucon) is a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s seen the coronation of 32 French kings through history, and has some stunning stained-glass windows. The nearby Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) also has a collection of paintings and tapestries from the 16th century, set in an old abbey.
How to get there: take the Eurostar to Paris (2 hours 15 mins, from £69 return). TGV trains to Reims leave from Paris Gare d’Est station, a short walk from Gare du Nord (or about €6 by taxi). The journey to Reims takes 45 minutes and return tickets start from £23.
Where to stay: Best Western Hôtel de la Paix (9 Rue Buirette, 51100) is a modern hotel with spacious rooms from €140. It's got a pool, restaurant and bar, and more character than you'd expect from a chain hotel. Or the budget Kyriad Reims Centre (7-9 Rue Du Géneral Sarrail, 51100) is friendly and centrally located, with small but well-designed rooms from €75.
Picture-perfect Bruges, known as the ‘Venice of the north’ is a great place for a romantic break. This UNESCO World Heritage city has cobbled streets, crooked bridges, a network of canals and stunning medieval architecture. Not to mention plenty of chocolate and beer.
Take a boat trip under the bridges and along the canals to experience the city from below and explore areas hidden away from the streets. These 30-minute tours (from Georges Stael, Katelijnestraat 4) also give you an overview of the history of Bruges. Adult tickets €6.90. Or for the opposite perspective, climb to the top of the 83-metre high Belfry tower (Markt 7, 8000 Brugge) to get spectacular views of the city from above.
You can find a chocolate shop on every corner in Bruges. As well as enjoying it hot or cold, you can try some new and inventive flavours at The Chocolate Line (Simon Stevinplein 19, 8000 Brugge, +32 (0)50/34.10.90 www.thechocolateline.be). Try their delicious pralines, or if you’re feeling more adventurous then maybe the wasabi or vinegar concoctions. There’s also one remaining brewery in the city – De Halve Maan, or The Half Moon (Walplein 2, 8000 Brugge; +32 (0)50 33 26 97; www.halvemaan.be). It was established in 1546 and brews a special beer called Brugse Zot, a nickname for the town’s residents. A tour of the brewery and museum takes 45 minutes and costs €5.50.
How to get there: take the Eurostar to Brussels (1 hour 50 mins, from £69 return). Your Eurostar ticket includes travel onto any station in Belgium for free, so just change trains and it’s around 1 hour on to Bruges.
Where to stay: Hotel Feverey (Collaert Mansionstraat 3, 8000) is a good value choice with double rooms from €50. On the outskirts of the city centre, the friendly owner has lots of information about things to see and do. For a bit more luxury try the four-star Hotel Prinsenhof (Ontvangersstraat 9, 8000), with great service and characterful rooms in the heart of the old city from €165.
Deauville and Trouville
For an old-fashioned seaside holiday, visit the Normandy towns of Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer. Although they share beautiful wide sandy beaches and have almost merged, the two towns have very different characters.
Glamorous Deauville is more designer boutiques, casinos and horseracing, all centred around the Promenade des Planches. This beachfront walkway is full of beach huts, deckchairs and strolling Parisians. In fact the town has been nicknamed ‘Paris's 21st Arrondissement’ because of the number of Parisians who take their summer break here. The town is also home to an annual American Film Festival in September (www.festival-deauville.com), when celebrities descend for a northern alternative to Cannes.
Trouville is more low-key and laid back, with more families and a pretty fishing harbour. It was popular with artists and writers in the 1850s, including Monet, Dumas and Flaubert. It’s well-known for its seafood, with plenty of great restaurants as well as big fish market. And if you want to see the local marine life before it reaches the plate, the Aquarium Vivarium de Trouville (Rue de Paris, Trouville 1436; +33 (0)2 31 88 46 04) has over 70 tanks with sea creatures and reptiles from around the world.
How to get there: take the Eurostar to Paris (2 hours 15 mins, from £69 return). Then cross Paris to Gare St Lazare by RER train (line E), or a taxi is around €8. The journey to Deauville/Trouville takes 1 hour 45 mins by direct train, and return tickets start from £29.
Where to stay: Hotel Villa Josephine (23 Rue des Villas, 14800) is set in a lovely old house and gardens. Beautiful rooms, decorated by a local interior designer, start from €110 a night. Or if you're looking for a budget place to stay, hotels in Trouville tend to be cheaper. The Hotel Le Fer a Cheval (11 Rue Victor Hugo, 14360 Trouville-sur-Mer) has bright, simple rooms from €75 for a double, with great breakfasts produced by the former baker owner.
Cosmopolitan Strasbourg is located at the heart of Europe, home to the European Parliament and with a mixture of French and German influences. The city’s beautiful historic centre – the Grande Île – was the first city centre to be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its medieval bridges, streets and churches are great to get lost in. Climb the 332 stairs to the top of the Cathédrale Notre Dame for views across the city and as far as the Black Forest in Germany. And south of the Grande Île, the photogenic Petite France area has medieval half-timbered townhouses leaning out over winding narrow cobbled streets. The city is a great place to come in winter for the Christmas markets on Place Broglie and Place de la Cathédrale to buy presents and drink vin chaud.
Alsace is known for its beer, with plenty of pavement bars and cafés where you can try some, and is home to the Kronenbourg and Fischer breweries. The Kronenbourg brewery tour (68 Route d'Oberhausbergen, 67200 Strasbourg; +33 (0)3 88 27 41 59; www.brasseries-kronenbourg.com) explains how beer is made and you can taste some of their products. Or if you prefer wine, Alsace produces some great whites – mainly Rieslings and Gewürztraminer. Also try some of the traditional Alsatian food by visiting a winstub (a kind of simple Alsatian bistro). Dishes take influence from Germany – like sauerkraut and flammeküche (a thin pizza topped with crème fraiche, onions and bacon)
How to get there: take the Eurostar to Paris (2 hours 15 mins, from £69 return). TGV trains to Strasbourg leave from Paris Gare d’Est station, a short walk from Gare du Nord (or about €6 by taxi). The journey to Strasbourg takes 2 hours 20 minutes and return tickets start from £40.
Where to stay: Monopole Metropole (16 Rue Kuhn, 67000), located between the train station and city centre, has a good mixture of modern comfort and Alsatian character, with double rooms from €110. Or budget Le Kleber (29 Place Kleber, 67000), has compact rooms from €67, named and decorated in colour schemes based on different foods.