Fancy a European city break, but want to reduce your carbon footprint? Luckily it’s easy, fast and relatively cheap to get to major cities and lesser-known destinations across Europe by rail, departing from London.

Most of the cities listed here can be reached within five hours travel time of central London, perfect for a weekend getaway or short city break. Plus, you’ll leave and arrive in the city centre—there are no airport transfers adding to your travel time. Check the time you have left on your passport before setting off, as all non-EU nationals should hold passports issued within the past 10 years, and be valid for at least 3 months after the date you intend to leave the EU country you’re visiting. British travellers will need to pay a 7 Euro visa-waiver fee before travelling to the EU – check the EU ETIAS website for details.

Bonus tip: As with train travel within the UK, remember to book in advance (around six weeks) to get the best deals. All Eurostar train tickets are now flexible, so you can change your booking with no exchange fee up to 7 days before your departure date, you’ll just have to pay the difference in fare.

If you’re planning on visiting more than one city you can probably save money with an unlimited train travel Eurail Pass. The Eurail “Global” pass includes unlimited travel to 33 countries around Europe for as little as £242.26. There’s also country specific Eurail passes for France and Germany.

paris eiffel tower spring
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1. Paris via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (around 16 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: 2 hrs 30 mins
  • Cost: From £78.00 return

Eurostar has been a game-changer for weekend breaks from London. Hopping on a train from St Pancras can take you directly to Paris, Lille Brussels, Bruges, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. But let’s go to Paris first.

Paris is the perfect size for a weekend away. Jump on a train on Thursday or Friday, and head back on Sunday afternoon. Even two days in Paris should give you enough time to do a mix of touristy things (we recommend a night-time trip up the Eiffel Tower) and city wandering.

The high season in Paris is June to mid-September, and then again in mid- to late December. Autumn and spring are generally cheaper and less crowded, and the weather should still be decent enough for exploring neighbourhoods like Montmartre (18th arrondissement) with its beautiful views from the Sacré-Coeur and dreamy, winding streets. If the weather is good, take a stroll around the Canal Saint-Martin neighbourhood (10th arrondissement) for refreshments at its many hip bars and cafés, like Le Comptoir General—so cool it’s hidden down an alley.

Note: If you’re going to tourist spots, it’s worth booking things like the Louvre in advance, as it will save a lot of queuing time.

Like London, accommodation in Paris can be pricey. But there are lots of budget hotels — check out the quirky ReMix Hotel, Mama Shelter or Hotel Villa Boheme – and Airbnb rooms, plus look out for hotel + train deals from Eurostar which might save you a few euros.

lille france
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2. Lille via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (7 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: 1 hr 22 mins
  • Cost: Average £78.00 return

Lille is a medieval city close to the border with Belgium. It’s much smaller than Paris, perfect if you want a French city break without the crowds and (not-so-cheap) prices of the capital – and at 1 hour, 22 minutes travel from St Pancras, it’s even closer than Paris.

Getting there involves a pleasant train ride through the French countryside. You’ll arrive at Lille Europe Station, which is just 10 minutes’ walk from the city centre. Once you’ve dropped off your stuff, getting around is easy. A 24-hour public transport pass costs about €5, which you can use to hop on the metro (two lines), tram or bus. Alternatively, you can rent a bike from V’Lille.

However, it’s actually a pretty walkable city; many of its main landmarks and attractions are close to each other. It’s also a very picturesque place, with beautiful architecture. Wander around The Grand Place, a large square lined with 17th and 20th-century architecture. Your Eurostar ticket gets you 2-for-1 entry into some of Lille’s top museums and galleries too—like Palais des Beaux-Arts, one of the largest museums in France.

Obviously, eating and drinking is one of the most important parts of any trip—and Lille has plenty to feast on, even on a budget. Head to the backstreet of Rue des Bouchers, which is filled with small bistros like Ripaille where you can get two courses from €19. For food on the go, grab edible treats at the covered food hall in the market of Wazemmes.

Accommodation-wise, you’re looking at a mix of budget hotels like Ibis and Best Western or Cheapo-friendly Eklo Hotel, hostels, and Airbnb from around £25.00 per night.

brussels grand palace
Photo by Danilovich

3. Brussels via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (up to 9 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: 1 hr 53 mins
  • Cost: Average £78.00 return

Hop on the Eurostar and head to Belgium’s capital for culture, politics, art and – of course – waffles.

It’s a pretty city for wandering, with lots of Art Nouveau; Brussels was home to architect Victor Horta, one of the movement’s founders. His four townhouses – Atelier Horta, Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay and Hôtel van Eetveld – are all Unesco World Heritage Sites.

The city dates back to 949 AD, so you can visit medieval landmarks like the Grand Place and the ruins of Coudenberg Palace, then bring things up to date with a visit to the European Parliament.

Unlike some other capital cities you can visit plenty of art galleries and museums without time-sapping queues. Don’t miss the Magritte Museum and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, where you can see work by famous Flemish artists like Reubens and Marcel Broodthaers. There’s plenty of colourful street art to check out too, including bright Tintin murals.

Brussels is also filled with beautiful landscaped parks like Jardin du Petit Sablon. For classic Belgian food and drink, sample the waffles at Mokafe (close to the Grand Place), moules-frites at Chez Leon, or the many offerings on foodie street Rue de Flandre. Belgian beer flows wherever you go—including the old-school A La Mort Subite, Bier Circus, and puppet-filled Poechenellekelder (try saying that five times in a row after a few lambics).

Accommodation-wise, there are budget hotels like Hotel Bloom, and the Latroupe Grand Place, or self-catering apartments with RentByNight and Airbnb, as well as hostels.

bruges canal
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4. Bruges via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (5 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: 3 hrs 25 minutes
  • Cost: Average £78.00 return

Anyone who’s seen the film In Bruges knows it’s a very photogenic city. Even though a lot of grim stuff kicks off in the film, it does a better job of showing off the place than most tourist boards. In fact, Bruges is so popular with people flocking to see its Gothic buildings, canals and medieval streets, that the tourist board stopped adverts for day trips there to avoid overtourism!

We recommend going in late autumn or winter to avoid the peak season—you’ll be able to enjoy atmospheric wandering, hot chocolate and the Christmas markets. It might be easier to climb the Belfry of Bruge in cooler weather too; that’s the medieval tower with 366 narrow steps to the top, giving you a 360-degree view of the city.

Quite a lot of top sights feature in In Bruges, and this handy map will help you wend your way around them, including the Belfry, the Basilica of the Holy Blood and The Inner Court Gruuthuse Museum.

Visiting Bruges during winter means you also hit festival season (late November to early January), which includes a lot of Belgian chocolate and a rather cool ice sculpture festival.

You might want to rest your feet for a bit, and see Old Bruges at a leisurely pace from a canal tour, which you can pick up from one of five boat landings around the centre. After a day of sightseeing, grab drinks at Bar Des Amis, close to the market, or some grub at Gruuthuse Hof—one of the city’s oldest restaurants.

Bruges is full of budget hotels like Ibis Brugge Centrum or the Braamberg B&B, which are both near the historic centre of Bruges, close to the main sights.

amsterdam canal with bikes
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5. Amsterdam via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (9 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: 4 hrs 38 minutes
  • Cost: Average £78.00 return

One of the newer cities added to the Eurostar service is Amsterdam. You can be in the canal city in roughly the same time it takes to get to Edinburgh. It’ll probably cost you less, too.

If you’re going for the weekend, it might be worth grabbing an I amsterdam City Card, which gets you access to public transport, as well as over 70 attractions and museums like Anne Frank’s House, Rembrandt House, and Muiderslot Castle. It’s €90 for 48 hours or €110 for 72 hrs, and you get to skip the lines.

Watch out for cyclists in Amsterdam—they’re everywhere, and they move fast! Of course, you can easily join them and rent a bike (also included with the City Card) to zip around the pretty streets of Jordaan, past colourful townhouses in De 9 Straatjes (The Nine Streets), and around the pretty flowerbed-lined Vondelpark to catch free outdoor concerts if you’re visiting between June and September.

Head to Musemplein for major museums including the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. It’s worth seeing the city from the canal too, so factor in a short tour.

For food, head to De Culinaire Werkplaats Restaurant, which offers a mix of set menus, and occasionally a pay-what-you-want option. There are many Dutch pancakes places to try too, including The Pancake Boat.

If you want to stay in the city centre, there are budget options like XO Hotels Couture and Ambassade Hotel, Airbnb and plenty of hostels.

6. Lyon, France Via Eurostar

  • Train: Eurostar (24 trains a day)
  • Travel time from London: Around 5 hrs (including 1 change at Paris)
  • Cost: From £78.00 return

    Arguably all of France is great for foodies, but the pretty, pastel-hued city of Lyon in the south-east is known as the ‘gastronomic capital of the world’. A bold claim, yes, but with 20 Michelin-starred restaurants and more restaurants per head than any other city in France, it’s a fair one. The location helps; situated between Paris and the Mediterranean, it’s a hub for agricultural produce.

    The Halles market is a great place to start. Close to the La Part-Dieu central station, it’s a great place to pick up bread and cheese for lunch on the go. Alternatively, stop off at one of the restaurants such as Chez Lyon if you’re into seafood.

    It’s not just about the food (although that’s a legit reason to visit any city); there are historic and cultural things to explore too, including the relatively new Musée des Confluences which is a science and anthropological museum. The Confluence district is also home to some interesting contemporary architecture.

    Lyon has been an important city since Roman times and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Explore its ancient streets and architecture and appreciate French fine art at the Musée des Beaux Arts, situated in a former 17th century convent. Once you’re done wandering, enjoy l’heure de apéro for a pre-dinner drink and snack at sunset before, of course, more Lyonnaise food.

    Cool, affordable accommodation includes Hotel Silky, Hotel Des Artistes or the Hotel Victoria, plus there is a Mama Shelter here too.

    7. Nantes, France, Via Eurostar and TGV trainline

    • Train: Eurostar (14 trains a day)
    • Travel time from London: Around 5 hrs (including 1 change at Paris)
    • Cost: From £187.32 return

      Nantes is a university city and apparently one of the greenest in France. It’s the capital of the Pays de la Loire region in the west and is home to medieval architecture, a thriving art scene, beautiful scenery and great food.

      Like the best cities, the old and new co-exist in Nantes. One of its more modern attractions is the Les Machines de l’Île which is a sort of arty theme park around the old shipyards where you’ll encounter a giant elephant and other interesting creations inspired by the works of Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci. You can get a Nantes pass for either 1, 2 or 3 days from €25 for access to public transport and several attractions.

      There’s plenty to see and do for free too, including wandering around the ramparts of the 13th Century Château des ducs de Bretagne or taking a stroll through the beautiful Jardin des Plantes Nantes botanical gardens.

      There are plenty of places to stay which won’t break the bank; both Aparthotel Adagio Nantes Centre and Hotel Seven Urban Suites Nantes Centre are conveniently located, with rooms complete with flat-screen TVs, fridges and aircon.

      8. Rotterdam, Netherlands Via Eurostar

      • Train: Eurostar (4 trains a day)
      • Travel time from London: Around 3 and half hours direct
      • Cost: From £70.00£100.00 return

      Rotterdam is pretty close to Amsterdam and they’re on the same Eurostar route, so it’s easy to visit both cities on a short holiday; however, it’s an interesting city for a weekend or mini-break in its own right. It’s the Netherlands’ second biggest city, known for ultra-modern, award-winning architecture. Although it dates back to 1270, much of the city was destroyed during World War II so it looks very different to the more traditional Dutch cities.

      It’s a great place to explore with a camera; for city views, head to the top of the Euromast Tower which is about 180 metres tall, the tallest building in the city. On street level, head to the Markthal, a shiny, futuristic looking building filled with over 100 market stalls, bars and places to eat, and a great place to look up at the ceiling which is covered by the biggest artwork in the country.

      For interesting perspectives and angles visit the Cube Houses (Kijk-Kubus), some of the city’s most famous contemporary buildings. They’re vibrant yellow, and tilted at a 45-degree angle; you can peek inside the show cube for €3. For a history fix, visit the Old Harbour to see restored historic boats and visit the Maritime Museum, or take a stroll through the Delfshaven, one of the few areas of Rotterdam that survived the destruction of World War II.

      Accommodation is happily affordable, from hostel/hotel hybrids such as CityHub to those with a more boutique vibe, like The James.

      9. Utrecht, Netherlands Via Eurostar and Regional Train

      • Train: Eurostar (13 trains a day) + local transfer
      • Travel time from London: Around 5 hours (including a change at Rotterdam – around £20.00 return)
      • Cost: From £70.00£100.00 return

      Although you can’t travel directly to Utrecht from London via the Eurostar it’s still pretty easy to get to, in a travel time of around 4 hours 40 mins. Take the Eurostar to Rotterdam Centraal and change for the short train journey to Utrecht Centraal. It’s a canal city, but unlike the capital it’s a lot less crowded.

      Utrecht is over 2000 years old so there are plenty of historic sites to explore, including city centre buildings from the middle ages. The city is also home to Dom Tower – the tallest tower in the Netherlands.

      It’s a pretty city just to wander in and, with fewer tourists, you can visit places like Molen Rijn en Zon windmill and the picturesque Lange Rozendaal area at a leisurely pace. There are a few museums and galleries too, including The Miffy Museum and Sonnenborgh Observatory. During summer and autumn the city hosts music festivals, including Ultrasonic in July and Le Guess Who? in November, and is also home to the annual Netherlands Film Festival held over 9 days in September and October.

      Much like nearby Rotterdam, you can stay in a budget pod hostel/hotel like Bunk Utrecht or splash a tiny bit more cash and opt for The Leonardo Hotel or a good old Ibis.

      Marseille – a 7 hour train ride to sunning yourself in the Med. | Photo by Alexey_Fedoren / Getty Images

      10. Marseille, France via Eurostar

      • Train: Eurostar (10 trains a day)
      • Travel time from London: 6 hrs 55 min (change at Paris)
      • Cost: From £200.00 return

        If you fancy a quick getaway to somewhere with year-round sunshine, then hop on a train to Marseille. It’s a port city and the gateway to the French Riviera – so you can have a city break and beach holiday in one. Marseille was founded in 600 BC, making it one of Europe’s oldest cities, and there’s lots to explore.

        For the heart of the old town, take a wander to Le Vieux Port, the old port. Walk around the old streets, watch boats go by. If you’ve got the time, take the 20-minute boat trip to Château d’If – it’s famous for being the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

        Old and new are well integrated in Marseille. For something more contemporary explore the colorful areas of La Panier, known for its street art and cafés, and Cours Julien, which is also art-filled and home to several markets. The city also has lots of museums and galleries, including Musée des Beaux-Arts and MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) – which is a great place to find out more about the city’s Mediterranean history. For some coastal downtime take a boat out to Calanques, a stretch of coast between Marseille and Cassis.

        If you’d like to stay near the old port but still have cash to play with while you’re there, we like the Staycity Aparthotels, Marseille, Centre Vieux Port; rooms have a kitchen so you can make the most of the local markets and free wi-fi. Alternatively, hotels don’t get any closer to the train station than the Ibis Marseille Centre Gare Saint-Charles.

        11. Avignon, France via Eurostar & local connection

        • Train: Eurostar (20 trains a day)
        • Travel time from London: 8hrs 35 mins (change at Paris)
        • Cost: From £200.00 return

          Avignon is a medieval walled city in Provence. You can get there by train for a few days of history, architecture and your fill of fabulous local produce and wine. One of the city’s main attractions is the Gothic palace Palais des Papes. It’s a huge 14th-century fortress that was home to a bunch of Popes (not the official collective noun) when things were kicking off in Rome.

          Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with huge art collections, including several Italian masterpieces. Take a stroll around the city’s 4.3 km stone ramparts for great views and photo opportunities, then watch the sunset along waterside Rue des Teinturiers.

          Thre are also some lovely, inexpensive places to stay: try Terre de Provence Hotel & Spa, Le Magnan Hotel or Logis Hôtel la Ferme if you’re looking for a quiet countryside retreat.

          Traditional Beligium buildings along a canal in Ghent
          Ghent – Belgium | Photo by CHUNYIP WONG / Getty Images

          Ghent, Belgium Via Eurostar & local connection

          • Train: Eurostar (9 trains a day) & local connection
          • Travel time from London: 2hrs 49 mins (change at Brussels)
          • Cost: From £100.00 return

          It might not have the same level of tourism as Bruges but, for a less-crowded, beautiful medieval Belgian city break, put Ghent on your itinerary. The University city is actually only 30 minutes from Brussels, so you could easily combine both. But with historic sites, street art, independent breweries and a celebrated food scene – it’s great for a city break in its own right.

          One of the city’s landmarks is 12th Century Gravensteen, although the faint hearted may want to just visit the exterior. It’s got a pretty gruesome history which you can find out about for €10. For more medieval history, minus the torture devices, head to the Gothic St Bavo’s Cathedral & The Ghent Alterpiece and The Belfry Tower for beautiful architecture and stunning views.

          Back down at street level, head to Patershol, a colourful, cobbled former leather trade district which is now a haven for foodies. Its winding laneways are home to restaurants including Karel de Stoute, modern European spot Roots, and Le Baan Thai.

          Ghent is also the city of beer, so hop your way around breweries like Hal 16, Gruut and Brouwbar for craft beer and micro-brewery tastings. Other things to check out include vintage shopping at St Jacob’s flea market as well as street art and plenty of galleries. As you might expect from the city that produced electronic band Soulwax/2ManyDjs – there’s plenty do at night too. Head to Bar Lume for gigs, and Kompass or Charlatan for club nights.

          The Ibis budget Gent Centrum Dampoort hotel is centrally-located and good value.

          Cologne Cathedral and Music Dom at twilight
          Get your Gothic Cathedral fix in Cologne. | Photo by schmidt-z / Getty Images

          Cologne, Germany Via Eurostar / Thalys (11 trains a day)

          • Train: Eurostar & Thalys
          • Travel time from London: 6hrs 13 min (change at Brussels Midi)
          • Cost: From £200.00 return

            Germany is now accessible from London by train, with more routes expected to open in the not too distant future. But you can head to Cologne for a city break right now, with a change at Brussels Midi. Cologne is one of the biggest cities in Germany, famous for its Gothic Cathedral, beer culture, Roman history and progressive atmosphere – it’s home to one of the biggest Pride parades in Europe.

            Cologne Cathedral aside, the city isn’t renowned for its architecture; at least not its modern architecture, as it was heavily bombed during World War II. But there’s plenty of interesting things to see and do on a city break. Cologne is one of the oldest cities in Germany and you can find remnants of its Roman history in the city centre and at the Romano-Germanic Museum. If you’re visiting in spring, take a stroll to the beautiful botanical garden close to the left bank of the Rhine.

            For a glimpse of some surviving pre-war architecture, check out the Art Nouveau buildings in the Belgian Quarter. It’s also a fun area to hang out in, filled with street art, cafés, restaurants, clubs and bars. Venture a little out of the city centre to Jack In the Box – a strange multi-purpose space made up of old freight containers that hosts everything from street food festivals and flea markets to gigs.

            Reasonably-priced accommodation includes the Urban Loft and the Ibis Budget Köln Messe.

            While we do our best to ensure it is correct, information is subject to change. This article was originally published in July 2020. Most recent update: Feb 25th 2024.

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