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. With the merger of Eurostar and Thalys, there could be easier train travel to more European destinations across France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium in future. But there’s a fair few cities within easy reach already.
All 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. Another piece of post-Brexit bureaucracy to be aware of is the EITAS visa-waiver fee which UK passport holders will need to apply for and pay a €7.00 to enter any of the 26 countries in the Schengen area from the end of 2022.
Cheapo pro tip: Save money and visit all five cities (and many more) using an Interrail Pass, plus there’s an extra discount if you’re under 27 or over 60.
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. Happy travels!
1. Paris via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar (around 17 trains a day)
- Travel time from London: 2 hrs 30 mins
- Cost: From £59.00 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, if you go), and city wandering. Fun fact: Paris is the most visited city in the world, with an average of 27 million visitors a year.
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 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.
2. Lille via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar (8 trains a day)
- Travel time from London: 1 hr 22 mins
- Cost: Average £60.50 return
If you want some city escapism without the crowds (and not-so-cheap) prices of Paris, then Lille is also a good spot for a mini-break by train. And at 1 hour, 22 minutes travel from St Pancras, it’s even closer than Paris.
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 at a slower pace.
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. Or you can rent a bike from V’Lille.
But, 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. You can eat well on a budget too. 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.
3. Brussels via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar (up to 10 trains a day)
- Travel time from London: 1 hr 53 mins
- Cost: Average £58.00 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 visit medieval landmarks like the Grand Place and the ruins of Coudenberg Palace, and then bring things up to date with a visit to the European Parliament.
Unlike other capital cities (looking at you, London and Tokyo) you can visit plenty of art galleries and museums without the time-sapping queues, including the Magritte Museum, and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts where you 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).
4. Bruges via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar (5 trains a day)
- Travel time from London: 3 hrs 25 minutes
- Cost: Average £63.34 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 has 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.
5. Amsterdam via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar (3 trains a day)
- Travel time from London: 4 hrs 38 minutes
- Cost: Average £0.00 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.
6. Lyon, France Via Eurostar
- Train: Eurostar
- Travel time from London: Around 5 hrs (including 1 change at Paris)
- Cost: From £100.00 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, it’s close to the La Part-Dieu central station. It’s a great place to pick up cheese and bread for a lunch on the go, or stop off at one of the restaurants including 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 interesting, contemporary architecture.
Lyon has been an important city since Roman times, and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Explore its ancient streets and architecture, and appreciate French fine-art at the Musée des Beaux Arts, which is 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.
7. Nantes, France, Via Eurostar and TGV trainline
- Train: Eurostar
- Travel time from London: Around 5 hrs (including 1 change at Paris)
- Cost: From £100.00 return
The French city just about sneaks into our guide, it can take around 5 hrs and 20 minutes to get by rail. How long it will take depends on where you change – there’s no direct service from London. You can change at either Paris or Lille, but frankly, the former is a faff as you can’t go from Gare Du Nord, you have to go from Gare Montparnesses, whereas it’s just a platform change at Lille, but the Paris train takes two hours, half the time it takes from Lille.
Right, that’s the boring logistics out of the way, 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 west and 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 it’s more modern attractions if 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 others 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 do and see 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.
8. Rotterdam, Netherlands
- 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. But 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 more traditional dutch cities.
It’s a great place to explore with a camera, and for city views, head to the top of the Euromast Tower which is about 180 metres tall, and 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 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 and and yellow, and tilted at a 45 degree angle and 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.
9. Utrecht, Netherlands Via Eurostar and Regional Trainline
- Train: Eurostar (4 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 a 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’s plenty of historic sites to explore, including buildings from the middle ages in the city centre amd 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 few museums and galleries too, including The Miffy Museum and Sonnenborgh Observatory. During the 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.
First published July 2020, Updated May 30th 2022