Europe is a continent of rails with some of the best opportunities for train travel in the world. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to ride routes in Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and plenty more. Despite the ease and affordability (with planning) of train travel in Europe, I’m still surprised to meet people from overseas who treat the continent like they’re flying into Phoenix, renting a car as soon as they land. In reality, train travel is often much faster, shedding as much as a few hours off your travel time when compared to automobiles, especially when looking at long distance routes covered by high-speed rail.
Below is everything you need to know about traveling Europe by train including information about the various high-speed train lines and how long it takes to travel between some of the most popular routes on the continent. Obviously, there are some omissions, but we’d be here all day if I typed out every route, especially once we get into central Europe. But by the time you’re done with the first couple sections, you’ll know how to search and plan your own train trip through Europe.
TRAVEL EUROPE BY TRAIN
Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com)
Most every country in Europe has their own rail system, and ipso facto, their own rail website for booking tickets. It can be a bit confusing, not to mention overwhelming when you’re planning a train trip across international borders. Rail Europe makes things easier by allowing you to simply plug in your destinations, dates, and preferred departure windows right on their homepage. The listings on the results page will display everything you need to know, including duration of the journey, whether it’s a direct train or if there’s a connection, and what carrier you’ll be riding.
On the downside, Rail Europe isn’t very useful for small town travel in Europe. If you try to make what Rail Europe deems to be an odd connection, you’ll get an error noting that “it is possible the journey that you are searching is made up of more than 2 connections or includes other modes of transportation.” In that case, you will need to research with the national rail operators. But if you’re sticking with the major cities. Rail Europe will work just fine.
Note: Some carriers, like Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, will show train times for different rail operators and will sometimes even allow you to purchase tickets with them (yay for Switzerland’s SBB, nay for Belgium’s Thalys), but Rail Europe ensures you’re seeing every possibility.
Booking with Eurail is an excellent option if you’re looking for an all-in-one train ticket for one trip overseas. To start, have a look at their various passes. (As of publication, they have a 37 percent off summer deal.) Global passes that allow you to visit up to 28 countries in Europe start at €247. The select pass, covering two, three, or four bordering countries, start from 106. A one country pass with unlimited travel in one of Eurail’s 28 countries runs from €49.
Austria Train Travel
You might wonder why Austrian trains are run by ÖBB with the funny dots over the “O.” Austria auf Deutsch is Österreich. So that means the ÖBB is the Österreich Bundesbahn (isn’t German fun?) and they are the primary carrier in Austria with night train services that extend throughout Central Europe. In fact, you can take an overnight train from as far as my home of Düsseldorf to Vienna.
While not high-speed, they run one of my favorite lines, RailJet, which travels through the Alps between Munich and Bologna with stops in between. (I rode it from Munich to Verona, which does the journey in about six hours.)
- Vienna to Innsbruck: 4h 14m
- Vienna to Salzburg: 2h 22m
- Vienna to Graz: 2h 28m
- Vienna to Linz: 1h 07m
- Innsbruck to Salzburg: 1h 46m
- Innsbruck to Linz: 2h 57m
Belgium Train Travel
Belgian Rail (www.belgianrail.be)
Like the Netherlands, Belgium is another easy country for international rail travel with more than manageable connections from all its bordering countries — France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany.
- Brussels to Antwerp: 29m
- Brussels to Ghent: 30m
- Brussels to Brugge: 54m
- Brussels to Paris: 1h 22m (Thalys)
- Brussels to Amsterdam: 1h 50m
- Brussels to Cologne: 1h 47m
- Brussels to Düsseldorf: 2h 12m (Thalys)
- Brussels to London: 2h 01m (Eurostar)
France Train Travel
From Paris, you’re firmly on the continent and have no shortage of direct routes to major European destinations. Plus, France’s SNCF runs some of the fastest trains in the world, hitting speeds up to nearly 200 mph with their TGV line. In this case, whether you book with Rail Europe or not, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on SNCF’s website because France is notorious for their rail strikes, which can throw more than a wrench into any itinerary. But assuming labor and the government are getting along, then train travel in France is one of the most enjoyable experiences you can have in Europe.
Below are some popular direct routes you can consider from Paris. All routes are run by SNCF unless otherwise noted.
- Paris to Lyon: 1h 57m
- Paris to Marseille: 3h 21m
- Paris to Barcelona: 6h 27m
- Paris to Brussels: 1h 22m (Thalys)
- Paris to Amsterdam: 3h 17m (Thalys)
- Paris to Cologne: 3h 20m (Thalys)
Germany Train Travel
Deutsche Bahn (bahn.de)
The Germanic world isn’t quite as fast as Spain or France, but what they lack in speed to make up for in connectivity. It seems like you can get damn near anywhere in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Some of the smallest towns on the map even have rail service. Few communities are left behind. In fact, it’s even in the German constitution that the rail system will be expanded in the best interest of the people. Of course, that opens itself up to political interpretation, but it seems like they’ve done a damn fine job.
Deutsche Bahn is the primary intercity rail provider with various regional entities filling out the rail system. ICE, Intercity Express, is the high-speed line, not to be confused with IC.
It can admittedly be a little tricky keeping track of when you need to buy a Deutsche Bahn ticket and when you need to get something local. But Deutsche Bahn will certainly cover you for travel between cities. If you are traveling to a small town, it’s best to use Deutsche Bahn’s website and punch in your destinations. If you can’t buy a ticket, it’ll say so. More often than not you’ll be fine.
For more on riding the train in Germany, click here. Otherwise, below are travel times from popular German cities.
- Berlin to Munich: 3h 58m
- Berlin to Hamburg: 1h 42m
- Berlin to Frankfurt: 4h 7m
- Berlin to Düsseldorf: 4h 15m
- Berlin to Prague: 4h 16m
- Berlin to Warsaw: 6h 22m
- Munich to Hamburg: 5h 33m
- Munich to Frankfurt: 3h 10m
- Munich to Düsseldorf: 4h 42m
- Munich to Zurich: 4h 14m
- Munich to Milan: 13h 28m (night train)
- Munich to Rome: 13h 40m (night train)
- Munich to Vienna: 4h 14m (RailJet)
- Hamburg to Düsseldorf: 3h 39m
- Hamburg to Frankfurt: 3h 36m
Italy Train Travel
Italy might have a Mediterranean reputation of taking it easy, but as many Italians will tell you, the country is incredibly divided between north and south. The north is a rail juggernaut with some of the fastest trains on the continent operated by the publicly-run Tren Italia and the private Italo. South of Naples to Bari, Palermo, and everything in between is where you’ll find slower train journeys running in a more dilapidated system.
Riding the rails in Italy is truly a treat, which you can get a preview of by reading Tim Parker’s travelogue Italian Ways. Not just because they have some of the fastest trains in the world, allowing you to quickly connect two vastly different cultural regions in a few hours, but also because tickets are absurdly affordable. Frankly, the rail system has become a financial drag on the country in large part thanks to cheap fares (sometimes as low as a few euros on the regional lines, like Verona to Mantova). But for a traveler, it’s a pretty sweet deal. For high-speed trains with Tren Italia, look for the Frecciarosa — red arrow. Italo only runs high-speed trains. Travel times are virtually identical between the two lines, so you’ll likely make your decision based on cost.
- Milan to Verona: 1h 13m
- Milan to Bologna: 1h 02m
- Milan to Florence: 1h 39m
- Milan to Rome: 2h 40m
- Milan to Venice: 2h 13m
- Milan to Naples: 4h 35
- Verona to Bologna: 50m
- Verona to Florence: 1h 27m (Italo only)
- Verona to Rome: 2h 56m
- Florence to Rome: 1h 25m
- Florence to Venice: 2h 05m
- Venice to Rome: 3h 21m
Ireland Train Travel
Irish Rail (www.irishrail.ie)
Ireland may be one of the smallest, least populated countries in Europe, but that doesn’t mean they’re without an efficient, enjoyable rail system. In fact, my first intercity train trip was on Irish Rail from Killarney to Dublin. While the buses were much cheaper, like anywhere else, trains were plenty affordable and much more enjoyable.
None of the lines are high-speed, but considering Ireland’s geographic size, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to invest in high-speed rail. You can get clear across the country in just a few hours on a direct route.
- Dublin to Belfast: 2h 10m
- Dublin to Galway: 2h 19m
- Dublin to Cork: 2h 35m
- Dublin to Killarney: 3h 10m
- Dublin to Limerick: 2h 13m
London to Paris Train
Eurostar covers journey across “The Chunnel,” making the direct undersea journey in a little over two hours. (Compare that to six-plus hours by far, if there’s no traffic.) The Chunnel itself is 50.45 kilometers long (31.5 miles) and is the world’s longest undersea tunnel. Engineers had been dreaming of such a tunnel since the early 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1993 that it was completed with Eurostar launching operations in November of 1994.
Netherlands Train Travel
Dutch Railways (www.ns.nl)
The great thing about train travel in the Netherlands is that it’s such a small country, you don’t need to begin your journey in the country. Düsseldorf or Cologne to Amsterdam, for instance, is a very popular route to take even if just for a weekend. From there, most any other Dutch mid-size or large city will be connected by rail.
- Amsterdam to The Hague (Den Haag): 52m
- Amsterdam to Rotterdam: 37m (Thalys)
- Amsterdam to Utrecht: 26m
- Amsterdam to Maastricht: 2h 25m
- Amsterdam to Brussels: 1h 50m
- Amsterdam to Paris: 3h 18m (Thalys)
- Amsterdam to Cologne: 3h 51m (Deutsche Bahn)
Portugal Train Travel
Comboiso de Portugal (www.cp.pt)
Portugal doesn’t match France or Spain when it comes to high-speed rail, but you’re hardly slumming it here. Comboios de Portugal runs the country’s Alfa Pendular service extending from the northern border throughout the mainland at speeds of up to 220 km/h (140 mph). One of the most popular routes, from Lisbon to Porto, runs almost hourly and completes the journey in about 2 hours and 35 minutes. Lisbon to the other end in Faro takes about 3 hours.
Spain Train Travel
Like France, Spain has some of the fastest high-speed trains in the world with their AVE line operated by Renfe. (Ave = bird en español.) During a test trip, the train was able to near around 400km/h (248.5 mph) and runs an operational speed of 350 km/h (217 mph). Needless to say, it’s travel on the AVE within Spain is an incredibly popular option, decimating average car drive times. As an example, the fastest scheduled train from Barcelona to Madrid in just 2.5 hours direct. By car? Six hours or more.
There’s also Alvia, which is still high-speed (topping around 250 km/h or 155 mph) but only AVE operates exclusively on high-speed rails. Basically, the way Alvia trains are designed is that they can switch to the older, classic Iberian gauge network to finish some journey — but that’s probably more nerdery than you cared to know, so let’s move on and have a look at some of the most popular routes and scheduled journey times in Spain.
- Barcelona to Madrid: 2h 30m
- Barcelona to Sevilla: 5h 25m
- Barcelona to Bilbao: 6h 39m (Alvia)
- Barcelona to Málaga: 5h 50m
- Madrid to Sevilla: 2h 32m
- Madrid to Bilbao: 5h 04m
- Madrid to Lisbon: 9h 37m
Note that the Madrid to Lisbon route is an overnight train service called Trenhotel run by Renfe. There were plans to connect the two with high-speed rail, but they were canceled in 2012.
If you want to continue your rail travels into North Africa, take the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier where you can travel from Marrakech to Fez (and plenty of other stops) on ONCF. Read all about Morocco train travel here.
Switzerland Train Travel
Swiss trains will also have a place in my heart. They were the first high-speed trains I ever rode and the first time I drank a beer on a train — a personal milestone. Switzerland is the country for rail travel. They have the world’s most dense network (based on statistics in 2015), crisscrossing the tiny country despite the fact that the Alps covers about 60 percent of the country. Swiss engineers have yet to meet a mountain or any other natural obstacle that they couldn’t figure out how to lay track on or through.
The primary operator in the country is Swiss Federal Railways, which you’ll see as SBB, CFF, and FFS to cover three of their four official languages. In all, they run over approximately 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) worth of rail. For travelers, this means most anywhere you’d want to travel, be it a city or ski town, is going to be connected by rail.
- Zurich to Geneva: 2h 42m
- Zurich to Lausanne: 2h 8m
- Zurich to Bern: 56m
- Zurich to Lucerne (Luzern): 45m
- Zurich to Lugano: 2h 8m
- Geneva to Lausanne: 36m
- Geneva to Bern: 1h 44m
- Geneva to Lucerne: 3h 1m
READ MORE: Things to do in Switzerland
United Kingdom Train Travel
National Rail (www.nationalrail.co.uk)
Anecdotally, I’ve heard plenty of Brits complain about rail service in the United Kingdom. Whenever I hear their complaints, my mind often wanders to a scene from Hot Fuzz where the main character is shown transferring train after train before arriving at his new post in a small town. That’s just not possible in the States or most places in the world.
But yes, relative to western continental Europe, the UK doesn’t have quite as fast or as expansive trains. That said, you can still get to any major city you’d want to visit, from Edinburgh to London and everything in between.
- London to Edinburgh: 4h 17m
- London to Glasgow: 4h 30m
- Glasgow to Edinburgh: 52m
- London to Manchester: 2h 05m
- London to Liverpool: 2h 12m
- Manchester to Liverpool: 38m
- Manchester to Edinburgh: 3h 09m
- London to Brussels: 2h 01m (Eurostar)
I’ll be updating this space as I travel on the rails of more countries (and as time allows). If you have any questions, suggestions, or thoughts, leave a comment!