Madrid to Seville, Innsbruck to Venice — the best way to do a twin-city break is by rail
Paris to Dijon
The Paris-Dijon TGV (voyages-sncf.com; first-class from £23.50 or economy from £13.50) moves briskly southeast from Gare de Lyon, taking just under 1 hour 40 minutes on the quickest services. At Gare de Lyon in Paris make sure you factor in some time for a coffee and a patisserie at the wonderfully ornate Train Bleu café/bar/restaurant (le-train-bleu.com). Dijon is a great choice for foodies and wine lovers; check out the many Michelin-rated restaurants at viamichelin.co.uk. Don’t miss the city’s excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Where to stay Yes, we’d all like to stay in Paris’s new Peninsula Hotel. However, for somewhere a little less expensive in Paris try Hotel Phileas near Saint Lazare station, a new little boutique hotel that makes a good base for sightseeing and has 39 rooms from about €100 (phileashotel.com). In Dijon, the place to stay is the Grand Hotel la Cloche, close to the station, with doubles from €162 (sofitel.com).
Getting there EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Southend, Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast to Paris from £18.24 one way. From Dijon it’s easiest to take a train booked from Voyages-sncf.com back to Paris, and if travelling to London, to continue by Eurostar (eurostar.com).
Milan to Rome
Travel from Italy’s fashion capital to its capital city in less than three hours. The completion of Italy’s landmark Milan-to-Rome route has slashed times and prices along this 300-mile journey. The new private rail operator Italo (italotreno.it; first class from £31) has wowed weary Italian passengers with free wi-fi, eticketing and Poltrona Frau leather seats. Those in prima class receive free prosecco and snacks. Its non-stop service bridges the River Po and crosses the Tuscan countryside in 2 hours and 40 minutes, six times a day. Italo also runs luxury high-speed trains to Turin, Bologna, Naples and Venice. In Milan, the Duomo, the grand gothic cathedral dating from 1386, offers spectacular views. In Rome, the best panoramas are at the summit of the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica, the Italian renaissance church in Vatican City.
Where to stay Eschew Milan’s pricey hip hotels. At ethno-chic B&B Vietnamon-amour (vietnamonamour.com; doubles from £95, including breakfast), the Franco-Italian-Vietnamese owners, Dario and Christiane, serve a fabulous Asian breakfast. Milan’s Centrale rail hub is a 20-minute walk — or quick Metro hop — away. The best bargain B&B in Rome is La Piccola Maison (lapiccolamaison.com; doubles from £56, room only), a short walk from Roma Termini railway station.
Getting there EasyJet flies from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Gatwick and Luton to Milan from £24.62 one way. British Airways (ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Rome from £43.72 one way.
Berlin to Warsaw
The Berlin-Warszawa Express heads from the German capital to its Polish counterpart four times a day. After checking out the Reichstag building and the hip restaurants and cool bars of Neukölln (Berlin’s version of London’s Shoreditch), you can take the express (bahn.de; first class from £39) and belt through the Brandenburg hinterland before spanking across the Polish plains towards culture-filled Warsaw. The journey takes five and a half hours. The dining car is operated by Polish State Railways; order a spread of borscht, pierogi, pork cutlets and pickles with a pint of Lech lager for less than a tenner. In Warsaw, drop in at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum and walk along the Royal Route to see the best historic sites.
Where to stay The Kempinski Hotel Adlon (hotel-adlon.de; doubles from £162, room only), a five-minute U-Bahn ride from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof train station, has welcomed travellers since 1907. Despite its Resense Spa and five-star welcome, prices are a relative steal. The boutique suites of H15 (h15boutiqueapartments.com; doubles from £91, room only) are a ten-minute walk from the recently renovated Warszawa Centralna railway station.
Getting thereEasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool, Gatwick and Bristol to Berlin from £18.62 one way. British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Warsaw from £91.81 one way.
Barcelona to Montpellier
In 2013 Spain’s famous high-speed rail network (AVE) was finally connected to the rest of Europe. Direct services from Paris to Barcelona are now six and a half hours, down from twelve. France’s sunny southern cities offer the best Franco-Iberian twin-city breaks. Toulouse, Carcassonne and Montpellier are just three hours from Barcelona (voyages-sncf.com; first class from £44.50), where the renowned Adrià brothers will open the final part of their latest gourmet concept, Enigma, in November. The Spanish seaside city’s Museu Picasso houses an extensive collection of the artist’s work, in five adjoining medieval palaces. It’s well worth staying a while in university town Montpellier, which boasts a hearty local cuisine, including wild boar, cassoulet and confit de canard. The graceful Place de la Comédie is the city’s nerve centre and a good spot for an aperitif. In the fortified town of Carcassonne, stroll along the Canal du Midi, which also runs through Toulouse, with its rugby stadium, ochre rooftops, brick churches and a laid-back vibe. During the journey between the cities, grab a glass of Cruzcampo from the bar. Then watch a film on the video screens with multilingual earphone connections.
Where to stay You will find art deco chic at The Grand Hôtel du Midi (grandhoteldumidimontpellier.com; doubles from £77, room only) near the Place de la Comédie and the train station. The Hotel Arts Barcelona (hotelartsbarcelona.com; doubles from £189, room only) has 44 storeys of pure style, all overlooking Barcelona’s sandy beach. The rooftop spa zone and two-star Michelin restaurant are a knockout.
Getting thereBritish Airways (ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Barcelona from £40.72 one way. EasyJet (easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Luton to Montpellier from £29.49 one way.
Ljubljana to Zagreb
With no wi-fi, leather seats or complimentary cappuccinos, you don’t take this train for its amenities. However, the 2 hours and 15 minutes Ljubljana to Zagreb journey (slo-zeleznice.si; second class from £13) connects two former Austro-Hungarian cities that were in Yugoslavia and are well worth a visit. And because Croatia is now a Schengen member, rail travel between this naturally beautiful country and its EU neighbours is a passport-free cinch. In Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, roam the grounds of the medieval Ljubljana Castle and climb the 95 steps of the 19th-century Outlook Tower for panoramic views of the city. Sip schnapps and chardonnay in the pavement cafés along the Ljubljanica River. The train departs from Ljubljana’s rococo central terminal and shuffles along the verdant banks of the River Sava to Zagreb, Croatia’s medieval capital, which is crammed with cultural curiosities and green spaces. You won’t miss Zagreb Cathedral, a 13th-century wonder whose twin towers rise to 354ft.
Where to stay In Ljubljana, stay at Hotel Cubo (hotelcubo.com; doubles from £91, room only), a short walk from the river and the railway station. Across from Zagreb station, the Esplanade Hotel (esplanade.hr; doubles from £103, room only), was built in 1925 to welcome passengers from the Orient Express. Previous guests include the unlikely duo of the Queen and the Brazilian football star Pelé.
Getting there Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies from Luton to Ljubljana from £28.50 one way. British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Zagreb from £80.81 one way.
Innsbruck to Venice