Europe By Train – City Breaks For The Time-Constrained
Come summer, I am flooded with requests for itinerary options for multi-city breaks in Europe. My suggestion to one friend to stay put in Paris with just five days on hand, didn’t go down too well. She was concerned there wouldn’t be enough to keep her occupied since she’d already ‘done’ the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame cathedral on a previous visit!
I never know how to respond to such questions. I have been to Paris three times – four if you include the 24hr sojourn as a ‘Thalys Explorer’ – and I could easily spend another week or more there and not run out of things to do.
Itineraries depend largely on interests and on the time at one’s disposal. While it is certainly possible to replicate our whirlwind Thalys journey, it isn’t advisable. That was a demonstration of the services Thalys has on offer and was created for a group of experienced independent travellers who have probably visited several of those destinations before and will likely do so again.
So I’ve put together some pointers to help the time-constrained among you, briefly experience some of the most vibrant cities in Europe. And what better way to maximise your time than to city-hop with Thalys?
The following are week-long options featuring the French, Belgian and Dutch Thalys cities (since I am less familiar with their German destinations.)
*Antwerp can be swapped for Avignon, Valence, Aix en Provence or Marseille during Thalys’ ‘Sun Destinations’ extended summer schedule. Travel from Paris to the French cities by TGV and on the international stretch on Thalys.
Two nights is the barest minimum you can allot to any of these cities. Add a day to wherever you plan to include a day-trip. If you have less than five days my advice is, still, to base yourself in one city and stick to day-trips.
Suggestions under ‘things to do’ are just that. Choose one, or max. two, big items from the list per day and work around it for a slower pace.
OPTION I – PARIS, ANTWERP*, BRUSSELS
DAY 1 – PARIS
Where to Stay:
My favourite neighbourhood to stay in Paris is the Marais (3ème & parts of 4ème) or Saint Germaine (6ème). Canal St. Martin (10ème) and Bastille (11ème) are also lovely areas and somewhat less expensive.
Buy a 2 day museum-card if you intend visiting three or more museums/ monuments.
Pick up carnets of ten metro tickets to save time (and some cost).
Things to do:
Check out a market. The Sunday marché Bastille is a favourite, but every day is a market day in some neighbourhood in Paris. Here’s a guide. (Choose one closer to where you plan to be during the rest of the day)
Pre-book a wine experience at Les Caves du Louvre after an early lunch.
The Musee Rodin (closed Mon) and the Musee de Orsay (closed Mon) are stellar museums and both boast lovely cafes. The Musee Quai Branly (closed Mon) is a personal favourite for its incredible display of Oceanic art. (Not all three!)
Walk across the ornate Pont Alexander III to Les Invalides (Napolean’s tomb) and continue towards the Tour Eiffel. Be warned, the Champ de Mars gets PACKED by evening.
Have dinner nearby and wait until the Tour Eiffel lights up (if you manage to keep awake until then.) I much prefer climbing up the Arc de Triomphe to waiting in line at the tower.
DAY 2- PARIS
Head early to Notre Dame Cathedral (opens at 8 a.m.) to beat the crowds. Visiting the tower or crypt costs extra and requires more time.
Sainte Chapelle (opens at 9 a.m.) for its splendid stained glass on the upper floor.
Explore the Latin Quarter and Saint Germaine.
Musée de Cluny for its medieval art collection (Closed until mid July).
Marvel at the incredible facade of the Institute de Monde Arab.
Taste macarons, chocolates, Parisian pastries…especially Pierre Hermé’s Ispahan.
Linger in the Luxembourg gardens.
End with a picnic by the Siene and/or a boat cruise timed for the Eiffel Tower illumination (If not done on day 1). Cruises by Vedettes du Pont Neuf depart from near Pont Neuf. Buy tickets in advance at the venue or online.
Or go up to the viewing terrace of Tour Montparnasse for spectacular night views. There is a restaurant in the tower that is a good option for lunch or dinner for the views alone.
DAY 3 – PARIS
Spend the morning in the Musee Louvre (opens at 9 a.m…closed Tue.)
Pop into the Musée de l’Orangerie (closed Tue.) to check out Monet’s famed Nymphéas if you have time.
Head to the Marais area (metro St.Paul.) for a leisurely walk around Place des Vosges and back to Saint Paul in a loop.
Take the metro to Rambuteau and walk around the Centre Georges Pompidou to Place Igor-Stravinsky. (The museum is worth a visit if you like modern art and its lovely cafe boasts great views across the city all the way to Montmarte.)
Shop in the iconic department stores on Boulevard Haussman: Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are both worth a visit for the views from their top floors.
Visit the Sacre Cour basilica and explore the bohemian vibe of Montmarte.
DAY 4 – TO ANTWERP CENTRAL BY THALYS (2:02 hrs)
Where to stay:
The historic centre is the best bet. Our apartment on Vrijdagmarkt couldn’t have been more central.
Things to do:
Don’t forget to look around the magnificent Central station as you arrive. It finds a place on many top ten lists. And stop by the stall selling chocolate coated strawberries as you exit.
The Grote Markt is quite as beautiful as its Brussels counterpart and way less crowded.
Join an afternoon walk to orient yourself or just explore the side streets radiating from the square.
The Cathedral of our Lady is the highest Gothic building in the Low Countries and holds an impressive art collection including a series by Ruben.
Visit Ruben’s house.
If you have time for only one museum in Antwerp, choose the Museum Plantin-Moretus on Vrijdagmarkt for insights into the history of printing and publishing in Europe and to view an amazing collection of printing equipment and illustrated books. It is the only museum on the UNESCO heritage list.
DAY 5 – ANTWERP
Visit the hip Elandje district around the port.
The MAS’ (Museum aan de Stroom) themed collections merit more than one morning. But go to admire the architecture and for the views from each floor as you ascend.
Shop on the Meir shopping street.
Or if you have deeper pockets, in the diamond district beside the train station.
Cross the Scheldt to the left bank through the Art Deco Saint Anna pedestrian tunnel for sweeping views over the Antwerp skyline.
DAY 6: TO BRUSSELS CENTRAL BY IC TRAIN (33m – 59m)
(An ‘All Belgium Stations’ surcharge on the Thalys ticket enables free travel to the outbound station, but only starting the day before the outbound journey.)
Where to stay:
There’s a wide choice of hotels and B&Bs. Of the three hotels I’ve stayed in, the location of the Hilton Grand Central opposite the Central Station can’t be beat, as also the relatively basic 9Hotel nearby. The photo themed Zoom Hotel in the Ixelles was a lovely boutique option.
In the Benelux countries (not quite sure about France since I haven’t travelled impromptu there without pre-booking), you can hop onto any one of the frequent local trains plying to or from the above towns on any given day, which makes for hassle free day-tripping. Check prices and schedules here.
Things to do:
Start at the jaw-droppingly grand, Grand Place. If you are visiting during Assumption weekend (16-19 August ’18) you’ll be in time for the themed flower carpet display.
Alternatively, join a guided walk to orient yourself. Several free walks depart from the Grand Place usually between 10.00-10.30 or 13.00 -14.00 hrs. Or book a themed private walk.
Visit the Gothic Town Hall.
Pop into the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the beautiful 19th-century pedestrian gallery, for a waffle break at Maison Dandoy or at Mokafe.
Check out the Mannekin Pis if you must. Did you know there’s a Jeanneke Pis?
Head to Place Catherine for a casual (no seating) seafood lunch at De Noordze – Mer du Nord.
Take the metro back to Centraal and visit the Cathedral of St.Michael & St. Gudula.
In the afternoon, visit the Atomium (yet to do it myself) along with the greenhouses in the royal palace grounds of Laeken.
For dinner try the ‘Tram Experience‘ for a gourmet meal in a quirky setting.
DAY 7: BRUSSELS
Choose your activity for this day depending on your interests. If museums are your thing my top picks are the Oldmaster’s Museum, Musée René Magritte and the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
I went on a self guided walk hunting down some architectural gems around the city and ended at the Musical Instruments Museum, a gorgeous Art Nouveau edifice with a lovely cafe that offers panoramic views.
Why not attend a beer brewing masterclass with Beer Spot that includes lunch?
In the afternoon, explore the Sablon area, a beautiful part of town with its Gothic church, hidden passages and a host of cafes and gourmet chocolate shops.
The Ixelles is another lovely and less touristy neighbourhood with great shopping on avenue Louise. There’s a Sunday market around the Midi station that is highly recommended.
Wherever you spend your evenings, remember to return to the Grand Place on one night to witness it in its illuminated glory.
Add a day (or swap all of the activities from day 7 if you aren’t into museums or architecture or aimless wandering) to visit Bruges or Ghent. They both deserve at least a night each but are both easily accessible by local train and doable in a day.
OPTION II – BRUSSELS, ROTTERDAM, AMSTERDAM
DAY 1, 2 (3) – BRUSSELS
Except, take a late evening Thalys to Rotterdam (1:10 hrs) on the final day.
DAY 3 (4) – ROTTERDAM
Where to stay:
There’s a choice of lovely boutique hotels in the centre. The Student Hotel in Kralingen, close to Erasmus University, is a most stylish budget option with a tram stop just round the corner.
A tourist day card costing €13.50 is valid across (most) public transport including ferries and water taxis in Rotterdam and the Hague region up to end of services on day of first use.
Things to do:
Start with a waterbus ride to Kinderdijk and its nineteen heritage windmills.
Have early lunch at the Fenix Food Factory with its wide choice of food and beverage outlets.
The result of Rotterdam’s near complete destruction during World War II is a refreshing urban landscape. Cross the river (by foot or water taxi) to the centre for an inner city walk (or join a guided tour) that should cover some of the city’s iconic buildings like the one-of-a-kind Markthal and the Piet Blom designed yellow Cube Houses.
End at atmospheric Oude Haven, one of Rotterdam’s oldest ports. Check out the Wittehuis – Europe’s first ‘skyscraper’ that miraculously survived Luftwaffe bombing – and its Art Deco cafe.
DAY 4 (5) – ROTTERDAM
This morning choose from Rotterdam’s share of excellent museums: the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen for contemporary art, and the Kunsthal for exhibitions that cover every kind of art form, to name just two
Hang out with the cool set on the coolest street in the city, the Witte de Withstraat
Visit Delfshaven, from where the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World, for its historic canal-side buildings. It takes 15 minutes from the centre by metro.
If in the mood to tick off one more city, hop on a train this afternoon to nearby Delft or the Hague.
(Disclaimer: This day comprises my wish-list. I didn’t have time for any of the activities listed)
DAY 5 (6) TO AMSTERDAM BY THALYS (40m)
Caveat; Stopovers are not permitted on a single Thalys ticket so you’ll need to book Brussels to Rotterdam and Rotterdam to Amsterdam as two separate journeys. Also most Thalys journeys are exclusively international. But I found the website does allow booking direct from Rotterdam to Amsterdam Centraal, as well as to Schiphol airport. Do compare prices between local trains and Thalys. The latter was surprisingly cheaper when I tried a mock booking.
Where to Stay:
Accommodation in Amsterdam is pricey. I found a lovely Airbnb rental in the most picturesque part of Keizergracht, but Airbnb’s might not be the best option in the city centre going forward. Little boutique hotels beyond the canal grid are worth looking at if you are on a budget. Or even in one of the neighbouring towns. I regretted not having spent a night in Haarlem. It is just 15 minutes away by train and feels like everything Amsterdam must have been before the explosion in tourist inflows.
Get yourself a two day Amsterdam city card if you intend to hit several of the city’s impressive museums. If not, the 24hr transport tickets worth €7.50 each and valid for a 24 hour period from the time of first use are the most economical options. Available aboard trams or at Centraal Station.
Things to do:
Explore Amsterdam’s network of canals on a boat. A Blue Boat ride is complimentary on your Iamsterdam card. A small group tour is pricier but way more experiential, especially at sunset.
The Begijnhof is a secluded courtyard for a quiet wander.
The Museum of Our Lord in the Attic is a literal hidden gem, a throwback to the religious upheavals of the 17th century.
If you missed the beer experience in Brussels book a beer tasting at Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a brewery housed in a bathhouse beside a traditional windmill.
Walk around the lovely Jordaan and De Pijp neighbourhoods.
Hop across to A’DAM lookout for a dinner with a 360º view (dinner is optional) and if you dare, try swinging out from the edge of its viewing deck.
DAY 6 (7) – AMSTERDAM
If you are into art (and even if you are not!) head to the Rijksmuseum to at least check out the highlights. There is also the Van Gogh, the Stedelijk, the Hermitage and the Anne Frank House along with a host of other smaller but interesting museums to choose from, but more than two might be a tad ambitious on this schedule.
Visit the Albert Cuyup Market,
Join a small group tour of the red light district. Its history is a fascinating part of Amsterdam’s liberal culture.
Ditch the compulsion to fill your final day with sightseeing and savour the city. Linger in Vondel park, stop for a drink in one of the Brown Bars, pop into the Foodhallen, get out of the crowded touristy centre for a lovely meal in a ‘local’ neighbourhood like Fizeaustraat.
(If you have an extra day or two.)
Haarlem, Utrecht, Delft, Leiden.
Broek in Waterland, Monnikendam, Edam, Vollendam, Marken
Alkmaar cheese market, Zans Schaans
Or Deventer, where I spent two delightfully slow days following the press-trip, if you desire a totally non-touristy experience.
All these towns are easily accessible by train.
Thalys is the only hi-speed International train service that links key destinations across four countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands.
At speeds of 300kph, travel time across its longest route of 521km from Paris to Amsterdam is reduced to just over 3 hrs.
High frequency of trains between major stations – up to 23 daily departures from Paris Nord to/from Brussels Midi – adds flexibility to speed.
Thalys offers three classes of travel:
Standard with access to free wifi, electric sockets at each seat and a welcome bar with beverages and snacks.
Comfort offers all of the above with more spacious seating and flexible fares.
Premium comes with additional benefits including full meals and choice of beverages served at one’s seat, international newspapers, access to comfortable lounges near (some) stations, and on-board taxi booking service in Paris and Brussels.
Happy travels…no matter where life takes you!
Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Thalys.