A Classic Continental Holiday: Riding the (Eu)rails in Europe

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Do it the European way. Here, 4 destinations to kick-start a classic continental rail holiday.

In the 1960s and 70s it was a rite of passage to finish school, hoist a backpack and –Eurail pass in hand – ride the rails, sleep in hostels and soak up the best of Europe’s classic cities.

How things have changed! The great European capitals still offer an endless buffet of art, history and culture but the rail coaches are now filled with a new demographic: the boomers, empty-nesters, active retirees. They’re drawn to the European way to see the continent – riding on 30 national member railways covering 250,000 kilometres across 28 countries.


Eurail 101

  • Eurail passes must be purchased in North America before departure. eurailgroup.org
  • There are four types of passes: One Country, Select, Regional, Global.
  • Most trains are hop-on-hop off but some international, sleeper and high-speed trains need reservations.
  • NEW in 2015 are four countries (Poland, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro) and the Attica Pass (Greek ferries).
  • Download the free Rail Planner App for all of the rail timetables.
  • Check – the passes don’t cover some routes.

A few suggestions to kick-start a European rail holiday:



Plan time to grab a drink at the legendary Le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon station. A Historic Monument, the restaurant/bar overlooks the main platform; inside, gildings, carvings, chandeliers and frescoes cover the walls. Like stepping into a museum of the 1900s.

Buy the multi-day Paris Visite ticket for unlimited subway travel.


Begin at the bronze star at Notre-Dame cathedral marking the country’s navigational centre. Then . . . Musée du Louvre for the Mona Lisa; Musée D’Orsay for the Impressionists; Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysées; the UNESCO site riverbanks of the Seine for a stroll; the Eiffel Tower for the city’s trademark. You’ve barely scratched the surface.


No shortage of brasseries and bistros! Go local and try traditional cassoulet of white beans, duck, sausage, lamb and bacon at Le Mesturet (steps from the Louvre).


A real Parisian hotel in a real Parisian neighbourhood: Fred Hotel in the 14th arrondissement has modern, boutique rooms that begin at 99 euros per night with breakfast included.





The old port of Venice includes 118 islands separated by 100 canals and connected by 417 bridges. Avoid the hot, crowded summer and aim for spring and fall shoulder seasons.


Wander and get lost in what is an open air museum: Byzantine and Renaissance arches, Gothic buildings showing a touch of Turkish influence, the Grand Canal (Venice’s most important waterway), Piazza San Marco (named after the city’s patron saint, killed in Egypt and secretly transported back to Venice in a barrel of pork lard to avoid detection by Muslim authorities).

Everyone heads for the large Rio Rialto but it’s crowded. You’ll do much better just strolling the alleyways with no particular destination.


Eat a plate of pasta or sip a Bellini (invented here, at Harry’s Bar) but make sure to enjoy a cappuccino at local hangout Pasticceria Rizzardini or a scoop of excellent gelato at Suso.


The lovely Hotel Papadopoli is suitcase schlepping distance from the rail station, and an easy walk into the heart of the old city.





Stuart Harvey is Rome’s personal guide extraordinaire – he knows all the history, architecture and best spots for anything Roma.


Modern Rome was built on the ruins of the ancient Roman Empire – beneath churches there are often remains of temples, homes and businesses. See it at the incredible, multi-layered Basilica of St. Clemente, a window into the ancient world. The cobblestone Piazza Narvona is built on the ruins of an ancient sports stadium. The unearthed Roman columns and temple steps at Largo Argentina are where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The perfectly-preserved Pantheon began as a temple dedicated to pagan religions and 14 centuries ago was turned into a church. St. Peter’s and the Vatican (of course) – but go early morning to avoid lineups. Ditto for the Colosseum (where gladiators and public executions were entertainment) and the Forum (the social, political, commercial, religious and judicial part of the ancient city).


Around the corner from the Spanish Steps waits the antipasto bar at the excellent, moderately-priced Ristorante alla Rampa. Italians work their way through a menu by beginning with antipasto, then a pasta dish, followed by a small meat or fish course and topped off by dessert. So civilized.


The small Relais Orso has location, location, location! A stone’s throw from the River Tiber, it’s walking distance to the main sights.



The Articket BCN covers Barcelona’s six best museums in one ticket, including the Museu Picasso.


Ancient Barcelona is on display in the architecture of the Gothic Quarter. The main shopping thoroughfare is La Rambla, lined with shops, museums, restaurants and bars. Gaudí’s mark is everywhere: from the immense Temple de la Sagrada Familía to Casa Batlló (a World Heritage Site). Best view of the city is from Montjuïc Castle hill, a former watchtower and fort.


Mussol – at the top of a repurposed bullfighting arena – serves typical Catalan dishes like charcoal-grilled beef and veggies. Or try a cooking class of local dishes at Cook and Taste.


It’s a splurge that’s worth it: Ritz Carlton Hotel Arts Barcelona. Luxury through and through, with Canadian architect Frank Gehry’s iconic fish sculpture overlooking the entranceway.