In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. A train question? We had to kick this over to Lonely Planet’s own Tom Hall, our resident expert on all things train related.

Question: I have one week’s vacation in the summer and want to see Europe by train. What route(s) would you recommend? I will be traveling with my partner and teenage son.

Tom Hall: One week is not long for seeing Europe, and the worst thing you can do is cram too much in. Yet thanks to fast trains, night services, and scenic and regional routes, you can see more than you might think. 

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View of modern architecture at Centraal Station, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Start your whirlwind train tour in the Netherlands, from where high-speed trains run from Rotterdam Centraal station south to Belgium and France © Inigo Bujedo Aguirre / View Pictures / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One starting point is Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ graceful capital. Since you only have one week, a day here, plus a half-day outing by very regular and inexpensive local train to lovely smaller cities like Delft or Leiden (both under an hour away) will give you an excellent (if short) introduction to the country. Regular high-speed Thalys services run from Amsterdam to Paris, making the journey in just over three hours. (These trains also call at Rotterdam’s stunningly modern Centraal Station, meaning you needn’t backtrack to Amsterdam if making the excursions mentioned above.) Book your Thalys in advance, since these trains can and often do sell out, especially during busy times.

Paris in the summer will be both beautiful and busy, and demands two days. From here, rail journeys radiate across Western Europe. One great option is to travel from here to Geneva, Switzerland on the thrillingly rapid TGV Lyria train, which takes just over three hours. Rather than overnighting in pricey Geneva, consider taking a frequent Swiss local or InterCity service along the lake to beautiful Lausanne, and in the morning continuing on to Montreux.

Wonderful view of houses and mountains at Lake Brienz, east of Interlaken from a window of Golden Pass Express train, destined for Lucerne, Switzerland
The Golden Pass Express train offers stunning views of the Swiss mountains © Meor Md. Khairi Meor Md. Idris / Getty Images

The newly expanded Golden Pass Express from Montreux is one of the country’s best scenic routes, climbing to offer incredible lake views and then threading through high pastures, wooden-beamed Swiss villages and over Alpine passes. The line’s newest trick, unveiled in December, is performing a high-tech gauge change to enable the service to continue beyond its previous terminal point at Zweisimmen onto tracks of different width to reach a new finish at Interlaken. Given the jaw-dropping beauty all around you on this route, it would a shame not to overnight somewhere along the line and take a mountain hike or biking tour, which might even take a hard-to-please teen’s breath away.

Train options from Milan

After your quick visit to Switzerland, it’s easy to connect up with an Italy-bound train to Milan, with Spiez, overlooking Lake Thun, the most likely connection point. There’s so much choice within easy reach of Milan, whether you take a high-speed service on to Bologna, Florence, Venice or Rome, or head slightly off the beaten path. (Bear in mind that summers in Italy get very hot; plan accordingly.)

One lovely itinerary is to travel on to Florence for a night by either a Frecciarossa or Italo fast train, then take a local train (2.5 hours) on to Perugia in the Umbrian hills – then continue to Rome to catch a flight home. Perugia or several other such smaller destinations along the route as Spello and Assisi offer a different experience of Italy than sticking to the big cities. 

The “little yellow train” runs on the Pont Gisclard between Villefranche-de-Conflent and Latour-de-Carol, France
The “Little Yellow Train” (Petit Train Jaune) offers a scenic jaunt through the Pyrenees in southern France © Raymond Roig / AFP via Getty Images

This is just one of many possibilities. If you’re craving a night train, the Train de Nuit service from Paris to Latour-de-Carol on the FranceSpain border connects to the scenic Petit Train Jaune through the Pyrenees as well as a suburban train to Barcelona, providing an unusual and attractive route to reach the Catalonian capital. A day or two admiring this dynamic and culture-filled city offers a superb way to end a journey like this. Or you can keep going, with a high-speed service to another Spanish city (as well as back to Paris).

Whichever route you take, by booking point-to-point tickets in advance you’ll probably save compared to a rail pass, and avoid the need to add reservations and pay supplements. Additionally, not all rail passes are valid on all services. 

Bon voyage!

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Cize, France - July 9, 2015: French high speed train TGV operated by SNCF, national rail operator on Cize-Bolozon viaduct bridge in Ain, Rhone-Alpes region in France. This train was developed during the 1970s by GEC-Alsthom and SNCF. A TGV test train set the record for the fastest wheeled train, reaching 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph) on 3 April 2007. Viaduct of Cize-Bolozon in summer season in Bugey along Ain river. This viaduct is a combination rail and vehicular viaduct crossing the Ain gorge. An original span built in the same location in 1875 was destroyed in World War II. Reconstructed as an urgent post-war project due to its position on a main line to Paris, the new viaduct reopened in May 1950. It carries road and rail traffic at different levels.
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