Top 10 places to visit in the Benelux by train
From world-class cities to picture-perfect small towns, the Benelux has much to offer. The trains here are efficient and connect you to even the smallest towns, making these three countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – an ideal match for any Eurail pass holder.
1. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The Netherlands’ most famous city needs no introduction. Your Eurail pass sets you right in the middle of the action, because Amsterdam’s Station Centraal connects easily, via tram or on foot, to all of the city’s main attractions. The city is a pedestrian’s paradise. Take tram 13 or 17 from the station and get out at the Anne Frank House stop. Whether you want to visit the museum or not, it’s the perfect launching point for a walk through Amsterdam’s stunning half-moon of 17th-century canals. No matter what the weather or the time of year, a walk through the canal belt offers city views of a beauty matched in few places.
2. Antwerp, Belgium
Fashion rules in Antwerp. The city’s main downtown district, centered around the Nationalestraat, is dedicated to designers – both established labels and up-and-comers – the most famous of whom, Dries Van Noten, has his headquarters next to a fashion museum (ModeMuseum, or MoMu). After working up a thirst with some Antwerp window-shopping, you’ll want to try some Belgian brews. The beer here is better than anywhere in the world. A 15-minute walk to the world-famous Kulminator pub gives you a chance to try ordering a Westvleteren, one of Europe’s most prized and elusive brews. When you’re ready to head out of the city, try and arrive at the station a bit early. Antwerp Central is one of Europe’s most beautiful stations and well worth a visit on its own.
3. Bruges, Belgium
Bruges the perfect counterpoint to Belgium’s larger, sometimes overwhelming cities. The station emerges out of the rural landscape of West Flanders, and after a short walk across the moat of the old city, you find yourself walking through a medieval core that is as striking as it is remarkably well preserved. Guide yourself through the city by following the steeples of Bruges’ many monumental churches. You’ll want to visit the Dijver flea market if you’re there on a Sunday. Antiques in brass, copper and canvas on a tree-lined path in front of an ivy-draped canal – what’s not to love?
4. Utrecht, the Netherlands
The largest train station in the Netherlands isn’t in Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the Hague – it’s in Utrecht, a bustling, youthful hub known as much for its quayside centuries-old cityscapes as it is for its hopping college-town nightlife. To take it all in from a high perch, take a climb up the Dom tower. Guided tours are offered at the adjacent tourism information office in the Dom square (Domplein). From the square you’ll want to amble down the city’s two main canals, the Oudegracht and Nieuwegracht. Their streets are populated by record stores, artists’ studios, and college-kid haunts including the Kafe Belgie pub.
5. Delft, the Netherlands
This little city is exactly what your Eurail pass was made for – caught up between larger destinations such as Rotterdam, Leiden and Schiphol airport, it can be easy to miss – but Delft is the ideal place for a daytrip or a brief stroll. The area around the city’s wide-open Markt square, reached with a 10-minute walk from the station, offers an encapsulation of everything Dutch. Lovers kiss along the Oude Langedijk. Lily pads float along the surface of slow-moving waters in the canals behind the Oude Kerk; whose steeple towers over the spires of the lesser churches that dot the surrounding cityscape.
6. Brussels, Belgium
Europe’s capital brews an intoxicating blend – the modern political hub at Arts et Loi contrasts with the old-age splendor of the Grand Place and the chic Ixelles neighborhood, all of it peppered with myriad opportunities for shopping, eating and nightlife. Bruxelles-Midi, the station in Brussels’ south, is usually a place to find your bearings before leaving for a more central district. On Sundays, this changes, thanks to the Midi market, one of Europe’s largest. From their stands below the tracks approaching the station, vendors perched on boxes show off their merchandise, yelling out their best bargains at prospective buyers.
7. Haarlem, the Netherlands
Easily overlooked, this elegant city is just a 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam. Make your way to the Grote Markt square with a 20-minute walk from Haarlem’s picturesque central station. After a few moments of contemplation inside the whitewashed nave of the Grote Kerk – well worth the 3-Euro entry charge – amble down any of the old center’s streets, all of which gather at the central square. Before long, you will find yourself wandering down cobbled pedestrian paths closely hemmed in by expressive golden-era homes. Amsterdam’s sister city has all of the charm, and very little of the hassle.
8. Friesland, the Netherlands
Leeuwarden’s leaning tower will never be the architectural equal of its more famous equivalent in Pisa, but it is the perfect starting point for a trip through Friesland, a region that has its own language and cuisine and is famous throughout the country for the eleven-city skating race that takes place whenever the canals freeze over. With your Eurail pass, you can fully uncover this unique region, riding the local rails from its inland capital to port cities such as Harlingen and Hindeloopen. For a special adventure, rent a bike just outside Leeuwarden’s central station and follow the bike paths out of town to discover the region’s small towns, woodlands, seascapes and many historic windmills.
9. Ghent, Belgium
Musicians from throughout the Benelux set their sights on Ghent. Flanders’ coolest city is famous for its jazz festival and for mixed-performance venues such as the Bijloke that showcase some of the top artistic talent in the region. But the city also claims that more than 600 rock and pop bands play in its venues and pubs, and whether or not you’re a fine of live music, the vibe in downtown Ghent is well worth the 45-minute train journey from Antwerp. For a night on the town, check out the Overpoort district, whose 30-odd pubs cater to Ghent’s student population.
10. Luxembourg city, Luxembourg
The capital of one of Europe’s smallest countries — and the only remaining Grand Duchy in the world — Luxembourg is one of those places that punches well above its weight. The principality is Europe’s richest country, and a lot of the European institutions are based here. The first thing you notice is that the city is built on a rock. That city’s old fortress walls were carved out of that rock, and one of the most defining experiences in Luxembourg is a visit to the Bock Casemates, the surviving portions of the old city defenses.