3 Weeks in France and Italy by Rail (Off the Beaten Track)
You’ll be able to pack in a lot with 3 weeks in France and Italy. These are two of Europe’s most traveled countries, and it’s an obvious pair to explore in one trip. They’re also easy – and fun – to travel by rail. Heavyweights like Paris and Rome draw most of the attention, so it’s easy to forget about the less-obvious cities. But there are ways to get off the beaten track and see new sides to each country, while still taking in the best of what’s on offer.
3 weeks in France and Italy
- Days 1 – 3: Paris, France
- Days 3 – 6: Strasbourg, France
- Days 6 – 8: Lyon, France
- Days 8 – 10: Annecy, France
- Days 11 – 13: Vercelli, Italy
- Days 13 – 16: Lake Como, Italy
- Days 16 – 20: Milan, Italy
Days 1 – 3: Paris, France
Paris is a great starting point for 3 weeks in France and Italy by train. Besides the obvious attractions, each of the city’s 8 different railway stations will point you towards something incredible – whether you’re looking for ocean, wineries, or mountains.
Even if you’ve been to the French capital before, give yourself a few nights to get used to things and reabsorb everything on offer. When you’re ready to leave, head to one of Paris’s most beautiful and bustling rail stations, Gare de Paris-Est.
Off the beaten track: There are several day trips from Paris to help you get away. If you have time, pack a daypack and board an RER train to the picturesque town of Fontainebleau. You’ll get the beauty of Versailles, but without the hordes of selfie stick-wielding tourists.
Days 3 – 6: Strasbourg, France
The train line from Paris to Strasbourg is one of the country’s busiest, but that’s no reason to avoid it. In fact, a high-speed line will connect you to the beautiful border town in just 2 hours. Strasbourg straddles the French-German border and draws the best from each nationality’s food, culture, and architecture.
Off the beaten track: Consider an overnight stop in Reims, the capital of France’s Champagne region, on your way to Strasbourg. It’s a short train ride away from the capital, and offers a beautiful cathedral and access to the world’s finest (and only genuine) champagne. There are regular TGV and regional trains to Reims. Try and aim for Reims Station, not Champagne-Ardennes TGV, for the most convenient access to the town center.
Days 6 – 8 Lyon, France
Lyon is a convenient 4-hour train ride away from Strasbourg. It’s a beautiful city in the heart of the historical Rhône-Alpes region, and it has been drawing more and more tourists to its sophisticated riverside attractions in recent years. Lyon also serves as a perfect gateway into Italy.
Off the beaten track: Two good options for overnight stays on the way from Strasbourg are Mâcon and Dijon. The former is home to just 35,000 permanent residents, is next to the picturesque Saône river, and has an intriguing history, particularly from wartimes. Dijon is the capital city of the Burgundy region, offers access to celebrated vineyards and dramatic architecture, and yet still flies below many tourist radars.
Days 8 – 10 Annecy, France
Don’t miss the opportunity to spend a night or two in the stunning lakeside city of Annecy. If the impressive network of flower-fringed canals doesn’t get you, then the cobbled streets, crystal clear (and swimmable) Lake Annecy, and soaring mountains surely will. Annecy’s popularity has been growing, but there’s still a palpable sense that you’re experiencing a city that many tourists overlook.
Days 11 – 13 Vercelli, Italy
If you’re after quaint and understated churches, unspoiled architecture, distinct local cuisine, a proud local population, and practically no package tourists wandering aimlessly into your photographs, then head to the small city of Vercelli. The city is one of the oldest urban sites in Italy. It’s surrounded by rice paddies, which influences several local dishes that you’ll find in the Vercelli’s traditional restaurants and stores.
Off the beaten track: On your way to Vercelli is Turin, a convenient stopover. This is the capital of Italy’s Piedmont region. While many dismiss it simply as a business or university town, it’s still a worthwhile big city to explore. Turin is away from the sprawling mass of tourists that flock to the country’s major cities. It has stately boulevards and striking architecture, and offers easy access to the Alps up north. You’ll spot the mountains on a clear day from several strategic vantage points.
Days 13 – 16 Lake Como, Italy
Lake Como is hardly an unknown tourist attraction. In fact, even before George Clooney scooped prime real estate alongside the idyllic natural attraction, the region was brimming with rich billionaires and punctuated by opulent celebrity weddings. But perhaps for this very reason, many rail travelers choose to overlook Lake Como. Only those who’ve laid eyes on this sparkling body of water will know the gravity of this mistake.
Off the beaten track: Several small, quiet towns dot the lakeside. You may need to hire a car or take a taxi to reach some of these. A ferry will connect you to many towns and some of the best water-based views of the region. But if you’re looking for a high-altitude escape route, hop on the Brunate Funicular Railway. It’ll lift you up to more than 2000 feet above the lake.
Days 16 – 20 Milan, Italy
Much like Paris, it’s difficult to stay close to the famous city of Milan and not pop in for a visit. There’s so much to see and do in such a short amount of time. And if you’re following a linear route, this serves as a perfect end to 3 weeks in France and Italy.
If you’d like to follow this itinerary, then the Eurail France-Italy Pass is your best bet!