Train trips that’ll keep you coming back for more: Western Europe

When I first set off for Europe I had little idea what to expect. I picked up a Eurail Global Pass, found a cheap flight to Hungary, and meandered around the continent for three months.

On that train trip, I ticked off dozens of tourist hotspots, major cities and small towns in western Europe. Three months later, in a small tent in the middle of Switzerland, I realized that my visa had expired and I’d best return home.

Subsequent trips covered France, the Iberian Peninsula, and ventured into the beginnings of the Balkans.

Each time I return, I’m met with comments like: “Hopefully you’ve got the travel bug out of your system”; “Maybe it’s time to settle down”; and “What next, now that you’ve done Europe?”.

I don’t often spend much time with these questions. I prefer to run through some of my favorite memories that instantly transport me back. This is what I’ve seen in three regions of Europe, moving from west to east.

Portugal

The day started badly. Earlier that morning, my AirBnb host had sent me an email with instructions on how to access the apartment on the outskirts of Obidos. What he hadn’t realized was that I would be on the train for much of the day, without any access to email. And so by the time he arrived we were both frazzled, and the ensuing argument had him suggesting I look elsewhere for accommodation. But a quick glance around the sparse surroundings made it clear I had little choice but to accept his half-hearted apology.

The day ended significantly better – with this sunset atop the walls of the quaint town which had all but emptied of its day visitors.

Spain

“I presume you’re interested in seeing the best Gaudí sights?” asked the blonde receptionist in Barcelona. I asked her to repeat the question.

“Gaudí,” she said, bemused. “The famous architect!”

The embarrassing reality was that I knew little of Gaudí. I toyed with the idea of lying to her, pretending like I’d just misheard, but instead offered up the truth: “You know, I actually don’t know much about him.”

“Well,” she replied gracefully. “Start at Sagrada Familia. You won’t be sorry.”

France

Any traditional, and worthy, itinerary of Paris includes an ascension of the Eiffel Tower. But on this particular French national holiday, access to the Arc de Triomphe was free. With a shrug of the shoulders I traipsed up the 284 steps to the summit, and realized immediately that in my previous visits to the capital I’d overlooked perhaps the best view of all – the Eiffel Tower itself – because I’d been standing on it.

Belgium

Since the popularity of the cult movie In Bruges, many people have flocked to the city to experience just how similar it is to how it was portrayed. But long before Bruges was a key character in a gritty crime thriller, it was a medieval fairytale complete with cobbled streets and tranquil canals. Though many bemoan its increasingly touristic nature, there’s a charm in this small city that will be there for many centuries to come.

If you want to embark on a similar Eurail journey through Europe, it’s often easier to focus it in on a general region, and then build the trip out from there. A Eurail Global Pass got me to all of these destinations with ease, but if you’re looking to focus your trip on a small region a Eurail Select Pass will get you to 2, 3 or 4 neighboring countries.

Regardless of how you structure your first Eurail trip, one thing is clear – even the most comprehensive journey will only serve as inspiration for the next one. Keep an eye out for part 2 of my trip!

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