You could spend a lifetime interrailing across Europe and not see half of what is on offer — the pass is valid for 33 countries and includes more than 33,000 stations. Routes such as Paris to Berlin are as well-trodden as the paths of a central London park; others go to remote stations too small to accommodate the whole train, where you may be the only passenger disembarking. Rail is one of the greenest ways to travel, and at a time when many are choosing to give up flying altogether, Interrail has never been more relevant. Single-country rail passes cost as little as €54 (£46), so well-planned interrailing can be very affordable. Here are six of the best routes.
Main photo: a train departs from Hollands Spoor station in the Hague (Getty Images)
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1. The slow route from Paris to Barcelona
Recommended time ten days
One of the most popular railway journeys in Europe, a direct train from Paris to Barcelona takes under seven hours. But why not go for the slow route instead? France’s regional TER services don’t require advance booking, and you won’t get stung by any additional ticket costs if you have an Interrail pass.
Whizz from Paris to Sète, near Montpellier, to gorge on fresh seafood and flit between land and sea. Cycle trails criss-cross salt marshes on the tiny strip of land between the Mediterranean and an enormous saltwater lagoon, Étang de Thau, the source of many of France’s oysters and mussels.
From here, the railway line runs along the coast — with waves on one side and the mountains of the Pyrenees getting ever closer on the other — to Perpignan. This artistic hub has retained a distinctly Catalan culture, and although its heyday is long past, there’s plenty of history telling the story of its golden age. The Palace of the Kings of Majorca still has 13th-century frescoes on the walls, and during the summer it comes alive with Catalan music and orchestras for Festa Majorque.
A further 30 minutes takes you to Collioure, formerly an anchovy fishing and salting town, which became popular with eminent artists such as Matisse and Derain at the start of the 20th century. It’s easy to see why they were inspired — everything from the wooden Catalan fishing boats to the tight-packed houses lining the seafront pop with colour.
Finally, catch a train via Cerbère to Barcelona, where Gaudi’s masterpieces — the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo and Parc Guell — await you.
2. Brussels to Prague
Recommended time one to two weeks
Brussels to Prague is one of the most-travelled journeys in the book, but thanks to new routes from European Sleeper, you can now do the whole trip overnight. The Brussels to Berlin sleeper runs twice a week, taking just under 12 hours, with major stops en route including Antwerp, Rotterdam, the Hague and Amsterdam. From March 2024, the line is set to run all the way to Prague. You can use the sleeper on a slower journey (and take advantage of the beds) but it’s also possible on regular train services too.
With a week to play with, start in foodie capital Brussels, and wash down hot waffles smothered in Nutella with a tour of local craft breweries. Don’t miss one of the world’s strangest-looking art galleries, the Atomium, designed to look like a magnified iron crystal and originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Next head to Amsterdam (three hours, arriving at night), to visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House — and take advantage of its lively bar scene.
In cool Berlin (nine hours overnight on the European Sleeper), rent bikes to ride along the length of the Berlin Wall, which since its fall in 1989 has become a giant mural of hope. The almost mile-long East Side Gallery is the longest open-air art gallery in the world.
Finish in Prague (five hours), whose gothic Charles Bridge could be the setting of a Tim Burton film. It’s best seen at dusk, when the iron pillars are semi-submerged by fog, but the gilded astronomical clock shines bright at any time of day.
Recommended time two weeks
Start in Bucharest, the country’s capital, where brutalist, ex-Soviet architecture hides a buzzing café culture. From here, head to Brasov in Transylvania, a terracotta town ideal for spotting brown bears in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. The area is also the homeland of probably the most famous Romanian of all time — fictional Count Dracula. It’s thought that Bram Stoker drew influence from a real historical figure, Vlad the Impaler; so-named for the way he would ensure a long, drawn-out death for his enemies. Don’t miss Bran Castle, which is allegedly the inspiration for Dracula’s castle. From Brasov, head to Transylvania’s Sighisoara with its picture-perfect pastel houses and forest walks.
University city Cluj-Napoca is next up, with an abundance of art galleries (try Galeria Quadro in the old auction house). Your next train takes you to the far north, Baia Mare, to see bobble haystacks and unchanged ways of country life in Maramures. A long day on the rails then takes you to Constanta on the Black Sea to unwind at the beach, before heading back to Bucharest.
Train travel in Romania isn’t the speediest way to get around, but it’s very scenic. Pack your own picnic as very few have restaurant cars.
4. Helsinki to Oslo
Recommended time two weeks
Start in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, where contemporary architecture mixes with terracotta roofs and tradition. It’s not warm, and even in summer the average temperature hovers at around 17C, but that’s where the Finnish saunas come in. There’s one sauna for every three people here, and many have one in their home, but Helsinki’s public saunas are no less charming. Try the open-air Allas Sea Pool.
From here, a short ferry ride of two hours (discounts of up to 50 per cent with your Interrail pass) takes you to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. After Helsinki, Tallinn’s old town houses look as though they were built for pixies. The town hall, whose toothpick-like spire seems far too skinny for its rather squat main building, is the oldest in the Baltics, built at the start of the 15th century.
A 16-hour sea crossing takes you to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. It’s decidedly chic and a little futuristic, with an excellent culinary scene, and the city centre is made up of 14 islands. Oslo is the final stop on the itinerary, a city whose modern, waterside skyline makes all the other Scandi capitals look rather quaint in comparison. If visiting in the winter, you can go skiing and tobogganing virtually within the city. The Korketrekkeren tobogganing track runs between Frognerseteren and Midtstuen metro station.
5. London to Rome, via the Alps
Recommended time two weeks or more
This one is for those who love the outdoors. Catch the Eurostar from London to Paris, cross to Gare de Lyon and take the train down to Annecy. The city is an adventure playground at any time of year — each January you can take part in the annual GlaGla Race, a cold-water stand-up paddling race across glacial waters where the temperature hovers around 4C. In summer, the skies above Lake Annecy come alive with paragliders and the mountains that ring it are a playground for hikers and mountain bikers.
It’s a short journey from here to Geneva, on the banks of Lake Geneva, where the lakeside is polished and altogether more urban than Annecy’s. Don’t miss the free lakeside sculpture exhibition Le Chat, created by Philippe Geluck, a Belgian cartoonist, with bold, balloon-like metal statues modelled on a cartoon cat.
From Geneva, catch a train along the lake to Lausanne, Switzerland’s street art capital and a city that’s altogether grungier and cooler than Geneva. A train from here via Visp takes you to Zermatt, in the heart of the Alps. The town sits at 1,600m, in the heart of the mountains, and it’s perfectly positioned for skiing during the winter, hiking in summer and year-round mountaineering.
Zermatt and Lugano are under 125 miles apart as the crow flies, but the train journey, broken over multiple changes in southern Switzerland, takes over five hours. It’s very scenic, winding through alpine meadows and bucolic countryside. Lakeside Lugano’s belle époque architecture is reminiscent of the French Riviera, but ringed with Toblerone-ish mountain peaks. From here, a train via fashion capital Milan takes you to millennia-old Rome.
6. Milos to Mykonos
Recommended time 12 days
The final route on this list doesn’t include a single train, but you can island-hop around Greece with an Interrail pass as it includes ferries. The cheapest pass includes four days of travel within a month, and if you’re taking any night ferries, only the day of departure eats into your quota. The pass covers 55 ports across the Greek islands, and ferry timetables and routes are available via Blue Star Ferries and Hellenic Seaways.
Start on Milos, where the whitewashed buildings compete with bleached rocks for the most dazzling shade of white. From here, take a two-and-a-half-hour hour boat to Santorini, known for sunset panoramas from the volcanic cliffs (and inflated prices, thanks to its popularity with honeymooners). It’s also possible to backpack this island. Youth Hostel Anna has the ramshackle charm of a Mamma Mia! villa, with dorm beds starting from €25 (£21.50) a night.
Hop from here to Ios, where you can hire quad bikes to tear along quiet cliff roads and enjoy fresh green olive oil from little restaurants among the groves. Its sleepy image slips at night, when bars in Chora, the island’s capital, pulse with techno and house music. Finish in swanky Mykonos, dancing on soft, golden sand at hedonistic beach bars such as restaurant and club Scorpios.