To see the real sights of Europe, hop a train and get out of town.Illustrations by Rob Saunders.
Every European city has its own story -- its own charm and sense of identity -- that makes us want to visit it in the first place. To better understand how these places came to be, we equip ourselves with travel guides, history books, and itineraries. Our intention is to cover everything within the destination city’s walls, from monuments and landmarks to the newest chefs’ restaurants and trendy cafés.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, but let’s face it: Sometimes, you’ve just got to put on the ole explorer hat and experience an adventure not on the standard must-do checklist. Lucky for you, the intricate rail systems in Europe make it easy to get out of town. We’ll tell you the best places to see outside the city limits of three European hot spots, as well as how to get there. All you have to do is hop aboard a train, sit back, and enjoy the view.
Ah, Paris -- it’s a city so dense with history, culture, and art that a short visit can be overwhelming. But simply imagine the French capital’s sights as offerings on a menu at your favorite brasserie, and then pick what you’re in the mood for. That could mean checking out the art and artifacts at the newest local museum, Musée du quai Branly; shopping on a Sunday in the city’s Jewish quarter, Le Marais; wandering around Montmartre and visiting La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, which offers one of the best views of the city; or checking out the wine bars in the up-and-coming 20th arrondissement, the birthplace of "La Vie en Rose" songstress Edith Piaf.
Then, do as the Parisians do every weekend: Go to the nearest boulangerie (“bakery”) and buy a sandwich jambon, and then take the metro to the nearest train station and pick your destination. Don’t worry, the Eiffel Tower will be there when you get back.
CHANTILLY, FRANCE: NOT A ONE-HORSE TOWN
Mr. Ed would have loved Chantilly: Nearly 3,000 horses inhabit this country town, which is located about 24 miles northeast of Paris’s city center. The truth is, Chantilly, which the popular delicate lace is named for, has been horse-crazy for centuries. Legend has it that eighteenth-century Chantilly resident Louis Henri Joseph, Duke of Bourbon and seventh prince of Condé, thought he would be reincarnated as a horse. Because of this, he had stables built in the same baroque style as his home so that he would be comfortable in his next life.
Those so-called Grandes Ècuries, located on the grounds of the magnificent Château de Chantilly, are considered an architectural masterpiece. In 1982, they were converted into an interactive learning museum called Le Musée Vivant du Cheval. Guests can wander through the horse museum’s 31 rooms, which contain equipment, informational diagrams, and live horses that are used in educational demonstrations.
DON’T MISS: The 20,000 acres of ponds and forests surrounding the Château de Chantilly, right across the road from the stables.
GETTING THERE: From Paris, there is train service from Paris-Gare du Nord to Chantilly-Gouvieux via the SNCF grandes lignes (main lines); the trip time is 25 minutes. There is also a train from the Châtelet-les-Halles RER ligne (line) D, which takes approximately 45 minutes. From the station in Chantilly, Le Musée Vivant du Cheval and the Château de Chantilly are about 20 minutes away by foot.
GIVERNY, FRANCE: SO MONETAfter you’ve admired Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, head to Giverny, about 50 miles northwest of Paris, and see the artist’s real gardens. Monet decided to move to this tiny village on the border of Normandy when he saw the soft hills and wisteria-covered houses from the window of a train. The pink farmhouse Monet lived in with his family is where he painted some of his most famous works. It was also there that, as he got older and developed cataracts, his paintings took on the blurriness for which he has become famous.
Today, Monet’s house and the adjoining gardens -- which are filled, of course, with water lilies as well as tulips, snapdragons, and nasturtiums -- are maintained as beautifully as if Monet were still living there. A visit may not turn you into an impressionist painter, but it’ll certainly enable you to see what inspired one.
DON’T MISS: Beginning May 1, check out the new Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny, which features impressionistic art and highlights the impact of these works on the world.
GETTING THERE: From Gare Saint-Lazare, take the Paris-Rouen-Le Havre line to Vernon, and from there, take a taxi to Giverny, which is about three miles away.
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VERSAILLES, FRANCE: KING METhe area that became Versailles was first noticed by Louis XIII around 1624 while he was hunting in the forest. He decided to build a little stone-and-brick château there -- a hunting lodge, if you will. His son Louis XIV ascended to the throne before he had five candles on his birthday gâteau (cake). When he was old enough to decide where he wanted to live, Louis XIV said that the hunting lodge would be just fine -- with a few additions, that is.
Under his reign, and through four separate building campaigns, the Château de Versailles became the massive and opulent structure it is today. With 700 rooms, 352 fireplaces, and 67 staircases, the palace has plenty of room for guests, which Louis XIV had often. Despite his over-the-top household spending, Louis XIV became one of France’s most beloved kings.
DON'T MISS: The André Le Nôtre–designed baroque gardens and the famous mirrored hall, La Galerie des Glaces.
GETTING THERE: There are three options. From anywhere in Paris, hop aboard the city RER ligne C train, which will take you straight to Versailles Rive-Gauche. From Gare Montparnasse, you can take the SNCF train to Versailles-Chantiers. From the Gare Saint-Lazare, take the SNCF train to Versailles-Rive Droite.
In a diplomatic nod to the Flemish speakers in the northern part of Belgium and to the French speakers in the nation’s southern region, Brussels features street signs in both languages. But this European Union capital offers much more than bilingualism. There’s also a daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, where vendors hawk thousands of quirky odds and ends; museums filled with the works of classic Flemish masters and those of Belgium’s favorite son, surrealist René Magritte; and a booming gastronomic scene. (Brussels is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer than any other city in Europe.)
Perhaps the biggest draw in town, however, at least as far as physical size is concerned, is a monument to the microscopic: the Atomium, a 335-foot-tall recreation of a molecule’s nine atoms magnified 165 billion times. Other larger-than-life attractions await just a few miles outside the city.
BRUGGE, BELGIUM: MEDIEVAL TIMES
A visit 60 miles northwest of Brussels, to Brugge -- with its cobblestoned streets, 1,000-year-old homes, and canals that snake Venice-like through the city -- will likely bring out your inner Sir Lancelot. Since the city escaped damage from the wars, today’s Brugge still looks a great deal like the Middle Ages’ Brugge. Get the best view of the city’s medieval architecture from the Belfort van Brugge, a 270-foot-tall octagonal belfry that looms over the city.
The antiquated craft of lace-making is still practiced here, adding to the city’s bygone charm. The Kantcentrum, a lace center and museum, hosts demonstrations for visitors, who can also purchase the fine fabric here. Spiritual travelers will want to visit the Heilige Bloed Basiliek, which houses a vial said to contain the blood of Jesus Christ. Each Ascension Day, a religious procession centered around the vial is attended by thousands of spectators and clergymen.
The best way to see Brugge is either by foot, which will allow you to wander off course as something catches your eye, or by boat, which will have you taking advantage of the city’s meandering canals. When you get hungry, stop for some moules et frites (that’s mussels and french fries to you).
DON’T MISS: Dominique Persoone’s cola chocolates -- bitter chocolate ganache with cola aroma and fizzy almond praline -- available at the Chocolate Line, a sweets shop in the center of town.
GETTING THERE: From the Brussel-Centraal, Brussel-Noord, and Brussel-Zuid stations, trains run every half hour to Brugge, and the travel time is one hour.
GHENT, BELGIUM: HURTS SO GOODIn 1180, Philip of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, built a forbidding castle called Gravensteen in the town of Ghent, just 30 miles northwest of Brussels. The Gothic structure was meant to protect two important abbeys from intruding Vikings. Trespassers who were unlucky enough to fall into the count’s hands were subject to boiling-oil treatments and other excruciating practices.
For modern travelers, it’s an easy -- and completely painless -- jaunt to Ghent, where you can tour the Gravensteen torture chambers (and be spared any interactive demonstrations, thankfully). But there’s a softer side to this town, too: Ghent was a European cloth center in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, supplying wool to traders from all over the continent. Today, the town of just more than half a million people continues to specialize in fine textiles, which are sold in chic boutiques that are open for perusing.
Ghent also has plenty of taverns that sell the country’s best-known brew, Lambic -- beer that’s made from airborne bacteria that contains wild yeast cells (rather than artificially added yeast, as with most beers) and then aged in barrels or bottles for more than a year. Lambic can be fruit-flavored, fizzy, or uncarbonated. Decisions, decisions.
DON’T MISS: Buying fresh mustard at Yve Tierenteyn-Verlent, where they still use gray stoneware jugs for their hot stuff, which is made from a 1790 recipe.
GETTING THERE: From the Brussel-Centraal, Brussel-Noord, and Brussel-Zuid stations, trains run every half hour to Ghent, and the journey takes 40 minutes.
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ANTWERP, BELGIUM: FASHIONISTA ALERTAntwerp, situated just 30 miles north of Brussels, made a splash in the 1980s fashion world when an avant-garde posse of designers, collectively dubbed the Antwerp Six, graduated from the local fine-arts academy, Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen. Their edgy clothes drew the world’s attention to this place, which for much of history had been known simply as Europe’s second-busiest port and a city with much of its baroque architecture firmly intact.
Since then, Antwerp has spawned designers such as Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, and Veronique Branquinho, and many of them have flagship stores in town that are just begging to be browsed. Still have euros burning a hole in your pocket? Stop in one of the more than 2,500 diamond shops here. Approximately 85 percent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass through the city, making Antwerp home to all things bling.
Treasure seekers will revel in the mile-long stretch of antique shops along Kloosterstraat, which runs from north of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten van Antwerpen, the fine-arts museum, to the heart of the old town. More than 70 stores -- legendary for the secondhand books, art, furniture, and miscellaneous baubles they contain -- pepper the area. They’re open daily; on Sundays, they open at a perfectly postbrunch time of two p.m.
DON'T MISS: A tour of Antwerp’s twelfth-century canals, which are now underground. Be forewarned, though: You may get wet. The first part of the three-hour tour is by boat, and after that, you’ll be on foot, armed with a raincoat and a flashlight.
GETTING THERE: Trains to Antwerpen-Centraal station leave four times an hour from the Brussel-Noord station, and the journey time is 40 minutes.
FRANKFURT, GERMANY Of course, there are frankfurters in this German town -- but don’t expect your dogs to arrive in fluffy white buns. Instead, you’ll be given a hard roll with mustard on the side, and you can wash it all down with the hometown Ebbelwoi (apple wine). Then, once you’ve taken a boat ride along the river Main downtown, wandered through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s house, admired the Andy Warhol works at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, and visited the magnificent Paulskirche, head out of town to see the countryside.
BAD HOMBURG, GERMANY: GOOD TIMESPalm Springs is to California what Bad Homburg was to Germany at the turn of the century. Royalty from all over the world came to take a dip in the natural healing thermal waters and play a hand or two of poker at Bad Homburg’s famous spa and casino. Among the resort’s guests were author Fyodor Dostoyevsky -- who lost a fortune at the tables but left with the idea for his novel The Gambler -- and all the major European leaders of the time, including the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII of England. Edward liked to hunt wild boar with his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II in the nearby Großer Tannenwald, a large pine forest. It was there that Wilhelm’s trademark green hat caught the eye of Edward, who then had his hatmaker construct a gray model for him, which he took back to England. It became known as the popular homburg.
Today, you, too, can visit the town’s legendary spa, Kur-Royal Day Spa, and casino, as it is just an easy 10-mile trek north from Frankfurt to Bad Homburg. Also, catch up on your German history inside Das Gothische Haus, which was once a hunting château and is now a history museum. There, you’ll learn more about how Bad Homburg came to be one of the wealthiest areas in the country. Just how wealthy is it? A few years ago, the city’s marketing slogan was Champagnerluft und Tradition (“Champagne air and tradition”). What, no caviar dreams?
DON’T MISS: Teeing off at the six-hole Homburger Golf Club, Germany’s first golf course, which was established in 1899.
GETTING THERE: Take the S-Bahn S-5 train from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. It leaves approximately every 15 minutes, and the commute takes 20 minutes.
RÜDESHEIM, GERMANY: RHEIN WINEOn the north bank of the Rhein -- bordered by the soft, vine-covered Taunus hills -- the little town of Rüdesheim, located 40 miles southwest of Frankfurt, and the surrounding countryside make up one of Germany’s best wine-growing areas. It’s particularly known for its Rüdesheim Riesling, which is often referred to as the Burgundy of the Rhein. Folks here have been growing and crushing sweet white grapes for more than 1,000 years. You can learn more at the Brömserburg’s Rheingauer Weinmuseum, which details winemaking throughout the ages and displays various curios such as old iron screw presses and other devices used to get the juice out of the region’s best grapes.
If learning about wine makes you thirsty for a drink, pop over to Drosselgasse, a narrow fifteenth-century street lined with taverns that sell the local wines. Just look for a broom outside the door; that’s code and means there’s plenty of wein inside.
DON’T MISS: The killer panoramic view of the Rheinland-Pfalz countryside from the Niederwald monument situated on the ridge of Rheinischen Schiefergebirge, which are mountains along the Rhein.
GETTING THERE: Take the Regional Express train (without transfers) directly from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. It leaves every two hours, and the trip takes just over an hour.
Web-Only Bonus CityROME, ITALY
Without the Holy Roman Empire, who knows what sort of state we’d be in today -- they gave us concrete, for goodness’ sake, along with roads, bridges, and architectural standards that we’re still using today. Pay homage to our enlightened predecessors by walking around the Colosseo and Foro Romano. Admire Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Cappella Sistina until your neck hurts. Then, throw a coin in the Fontana di Trevi -- legend has it that this guarantees a return trip to Rome. Since now you know you’ll be back, go see what lies beyond the Italian capital.
TIOVOLI, ITALY: WATER, WATER EVERYWHEREMore than 100 fountains -- water-spouting dragons, goddesses, shells, goblets, and even a tiny aquatic Rome, called Rometta -- dot the nine acres of Renaissance gardens surrounding the palatial Villa d’Este in Tivoli, located 22 miles east of Rome. The villa, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built in 1550 by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, who was aiming for an aesthetic similar to those of the Roman pleasure palaces from centuries earlier. Its setting couldn’t be lovelier: The palace is situated on a hill, perched above the Fiume Aniene and offering a view of the Lazio countryside. But the Villa d’Este’s hillside location is what makes the water features surrounding it all the more impressive. It was Roman hydraulic engineering that managed to pump water to the fountains, which, with the gardens, are considered iconic examples of Italian landscape design.
DON'T MISS: Villa Adriana, the largest, most expensive palace ever built during the Holy Roman Empire. The design of the 250-acre villa (actually a complex of more than 30 buildings) was influenced by Greek and Egyptian aesthetics, which angered the second-century townspeople, who thought Emperor Hadrian should have stayed true to traditional Italian style. Today, though, it’s considered the epitome of opulent early Italian architecture.
GETTING THERE: From Stazione Tiburtina in Rome, take the one-hour Roma–Tivoli train to the center of Tivoli. Trains leave every half an hour to an hour.
IF YOU GO…
Château de Chantilly
Musée Vivant du Cheval
Monet’s House and Gardens
Musée des Impressionnismes, Giverny
Paris train information:
Belfort van Brugge
Heilige Bloed Basiliek
The Chocolate Line
Brussels train information:
Kur-Royal Day Spa
Homburger Golf Club
Frankfurt train information:
Rome train information:
ELLISE PIERCE is a freelance writer who lives in Paris. She loves seeing the Eiffel Tower in her rearview mirror as she crosses the Seine each weekend en route to a new destination with her Australian shepherd puppy, Rose.