Europeans have a way of appreciating things that Americans take for granted. They revere the Adonis-like athletes of soccer; we measure masculinity in concussions sustained on the football field. Their most popular Kylie is Minogue; ours is Jenner. Their train travel is clean, reliable and convenient; we tap dance around discarded chicken wings during daily subway commutes that can take 10 minutes or 10 hours, depending on the weather.
Pats and Kardashian fans may quibble over the first two points—but on the last, surely all can agree that the EU trumps the U.S.
Exhibit A: Eurail, a travel system that lets visitors use a single pass to hop between nearly all major trains (and frequently, ferries and city subways) in 28 different countries. Americans, used to an interstate rail infrastructure that can seem hopelessly dated and perpetually delayed, might balk at the idea. They shouldn’t.
When you’re traveling between certain European cities or contiguous countries, trains are frequently faster than planes. There are no check-in times or security lines to clear and fewer of the delays and cancellations common to air travel; just be on the platform when the train pulls up, hop on board and show your Eurail pass if asked. Trains are likely cheaper for multicountry jaunts; Eurail pass prices vary based on the duration of travel and number of countries included. Trains are more comfortable (two words: leg room), don’t get overbooked and—this is no small detail—put the journey on par with the destination.
Yeah, that sounds trite. But in an age when selfie stick-toting tourists rush, face in a phone, from one Instagram-worthy landmark to another, there’s something to be said for luxuriating in the process, for traversing landscapes that are even more stunning sans filters, gradually absorbing new cultural contexts as country borders are crossed and topographies transition, and glimpsing the scenic small towns and villages that aren’t reached by plane.
Train travel is, in a word, romantic—whether you’re crisscrossing Europe with fellow nomadic friends or eat-pray-loving across the continent all on your own. As a case study, consider Eurail’s new Italy-Switzerland pass, a handy two-country ticket that starts at $248. The specific itinerary is your own, but here’s a helpful cheat sheet.
Fly into Zurich and then hop the hourlong train to Lucerne, a small but stately city set on the banks of a large eponymous lake and home to the 1333-built Chapel Bridge, the oldest covered wooden bridge in Europe. Lucerne looks stunning, whether you’re strolling among high-end shops, soaking up mountain views from the balconies at Hotel Schweizerhof (where every room is dedicated to the story of a different celebrity guest, from Mark Twain to Elizabeth Taylor) or sailing on placid waters aboard a steamboat operated by Switzerland’s Gotthard Panorama Express, a boat-train system that, like a few other premier lines requiring advance seat reservations, can be used by Eurail pass holders for a relatively nominal surcharge.
The Gotthard Panorama offers daily connections to Lugano, Switzerland, darting through rolling hills and valleys that look like backdrops from a box of Swiss Miss. In contrast to Lucerne’s lush greenery and the crisp air on the northern side of the Alps, Lugano, on the range’s southern side, suddenly looks, feels (given the more humid Mediterranean climate) and sounds (note the sudden uptick in vowels) much more like Italy. It’s right on the border of the Boot, after all. Lugano’s meandering streets are filled with salumerie and gelaterie, and the Olive Tree Trail, a picturesque 3.5-kilometer trek across the remains of ancient groves, is a popular hike for those who want to visit Gandria, a well-preserved old quarter of stucco buildings and cobblestone streets hiding quaint restaurants like Locanda Gandriese, a spiffy little spot where bottles are uncorked on a gorgeous lakefront terrace.
From Lugano, it’s nearly a three-hour rail ride to Genoa, Italy, an underrated city known as one of the Mediterranean’s most historic and busiest seaports—but perhaps best utilized as a home base from which to explore the enchanting tiny towns that speckle the crescent-shaped coast of the country’s northwest Liguria region (where insider tours organized by Beautiful Liguria are worth the extra Euros). Eurail-affiliated trains can deliver you to Sestri Levante, a sleepy, still-largely unexplored seaside town where the beautiful beaches seem to attract more Italian visitors than foreigners. When you’re done baking in the sun, take a cooking class at Accademia dei Sapori, a culinary school operating out of a historic Italian convent, or let pros do the work at the restaurant inside Hotel Miramare, where white tablecloths topped with whole-roasted fish overlook the super-serene—and aptly named—Bay of Silence.
For a different daytrip, avoid the trend-seeking tourist hordes that increasingly overrun Liguria’s five-village hot spot, Cinque Terre. Instead, opt for the equally charming but less-trod honorary sixth sibling: Porto Venere, a medieval fishing village best accessed by a train-to-boat transfer. Here you’ll ascend rocky steps to the 1198-consecrated Church of St. Peter, perched on a jagged ocean cliff that offers breathtaking views of Byron’s Grotto (named for poet Lord Byron, who drew inspiration here). You can also hike up to Doria Castle, a rambling 12th-century fortification with panoramic vistas, or wander tightly winding stone streets lined with tiny shops hawking homemade jars of pesto—which originated in Liguria—and related foodstuffs, from basil popsicles to bottles of basil liqueur.
These are the nooks and crannies that 747s simply don’t service. In Europe, it’s the deep network of trains that can best take you far off the beaten path. ♦
– Psst: In Genoa, visit the vinyl record-lined restaurant Groove and query your server for the password to a subterranean speakeasy where bartenders do stunning things with molecular mixology.
– Track down a bottle of Sciacchetra, a unique and delicious dessert wine made using Old World methods by a Cinque Terre family whose tiny vineyard produces just 3,000 bottles per year.
Beautiful Liguria, beautifulliguria.com; Eurail, eurail.com; Hotel Miramare, miramarepositano.it; Hotel Schweizerhof, schweizerhof-luzern.ch/en/