Five design destinations to visit by train

Ready for the second golden age of rail? Be persuaded beyond Paris with our guide to seeing Europe by train

train holidays
Lara Schipperen

Could we all be a little more ambitious with rail travel this year? Though carbon statistics are starkly in favour, it needn’t be a virtuous choice. The brilliant juxtaposition of travelling by train is that it’s simultaneously more relaxing and adventurous – not to mention the thrill of extra leg room.

We’ve landed on five destinations with culture and style to spare (think world-class museums, design hotels and vintage furniture shopping galore), selecting the very best to see and do, as well as breaking down the ‘how’.

Some routes are less radical – hello, direct Eurostar – while others will encourage you to rethink how you see the journey itself. So if you can spare a little extra time to get there, we think you’ll find it’s well worth it...


Rotterdam

From London in 3.5 hours

Why go?

Re-built after WWII, Rotterdam has always been a city of reinvention, with daring architecture and an attitude to match. Bold buildings range from Piet Blom’s cube houses to the upturned horseshoe of the Markthal, while clever adaptive-reuse projects include BlueCity, an old swimming pool turned circular-economy lab.

In November, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen opened its Depot. The radical idea? To display its entire collection to the public – in this case, 151,000 artworks from Dutch masters to Dalís. Visit this month to catch Art Rotterdam (10-13 February) and its design-centric counterpart Object Rotterdam (11-13 February).

train holidays
Depot Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Ossip van Duivenbode

How do I get to Rotterdam by train?

Eurostar whizzes direct from St Pancras to Rotterdam Centraal Station in three hours and 13 minutes.

What will I see on the way?

The train whips through the pancake-flat landscape at 186mph but it doesn’t pass Holland’s iconic tulip fields. To see those, best travel on to Keukenhof on the line between Leiden and Haarlem; they’re in bloom mid-March to mid-May.

What should I see as soon as I step off the train?

The angular swoop of Centraal Station signals the city’s architectural ambitions. From there, go north-east via the yellow Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge to bloom-filled florist and stylish interiors warehouse ’s Zomers and then Pantoufle (by appointment), a slow design store that includes a tightly edited mix, including Linge Particulier cushions, Vitra ‘Akari’ lamps and Lappalainen mobiles.

train holidays
Rotterdam’s Centraal Station
Jannes Linders

Where should I stay in Rotterdam?

Hotel Âme, opened by ceramicist Angel Cheung-Kwok and her husband Manfung in September, is a short walk south of the station. As well as 14 serene rooms, there’s a café and beautifully curated store, stocking Angel’s ‘Studio Kurē’ line, Japanese-made rice-bran wax Takazawa candles and Futagami brassware.

What if I want to explore further?

Don’t miss Antwerp. Belgium’s fashion capital gave us the Antwerp Six (designers Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester et al) and its cobbled streets, dotted with avant-garde concept stores, still thrum with creativity.

Surrounded by forest, meadows and dunes, Dutch tycoon Joop Van Caldenborgh has filled Museum Voorlinden in the coastal town of Wassenaar with his vast collection of contemporary art, including installations by James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama.

train holidays
Museum Voorlinden
Christian Richters / View Pictures

Zeeland is where the Dutch go to the beach, and the protected Oosterschelde National Park reserve – the largest in the Netherlands – is its wild side, where the tide transforms the landscape of mudflats, salt marshes and sandbars twice daily.


Marseille

From London in 6.5 hours

Why go?

Almost a decade after its turn as European Capital of Culture, Marseille is growing a reputation as one of Europe’s most dynamic art hubs. But its design credentials are nothing new. Le Corbusier built his brutalist icon La Cité Radieuse here in 1947 – dubbed the ‘Unité d’Habitation’, it’s a vertical village stacked with shops, a school, a restaurant and apartments with brightly painted balconies. Head up to the rooftop to find MAMO, a contemporary art centre that plays host to a revolving roster of artist takeovers.

train holidays
Le Cite Radieuse, or Unite d’Habitation
Alamy

At the Vieux-Port (Old Port), Norman Foster’s Ombrière – a giant mirrored canopy – shimmers in the sunlight, while Rudy Ricciotti’s MuCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) is veiled in a lace-like concrete lattice.

How do I get to Marseille by train?

Cross to France by Eurostar and disembark at Lille (better than Paris where you’d need to change stations) to catch the TGV to the south coast.

What will I see on the way?

In a few hours you speed through the whole of France – look out for the Alps to the east when passing around Lyon, and soak up the pretty Provençal land-scape past the commune of Orange.

What should I see as soon as I step off the train?

Survey the city from the terrace of Marseille-Saint-Charles station before descending its 104 steps that are flanked by eye-catching sculptures. Look out for the Art Nouveau bronze dolphin lampposts running down the middle of the steps.

Where should I stay in Marseille?

Continue along Boulevard Michelet from Cité Radieuse to Pavillon Southway, where artist, curator and historian Emmanuelle Luciani has turned a 19th-century townhouse into a maison d’art-cum-artists collective, decorated with hand-painted frescos, vintage furniture and original works, which evolve with every exhibition. Spend the night in the guest bedroom, and explore this creative home as if it’s your own.

train holidays
The curated interior at Pavilion Southway
Florian Touzet

What if I want to explore further?

Tucked away on Cap Moderne, a rocky finger of land, are Le Corbusier’s holiday cabin, Le Cabanon, and Eileen Gray’s modernist Villa E-1027, which completed its renovation last summer.

    The Calanques, a series of limestone inlets southeast of Marseille, form a trail of beautiful bays. Nearby is Tuba Club, a former 1960s dive centre turned hit hotel and cliffside restaurant.

    Van Gogh produced some of his most famous works in the city of Arles. It’s now back on the art map for its Luma Arles complex, with Frank Gehry’s twisting aluminium-clad tower.


    Zürich

    From London in 8 hours

    Why go?

    The Swiss city is regularly ranked as one of the world’s most liveable thanks in part to its summertime badi (outdoor swimming) scene, quaint medieval Old Town and thriving cultural landscape. But underneath its tick-tock Swiss efficiency is an undercurrent of radical thinking – this is the birthplace of Dadaism and Helvetica typeface, after all.

    In October, the grand Kunsthaus art museum opened the doors to a geometric David Chipperfield-designed extension to show off its collection of Impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Gauguin and Degas. The Yoko Ono retrospective, ‘This room moves at the same speed as the clouds’, arrives on 4 March.

    train holidays
    The David Chipperfield-designed extension of Kunsthaus Zürich
    Juliet Haller

    How do I get to Zürich by train?

    Arrive in Paris by Eurostar before hopping two stops on the Paris RER line to the Gare de Lyon to catch a TGV-Lyria high-speed train to Zürich HB.

    What will I see on the way?

    The train slows down to call at Dijon in Burgundy with views over the city on the way in. Keep an eye out for the Vosges mountains in the distance between Mulhouse and Basel, too.

    What should I see as soon as I step off the train?

    North of Zürich HB’s knot of approaching tracks, the Museum für Gestaltung (museum of design) reopened its second site at the redeveloped factory of Toni-Areal at the end of last year. It houses an archive of more than half a million objects from the history of graphics and design. Nearby, Im Viadukt is a row of railway arches now home to studio galleries and fashion labels, delis and cycle shops.

    Where should I stay in Zürich?

    Redesigned by Philippe Starck to resemble a yacht club overlooking the water, La Réserve Eden au Lac Zürich is a lakeside institution with fresh wind in its sails. The French designer’s interiors in Jatoba wood and creamy tan leather are a considered counterpoint to the hotel’s frothy Belle Époque building.

    What if I want to explore further?

    The Vitra Campus is the German furniture company’s base in Weil am Rhein. It’s a complete immersion in design, featuring buildings by the likes of Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando and Álvaro Siza.

    train holidays
    The Vitra Campus’s gardens are by Piet Oudolf
    Julien Lanoo

    Lucerne, Switzerland’s most beautiful city, sits on cobalt-coloured Lake Lucerne ringed by mountains. Marvel at its 14th-century Chapel Bridge and old town squares lined with fresco-painted houses.

    Pritzker Prize-winner Peter Zumthor built spa and hotel 7132 Therme over thermal springs in the small village of Vals, Graubünden, with layer upon layer of quartzite stone from the local mountains.


    Berlin

    From London in 9 hours

    Why go?

    After laying its foundations in Weimar and Dessau, the Bauhaus school moved briefly to Berlin in 1932 before being closed the following year by the Nazis. Members of the movement returned to the city from the 1950s, creating modernist marvels in the Hansaviertel district, as well as Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie, which recently emerged from a massive renovation. The city’s Bauhaus Archive, built according to designs by Walter Gropius, is currently undergoing a facelift of its own.

    At the other end of the architectural spectrum, the new Humboldt Forum, in the middle of the Spree’s art-stuffed Museum Island, is a full-sized reproduction of a baroque Prussian palace and filled – to much controversy – with vast holdings of non- European art.

    train holidays
    Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum
    David von Becker

    How do I get to Berlin by train?

    A slick change from the Eurostar at Brussels Midi connects with another high-speed train to Cologne, then a final ICE2 into Berlin.

    What will I see on the way?

    Admire the monumental Santiago Calatrava-designed station at Liège on the way from Brussels to Cologne. After leaving Hanover, the train goes through Wolfsburg and past the original Volkswagen factory built in 1938, a giant of German industrial design.

    What should I see as soon as I step off the train?

    Near the glassy Berlin Hauptbahnhof, take in some serious contemporary art at Hamburger Bahnhof, housed in the former terminus of the Berlin-Hamburg Railway or explore ideas for the future at the interactive Futurium.

    Where should I stay in Berlin?

    In the hip Friedrichshain neighbourhood, the Michelberger Hotel is popular with touring musicians and DJs playing sets at nearby Berghain. Its newest rooms, on the fourth floor of this former warehouse, were transformed by British architect Jonathan Tuckey with plywood partitions and terrazzo floors. From £94.50 per night.

    What if I want to explore further?

    The town of Dessau is where Walter Gropius rebuilt the Bauhaus school after it was forced to relocate from Weiner in 1925. The Bauhaus Museum Dessau tells the story of its ‘form over function’ principles and global influence.

    Germany’s latest sculpture park, is in the grounds of Schlossgut Schwante, an 18th-century castle northwest of Berlin, with works by Ai Weiwei and Martin Creed, a dedicated meditation space by Carsten Nicolai, and a growing program of cultural events.

    train holidays
    Schlossgut Schwante
    Steffen Hoeft

    Dubbed ‘the Hamptons of Berlin’ by the German media (in reality, think upstate New York before the hipsters), rural Uckermark stars 400 lakes, hills, forests and meadows, and is known for its slow-food movement.


    Copenhagen

    From London in 23 hours

    Why go?

    From Danish design to New Nordic cuisine via sustainable urban planning, Copenhagen is a hotbed of culture-shifting ideas.

    It’s where Arne Jacobsen created the world’s first design hotel, the SAS Royal Hotel – carefully renovated by Space Copenhagen in 2018 – and the home of mid-century design icons from the likes of Hans J Wegner to Finn Juhl and Jacob Jensen. Nowadays, its household names include Hay and Fritz Hansen. Chart that evolution through the 20th and 21st century at the Design Museum Denmark when it reopens this June, just in time for the city’s 3 Days of Design festival, from 15-17 June.

    train holidays
    Copenhagen’s Nyhavn district
    Reiseuhu

    How do I get to Copenhagen by train?

    Split the 594-mile journey over two days, spending the night in Cologne, with its impressive Gothic cathedral, after taking the Eurostar to Brussels and changing for an ICE3 train into Germany. The next morning, catch an InterCity train to Hamburg before the final leg on board a Danish IC3 intercity train.

    What will I see on the way?

    The last leg is by far the most picturesque as the line goes through southern Denmark and the Jutland peninsula.

    What should I see as soon as I step off the train?

    Copenhagen Central Station is sandwiched between the hip Vesterbro district and Tivoli Gardens. Not far away, the Glyptotek houses the sculpture-heavy art collection of brewing magnate Carl Jacobsen.

    train delays
    Glyptotek Copenhagen
    Hemis / Alamy

    Where should I stay in Copenhagen?

    The Darling, on Copenhagen’s central Amagertorv, is like a liveable Design Museum Denmark in miniature: its one-bedroom space filled with ‘Spanish Chairs’ by Børge Mogensen, Poul Kjærholm’s ‘PK54’ dining table and a Finn Juhl ‘Nyhavn’ desk. Everything, including the contemporary art on the walls, is for sale – and homeware hits including Hay House, Paustian and Studio Arhoj are on The Darling’s doorstep.

    train holidays
    The Darling
    The Darling

    What if I want to explore further?

    A shrine to Danish modernism, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art on the shores of the Øre houses an international collection of 4,000 works.

    At the other end of the Øresund Bridge from Copenhagen lies the Swedish city of Malmö. Check out the Saluhall food market or try ‘fika’ – Swedish coffee and cake.

    In the coastal northern suburb of Charlottenlund, pay a visit to the Ordrupgaard museum to admire the new subterranean Snøhetta extension and the perfectly preserved Finn Juhl House.


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