Interrailing in Europe; the only question is, with so many countries, cultures and sights to experience, where do you start? Looking at a blank map can be a bit of a daunting prospect, so here’s a suggested itinerary that will guide you through six countries, from cities and islands to beaches and mountains, for a real taste of what backpacking in Europe has to offer.
Stage 1: Nice to Venice
where to start… The south of France is an excellent place to start your Interrail journey off on the right foot; French trains are fast and comfortable, most people speak a few words of English and the stations are clearly signposted.
Ease yourself into a long backpacking trip with sunny Nice – this cheerful, laid-back town on the French Riviera is a popular backpacking spot and has art, beaches and plenty of Nice hostels for the travelers it attracts every summer. There’s also an airport here that’s well served by budget airlines so it’s easily accessible for the first leg of your journey.
where to stay… Villa Saint Exupery is one of the best hostels in France. Housed in a former monastery, it boasts cheap drinks, a shady garden and a great view of Nice in the bay below (a short tram ride away).
how to move on… Head out of Nice in the morning for the next leg of your journey and you can enjoy a day exploring Monte Carlo on the way to the Italian border! Leave your heavy bags at the train station (ask at the information desk) and then wander the wonderful harbor and streets of the exclusive principality. Although it’s pricey to stay the night here, a day out can be kept cheap – it’s only €10 to enter the famous casino, and you might even win some of it back on the tables…
The best way to get to Venice from here is an overnight train – not only will you save on the cost of accommodation for a night if you doze off in one of the carriages, you’ll be able to awake to a new day and a new city.
Venice has a reputation as an expensive destination, but this cultural gem doesn’t have to be beyond the reach of backpackers in Europe – there are plenty of hostels in Venice with cheap beds and here’s a guide to 10 things to do in Venice for under $10….
Stage 2: Exploring Italy
where to start… Italy is a truly beautiful country – but, surprisingly, it’s relatively unvisited once you get beyond the main hot-spots of Florence, Rome and Pompeii.
where to stay…. There are plenty of accommodation options for backpackers, from budget hotels and guesthouses to sociable hostels in Italy. For a few days relaxing in the countryside, try La Moraia at San Gimignano – this converted Tuscan farmhouse is affordable chic, and comes complete with swimming pool.
how to move on… The rail network in Italy is as impressive as France – rarely late and typically quick, the trains make traveling across the country easy. Some services might be busy during the summer peak seasons, though – check to see if you need to reserve a seat in advance.
Stage 3: Ferry Ride to Croatia
where to start…. Croatia is surprisingly accessible. Head to Bari (on the east of the country) from Rome or Naples and you can take an overnight ferry across to Dubrovnik.
Some Interrail passes will even include the cost of the ferry crossing, although a spot on deck won’t be more expensive than a hostel bed.
where to stay… The well-preserved Dubrovnik is worth a brief visit – this ancient Dalmatian town is very pleasant for an afternoon stroll around the walls or a few drinks on the beach at sunset. There are also a few euro-disco style clubs that attract a fair few backpackers in the area. Croatia, however, has much more to offer.
Further north, Split is of similar historic note, with the famous Diocletian’s Palace at its heart, but is more lively than Dubrovnik and has a wider selection of cheap restaurants and bars along the chic waterfront. Zagreb is also an excellent stop off – this vibrant capital city is an intriguing mixture of grand European architecture and alternative culture.
The real draw, though, are the islands that dot the Adriatic coast – there are so many picture-perfect places to explore that you could quite happily while away a month or more island hopping in Croatia!
how to move on… Although hostels in Croatia are plentiful and easy to find, the trains don’t reach down very far south at the moment. There is, however, a good (and cheap) long distance bus service available from Split and regular ferries serve all the islands. Split and Zagreb are both major transport hubs – you can easily cross the border over into Serbia or Slovenia from the capital.
Stage 4: Ljubljana and the Lakes
where to start… There are a number of daily trains which run between Zagreb and Ljubljana so the capital is the ideal place to start exploring Slovenia. This off-the-beaten-track country is definitely one of the best places for backpackers in Eastern Europe – as well as being very affordable, it is a very friendly and welcoming place and the scenery is unmissable.
where to stay… In Ljubljana, spend the night at Hostel Celica – this former prison has been converted to a high standard, although it stands out for novelty value alone! From lovely Ljubljana, the Alpine lakes and mountains are easily accessible. Nearby Lakes Bled and Bohinj are two of the best places to visit – Bled is known for its picturesque lake, fairytale-lake castle and activities, whilst Bohinj offers water-sports and stunning waterfalls.
how to move on… The railway is very good in Slovenia, but some local services can be slow through the mountains. Comprehensive bus networks link smaller places beyond the trains, such as Bled to Bohinj. There are quite a few major stations around the country so it’s usually best to change to a direct train at one of these for a longer journey (where possible). Overnight services run back to Croatia or on to neighboring Switzerland from Bled.
Heading north from Slovenia, most trains pass through Switzerland. Although it’s a very expensive country on the whole, it makes a good stop off to break up the journey back through France. The student town of Lausanne is a good place to spend a day or two – located on the shores of Lake Geneva, it’s laid-back and relatively affordable.
As you’d expect, the trains in Switzerland are fantastic and it’s easy to get a fast train all the way from Geneva or Zurich to Paris in just a few hours.
Stage 5: Back to Paris and London
where to start… Whichever station you arrive into, the city’s excellent, cheap metro (subway) network opens up the whole of Paris for a day or weekend of exploring. Buy a carnet (book of 10) of tickets and you’ll save a little extra. It’s also worth bearing in mind that one ticket lasts up to an hour so if you want to hop and off quickly, one pass could last two journeys.
Paris may have a reputation for being an expensive city but there are plenty of cheap things to do in Paris. Start off in the Marais, the coolest quarter in the city, and browse through the vintage shops piled high with second-hand treasures. Enjoy falafel and fig strudel (the Marais is a former Jewish quarter) and then sup a cocktail in the neighbouring bar’s happy hour. If you’re after some culture, all of Paris’s famous churches – St Sulpice, Notre Dame, the Sacre Coeur – are free to visit, as are the interesting cemetries.
where to stay… Le Village hostel is right in the heart of Montmartre, and has a free breakfast and a terrace with an incredible view of the Sacre Coeur. The hilly streets of Montmartre are famous as the home of artists and poets, and the quaint bars, bistros, and quirky shops still have plenty of boho chic.
how to move on…Getting from Paris to London is now simple and quick – just hop on the Eurostar at Gare de Nord, which will get you into London’s St Pancras station in less than 2 hours. Your interrail pass might include the whole price of a ticket on the Eurostar or it will at least earn you a hefty discount. There are further discounts available for under 25s, too.
Stage 6: London
where to start… The Eurostar whisks you into Kings Cross – St. Pancras, right in the heart of the action. Vast and vibrant, London is home to countless free museums and galleries – the Tate Modern, V&A, British Museum and National Gallery are all a dream for culture vultures. For souvenirs the city is packed with great markets – Portobello Road, Camden Market, Spitalfields and Borough Market (for great food). Eating on a budget is easy – just grab a picnic and sit in one of London’s many famous parks, or head to Chinatown for some delicious cuisine.
where to stay… The Walrus hostel boasts one of the best locations in the city for a quick stopover in London – it’s a five minute walk to Big Ben, all the sights of central London, and the cultural delights along the South Bank. The Old and Young Vic theatres are just down the road, and there are plenty of watering holes nearby. Situated above a pub, the hostel has a cool and friendly atmosphere, and is the perfect end to your trip…
how to move on… Heading on to explore more of the UK? The Walrus is near Waterloo station, which is a an excellent transport hub for tubes, buses and mainline trains…
AW – We’ll keep you posted on more interrail itineraries soon…but get in touch with your own ideal backpacking trips, too! Are you planning a gap year around Europe? Or a summer of backpacking? Let us know your top cities and budget travel tips.
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