Thanks to budget airlines, travelling to the continent has never been easier – or cheaper. If this is your first time travelling to Europe then it could be overwhelming to pinpoint exactly where to visit on the mainland, and often cities are in such close proximity to one another it is frustrating to have to choose between them. As someone who both adores travel but likes to spend as little time in airports as possible, I’ve found the best way to maximize a trip to Europe is to use a singular city as a hub – whether is be taking day trips from this city or staying for a few days and moving on to another – and travelling out from there via rail travel. This series will look at using this travel method across Europe, but will begin with Central Europe.
I like basing myself in a singular city for many reasons. The first is that it means once I check in to a hotel, I can settle there. Knowing once I arrive in my room I won’t have to repack until I leave for home makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable for me. Secondly, I always try to book a hotel or apartment with a kitchen so that I can save money on the trip and cook lunches and dinners from there. It means that even if you cross a border to visit a more expensive city, you can treat yourself to one meal there and know that you can make dinner once you get back to your room. I also have found that the longer a stay with a hotel, the cheaper the price for it per night tends to be. As students, we’re all looking for ways to stretch our budgets as far as possible, and this in conjunction with saving on flights helps with budgeting.
In terms of rail links and geography, Brussels is the perfect hub for a Central European trip. You can affordably access France, The Netherlands, Germany and other parts of Belgium all in under two hours and can curate a trip itinerary based on art and architecture, partying, shopping, sport or history. For my fellow Scottish travelers, if you’re looking to travel on a budget you can fly round-trip to Brussels from Edinburgh throughout January for as little as £20 and stay in three-star hotels from £40 per night. For others, I would always recommend using Skyscanner as a way of comparing flight prices across entire months. Read my full guide on how to use the website by clicking here.
In terms of costs once there, I would compare Brussels as slightly cheaper than Scotland (my home country) in terms of food, drink and public transport. Brussels is a hotpot of European culture and this shows in everything from the multilingual residents to the confluence of Flemish and Gothic architecture throughout the city. You can find examples of Classical architecture in landmarks such as the Palace of Justice and can see a more traditional style of building at the Grand Place and its guildhalls. There are plenty of free things to do here and getting around on foot, public transport or by bike is easy enough. At this time of year you will be spoiled by traditional Christmas markets dotted around the city and the beautiful Christmas tree in the middle of the city’s main square.
Within Belgium you can travel to Ghent and Antwerp in under 45 minutes from Brussels for under £10. Ghent’s architecture is centuries older than that of Antwerp and Brussels and offers a more quaint perspective of the country than the other more metropolitan cities. A small medieval town built on a port, the university town is a window into Old Europe and is rich in history, art and cuisine. Antwerp is arguably the most artistically rich city in Belgium, from its churches and cathedrals to museums and notable buildings. On Lonely Planet’s list of things to do in the city, museums and galleries dominate the top spots. There’s also a great bar and restaurant scene here, as well as a football stadium for those interested in sports.
Travelling West from Brussels, you can be in Paris in around an hour and a half from around £25. Although this is a little steeper than the other train routes listed in this article, considering money saved in hotels in Brussels as well as the difference in flight prices this will most likely save you some money. If that doesn’t appeal to you, another option is to begin your trip in Brussels, take the train to Paris and then fly home from there. As one of the staple European cities to visit, Paris really does have an air of magic about it around Christmas time. It is more expensive than Scotland for food and drinks, but many of its tourist attractions are free to students or those from the European Union under 25/ over 65 – click here to find out more. If you don’t want to travel as far into France as Paris, the city of Lille is 45 minutes from Brussels and sits on the border between France and Belgium and is perfect for a less expensive day trip and a sight into a slightly less commercialized version of the country.
Trains to the three largest cities in The Netherlands (Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam) all depart from Brussels several times a day and take at most two hours to reach their destination. For those looking for a taste of Amsterdam, visiting for the day is perfect and costs around £16 each way and the train station (Amsterdam Centraal) is just minutes away from the busiest parts of the city. As one of the most expensive cities in Europe for accommodation, food and drink I really cannot recommend travelling through in the morning and taking the last train back to Brussels enough. You can rent a bike for the day or walk around easily on foot, dipping in and out of coffee shops and museums.
This is only a small selection of the cities you can visit from Brussels for the day, but those I think will most appeal to students. Basing yourself in a city allows you to break up your time spent there and ensures you won’t get bored with it. However, with a hub with transport links as strong as Brussels, if you feel you’ve seen all you want to, you can travel an hour in any direction and be in a new town, city or even country.
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This article was originally written by me for publication in The Saint and has been adapted for my personal website.