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Article 08 April

City breaks within six hours of London by train

Don't waste time in airport check-in queues: by rail, it takes less than six hours to reach these European cities

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In association with Voyages – SNCF

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Whether you live in the UK or are visiting from overseas, mainland Europe is closer than you think. For a gastronomic getaway, active weekend or simply a glimpse of the continent's finest artwork, these destinations are less than six hours away from the UK – and you don't even have to step foot on a plane. The train is a greener, saner, and more relaxing way to travel: once onboard, put your feet up and brush up on our recommended viewing and reading. What better way to immerse yourself in your destination before you even arrive?

Amsterdam

Best for: Art

The Netherlands' capital offers a vast collection of galleries and museums, all within easy walking distance of the centre. To view national art and historical curiosities, head to the Rijksmuseum, which re-opened to the public in April last year. The collections cover everything from the Middle Ages to Amsterdam's thriving modern art scene – look out for pieces by local painters Johannes Vermeer (of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' fame) and Rembrandt.

Vincent van Gogh may have been born a 90-minute drive away in Groot Zundert, but the Van Gogh Museum is in the heart of the capital. The galleries hold the largest collection of Van Gogh's work – and if you're short on time, the museum opens until 10pm every Friday evening.

Travel time: 5 hours, 38 minutes

For the journey: Rembrandt's Whore, by Sylvie Matton – A non-fiction account of the famous Dutch artist's descent from fame and wealth to bankruptcy and ill-repute.

Luxembourg

Best for: Action

This charismatic city looks like it's been plucked from the pages of a fairytale book, with Medieval turret-topped castles and quaint cobbled streets – but look beyond the 14th-century city walls to discover vineyards and forests too. Take advantage of the country's wide-reaching public transport network to visit dreamy hiking territory: the most popular is the Mullerthal Trail, known as 'Little Switzerland' for its challenging hills, bizarre rock sculptures and waterfalls.

The Moselle region is just as picturesque, with bounteous vineyards (make time for a wine tour and tasting at Caves St-Martin) and a scenic bike track along the Moselle River – it's suitable for beginners, but gets very busy during the summer months. You can pick up the route in Luxembourg City, then head east towards Germany; if you've got longer than a weekend, the 8-day trail to Koblenz, Germany is great for cyclists of all abilities.

Travel time: 3 hours, 40 minutes

For the journey: The Expats, by Chris Pavone – One of the few novels ever set in Luxembourg, this crime fiction thriller reveals a darker side of the capital.

Ghent

Best for: Shopping

With cutting-edge street style and all the charm of a mid-size European city, Ghent is a top shopping destination for sartorially-savvy travellers. The crop of independent boutiques and locally-grown fashion designers is ever-growing: head to Vlaanderenstraat for interior design stores and art deco-style troves brimming with vintage treasures, or to Jan Breydelstraat for art and bric-a-brac.

Of course, no trip to Belgium is complete without gorging on a sickening amount of hand-crafted chocolate: it's traditional round these parts, you know. Chocolaterie Dossche (Baron de Gieylaan 55) and Neuhaus (Koestraat 50) both boast over 100 years of experience, with pastries, jams and biscuits on sale too. For a more unusual take, Yuzu (Walpoortstraat 11a) serves up Asian-spiced truffles in minimalist Japanese-style surroundings.

Travel time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

For the journey: Gen up on the local looks with fashion blog Ghent Street Style – celebrating the city's bravest, trendiest and down-right weirdest fashions.

Cologne

Best for: History

Cologne's Old Town begins right on the doorstep of the rail station: from the train you'll spot the incredible Cologne Dom, Germany's largest cathedral. It's the first of Cologne's many historic riches, and you'll find a fascinating hoard of art and municipal artefacts inside too. The Römisch-Germanisches Museum, a short walk away, has one of Europe's largest collections of Roman relics – and is actually built on the site of a 3rd-century house. Seek out the world-famous Dionysus mosaic (created in AD220), and the tomb that dates back to 30AD.

For a more modern take on German art, Museum Ludwig [http://www.museum-ludwig.de/en/] is Cologne's go-to spot for modern art. The temporary installations feature work by today's established and up-and-coming artists, while the permanent collection delves deeper into modern art's history: you'll find daubings by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

Travel time: 4 hours, 25 minutes

For the journey: The Carnival Master, by Craig Russell – A thrilling tale of murder and intrigue, set during Cologne's February carnival, when you'll find masked street parties galore.

Lyon

Best for: Gastronomy

Pack your appetite, because Lyon boasts a vast number of bistros, cafés and Michelin-starred eateries. Rich, flavoursome and locally-sourced are the watch-words of this gastronomic hub: if you dream of Julia Child's button-popping French fare, you'll find it here. Seek out your nearest bouchon – a traditional Lyonaisse eatery; they date back to the 17th century, when workers sought-out hearty lunches. On the menu you'll find regional favourites such as roast pork, coq au vin, and a plethora of tripe dishes... Vegetarians be warned.

Work off lunch with a troop up to Old Lyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site that teeters on the slopes of this surprisingly hilly city. Explore the cathedrals and renaissance buildings, and wander the winding traboules – these narrow cobbled passages will take you deep into the maze. Pause for breath in a quaint restored courtyards and marvel at the salmon-hued stuccoed houses, then follow your nose to the nearest bouchon.

Travel time: 6 hours

For the journey: Outwitting the Gestapo, by Lucie Aubrac – A true tale of a Lyonnaise schoolteacher turned Resistance leader, who evades Nazi forces in her beloved city. A fascinating glimpse of wartime Lyon.

Strasbourg

Best for: Breweries

The capital of Alsace is known for its brewing prowess: yes, it's the home of Kronenbourg and Heineken, but there are plenty of microbreweries too. For an authentic taste of local tipples, seek out the best brew-pubs that serve their own creations. La Lanterne (5, rue de la Lanterne) is a well-hidden favourite that welcomes out-of-town tasters, and the Kohler-Rehm Brewery (Place Kleber) also boasts an authentic Belgian menu and panoramic views of the plaza.

If wine is your poison, weave your way to Strasbourg's winstubs – the rough Alsatian translation is 'wine room' – where you'll find both German and French tipples in abundance. Au Pont Corbeau (21 Quai St Nicolas) is popular with both regulars and visitors: like most winstubs it serves wine by the jug (try the local Reisling) with gigantic flammekueche (a pizza-style snack, perfect for sharing) and cold meat platters.

Travel time: 5 hours, 11 minutes

For the journey: In the City of Sylvia (2008) – This arthouse film (nominated for a 2008 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival) shows Strasbourg in its most romantic light, as a love-lorn man searches the city for an old flame.

Voyages-sncf.com (formerly known as Rail Europe) is the expert in European train travel, serving over 30 countries across Europe. They can arrange rail tickets and passes for your trip through Europe by rail, however you wish to travel - whether it be high speed, by day or overnight. Your journey starts here.