This article was published on National Geographic.
Travelling by rail or sea needn’t mean your journey ends at a busy travel hub. Look a little way beyond Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels and there are towns and cities ready to be explored that don’t require you to hop on a plane.
Whether it’s Orléans, just over an hour by rail from Paris, or Utrecht, a mere half-hour by rail from Amsterdam, these towns and cities are within easy reach of the UK by rail or ferry.
Each one offers an exciting escape for travellers looking to both maintain social distancing, and minimise their environmental impact by not flying. So, if you’re planning to travel in the near future, or simply dreaming of 2021 adventures, check out our pick of seven simple-to-reach destinations.
1. Orléans, France
Get there by rail: Direct Eurostar to Paris (2h16m, from £79 return), then regional train to Orléans (1h9m, from €7/£6.12 single fare).
Orléans, around 75 miles south west of Paris, is a city shaped by history, and there’s no more influential an architect of that history than Joan of Arc.
Almost 600 years since the peasant girl led the French army to victory in the besieged city, ‘the Maid of Orléans’ remains widely celebrated, with numerous places of interest — such as Maison de Jeanne-d’Arc, a recreation of her house — dedicated to her exploits.
The opulent Hotel Grislot is another of Orléans’ storied sights, a 16th-century Renaissance-style mansion that was once the home of Francois II, king at the age of 15 and husband to Mary, Queen of Scots. But it’s not just history buffs who’ll love exploring the buzzing boulevards of Orléans.
The old town attractions include the Musée des Beaux-Arts, a spectacular, five-level art museum, and next to the university, where Orléans meets the Loire countryside, is Parc Floral de la Source, a semi-wild park that extends over 86 acres.
2. Ghent, Belgium
Get there by rail: Direct Eurostar to Brussels (2h, from £58 return), then regional rail to Ghent (35m, from about €11/£9.64 single fare).
Both a university town and a busy port, the buzz around the Belgian city of Ghent is undeniable.
Offset by its medieval canals, spires and cobblestones streets, which call to mind a much slower pace of life, it reveals itself to be a cosmopolitan hub where quirky bars and excellent up-and-coming restaurants coexist with ancient castles and market squares dating back centuries.
Ghent’s city centre is a car-free pedestrian area of 35 hectares, making it safe and hassle-free to navigate its lively heart by foot or by bicycle. Be sure to take in the view, icy local beer in hand, from one of the café patios on Graslei, a quay on the right bank of the Leie river overlooking some of the city’s oldest – and most photographed – buildings.
With two rivers lazily winding through it, Ghent is also ideal to explore along its inland waterways with a hop-on, hop-off water tram running from April to November.
3. Bordeaux, France
Get there by rail: Direct Eurostar to Paris (2h16, from £79 return), then by regional train (2h40, starting at €15 single fare).
At the intersection of Old-World grandeur and fast-paced modernity, of high street and cobbled lane, you’ll find Bordeaux, the sixth largest city in France and home to the world’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though Bordeaux may be best known for world-class wines (and rightly so, some connoisseurs would argue), the city’s highlights extend far beyond a bottle of red.
At least 350 of these are historical monuments, buildings that have helped shaped the city’s rich cultural and artistic heritage. In the heart of Bordeaux, the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint Andrew elegantly presides over the city with dramatic sculptural facades featuring the Last Supper, the Ascension and Christ in Majesty.
Once the site of the Roman forum, the dazzling Grand Théâtre is central to the city’s artistic resurgence, frequently hosting performances by the National Orchestra and National Ballet of Bordeaux.
As you gorge yourself on its sumptuous architecture, don’t forget Bordeaux’s renowned culinary scene — its enviable climate makes its fresh produce some of France’s best.
4. Arles, France
Get there by rail: Direct Eurostar to Marseille (6h27m, from £98 return), then 41m by train to Arles (from around €10/£8.77 single fare).
The South of France is a veritable treasure chest of incredible travel destinations, each clamouring for attention.
Less hyped than the likes of Avignon or Marseilles, Arles’ under-the-radar character is part of its appeal. While its classical amphitheatre, subterranean galleries and other fascinating ancient ruins speak of its Roman past, bustling wine bars and designer bistros line the many historic old town squares, making the oldest district the lively heart of the city.
That Vincent Gogh produced over 300 drawings and paintings in the period of just over a year that he lived in Arles is testament to its Provençal charm.
More than a hundred years later, the world’s most creative minds are still finding inspiration here: nearing completion in the Parc des Ateliers is the jaw-dropping Frank Gehry-designed Luma tower, an ambitious 183ft structure of sculptural twists and twinkling, aluminium-clad facades.
5. Bruges, Belgium
Get there by ferry: P&O Hull to Zeebrugge ferry (12h overnight with onboard accommodation, from £189 each way), then an hour by bus or shuttle to Bruges.
Bruges, in Belgium’s northwest, is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ and though its labyrinth of picturesque waterways may call to mind the Venetian capital, the beautifully preserved medieval city has more than enough going for it to deserve recognition in its own right.
Looking like something lifted from the pages of a fairytale, the UNESCO World Heritage City retains a nostalgic village-like atmosphere with sleepy cloistered courtyards and cosy cellar cafes behind tucked away stairs serving Belgium’s best brews away from the tourist throngs.
Art lovers can get familiar with the ‘Flemish Primitives’ of the 15th and 16th centuries in the Groeninge Museum, which occupies the site of the former Eekhout Abbey.
Travellers to Bruges can also get acquainted with a new generation of Flemish creatives turning their focus to food with a growing number of Michelin-starred restaurants fast turning the city into one of Europe’s gastronomic centres.
6. Dunkirk, France
Get there by ferry: DFDS Dover to Dunkirk (2h, from £45).
The French coastal city of Dunkirk is best known for the mass evacuation of allied soldiers in May 1940.
Of course, the past still features prominently in France’s northernmost town, with an exceptional museum commemorating the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo, but its famous beaches have taken a turn for the family-friendly and are now lined by a modern promenade and a number of decent bars and cafes.
Situated just a stone’s throw from the Belgian border, many of the seafront restaurants feature French cuisine with a decidedly Flemish twist, making the unassuming town a surprising foodie discovery.
Visit from February to mid-March for the Dunkirk Carnival, a wonderfully eccentric celebration that brings the town to life with around 40,000 revellers marching, dancing and singing through the streets.
7. Utrecht, Netherlands
Get there by rail: Direct Eurostar London to Amsterdam (4 hrs, from £70 return), then intercity rail (30m, from around €9/£7.90 single fare) to Utrecht.
Situated in the centre of the Dutch mainland, the historic city of Utrecht was once the heart of the nation too.
Though surpassed in importance by Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age, Utrecht is experiencing something of a golden age itself as more visitors eschew the crowds of its northern big brother for the picturesque cobbled streets, canal-side cafes and vibrant creative scene of this university town.
Utrecht is renowned as one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and with its car-free public hubs, a guided cycle tours is the easiest way to take in the sights.
Don’t miss the Museumkwartier, in the southern part of the old town, and if your legs are up to it, brave the 465 steps to the top of Dom Tower, the oldest church in the country, where a clear day will reward you with views all the way to Amsterdam.