Berlin’s Best Rail Escapes

Brian Melican highlights some of the best train travel options from Berlin…

One of the great things about rail travel in Europe has got to be the sheer sense of possibility that descends when you enter a big station in any major city. The UK is different – at London termini (with the exception of St. Pancras) every destination on the Departures board is somewhere in the United Kingdom; often, all of the destinations are even in the same region. After several years of frequent rail travel all around Europe, I still get a buzz from walking into a central station, realising that I could get to Denmark, Switzerland or France without ever having to change trains.

A great place to enjoy that feeling is Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. The Departures board regularly shows destinations as diverse as Warsaw, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Budapest and Zürich.

All of these are places to which the majority of people in Berlin would probably never think of taking a train, but there are plenty of reasons to consider making better use of Berlin’s rail connections: not least because many are under threat or have already been axed. Anyone who wants Berlin’s beguiling range of destinations to remain as Deutsche Bahn cancels night trains and international services generally are given ever shorter shrift must stand up and be counted – with a ticket.

The greener amongst you, for example, will be well aware of the environmental benefits of taking the train, and the more adventurous will definitely be convinced by the promise of long boozy card games and plenty of “randomers” that just don’t take those low-cost, short-haul flights.

Then, there’s the fact that the price advantage monopolized by airlines for so long has continued to erode over the years, as the costs increase in everything from fuel prices to baggage fees. If you’re still not convinced, let’s look at which international destinations you can reach from Berlin, broken down by the hours it takes to get there.

Two hours

Most of the destinations within two hours of Berlin are still in Germany.  Although Hamburg, Hanover, Leipzig, and Dresden are definitely worth a visit in their own right, if you strike out east or northeast, you can make it to Poland in just about the same amount of time. One hour to the east is Frankfurt an der Oder, which straddles the Polish-German border, and anything after that is…well, east of the border. Frankfurt an der Oder is directly opposite the quaint Polish town of Slubice, with which it shares a friendly-next-door-neighbor connection in an effort to represent a new era of German-Polish relations. Sitting just across the water from one another, one can see how close the countries truly are in history, as well as in modern geography.

Alternatively, around two hours and one train change to the northeast lies Stettin (unpronounceable in Polish as Szczecin). The train ride to this interesting Hanseatic-cum-communist port town will take you through  Uckermark, which notably spawned Angela Merkel. Beautiful valleys carry on to Usedom, the Baltic island shared by Germany and Poland, which boasts sandy shores and reed-side cottages.

Four hours

Extending the radius out from Berlin by a few hours brings Prague within striking distance. There are good intercity train connections to the Czech capital via Dresden, offering a spectacularly picturesque stretch along the Elbe just after the city. A fascinating glimpse at the rural (read: often visibly dilapidated) parts of the Czech Republic before reaching Prague is to follow. Trust me, this is one journey for which you need not bring too many books.

Meanwhile, if you keep going east down the line from Frankfurt an der Oder, you’ll be in Poznan just three hours after leaving Berlin. From there, you can continue on to the stunningly well-preserved city of Wroclaw (in German: Breslau) in just a little over five hours after leaving Berlin. Old cathedrals, a town hall, and intimate streets often give the illusion of a pre-war Poland, despite Wroclaw’s long history and large contemporary population.

Six hours

Spending almost half a waking day on a train might sound somewhat claustrophobic, but the six hours and fifty minutes from Berlin to Copenhagen are anything but stuffy and boring. After passing through Hamburg, this specially-designed, diesel ICE train continues onto the rural Baltic island of Fehmarn, then straight onto a ferry.

During the half-hour crossing, passengers can leave the train to enjoy a little sea air on deck or to stock up on over-priced alcohol (read – expensive until you actually make it to Denmark). People who like machinery get an up-close-and-personal look at the axles and bogeys on the ICE. It’s an unusual, fun and ultimately very practical way to travel, giving you the chance to stretch your legs, while feeling that you’ve really “moved” from one place to another.

Furthermore, six hours is more than enough to get you to Warsaw, by travelling on the Frankfurt-Posnan line. There’s no chance of getting on the wrong train by accident, either, as the carriages are painted in a striking blue-white livery and carry the words “Berlin-Warszawa-Express” on the side.

Heading west, six hours’ travel will get you to Amsterdam without a change. Thanks to the new high-speed line between Cologne and Belgium, you can make it to Brussels in just under seven hours, as well! The landscape of this stretch over Europe’s northern lowlands demonstrates the rich soil and open land that give birth to some great hops and great cheese.

Eight hours

For the really hard-core railers amongst you, or just those with large amounts of reading to get through, the extra two hours are really worth it to make it to the following destinations. With the Öresund Bridge now open, there are connections from Copenhagen to most of Southern Sweden, putting the country’s bustling third city Malmö only seven hours or so away from Berlin; its second most magnificent city, Gothenburg, is now just over ten hours away. There’s even a sleeper service as far as Malmö in the summer months, which put Stockholm in reach with a connection the following morning.

Going further into Poland, eight hours plus opens up the rather alluring possibility of Cracow, a true gem of a city that is still valiantly resisting the Easyjet hordes. Known for its deep connection to the Pope John Paul II, jazz, and film, Cracow has the historical allure and coziness of an old European town with the youthful vibe of a Western counterpart to Warsaw.

Additionally, a judicious change at either Brussels or Frankfurt can put you in Paris for a day’s rail travel. There really is something very old-world and civilised about the idea of breakfasting in Berlin and dining in Paris after a train journey, isn’t there? This is the kind of thing that should be done with an ivory cigarette holder… The same is true of London, which is just over eight hours away (longer than it really should be thanks to Eurostar baggage and passport controls). However, you of course gain an hour by going back a time zone, so dinner doesn’t have to be too late, relatively speaking.

To the South, Zürich is suddenly within your grasp at eight hours and twenty-eight minutes with a change at Basel. If you fancy some mountain scenery, changing in Zürich can even get you into Northern Italy before the day’s end. Snow-capped peaks and cows with bells – not purple, unfortunately – are hard to beat.

Masarykovo Nabrezi

Ten hours

Once double-digit hour counts are allowed, there’s also the possibility of carrying on from Prague down to Vienna and Bratislava (formerly without even changing trains, now with at least one swap). Budapest, however, can still be reached from Berlin without having to move your suitcase: the connections leaves Hauptbahnhof at Berlin at 46 past every second hour and roll into the Hungarian capital at 11 hours and 49 minutes later. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but for the statistics freaks amongst you, all of this means that fourteen – count’ em – countries are within a day’s rail travel of Berlin: Denmark, Sweden, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the UK.

On that note, the longest one-day journey I have ever undertaken by rail was from Edinburgh to Hamburg, which had me leaving at 8:00 and arriving at 24:00. For all my love of train travel, this was admittedly about the limit of what one pair of legs could stand up to or, well, sit down to in one day. Nevertheless, it just goes to show what is possible by rail travel (even if not the most pleasant).

A cracking way to make this kind of sixteen-hour mission of a train journey into what feels more like a four or five hour jaunt is of course to take a night train, yet their numbers have been dwindling in recent years. In December 2013, the SNCF-RENFE sleeper services from Paris to Madrid and Barcelona were axed, followed twelve months later by the core plank of European night trains, Deutsche Bahn’s Berlin-Paris City Night Liner. Yet, in time for summer 2015, Russian State Railways have stepped into the breach, re-timetabling their mammoth Moscow-Paris service to do the Berlin-Hauptbahnhof to Paris-Est leg overnight. Russia doing something for European integration? You saw it here first!

All sorts of routes are now once again conceivable: imagine Berlin to Barcelona in under twenty-four hours, without the stress of an airport, and a dinner in a dining car thrown in? Sounds like a deal! I’ll just get my pack of cards and my ivory cigarette holder…

Most of the services mentioned in this article leave from Berlin Hauptbahnhof. You can find information on tickets via the Deutsche Bahn website. For information on Interail passes and general train travel and ticket buying within Europe, visit the wonderful Man In Seat 61 website.

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  1. jen says:

    excellent excellent article. just reading this is giving me wanderlust

  2. Giulia says:

    Loved this article and I have the exact same feeling when I walk into Hauptbahnhof as you do (actually I had the exact same feeling reading this now).

    By the way, a funny little tidbit that I discovered while exploring Frankfurt/Oder with friends a few years ago. The sister city of the Polish half, Slubice (that L actually has a line through it, which means it is pronounced kind of like a V) is actually Tijuana. This of course led to many “what happens in Slubice stays in Slubice”-related jokes.

  3. Jeroen says:

    Ah, the possibilities. Amsterdam by the way can be reached on a comfy IC train in 6,5 hours with no changes in the Ruhrpott cities. This summer, there’s also a new direct train from Berlin to lovely Gdansk on the Polish seaside. And don’t forget the two daily direct trains east via Warsaw to Minsk (18 hours) and Moscow (24-27 hours).

  4. chuntsah says:

    Agreed with previous comments that this is just a lovely article. Big, big fan of train travel. And now I can’t wait to buy my next ticket and hit the track!

    While the destination is always important, sometimes the journey is a big part of any trip – and on EasyJet or Ryanair (shudder), there is absolutely no joy.

  5. Thanks to Jeroen for pointing out that night-trains heading eastwards can really take you places…!

    Also worth mentioning in a European Championship context that there’s a 24-hour night-and-day train to Kiev for those of you who want to get to the Ukraine.

  6. Robin Curtis says:

    Why do you distinguish between Copenhagen (6 hours) and Malmö (8 hours), when you can take a 15 minute commuter train from Copenhagen to Malmö. They are across that beautiful bridge from one another now and Malmö is also a fantastic city!!

  7. Helen says:

    And you can get all the way to Avignon in a (long) day – with just one change in Mannheim!

  8. Thanks for your comment, Robin. I’m a regular on the route to Malmö, so I can tell you that the train takes half an hour, not 15 minutes, and that, annoyingly, you almost always have a half-hour wait due to the timing of the ICE at Copenhagen. That’s the reason I put the two in different categories. But you’re right in a general sense: they really are only a stone’s throw away from one another these days.

    Helen’s point is a good one: the new ICE link between Frankfurt and Marseille is opening up some very speedy links to the Mediterranean.

  9. Dominika M says:

    Hi guys, very nice tip for CZ, but actually, as a Czech, for a trip to Prague, I highly recommmed using a bus service – it is cheaper and the service provided on the board of e.g. Student Agency or Eurolines bus is much much better than in trains!!

  10. Monica says:

    Oh this almost makes me want to get to Hauptbanhof and take the first train anywhere now! Great tips.

    I would add that if you are living in Berlin and plan to use the Deutsche Bahn more than once a year and for stretches longer than an hour or two, then it’s already worth it to get a Bahncard 25, which gives you an extra 25% discount on all fares, including (and this is the really nice thing) those already discounted like the Europa-Spezial fares or the domestic special tickets. So, it adds up to a nice saving on the full original ticket price.

    Also, you’re very right in saying that the cost benefit of “cheap” flights has kind of eroded constantly in the past few years. It’s exactly why I’ve started travelling by train when I go back to Italy to visit. It takes 12 hours, it’s not as quick, but it’s much more pleasant, includes nice sights when crossing through Swizterland especially and most of all it turned out more than once to be more or less the same price if not sometimes actually cheaper (with the Europa-Spezial plus 25% off) than flying with Ryanair or Easyjet, especially in “high season” periods like around Christmas or New Year’s Eve, or when booking only a few days earlier.

    Once I had to book on very short notice, and Ryanair was giving me something like 250 Euros for Berlin to Milan, plus luggage, I think it was around a holiday but still! 250 Euros! Five or six years ago it would have been unthinkable to end up getting that kind of price with Ryanair. With the DB I always managed between 70 and 110 Euros, no extra costs, carry all the luggage you want, liquids, no queues, no rush, kein Stress basically…

    I’ve also done Copenhagen to Berlin by train, on the way back after flying there, it was awesome. That crossing with the ferry is worth the trip alone! The train goes into the ferry and you take a stroll upstairs, have a coffee, cake, whatever, and if you’re brave you even go out on the deck in the wind, miles and miles of sea around.

    And then arriving at Hauptbahnhof, on a train slowly rolling in, knowing you can just pick up your trolley and bag, walk out, get on the U-Bahn and go home, rather than waiting and queueing some more for your bags… it’s just such a completely different experience, for those who can afford the extra time and where it’s practical, and if you get those discounts, then it really is worth it. In itself, apart from where you’re going and what you’re doing there. I’ve almost become reluctant to go by plane now, I only do it when I really have to, there’s no comparison.

    So, tip: get the Banhcard if you can and if it makes sense, it will give you even more motivation to pick the train over the plane where and when it’s feasible.

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