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.
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 (Polish: 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.
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.
Spending almost half a waking day on a train might sound somewhat claustrophobic, but the six hours and fifty minutes from Berlin to Copenhagen (which you can also In Photos: Berlin-Copenhagen Cycle Routecycle, but it might take a bit longer) 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.
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.
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. An updated version of this article (2022) can be found here.