Riding the Rails in the Upper Rhine Valley
So many European cities to see with no driving for you!
By Janis Turk
If you could wave a magic wand and travel wherever you wanted—Paris, Rome, Geneva, Munich, any place at all—where would you go?
If your answer is, “Everywhere!” well, then start packing! Exchange rates are good, fall airfares are low, and train travel is affordable, so you’ll enjoy good value for your travel dollar.
European countries are convenientlylinked by well-run national railways, so see as many cities as you can. Map out an itinerary online, or arrive at any train station with a Eurail pass in hand, and go where the wind takes you.
Look on Kayak.com for a great fare, or look at the good rates I’ve found recently on KLM airlines, and begin in the historic and vibrant city of Berlin.
Then glide on quiet rails through the scenic wine lands, forests and hillsides of the Upper Rhine Valley, hopping on and off in Germany, France and Switzerland. Or get a Eurail Global Pass, and visit up to 28 different countries. It’s as easy as boarding a train.
Begin in Berlin
A city once divided by its infamous Cold War wall, Berlin remains steeped in a unique and powerful history. But today, 20 years since the fall of the Wall, this eastside-meets-westside story metropolis is much more than a shrine to its split-personality past.
Berlin has beautifully reinvented itself as a fresh young city with a rapid pulse. With world-class restaurants, a red-hot club scene, hike and bike trails, family-filled parks and squares, and even a “Museum Island” with troves of art and treasure, Berlin is a fashionable destination.
Visit the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Television Tower (Fernsehturm), Berlin’s Cathedral, and the “Checkpoint Charlie” crossing point, and be sure to take a Berlin Wall walking tour.
Or better yet, head to the city’s Cultural Brewery to join a "Berlin by Bike" guided bicycle or rickshaw tour for an informative look at remaining portions of the Wall, the Berlin Wall Memorial, Documentation Center, and Chapel of Reconciliation, often with guides who grew up in the divided city. Then enjoy street musicians and food stands in parks across the city to see the fresh young face of Berlin.
Enjoy the modern Berlin’s Monbijou Hotel, a classic boutique property with a sauna, spa, fitness center and restaurant, situated close to the train station.
Enjoy traditional German dinner and dancing at Clärchen’s Ballhaus, and try currywurst with homemade fries and curry ketchup at Konnopke’s Snack Bar. For fine dining, visit The Grand, featuring German and French delicacies by Chef Tilo Roth, or enjoy a late-night supper at Neni, on the rooftop of the stylish 25hours hotel, with Eastern Mediterranean fare and panoramic views of the Berlin Zoo and the City West.
Then, take a train to the village of Landau on the German Wine Route in southern Rhineland-Palatinate. Vineyards line the valleys and tint the lush landscape in this region dotted with medieval castles, fortresses, churches and picturesque villages.
President Bill Clinton once said, “Baden-Baden is so nice that you have to name it twice.” A spa city set in southwestern Germany’s Black Forest, it has attracted visitors to its “healing” waters for more than 2,000 years. Today, travelers still flock to this city of parks, resorts, casinos, shops and museums.
Strasbourg, the largest (and quite possibly most enchanting) city in the Alsace region, was the first city center in France to be placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1988.
Strasbourg’s cathedral is the ornate centerpiece of this delightful French town with its sweetly co-mingling German/French language and cultures.
Stroll the cobbled streets of La Petite France, one of the most attractive old quarters of Strasbourg, and stay at the Régent Petite France. In the morning, nibble warm freshly baked gingerbread at Le Pain d'épices, a sweet little gingerbread shop.
A McDonalds, The Wall Museum, and a large number of tourists pass by what the world calls "Checkpoint Charlie," which was the border between East and West Berlin
Travel on to Mulhouse, an Alsatian city resting between the Rhine River and the Vosges mountains, with museums such as Cité de l’Automobile ("Musée national de l’automobile”) featuring the famous Schlumpf collection of classic automobiles, with the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Bugatti cars; Musée Français du Chemin de Fer ("Cité du train) the world’s biggest railway museum; and the Museum of Printed Textiles (Musée de l'impression sur étoffes).
Germany’s “Green City” in the foothills of the Black Forest, Freiburg features a charming old town center filled with “bächle,” tiny brooks that wend through the streets and alleyways. There, a bubbly guide in traditional Black Forrest dress leads walking tours, with stops at the “Münster”(cathedral) and market, where flowers, fruits, wine and wares fill open-air stands. Taste Rhine wines near the town square at Alte Wache – Haus der Badischen Weine” (House of Baden-Area Wines).
Your final stop is Basel, known as“the artists' city,” a place so completely cosmopolitan, international, and innovative, yet still solidly Swiss. With one of the best-preserved old town centers in Europe, Basel is Switzerland's third most populous city and is also a center for the best in modern architecture, with remarkable buildings by Mario Botta, Herzog & de Meuron.
Home to more than 40 museums, Basel is known as an international art metropolis. Stay at the Pullman Basel Europe with its gourmet-restaurant “Les Quatre Saisons” and classic “Bistro Europe.” Dine at the Volkshaus Basel bar and brasserie.
Eurail Passes 101
Many things have changed since I was a college student dreaming about backpacking through Europe with a Eurail pass in hand, but the basics of European train travel haven’t. A Eurail pass still ensures great value and flexibility for travelers. (For instance, the Global Pass allows unlimited rail travel on the national railroads of 28 countries). You can even get a continuous pass, good for 15 or 21 travel days.
All travel is first class, and the Eurail Global Pass also offers Saverpass fares for two or more people traveling together. Normal train tickets only allow you to make one specific journey from one town to another, but a Eurail pass allows for flexible unlimited travel for a fixed overall price. (Note: Reservations for some trains must paid for separately).
Mireille Oster, owner of a gingerbread shop in Strasbourg, greets guests with a warm smile in the Petite France historic quarter of the city of Strasbourg, France.
In Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, Austria & Denmark, and in most Eastern European countries, reservations are rarely needed. In France, Italy, Spain, Portugal & Sweden, long-distance trains (especially those between different countries) often require reservations fees, which you can make and pay for online or in advance at a station.
However, regional and suburban trains in these countries usually don't require them, so the good news is that, within each country, you can travel freely from town to town with no extra cost, making a Eurail Pass a great deal for your travel dollar.
Catch a Train
No one is going to wave a magic wand, so it’s up to you to make your travel dreams come true, and there’s no better way to travel than by train.
For more information on Europe's train systems check out GoNOMAD's article "Everything You Need to Know About Railpasses"
Janis Turk is a travel writer, photographer, and author who has appeared in travel segments for CNN’s airport network. Her work appears in magazines and newspapers and popular travel websites. Her most recent book Frommer’s TEXAS (2017) is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.