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Europe’s best twin-city breaks: two holidays for the price of one

Bratislava and Vienna
A one-hour train is all that lies between Bratislava (left) and Vienna (right) - Getty/The Image Bank, Moment

The long-weekend city break is a glorious thing – jetting into a little pocket of newness, then spending three or four days exploring its lovely, unfamiliar corners, eating its food and seeing its sights. What could be better?

The answer is, of course, two little pockets of newness. And, in fact, two cities slot just as neatly into a two- or three-night break as one. Behold, the twin-city escape.

The concept is very simple: fly into one city, explore, then take the train to another, explore a little more, then fly home.

This simple act of double dosing turns a traditional city break into a mini adventure – particularly if you choose two cities that provide a complementary contrast – without the requirement to commit extra days or expense.

When it comes to European cities, two one-way flights (out to one city and back from another) are often similar in price to a single-city return, so the only additional cost is a one-way train ticket between the two that’s unlikely to set you back more than a few euros.

Train tickets are particularly cheap in Spain, where competition on the high-speed network once used exclusively by national carrier Renfe means you can now travel from Madrid to Valencia for just €9 (£7.72).

Cologne train
Travelling between Cologne and Brussels by train takes less than two hours

Rail ticket booking site Trainline.com found that prices on the Madrid/Barcelona route had decreased by 49 per cent from 2019 to 2022, which together with increased services had seen bookings spike by a massive 628 per cent.

Of course, there are plenty of lovely cities that can be reached easily by train from the UK, cutting out the need to fly altogether – but for the purposes of speed and budget, the following 10 trips are based on travelling out and back by plane.

Likewise, though your options expand if you’re prepared to travel further between cities, these 10 trips include only pairs that are fewer than two hours apart. Devote the extra hours you’ll gain to squeezing in that extra gallery in one city, and that last indulgent meal in the other.

Skip ahead to your favourite cities:

Amsterdam and Rotterdam

Time by rail: 41 mins

Amsterdam and Rotterdam
Travel between Amsterdam (left) and Rotterdam (right) in just 41 minutes - Getty/iStock

Mix art and avant-garde architecture in two deliciously different Dutch cities. Start in Amsterdam, where art lovers are spoilt for choice with the Rijksmuseum (with its fine-dining Rijks restaurant), the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum.

They’re all conveniently near the Jan Luyken hotel, fresh from a major refurbishment (B&B doubles from £148). Use it as your base to explore Amsterdam’s waterways on a canal cruise or to get around by bike as the Dutch do, perhaps visiting the Anne Frank house and stopping to snack on the moreish stroopwafels.

When you’ve had your fill, a quick buzz by train takes you to Rotterdam, with its futuristic skyline that includes the Cube Houses and Erasmus Bridge. There’s art here too, at Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum; visit the Depot and see what’s not on display, as well as paintings being restored. There’s plenty of food at the multi-coloured Markthal, which is conveniently near the modern Savoy Hotel Rotterdam (B&B doubles from £107).

How to do it: KLM flies from London to Amsterdam from £73 one-way. Train tickets from Amsterdam to Rotterdam cost from £17 and can be bought from The Train Line. BA flies from Rotterdam to London from £70 one-way.

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Zurich and Basel

Time by rail: 54 mins

Zurich and Basel
It takes less than an hour to travel from Zurich (left) to Basel (right) by train - Room RF/Getty; Basel Tourismus

Chocoholics, loosen your belts for some sweet Swiss treats. You can’t avoid temptation in Zurich, especially at the interactive museum Lindt’s Home of Chocolate. After touring the old town with its Marc Chagall windows in the Fraumunster, it’s time for more delights at the Confiserie Sprungli on Paradeplatz (try the hot chocolate with chocolate truffles). Walk it off on the banks of the city’s 25-mile lake, where the last building designed by Le Corbusier stands.

After the sweetest of dreams in the historic but minimalist Marktgasse Hotel (rooms from £242), take the train to Basel, where the Confiserie Schiesser dates to 1870. A visit should fuel your climb of the Basel Munster tower; also check out Erasmus’s tomb in the church.

Don’t miss Foundation Beyeler, the building by Renzo Piano filled with contemporary art. Keep to the theme by staying at the art hotel Der Teufelhof Basel in the old town, with a Parisian-style café bar, bien sur (B&B doubles from £142).

How to do it: Easyjet flies from London to Zurich from £27 one-way. Train tickets from Zurich to Basel cost from £9.50 and can be bought from Rail Europe. Easyjet flies from Basel to London from £24 one-way.

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Bratislava and Vienna

Time by rail: 1hr

Just along the Danube from each other, the Slovakian and Austrian capitals both exhibit the grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Begin in smaller Bratislava to warm up for the main act, enjoying the craft beer scene there as a prelude to Vienna’s coffee culture. Bratislava’s castle and its baroque garden is a must-see, as is the spaceship-shaped cupola that doubles as a restaurant atop the SNP Bridge.

If you stay at industrial-chic Loft Hotel it’s just a stumble to bed after sampling its own beers in the pub; rooms also have a complimentary mini bar (B&B doubles from £106). The short train ride to Vienna takes you to a city filled with even grander baroque buildings with domes, spires and palaces aplenty – the Hofburg imperial palace is the best.

The former baroque imperial stables now house the MuseumsQuartier. More modern architecture is on offer at the Hotel Topazz Lamee, where you can stay in a room with a statement oval window (rooms from £203).

How to do it: Wizz Air flies from London to Bratislava from £21 one-way. Train tickets from Bratislava to Vienna cost from £10 and can be bought from Rail Europe. Wizz Air flies from Vienna to London from £17 one-way.

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San Sebastian and Biarritz

Time by rail: 1hr 10mins (with transfer)

Biarritz and San Sebastian
In a little over an hour you can be surfing in Biarritz (left) or enjoying tapas in San Sebastian (right) - Getty/E+; Alamy

It might be a tad faster to travel between these Spanish and French Basque cities by bus, but the train route, changing at Hendaye, is a more scenic way to link a workout for the stomach in foodie San Sebastian followed by relaxation amid Biarritz’s belle epoque glamour.

On the Spanish side of the border, work up an appetite for San Sebastian’s pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) by climbing Mount Urgull or walking along the beaches. Then start your pintxos crawl in the Parte Vieja; the best restaurants are around the basilica of Santa Maria del Coro. If you’ve got any room, the Hotel Villa Favorita (B&B doubles from £173) has a two-Michelin-starred restaurant.

In Biarritz, you can burn off excess calories playing golf or surfing, or try a slimming treatment based on thalassotherapy, based on the sea and its products. Stay at the clifftop Regina Experimental (B&B doubles from £131).

How to do it: BA flies from London to San Sebastian from £84 one-way. Metro tickets from San Sebastian Amara to Hendaye cost £2.36, train tickets from Hendaye to Biarritz cost from £5.57 and can be bought from SNCF. Ryanair flies from Biarritz to London from £19 one-way.

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Rome and Florence

Time by rail: 1hr 22mins

Rome and Florence
A train between Italian cities Rome (left) and Florence (right) takes less than 90 minutes - Cavan/Getty/iStock

Double dose on Italian culture, combining Rome’s history with Florence’s art. In the capital, as well as the big-hitting Colosseum and Forum, visit the lesser-visited Domus Romane, where 3D images bring to life the ruins of a wealthy Roman home and reconstruct Trajan’s Column.

You can visit the spot where Julius Caesar was assassinated near the Torre Argentina Roman Cat Sanctuary. Stay at the H’All Tailor Suite in Borghese, with a Michelin-starred restaurant (B&B doubles from £223) before travelling north to Florence.

You can get your bearings of this easily walkable city by climbing to the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo for 360-degree city vistas plus close-up views of the ceiling frescoes. Feast your eyes on art at the Uffizi, where combined tickets include the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, before treating your stomach to pizza and pasta at the Mercato Centrale.

Keep to the cultural theme in the 25 Hours Hotel Piazza San Paolino, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (B&B doubles from £182).

How to do it: Vueling (vueling.com) flies from London to Rome from £25 one-way. Train tickets from Rome to Florence cost from £17 and can be bought from Trenitalia (trenitalia.com). Vueling (vueling.com) flies from Florence to London from £24 one-way.

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Berlin and Hamburg

Time by rail: 1hr 46mins

Berlin and Hamburg
You don't need to pick between Berlin (left) or Hamburg (right) with a twin-city break to Germany - Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss / Alexander Schippe; Alamy

Edgy and achingly cool, Germany’s largest two cities both have fascinating pasts. Nowhere screams hip and historic more than Berlin’s Reichstag parliament building, with its glass dome that you can climb. Tour the monuments associated with the once-divided city, including the Berlin War Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate but leave time to see Museum Island with its five exhibition centres.

Stay at the fun 25 Hours Hotel Bikini (rooms from £138) with its buzzy rooftop restaurant before travelling to Hamburg.

The former home of the medieval Hanseatic league also holds 650 World War Two bunkers. The biggest, the Hochbunker (High Bunker), stands 115 feet high and has a night club on its top floor (naturally).

There are more clubs to check out; for a quieter kind of nightlife, climb to the nocturnal viewing platform at St Michaelis church. Overnight at Ginn Hotel (B&B doubles from £111) on the harbourside whose seafood restaurant is stocked from the neighbouring fish market.

How to do it: Ryanair flies from London to Berlin from £36 one-way. Train tickets from Berlin to Hamburg cost from £17 and can be bought from Deutsche Bahn. Eurowings flies from Hamburg to London from E45 one-way.

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Madrid and Valencia

Time by rail: 1hr 49mins

Madrid and Valencia
Experience the highlights of both Madrid (left) and Valencia (right) with a Spanish twin-city break - Stone RF/Getty; Moment/Flickr

This twin-centre break encompasses both city and coast, with plenty of art in both. In the Spanish capital, visit the colonnaded Plaza Mayor, baroque Royal Palace and Retiro Park. When hunger strikes, the gourmet Mercado de San Miguel has stalls from Michelin-starred chefs.

You can overdose on art at the Prado, Thyseen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia (where Picasso’s Guernica is on show), then bed down in the contemporary art-filled boutique hotel Pavilions Madrid (rooms from £154).

After taking the train to Valencia, you can see art by Goya and Renaissance frescoes in the cathedral as well as the polished agate cup thought to be the Holy Grail. Check out Santiago Calatrava’s futuristic City of Arts and Sciences, with its spaceship of an opera house before hitting the coast, backed by the fisherman’s quarter of El Cabanyal, an ideal spot for a seafood supper before bed at the beachfront Las Arenas Balneario Resort (B&B doubles from £167).

How to do it: Easyjet flies from London to Madrid from £30 one-way. Train tickets from Madrid to Valencia cost from £7.72 and can be bought from Renfe. Easyjet flies from Valencia to London from £18 one-way.

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Brussels and Cologne

Time by rail: 1hr 50mins

Brussels and Cologne
A train between Brussels (left) and Cologne (right) takes under two hours - The Image Bank RF/Getty

Beer drinkers can raise a glass to sightseeing in both Belgium’s capital and the German city that is home to kolsch, the pale, hop-accented brew. Start on Brussels’ Grand Place, with its decorative guild houses, gothic town hall and Le Roy d’Espagne, which sells both beer and food.

The newly opened Belgian Beer World in the former Brussels Stock Exchange celebrates the culture of drinking; more traditional culture is on offer at the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts and the Magritte Museum.

After a night in the conveniently sited Hotels des Galeries (rooms from £141) travel south to Cologne, the city of three Cs: cathedral, cologne and chocolate. Explore one of Europe’s finest gothic cathedrals, take in the history of cologne at the museum in Farina 1709, and sample sweet delights at the Chocolate Museum, which also serves food. Enjoy the beer hall culture at Fruh am Dom before bedding down in the budget-friendly Koln-Dom hostel (rooms from £36).

How to do it: Brussels Airlines flies from London to Brussels from £58 one-way. Train tickets from Brussels to Cologne cost from £32.40 and can be bought from The Trainline. Ryanair flies from Cologne to London from £15 one-way.

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Paris and Lyon

Time by rail: 1hr 52mins

Paris and Lyon
Journey by rail between French cities Paris (left) and Lyon (right) in less than two hours - Ludovic Balay; Alamy

We’ll always have Paris, but how about combining the lure of the Left Bank with a foodie extravaganza in Lyon? You’re in the part of Paris beloved by Picasso, Sartre and Hemingway when you stay at the Hotel Dame des Arts (B&B doubles from £316), from whose roof terrace you can also see the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and Notre Dame. Just before taking the train from the French capital to its capital of gastronomy, stock up at Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon (eat in or order a train picnic).

In Lyon, check out the market and the Cité Internationale de la Gastronomie, with its interactive exhibits and cooking demonstrations before taking the funicular from the old town to the hilltop church of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière. It’s a five-minute walk to the Fourvière Hotel, set in a converted convent (rooms from £93).

How to do it: Easyjet flies from London to Paris from £27 one-way. Train tickets from Paris to Lyon cost from £21 and can be bought from SNCF. Easyjet flies from Lyon to London from £21 one-way.

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Ljubljana and Zagreb

Time by rail: 2hrs 8mins

Ok, it’s slightly over the two-hour limit but we think you’ll agree it’s worth it for this capital combo. Plus, both these former Yugoslavian cities are easy to walk around, so the journey between them is all the time you’ll be spending on public transport.

There’s plenty to see in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, with its old town, Triple Bridge, and hilltop castle. Try some of the unusual offerings such as tarragon dumplings filled with cottage cheese at My Dumplings of Slovenia; there’s also a gastropub at the swish Zlata Ladjica boutique hotel (B&B doubles from £233).

After a night or two, move on to Zagreb, where the Museum of Broken Relationships is ironically near St Mark’s Church, with its colourful roof tiles. Straddling the lower and upper town is the Dolac Market, which should stimulate your appetite for a meal in one of the bistros in Nikole Tesle street. Stay at the modern, comfortable and quirky Canopy by Hilton (rooms from £99; hilton.com).

How to do it: BA flies from London to Ljubljana from £59 one-way. Train tickets from Ljubljana to Zagreb cost from £21.51 and can be bought from The Trainline. Ryanair flies from Zagreb to London from £19 one-way.

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