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Twin Cities

Enjoy two holidays for the price of one

Two into one really does go when connecting two cities by train on a European city break writes David Balow

Fly to one of those wish-list cities, see all the sights, then take a train to another one in the same country or over the border before flying back home.
These twin city breaks are becoming more and more popular and turn the whole experience into a mini adventure. 
And it shouldn't cost you much more either. 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 extra cost is a one-way train ticket between the two that will often set you back just a few euros.
Train tickets are particularly cheap in Spain where there's lots of competition on the high speed network which means you can now travel from Madrid to Valencia for just £7.72 and get bargain fares on the Barcelona route.
Here are 10 pairs of European cities which are two hours or less apart by train. Fly to either one of them, see the highlights in each, enjoy the shops, museums restaurants and art galleries, then move on to the next and do it all over again.

Berlin and Hamburg

Berlin and Hamburg make good bedfellows. Germany's two biggest cities have fascinating pasts and are edgy and cool. Visit the many memorials and monuments in the capital including the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and remnants of the Berlin Wall. Then when you reach Hamburg you can see some of the 650 World War Two bunkers - one of them has a nightclub on the top - and look over the city from the nocturnal viewing platform at St Michael's Church.

Berlin to Hamburg - 1hr 46mins
Anyone with a sweet tooth will be in heaven after flying to Zurich, especially at the interactive museum Lindt's World of Chocolate and you can enjoy a tour of the old town with it's Marc Chagall windows in the Fraumunster and take a walk around the city's 25 mile lake. Then check out the precise Swiss timing when taking the train to Basle where you can climb the Munster tower, pay your respects at Erasmus's tomb in the church and visit Renzo Piano's Foundation Beyeler building which is crammed with contemporary art.

Zurich to Basel - 54mins
Brussels and Cologne are a great match, and after a short flight you can join the city's beer drinkers and raise a glass or two after touring the Belgian capital and seeing all the sights in the Grand Place, with its  decorative guild houses and gothic town hall. There's plenty of German beer to be drunk when you arrive in Cologne where you can explore one of Europe's finest gothic cathedrals, take in the history at the museum in Farina 1709 as well as sampling more sweet delights at the Chocolate Museum.

Brussels to Cologne - 50mins

Bratislava and Vienna

Bratislava and Vienna are just along the Danube from each other and the Slovakian and Austrian capitals both exhibit the grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Warm up in smaller Bratislava with it pretty old town, castle and baroque garden and enjoy the craft beer before moving on to the main act and immerse yourself in Vienna's stylish coffee culture. Waltz around this great city which is filled with grand buildings, domes, spires and palaces aplenty and don't miss the imperial stables home to the Spanish Riding School.

Bratislava to Vienna - 1hr
Pairing Paris with Lyon is also a great choice. Succumb to the lure of the Left Bank, take a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stroll around Montmartre visiting Sacre-Coeur, and marvel at the rebuilt Notre Dame Cathedral. Then order a train picnic at Le Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon and head off to the foodie paradise of Lyon on the confluence of the Rhone and Soane rivers. In France's third largest city you can take the funicular from the old town to the hilltop church of Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere.

Paris to Lyon - 1hr 52mins

Rome and Florence

Another classic pair are Rome and Florence. On this twin city trip you can get a double dose of culture combining Rome's history with Florence's art. In the capital, as well as the Colosseum and Foum, you can visit mighty St Peter's Basilica, the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps and throw a coin or two into the Trevi Fountain. After taking the train to Florence climb to the top of the Duomo, feast your eyes on the masterpieces at the Uffizi and Pitti Palace and see Michelangelo's Statue of David at the Accademia.

Rome to Florence - 1hr 22mins
The train journey between the Spanish and French Basque cities of San Sebastian and Biarritz is short but spectacular. On the Spanish side of the border you can enjoy the city's famous pintxos - the local version of tapas - on a restaurant crawl along the beaches and when you get to stylish Biarritz you can burn off some calories playing golf or surfing or try a slimming treatment based on thalassotherapy, which revolves around  the sea and its products.

San Sebastian to Biarritz - 1hr 10mins

Zagreb and Ljubljana

The former Yugoslavian cities of Zagreb and Ljubljana make a superb capital combo and both are easy to walk the journey between them is the only time you'll need to use public transport. There's lots to see in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana with its old town Triple Bridge and hilltop castle and the local food is worth trying. In Zagreb the Museum of Broken Relationships is ironically near St Mark's Church with its colourful roof tiles and the Dolac Market, which straddles upper and lower town, is also well worth a visit.

Zagreb to Ljubljana - 2hrs 8mins
The popular twin centre break between Madrid and Valencia encompasses both city and coast with lots to see in both places. In the Spanish capital visit the colonnaded Plaza Mayor, baroque Royal Palace and Retiro Park and check out the art at the Prado. Football fans will enjoy a tour of Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium. After taking the train to Valencia see the Renaissance frescos in the cathedral, the opera house before hitting the coast and the fisherman's quarter of El Cabanyal - the perfect place for a seafood supper.

Madrid to Valencia - 49mins    

Another Spanish double is Malaga to Cordoba. After flying to Malaga, instead of hitting the famous beaches along the Costa del Sol you can relish all the sights of this great city visiting the cathedral and the bullring and checking out the great shopping opportunities. For wonderful views, climb up to the parador and enjoy a drink overlooking the city. When you reach Cordoba walk across the ancient bridges, take in the old town with its fabulous Moorish architecture and spend as much time as you can at the amazing Mezquita.

Malaga to Cordoba - 49mins

After 20 years without a rail link, the two Baltic capitals of Riga and Vilnuis have recently been connected by a new service and with both cities easy to navigate on foot they make a great pairing.

Despite being regarded by some as post Soviet wastelands, this is far from the case and they make good twin centre breaks. The Latvian capital Riga has a wonderful medieval centre with cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards. It's worth visiting the House of the Blackheads and seeing the ornate houses that line Albert Street.

Arriving in neighbouring Lithuania you will be struck by Riga's riot of pastel coloured buildings and 52 churches. Here you can take the funicular to the hilltop castle for great views over the city and walk around the old town which is a jigsaw of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings that house fascinating gift shops, cafes and restaurants.

Riga to Vilnuis - 4hrs

First published January 2024

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