A high-speed link between Brussels and Amsterdam opens on December 13, slashing the journey time from London by an hour. The Dutch capital is reasserting its position as one of Europe's cultural hubs, led by the opening of the Hermitage Museum (hermitage.nl/en
) in June. The only outpost in western Europe of Russia's Hermitage, it will hold two exhibitions a year. Of course there is also the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl
) and the Rijksmuseum, (rijksmuseum.nl
), und...rgoing restoration but still with an impressive collection on show. Follow a morning of culture with a spree in the boutiques of PC Hooftstraat, Amsterdam's glitziest shopping street.
hermitage.nl/en vangoghmuseum.nl rijksmuseum.nl • Stay at: Boogaard's B&B (00 31 643 586 835; boogaardsbnb.com) has a beautiful canalside location and elegant bedrooms. Doubles from €115 including breakfast (two nights minimum)
boogaardsbnb.com Ridiculously easy to get to, Lille ticks every shopping box, from the Euralille complex with 160 shops to the cobbled old town. If money is no object head to rue de la Grand Chaussée, home to designer boutiques such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton and Lacoste – but it's the smaller shops on and around rue de la Monnaie, Lille's most beautiful street, lined with 18th- and 19th-century houses, that are really worth exploring. Foodie stops should include the Meert (meert.fr) tearoom on rue Esquermoise for lipsmacking pastries, and Philippe Olivier (3 rue du Cure St Etienne), one of France's top cheese shops.
meert.fr • Stay at: Le Brueghel (00 33 320 060669; hotel-brueghel.com) is classically French, with an oak-panelled breakfast room and simple but comfortable bedrooms from €67 (breakfast €8.50)
hotel-brueghel.com Any city that is home to 10,000 students will have a pretty kicking nightlife, and Antwerp's scene comes with added Flemish eccentricity. Start with a beer at Het Elfde Gebod at Torf Burg 10, where drinks are served among church memorabilia and religious pictures (the name means the 11th Commandment) and move on to cocktails at elegant Sips (Gillisplaats 8). Head out to the up-and-coming Scheldt Quays area for supper at Docks Cafe (7 Jordaenskaai) from where – if you're up for an all-nighter – it's a short stroll to Hangar 41 (41 Sint Michielskaai), currently vying with Cafe d'Anvers (cafe-d-anvers.com) as the fashionistas' club of choice. Antwerp is Belgium's fashion capital and the Meir area is dotted with stores offering clothes by new designers alongside the city's most famous fashion graduates, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester.
• Stay at: Boulevard Leopard (00 32 486 67 5838; boulevard-leopold.be), a beautiful 19th-century mansion in the Jewish quarter, offering stylish B&B from €110
boulevard-leopold.be Bruges has a reassuringly quirky subculture running beneath its picture-perfect streets. 't Brugs Beertje on Kemelstraat 5 (brugsbeertje.be), which serves plates of salami and pickles alongside several hundred beers is touristy but fun; compare and contrast with Staminee de Garre at De Garre 1, a creaky medieval building mostly frequented by locals. The one remaining original brewery in the city is De Halve Maan ( halvemaan.be), which offers tours – or try lunch at Den Dijver (dijver.be; Dijver 5), where many of the dishes are flavoured by or cooked in beer. Check out the chocolate shops, too. Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc (Katelijnestraat'; sukerbuyc.be) is one of only two places in the city that still make chocolates by hand.
brugsbeertje.be halvemaan.be), dijver.be sukerbuyc.be • Stay at: Asinello B&B (00 32 478 388647; asinello.be) offers sleek, pared-down accommodation and a comfortable lounge. Doubles from €100 B&B
asinello.be Half an hour closer from December, Cologne boasts six Christmas markets, running from 23 November. Sip glühwein, munch on wurst and lebkuchen (ginger biscuits) and browse the 160 stalls that fill the courtyard in front of the stunning cathedral, or take the kids to the Alter Markt, backed by picturesque gabled houses, which offers toy stalls and Santa Claus's grotto. Besides the market there is plenty to see and do: more than 30 galleries contribute to a vibrant art scene while beer-lovers will enjoy the breweries dedicated to serving "Kölsch" – a light beer that can only be made in the Cologne area.
• Stay at: Hotel im Wasserturm (00 49 221 20080; hotel-im-wasserturm.de) was once Europe's largest water tower; it's now a luxury hotel with doubles from €170 B&B
hotel-im-wasserturm.de A gastronomic centre to rival Paris, Lyon has every kind of eaterie from classic bistros and market cafes to Michelin-starred emporiums. Pick up a picnic at the vast food market, Halles de Lyon on cours Lafayette, or settle in for a long lunch at a traditional bouchon – all checked tablecloths and hearty portions (try Café des Federations, 8-10 rue Major Martin). To experience Paul Bocuse's culinary arts, book in advance at L'Auberge du Pont de Collonges (bocuse.fr). Otherwise, stroll down rue des Marronniers and pick a suitable spot for supper – it's a far better bet than the tourist-heavy rue Mercière.
bocuse.fr • Stay at: Collège Hotel (00 33 4 72 100505; college-hotel.com) is a former school revamped with sleek white bedrooms and an elegant book-lined lounge. Doubles from €115 (breakfast €12)
college-hotel.com The city is steeped in history and surrounded by impressive Roman sites. At the heart of the town lies the Palais des Papes, one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe. The city is encircled by walls and the medieval streets are enchanting, dotted with small bars and bistros. Its Unesco world heritage status means the old centre remains pristine. Twenty minutes outside the town lies the Pont du Gard, a spectacular Roman aqueduct, though of course Avignon has its own famous bridge, immortalised in the nursery rhyme.
• Stay at: An elegant B&B in an 18th-century townhouse, Le Limas (00 33 4 90 146719; le-limas-avignon.com) has great views and sleek doubles from €120 B&B
le-limas-avignon.com Beneath the city streets, Roman tunnels and caves store millions of bottles of vintage Krug, Veuve Cliquot and Taittinger while above ground the outskirts of town are dotted with elegant estates owned by the champagne houses. Every bar will serve a huge range of coupes de champagne (tiny glasses around 100ml), which means you can compare the different houses without crucifying your wallet, or falling over. Take a tour of the champagne caves with Taittinger (taittinger.com) before a sundowner at one of the pavement cafes on rue de Vesle and dinner at the art deco Brasserie Flo (96 place Drouet d'Erlon).
taittinger.com • Stay at: The Grand Hotel des Templiers (grandhoteldestempliers.com) is a renovated 19th-century mansion that feels classically French; doubles from €190
grandhoteldestempliers.com The Loire is rich in heritage and wine-making, and the countryside is dotted with fairytale chateaux. In Tours itself, half-timbered houses open on to bustling squares. It's an easy day trip to some beautiful chateaux: elegant Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau – built on an island – and the medieval Amboise. Return to the city for a slap-up dinner at Les Tuffeaux (19 rue Lavoisier), which serves local specialities such as pigeon-stuffed ravioli, or head to picturesque Place Plumereau, with its lively bars and restaurants.
• Stay at: Hotel de l'Univers (00 33 2 98 44 38 38; oceaniahotels.com) is the most glamorous address. It may be a little faded, but the room rate of €130 B&B means affordable old-school style.
oceaniahotels.com Every June the great and the good of the art world descend on Switzerland for ArtBasel, one of the biggest art shows in the world. For the rest of the year the city keeps the art theme going, with stunning galleries interspersed with stylish eateries and glitzy bars. Kunsthaus Baselland (kunsthausbaselland.ch) is a large exhibition space that specialises in contemporary shows by groups and individuals, with between seven and nine curated exhibitions taking place at all times. Those with more traditional tastes should head to the Kunstmuseum (kunstmuseumbasel.ch), where works by a diverse collection of artists including Rubens, Mondrian, Picasso and Klee hang alongside changing exhibitions by contemporary artists. If all the culture makes you thirsty, head to the Campari Bar at the Kunsthal restaurant, perfectly situated on the banks of the Rhine, or cross the river to the Marktplatz and pick up a slice of flammkuchen – a Swiss take on pizza, smothered in Emmenthal, onions, bacon and crème fraîche.
kunsthausbaselland.ch kunstmuseumbasel.ch • Stay at: Part art gallery, part hotel, the St Gotthard (00 41 61 225 1313; st-gotthard.ch ) has doubles from £105 B&B
st-gotthard.ch Travelling through Europe by rail is a dream, but buying tickets can be a nightmare. The various rail companies have been making efforts to make their ticketing systems "talk" to each other, so passengers can book a seamless through journey, but they still have a long way to go. Moreover, just as with UK rail tickets, the price often seems to bear little relation to the distance travelled.
The simple rule is that the further in advance you book, the cheaper the ticket – a second-class return from London to Berlin can cost anything from £87 to £299, depending on when you book – and early birds can get some amazing deals. Returns to any city in Belgium start from £59, as do returns to Paris and Lille; returns to Geneva start from £99.
A more complex issue is who to book with. Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) says its website now allows tickets to be booked from most British stations to most French stations, 18 Swiss ones, seven Belgian ones and four in the Netherlands. In our experience, this still doesn't work very well: the website is often unable to find availability, or thinks for a while before giving up. The site also covers just two German cities, Aachen and Cologne.
You can book direct with a foreign rail company – Deutsche Bahn, for example, has a UK telesales office and a website, and often has the best special deals (08718 808066; bahn.de.db_uk). For France see sncf.co.uk, Switzerland sbb.ch, Belgium b-rail.be, and the Netherlands ns.nl. Railteam is a joint venture between the European high-speed rail operators, but its website, railteam.eu, doesn't offer booking facilities.
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