How do I get off the urban circuit with a Eurail pass and a backpack?
April 17, 2008 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Backpacking through Europe: Help me find places other than big cities to explore using my Eurail pass.

A little background may be helpful. I'm from the US, just finishing up a semester teaching abroad in London where I've done the big city thing quite thoroughly. Long ago I bought a Eurail pass for a trip around Europe after the semester was over. Originally, that trip was supposed to be Barcelona, Berlin, Budapest, Rome, etc. I still want to see a few of those, but I'd also like to find non-urban places and smaller towns accessible by my Eurail pass, ideally with cheap, hostel-like lodging nearby. My Eurail pass is the "any 15 days in 2 months for all of Europe" variety.

As an example, I'd like to see the Alps, but would love to stay in a hostel outside of urban areas. Yet I have no idea how to find such places.

(Also, I'm doing this for all of May, so about four weeks, and if anyone wants to meet up anywhere, drop me a line!)
posted by ontic to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Europe on a Shoestring? It seems like the obvious answer to your question, and I found it pretty helpful when I was travelling around.
posted by Sar at 4:15 PM on April 17, 2008

Judging by the site it seems it works like inter-rail (same ticket but for europeans, also, cheaper). So you can take any class of train, and you don't need a reservation if the train don't need one (so you basically can jump on it without caring).

If you want some planning the thing to do it's making a list of places to see with a good guide, than searching on the website of national railroads.
Let's say for example you want to go to Assisi: you go on Trenitalia , and see the route. There are a lot of hostels around europe (and not just in big cities), so the best way to find one might be googling for a place followed by hostel.

Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you could just hop in any train passing by, sleeping in train stations and decide on the spot where to go :)

[In Italy slower trains are often awful and very late, so be prepared to waste a lot of time in the train stations of our Banana Republic.]
posted by darkripper at 4:36 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be careful with using the Eurorail pass because you will may have to pay a reservation fee for some travels (Eurorail passes are never purchased by Europeans, mainly for this reason....)

That being said, when I was backpacking through Europe my favourite cities were Berlin, Vienna and Saltzburg.

Berlin is lovely and much less "big-city-ish" than, say, Paris and London. And you'll find the prices are much cheaper there than in other cities, or in other parts of Germany even.

Vienna is great for museums and music, and for guys dressed up like Mozart trying to sell tickets to tourists. Actually, my friends bought me one of these tickets as a "birthday present" (I had to pay them back :P) for one of the concerts, and it was absolutely fantastic.

Saltzburg is incredible for being a great tiny old-Austrian town with a great palace at the top of a hill. It also has the original Mozart chocolates. The ones on that site are the "red and gold" ones, which are good and sold in stores, but the REAL ones are blue and silver and only sold in a small chocolate shop in Saltzburg. The only word I can use to describe them is orgasmic.

Other cities that are cheaper, and still nice:

Prague: SO PRETTY!!!! And the prices are still really low. You can take interesting city tours and buy cheap garnet and amber, and the city is just really really gorgeous (downtown, at least). The palace is lit up at night, too, and it creates a real princess castle appearance.

Czesky Krumlov: I'm not sure if the Eurorail will reach here, but if it does, it's a great town. A walled city in Czech Republic, a few hours from Prague, it's great for just relaxing from the hustle of big city life.

I hope you have a great time!!! I'm heading back to Europe for a year next year (studying, though, not always travelling), and I can't wait!
posted by Planet F at 5:18 PM on April 17, 2008

Oh, all these cities have hostels. Mefi mail me if you want some recommendations :)
posted by Planet F at 5:19 PM on April 17, 2008

As an example, I'd like to see the Alps, but would love to stay in a hostel outside of urban areas. Yet I have no idea how to find such places.

Stay here: - This was about 6 years ago, but it was excellent and there's no way the town got much bigger in the meantime. You stop at Bex (a small town next to Lausanne) and take a cog train up the hill. From there you can go further into the Alps for winter sports or down to lake Geneva for a more temperate experience.
posted by true at 5:33 PM on April 17, 2008

Thanks for the answers so far everyone! Just to clarify, I'm familiar with what most of the big cities have to offer (I've actually been to lots of big European cities) and how Eurail works. I'm looking for the Cesky Krumlovs and Gryons of Europe. Oh, and unfortunately I don't think I'll be making it to Scandinavia this time.

@Planet F: I loved the time I spent in Cesky Krumlov! Back when I came to MeFi more often, I sang its praises a few times, I think.
posted by ontic at 6:39 PM on April 17, 2008

Another Czesky type of place is Brugges in Belgium. Also sleepy, has all that belgium has to offer (mmmm waffles and chocolate) but smaller and much prettier than Brussels. (and cheaper!)
posted by Planet F at 6:54 PM on April 17, 2008

Do you have an objection to the student/low-budget-oriented guidebook series such as Let's Go, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, etc? I know some people don't like to feel like they're beating the same path as all the other guidebook-bearing tourists before them, but you said you have "no idea" how to find interesting, train-accessible smaller cities and towns with hostels . . . the bread and butter of these guidebooks.
posted by Orinda at 7:15 PM on April 17, 2008

Be careful with using the Eurorail pass because you will may have to pay a reservation fee for some travels (Eurorail passes are never purchased by Europeans, mainly for this reason....)

Correction: Europeans do not purchase Eurail passes because they are not permitted to do so. Eurail is for visitors/tourists only. There are railpasses available in various schemes for residents. (As a Swiss resident for example, I have a Halbtax card which lets me purchase tickets for 1/2 price, a 9-Uhr pass which lets me unlimited travel in my region after 9am, and so on.)

(Also, I wouldn't consider Brugge/Bruges to be off the beaten track in any's a major tourist attraction, mobbed in high season. It is a nice town though.)

To get back to the OP's question. Most of the Alps are not urban, so no worries there. :) Read the small print for your Eurail pass to see how far it will get you off the main tracks. In some countries, you may be able to use the bus system as well. But in many alpine areas you may have to pay extra to get higher up. This is the case in Switzerland, where many of the popular mountain resort areas are only reachable by very expensive privately owned railways or cable cars. That being said, they are generally worth going to of course. In the Berner Oberland for example the railpass will get you to Interlaken or Grindelwald but you have to pay more to go further I think (but best to check that yourself). If you want to simplify things and save money, just go as far as your pass will take you. Easy alpine resorts to reach by train include Interlaken, Zermatt, Davos, St. Moritz, Arosa and more in Switzerland; Chamonix, Val d'Isere, and more in France; Innsbruck in Austria, and a lot more. None of these places are crowded in the warm months. (There is a famous unaffiliated hostel in Interlaken called Balmer's Halberge. I have heard it described as a cross between an American frat house and, ehm, a regular hostel.)

(Again I don't consider Berlin, Salzburg, Wien and so on to be 'off the beaten track' in any way...they're all major tourist attractions or cities; but perhaps my perspective is different.)

The guidebooks are a place to start, but you can also find lots of information online. My Switzerland, the official Swiss Tourism site, has links to anywhere in the country that wants your tourism money. There are a lot of such places. Example: a friend of ours from Japan spent 2 weeks in Zermatt, staying at the youth hostel, snowboarding every day - in August. He barely speaks any English, let alone German, but he had the time of his life. He (with our help) booked everything via the tourism offices. He still talks about it years later. Most if not all European countries who like tourists have similar web sites.

You may want to get a Youth Hostel card before you leave, and consult the directory of hostel locations. Fellow hostellers can often tell of you of good places to go, or even travel with you for a day or more.
posted by derMax at 9:23 PM on April 17, 2008

correction: Balmer's Herberge
posted by derMax at 9:27 PM on April 17, 2008

Even if the eurail thing won't take you to Cesky Krumlov, the local trains will. And they're horrifically cheap, and still easy enough to use if you don't speak the language.
posted by vernondalhart at 10:17 PM on April 17, 2008

this is a bit out of the parts of europe that have been mentioned so far, but i had a great time finding some smaller towns on the algarve (southern) coast of portugal. lagos is of course touristy but some little towns like salema are nice, although the tourists are getting there as well, mostly in the summer. when i went to salema i got off the bus and an old man was there waiting to rent a room to anyone he could wrangle, which was actually a good deal and a nice private room. i think this is common. i've also heard good things about northern portugal in terms of being off the beaten path. this is lonely planet, but i thought this was an interesting account of the town of braga, sounds interesting.

figueres is a cool town a short train ride from barcelona, well known because it is where the dali museum is, but a cute little town in itself.

you'll have to see about using the eurail pass, the buses are often better than trains on the iberian peninsula but i think eurail might get you a deal on some anyway.
posted by dahliachewswell at 11:38 PM on April 17, 2008

Seconding Interlaken for nice Alpine hiking, and Salzburg for awesomeness. Also: how about Seville? It's a short high-speed train ride from Madrid.

Other nice cities: Heidelberg, San Sebastian, Toledo, Dresden (well - interesting, anyway), Carcassonne, or anywhere in southern France is nice. They're all reasonably well-known, but that just means they're easy to get to, and they're not huge urban centers.
posted by estherbester at 12:01 AM on April 18, 2008

From Salzburg you can head down to Bolzano to see Otzi, on to Cinque Terre by way of Verona, then a hop and a skip the Alpes Maritime.
posted by Jakey at 2:53 AM on April 18, 2008

Torun, Poland, where I'll be working in the fall, is a town of about 200,000 people, with a red-brick Hanseatic-era Old Town on the UNESCO World Heritage List. I just visited last weekend and it was gorgeous, cheap, and relatively untouristed (though it was just the beginning of April). It's a little off the main Berlin-Warsaw path, but is totally lovely and worth at least a couple of days if you're in the neighborhood. My train from Warsaw was 41 zloty, which is something like $20, so not super pricey.
posted by mdonley at 3:56 AM on April 18, 2008

I had a couple of others!

Hyeres, a small town in the south of France, right on the Mediterranean... I think it's about an hour fron Niece, but I'm not entirely sure.

nthing Heidelberg... it's where I'm going next year for school, and I have yet to hear a bad thing about it. It wasn't touched by world war II, it's university was built in teh 1300s, and it's supposed to be absolutely lovely!
posted by Planet F at 8:13 AM on April 18, 2008

Biarritz France? Kinda sleepy but ritzy beach town in the U.S. Maybe Newport Beach, CA?
posted by zpousman at 8:20 AM on April 18, 2008

I made similar trip years ago (Eurail, youth hostels, and a backpack --for a few months).

Here were a few of my favorit places and why:

-Vaison-la-Romaine this little town had lots of well preserved Roman ruins (supposedly more well preserved than areas of Rome according to the guide, don't know if it's true). In this region of the country (France), you will see lots of small towns, wine country, many Roman ruins...beautiful scenery. At vaison-la-romaine, there is a free tour --it was given in French, but if you have a moderate language level -- very useful.

-Cordoba, Spain The pictures do not do justice, but this town has an incredible mosque. Very large complex with carvings, water streams running through the complex -- I loved it. The only challenging part is that the trains were slow here. I took an overnight train to go from Barcelona to this town.

-Many, many places in Italy, including the folloowing: Assissi -this town was interesting because not only do you learn more about the life of a religious person who preached to animals, but you can get free tours of many of the churches from the middle ages (with paintings of the life of St. Francis of Assisi). It's interesting because Franciscan monks give the tour, and they will tell you about the symbolism in the paintins, and the story of his life. You can hike into the hills (easy hike, 2 miles at the most) and see the former place where St Francis used to preach to animals -- monks still live there today; Pompeii - not a small town, near Naples, but you can still see casts from the bodies (everywhere, just glance through some of the excavation sites --back areas), mosaics on the floor, murals on the wall --all still intact even after the volcano erupted and took out that town; Florence and Venice - also not small towns, but beautiful - lots of art

-nthing Salzburg - beautiful gardens - I remember seeing a castle with a lot of 'water' works - intricate machinary that run off water, etc.

I spent months backbacking, but those are my favorites. Most of the places I stayed were at youth hostels (90% of the time) -- I picked up a 'let's go europe' book that listed these places. Also, in most towns, there was an info booth, or people on the bus helped you out.

Have fun.
posted by Wolfster at 6:34 PM on April 18, 2008

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