Why Germany is the best European country to see by train
Thinking about an InterRail trip this year? We asked travel writer and rail expert Jools Stone to tell us about his favourite European rail destination…
For years InterRail cornered the market in summer youth travel, with a grand tour being an essential rite of passage for many a backpacker. These days a pass doesn’t pack as much punch for the pocket, but don’t write off Europe just yet. Instead of going hell-for-leather trying to tick off as much of as many countries as you can in a fortnight, why not plan a single-country rail trip? If you pick one country and stick with it, you'll get a better understanding of the culture, and you’re likely to pick up more of the local lingo too.
Where to go is bound to be a highly personal decision, but I’d recommend Germany, which is especially forgiving for first time InterRailers, thanks to having the biggest network in the continent. Plus you can now go from London to Cologne, via Brussels, in five hours, making the train a viable alternative to an inbound flight.
Plus Germany's place at the heart of Europe makes it ideally placed for quick day trips across the border to the likes of Poland, Austria or the Czech Republic.
Super smooth services
It may be a bit of a stereotype, but Germany’s reputation for efficiency definitely applies when it comes to trains. National operator D Bahn claims 90% of their trains arrive within five minutes of their scheduled time, and strike action is as rare as rocking horse poo.
Most travellers tend to gravitate to the cities, and you should definitely spend some time in the hipster HQ that is Berlin, the arty electronic music hotspot of Dusseldorf and the historic, beer-soaked Munich. But there's way more to explore too, from the wineries and university towns of the Rhine Valley to the Alpine vistas of Southern Bavaria and the chalky cliffs and sandy beaches of the Baltic coast. The extent of the network means it’s easy to discover rural towns packed with regional flavour.
Grub on the go
Germany may not have Europe's highest culinary reputation, but that actually works in your favour if you're backpacking. There's no shortage of pretzel or currywurst stands to keep the engine stoked for a few euros, while most cities are awash are imbisses serving up kebabbage of the highest order.
ICE ICE baby
Foe those of you who don't mind splurging on the odd upgrade, Germany's high speed ICE trains are some of the best in Europe. Even in standard class, the seats are large and comfy and the free on-board WiFi is pretty reliable too. Using these you can go from Berlin to Cologne in just four hours, or from Munich to Stuttgart in a little over two.
Sleeper services have seen a few casualties in recent years, but Germany retains several stalwarts serving most major cities. They can be a handy way to cross swathes of the country while you sleep (or perhaps more accurately, lapse in and out of consciousness after one too many Jägermeisters). Prices range from around 60 euros for a bunk in a 'virtual rolling dorm', sharing with up to 5 others. The exhaustive Man in Seat61 site has detailed guides to each.
Germany was the birthplace of youth hostelling, so has impeccable chops when it comes to bunking down for a night. School teacher Richard Schirrmann set up the world's very first youth hostel in 1912 in the North Rhine town of Altena.
These days there's precious little difference between many cheap hostels and budget hotels and Germany has no shortage of either. Most big city centres are packed with hostels, so whether you’re looking for a dorm bed, a private room or group accommodation, you’ll find something that ticks off all the basics and then some.
Jools Stone is a freelance travel writer based in Brighton, with a penchant for rail travel, gloomy graphic novels and twangy American bands. Check out his site Railway Stays for more inspiration.