International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
It’s not just Paris and Brussels – here are five high-speed train trips you may not have considered, from hot springs with history in Germany to skiing in the French Alps.
Antwerp: The one for history and architecture
If Bruges is the medieval jewel of Flanders, then Antwerp is the city that stole its trade and its thunder. The home of one of the earliest stock exchange buildings in 1531, and today the place where four in every five uncut diamonds are traded, it’s no surprise that Belgium’s second city has plenty to show for its wealth. The neo- Gothic splendour of the Antwerpen-Centraal railway station is merely the welcome mat.
The first stop should be the city’s medieval core around the cobblestoned Grote Markt. With its Renaissance-style City Hall bedecked with colourful banners and the 123-metre spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekathedraal, or Cathedral of Our Lady, looming above, this pedestrianised square is the city’s showcase.
Moving on to the Baroque period, Antwerp’s favourite son makes an appearance – the painter Pieter Paul Rubens, whose former home and studio, the Rubenshuis, is furnished in early 17th-century style and houses dozens of his paintings and those of his contemporaries (admission £6.50). Another Rubens portrait is found in the World Heritage-listed Museum Plantin-Moretus, along with a printing works and library dating from 1640 (admission £6.50).
Finish with a swing by the Stadsfeestzaal for a spot of browsing in a magnificent Neoclassicalstyle shopping mall dating from 1908. The second-floor champagne bar matches the opulent mood perfectly. Antwerp likes to dine out in style, and one place you can do so in old-world, candle-lit intimacy is Le Zoute Zoen (mains from £14).
Emperor’s 48 is a stylish b&b featuring striking black and white photographs by Bart Michielsen (from £75). ‘T Sandt Hotel is an elegant place to stay, with swish broad-beamed guestrooms, neo-Rococo touches and a patio with a fountain (from £160).
The Eurostar takes 2¼ hours to reach Brussels from London's St Pancras International station (from £70, including onward rail travel in Belgium).Changing at Bruxelles-Midi/ Brussel-Zuid station, it’s another 35–45 minutes to Antwerpen-Centraal station.
Rotterdam: The one for modernity
On 14 May 1940, at the height of the German Blitzkrieg, the Luftwaffe missed an order to turn back and destroyed most of Rotterdam. Unlike many other Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht and Delft, you won’t find much in the way of medieval streets here. But Rotterdam has salvaged something from its destruction, creating bold and inventive architecture to match its status as one of the world’s busiest ports.
Get your bearings on an architecture tour (from £3 per person). The itinerary might include Rotterdam’s two signature bridges – the bold, red Willemsbrug and the Erasmusbrug, nicknamed ‘The Swan’ after the spread-eagled stance of its 139-metre pylon. Striking buildings abound, from Toren op Zuid, which seems to rest against a long pole, to the Willemswerf, with its diagonal slash. The most eyebrow-raising is the Overblaak development, whose upended, cube-shaped apartments seem to have tumbled out of a JG Ballard novel.
You can continue in the architectural vein at the Nederlands Architectuurinstituut, whose admission price includes a visit to a perfectly preserved Functionalist-style house from 1933 (admission £8). Alternatively, the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen is among Europe’s finest galleries, where paintings by the Dutch masters and 20th-century surrealists can be found next to a 1970s bubble TV or vibrating table (admission £10, free on Wed).
Amid the bold architectural statements, Rotterdam does have one more surprise in store – the eminently strollable Delfshaven district, which survived the bombings with its quaintness intact. And since this is a port city, you owe it to Rotterdam to have a seafood dinner – Zee Zout has waterfront views as well as superbly prepared dishes (mains from £19).
The Hotel New York Rotterdam is an original Art Nouveau-style building with stunning city views (from £80). The Pincoffs Suite Hotel offers boutique style in a late 19th-century building (from £130).