With so many of us unable to plan travel this summer, here’s a list of some of the best day trips from European cities to help you cool off and unwind.
The Forêt de Soignes is one of Europe’s most ancient woodlands, stretching a finger right into the centre of Brussels. Its outskirts are easily reachable by public transport and it’s criss-crossed with walking and biking trails, small exhibition spaces such as that at Rouge-Cloitre, and connections to the Bois de Cambre, a parkland with lakes, informal bars and outdoor dining.
The obvious day trip from Bucharest is Bran Castle, forever associated with Count Dracula thanks to claims it’s the only castle in Transylvania to resemble Bram Stoker’s descriptions. Stoker never visited Romania though and if you can do without fictional associations, Sinaia might make a better visit. Reachable by train in an hour and 20 minutes, Sinaia offers cool mountain air, cable cars and a walk through a gorge to reach Peles Castle, a Neo-Renaissance Gothic Revival style residence built for Carlos I. Fountains, statues and terraces create lovely vistas against the backdrop of the south-eastern Carpathians.
The region of Castilla-La Mancha lies like a giant heart to the south-east of Madrid, with Spain’s capital tucked between the lobes. In under two hours by car, you can reach Consuegra and El Toboso, where 16th century writer Cervantes took inspiration from the white windmills on the horizon to create the giant enemies that ‘do battle’ with the legendary Don Quixote. Climb or drive to the top of the hills, at sunset if you can, and take in the colours across the plains. Some of the mills still have their ancient machinery. And if you’re in the area in the autumn, don’t miss the Saffron Rose Festival, celebrating saffron’s importance and promoting local culture.
Hadrian’s Villa is one of the most accessible day trips from Rome, at half an hour by car, or an hour by bus. A vast complex of houses, pools, fountains, statues and Greek and Roman architecture over a square kilometre, it was constructed by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD. UNESCO-listed, it could be described as a kind of ancient theme park, bringing together elements such as a mock Nile and a 40-metre ‘Maritime Theatre’ complete with island, moat, fountains, drawbridge, atrium, library and formal dining room. Recently a network of tunnels has been discovered underneath the Villa and grounds, thought to provide service access so that the ‘staff’ could circulate without spoiling it all!
Mount Parnitha is the highest point in the Attica mountains and the highest of the five mountains that delineate the Athens region. Designated a national park in 1961, the area is easily accessed by car or public transport and a number of trails await you, including a four-hour hike starting from Phyli village and taking you east along the Keladona Gorge to the Cave of Pan, straight up to Arma peak and down again into the gorge, where the Monastery Kliston sits. Cable cars operated by a controversial casino are also available if trekking is not for you.
Well under an hour south-west of Berlin (with about 15 trains a day) Potsdam is an outlier on this list, as it’s a one-city-to-another trip. Potsdam however, is a city with a difference. Planned by Prussian royalty as a ‘picturesque, pastoral dream’ the sense of symmetry and beauty exuded by the city is stunning. The Sanssouci Palace and Park holds a Chinese House, an Orangery, a Picture Gallery, an Antique Temple, to name just a few attractions. Meanwhile, at its eastern entrance is a historic vineyard revived by locals and open to the public for aperitifs on Thursday and Friday evenings. The Dutch Quarter and the Russian Heritage Village are well worth a stroll too.
Versailles is the must-do day-trip from Paris, accessible in under an hour by car or by train from the Gare de Paris-Montparnasse. The sheer scale and beauty of the palace and its grounds are breathtaking. They started life in the 17th century as Louis XIII’s modest hunting lodge, the surrounding woodland teeming with game. His son, Louis XIV, who was sent there in 1641 to escape a smallpox outbreak, eventually undertook extensive building work. A couple of generations later, and the palace was synonymous with the power and riches of the Court – and we all know what happened next.
If it’s raining, you can take a tour of the sumptuous quarters inside, such as the Hall of Mirrors, but if it’s sunny, the gardens are the place to be. I recommend taking a picnic and hiring a bike to ensure you see as much of them as possible.
Many sources recommend taking time out from Vienna to visit Hallstat, once described as the world’s most instagrammable village. Indeed, prior to Covid-19 the number of day-trippers had become problematic with locals complaining the crowds discouraged other visitors who might otherwise stay longer. Entries per day are being limited and overnight visitors are given priority. For those reasons, as well as its three-hour distance from Vienna, Hallstat comes with a recommendation to avoid unless you’re making an overnight stop. Instead, if you’re looking for a daytrip from Vienna, I recommend a Danube Valley tour, where a guide will take you up river to experience the Benedictine Abbey of Melk, vineyards and culinary treats.
Malahide Castle, built in the 12th century and set in rolling parkland, is less than 20km and a very cheap train ride north of Dublin. As well as collections of art and vintage toys, it is said to house Ireland’s largest collection of… ghosts. The charming fishing village of Howth and the peninsula of Howth Head can also be reached by public transport and combined with a trip to Malahide – or be enjoyed on their own merit, with a walking tour and electric railway and a pub lunch.
And finally, just one hour from Prague, the ancient town of Pilsen combines the delights of its famed Pilsner Urquell brewery, a medieval center, a ring of parkland, and the longest cave network in Czechia. Maybe just wait until after you’ve found your way out of the caves before sampling the beer?