Eurostar moves to its new St Pancras home on Wednesday. Mark Rowe suggests some top destinations put within easier reach

As any commuter will confirm, shaving 20 minutes off a train journey is the stuff of dreams. On Wednesday, the high-speed Eurostar link opens at London St Pancras, reducing journey times to its three major destinations by 20 minutes. Journey times to Lille will be just one hour 41 minutes, to Paris two hours 35 minute, and to Brussels two hours 15 minutes.

One slightly overlooked benefit of these quicker times is that they will allow travellers to make more, and smoother, onward connections within mainland Europe. In so doing, they help to make it easier to visit a number of continental cities by train, rather than aircraft, turning some into easy day trips and others into weekend breaks.

And the benefits will not be felt just by those based in the South-east; with Euston and King's Cross mainline stations and their underground links minutes away from Eurostar's new base, continental Europe is now within easier reach of travellers from the North, East and Midlands wishing to take the train.

Nice

Quickest journey time: Eight hours 50 minutes via Paris Gare du Nord and Paris Gare de Lyon.

Fare: £109 return.

Why go: To take the air, head for the Promenade des Anglais, which runs for three miles along the seafront in the company of lazy palms nodding their fronds in the light breeze. Nice has 19 museums and galleries; the pick arguably is the Matisse museum, housed in a renovated 17th-century villa in the heart of the olive grove and home to the personal collection of the Fauvist painter. For an elevated view of Old Nice make your way to Castle Hill.

Further information: nice tourism.com



Cologne

Quickest journey time: Four hours 45 minutes via Brussels Midi.

Fare: £69 return.

Why go: Next to the Rhine, this former Roman border city – Germany's oldest – has more to offer than eponymous perfume. The big draw is the glowering Dom, the city cathedral that dominates the skyline. The city is also home to a circle of 12, less visited Romanesque churches. One of the most curious is St Gereon on Norbertstrasse, with its decagon shape dating from the fourth century. Cologne is also the location for Europe's most vibrant Lent carnival celebrations, which start next year on 31 January. Be sure to enjoy the local beer, Kölsch, which enjoys the same regional protection as champagne and cheddar cheese.

Further information: koeln tourismus.de



Milan

Quickest journey time: Ten hours 45 minutes via Paris Gare du Nord and Paris Gare de Lyon.

Fare: £125 return.

Why go: Italy's style capital has a good deal more than couture to attract the visitor. Invigorated by a thrilling train ride through the Alps – and thankful to have avoided Milan's chaotic airports – visitors will invariably head for the world's largest Gothic cathedral (climb to the roof for imposing sightlines and a stone forest of statues) before joining the queue to see Leonardo's Last Supper at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Then it's off to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and those eye-wateringly expensive designer shops.

Further information: milano info.eu



Amsterdam

Quickest journey time: Five hours 15 minute, via Brussels Midi.

Fare: £69 return.

Why go: Built around an intricate network of arterial waterways, known as the Grachtengordel, Amsterdam offers visitors pretty much whatever they wish. Apart from the traditional bars, known as brown cafés, and the red-light district, the city will leave architectural fans and art lovers purring: while exploring or making your way across the bridges between sights, look upwards at the tips of the gabled houses. Sights on your list are likely to include the Anne Frank Huis, where the young Jewish diarist hid during the Second World War; the Vincent Van Gogh Museum, with its world-beating collection of the artist's oeuvre; and the Rijksmuseum.

Further information: amsterdam tourist.nl



Strasbourg

Quickest journey time: Five hours 15 minutes via Paris Gare du Nord and Paris Gare de l'Est.

Fare: £89 return.

Why go: You'd be mistaken to think of one of the EU's major homes as a dull place full of bureaucrats. Strasbourg's medieval centre has Unesco world heritage status, and this is a delightful place to explore cobblestone squares, half-timbered houses with steep pitched roofs and a network of meandering canals. And those EU institutions are worth a glance too: the futuristic European Court of Human Rights was designed by Richard Rogers, while the adjacent European parliament was built to appear as though it is only half-completed (reflecting the notion that the EU is always looking to expand).

Further information:strasbourg.com



Ghent

Quickest journey time: Two hours 55 minutes via Brussels Midi.

Fare: £59 return.

Why go: A 20-minute train journey from Brussels, Ghent has the grace and Flemish stature of Bruges but with a fraction of the tourists. With more listed buildings than the rest of Belgium put together, this city is easy on the eye. Major sights include the Gothic Saint Bavo's cathedral and Saint Nicholas church. The city also holds one of northern Europe's finest design museums, with an outstanding collection of Art Nouveau. After dark, the city's main monuments are illuminated, making for a delightful stroll beneath the sturdy town houses and their gables.

Further information: visitgent.be or visitflanders.be

Further browsing For more information about train fares and timetables, go to eurostar.com and raileurope.co.uk

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