Trundling past windswept coasts, wine museums and neo-Gothic architecture, Andrew Eames discovers Europe’s best tram lines.
Belgium’s coastal tram
Most European trams are city-centre affairs but I’m starting with an exception because it makes a great excursion from Brussels. It also happens to set the record for the longest tram journey in the world.
The Kusttram runs a 68km route from De Panne to Knokke, taking two and a half hours to stitch together the resorts and ports of the Belgian Riviera. Unlike most trams, where commuting and shopping is the order of the day, its passengers are swimmers and sandcastlers, wearing shorts whatever the weather.
The service was inaugurated back in 1885, but you wouldn’t guess that by the athletic way its state-of-the-art units leap out of the blocks at De Panne station and swerve around Belgium’s unappealingly titled theme park, Plopsaland.
The beach here is glorious, although initially it plays hide and seek with the tram behind a barrier of dunes. Key destinations are Nieuwport, the largest yacht marina in northern Europe, the (slightly crumbling) spa town of Ostend, and the villa resort of De Haan, all poodles, gables and gentlefolk taking tea.
Then come the posh shopping enclave of Blankenberge and the container gantries of Zeebrugge, before the line terminates at Knokke, just before the Dutch border.
DETAILS: Runs every ten minutes in summer and every 15 minutes from September 1. Price is €3 for the journey, or €6 for a day pass. The service is plugged into the rail network with stations at either end and at Ostend in the middle (75 minutes to Brussels). delijn.be
Amsterdam’s Tram 2
Anyone who knows Amsterdam will be familiar with its downtown tsunami of bicycles, pedestrians and vehicles, and the overwhelming crush on Damrak at the weekends. Trams thread blithely through all this, warning rather charmingly of their approach with what sounds like notes struck by a blacksmith on his anvil.
Tram 2 departs from outside Centraal station, sidesteps the crowds and heads for the landmark cultural attractions – the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum – while crossing the picturesque canal rings. It rarely moves at more than jogging pace, giving passengers time to observe the Netherlands’ colourful capital.
The flower market and Singel, en route, are some of the city’s prettiest locations. Leidseplein is the place for non red-light nightlife, and Vondelpark is a good spot to chill on a sunny day.
DETAILS: Frequent. You can buy your ticket from a conductor on board (€2.90 for an hour, €7.50 for 24 hours) who also announces the key sights. en.gvb.nl
Budapest’s Tram 2
The Budapest network is one of Europe’s oldest, operating since 1866, and most extensive. The best known of its 30 routes is Tram 2, a moving armchair with a view, albeit not all that luxurious given it is operated by arthritic old yellow and white units dating back to the 1960s.
The route, however, is the main event, thanks to a riverbank tightrope walk along the Danube embankment on the Pest side that looks across floating jazz clubs, cruise ships and suspension bridges at the castle and the old town of Buda to the west.
The tram runs past art nouveau mansions and under the flank of the magnificent neo-Gothic riverside parliament building to its northern terminus by Margaret Island, which has open-air swimming pools for warmer weather.
DETAILS: Frequent. A single ticket, valid for 80 minutes, costs Ft350 (£0.90). bkk.hu/en
The articulated metal caterpillars of the Bordeaux network are symbolic of the city’s renaissance. A clever system means that they pick up power from the tracks (no overhead wires), which themselves are barely visible, so that the trams appear to glide unconstrained through the city centre.
Tramline B is best picked up outside the cathedral (note Richard Rogers’ bizarre-looking law courts), and then ridden northwards through the pedestrianised area, past the opera house to the renovated quayside, once home to gloomy warehouses and now opened up to cruise lines and festivals.
This was where Bordeaux wine was once stored, and towards the top end of the route, just beyond the modern bridge, is the brand new Guggenheim of wine, Cité du Vin, which opened in June.
DETAILS: Every five to ten minutes. One trip €1.50, five trips €6.70; ticket kiosks at all stops. infotbc.com
Milan’s ATMosfera restaurant tram
Several cities are catching on to the idea of charter trams serving more than just transport, and Milan’s ATMosfera is one of the first movers. Dinner is served on board a beautifully restored vintage tram as it travels past the city’s highlights. A sort of Orient Express of the tram world, diners dress up, and there’s surprising, seasonal food crafted in the tiny kitchen.
The itinerary varies but always starts from Piazza Castello, in the lee of Castello Sforzesco, and combines old favourites such as the Cathedral and La Scala concert hall with new modern cityscapes such as the Porta Nuova area and Piazza Gae Aulenti.
DETAILS: The adventure lasts two and a half hours, starting at 8pm. Price is €70 per person for four courses and a welcome drink plus a bottle of wine between two. atmosfera.atm.it
Vienna’s Ring Tram
It’s not very often that a bypass gets special mention in a UNESCO World Heritage designation, but Vienna’s circular Ringstrasse is commended for its “late 19th-century grand buildings, monuments and parks”. The description given by UNESCO doesn’t mention the trams, but they are as much a part of the Ring as the architecture. Along with the buildings, expect to see grandes dames with fur coats and big hair.
Two or three mainstream lines do part of the Ring, which circles the entire city centre, passing the state opera, parliament, city hall and stock exchange, but the only tram to do the whole thing is the vintage, tourist-dedicated yellow Ring Tram, which starts at Schwedenplatz and has a running commentary pointing out the sights.
DETAILS: Every 30 minutes from 10am to 5.30pm; €8. wienerlinien.at