‘Life is a journey, not a destination.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson
As far as we’re concerned here at One Tiny Leap, the best holidays are the ones where getting there is half the fun! We love road-tripping for the opportunities it gives you to take the less-travelled route, because you never know what’s around the next corner.
When our annual trip to Portugal was approaching last year we decided to give Easyjet a miss for once, and travel by train from London to Lisbon instead. Although we had to change our route at short notice due to the heat of central Spain in August, it turned out to be one of the best travel decisions we’ve ever made.
If you’re planning a similar adventure then for this guide I’ve included four itineraries to help you make it from London to Lisbon without flying.
The fastest and easiest way to get from London to Lisbon by train is by taking the Eurostar to Paris, followed by a train to Irun, and an overnight train to Lisbon. All together the journey can take just under 24 hours, making it the quickest way to get there.
07:01 London to Paris by Eurostar (journey duration 2h25)
This is the easy bit. Eurostar has fantastic deals from London to Paris, and if you keep an eye on the website, or subscribe to their newsletter you can get a really good Eurostar deal, which can be as low as £29.99 one way.
12:16 pm Paris to Irun (journey duration: 6h12)
The Eurostar arrives at the Gare du Nord, and you’ll want to make your way to Montparnasse to catch the TGV to Irun. If you’ve opted for the early riser 7:01 train you’ll have plenty of time to get there. If like me you like to make the most of your morning in bed and decided to go for the 7:55 you may need to catch a taxi to make it to Montparnasse on time.
Once in Montparnasse, pack up on food and drink as you won’t have enough time in Irun to get supplies for your overnight train.
The fastest route from Paris to Irun takes just under 6 hours, with a stop in Toulouse. You can also opt for the direct train that takes 6h12.
18:45 Irun to Lisbon (journey duration: 13h35)
You’ve made it to the last leg of your journey! You’ve got just over 15 minutes to change platforms for your overnight trip to Lisbon. As they say, relax and enjoy the ride…and get ready for your first café and pastel de nata – you’ll be in Lisbon at 7:20 am!
Leg 1: London to Paris by Eurostar (journey duration 2h25)
Follow the guide above on getting the best deals on Eurostar, and also how to make the most of your day. You can either spend a few days in Paris, but if you’re not bothered about spending time in Paris, you can also buy a Eurostar ticket direct to Biarritz, which is what we did, and saved a fair amount of money that way as well.
When Paris, change over at Gare Montparnasse to the SNCF TGV train. We only had an hour to make it over to Gare Montparnasse from Gare du Nord, so opted for a taxi to avoid missing our train. It took under 30 minutes and cost approximate €35, but of course if you have a bit more time you can take the metro.
Buy tickets: Check train times and buy your Eurostar ticket
Leg 2: Paris to Biarritz by TGV (journey duration 5h35)
The Paris to Biarritz train takes around five and a half hours, in a comfortable, modern train making it a lovely journey overlooking the scenic French countryside.
TIP: if you’re going in summer, even on an air-conditioned train it can get stuffy, so don’t forget to bring enough bottled water along.
From the Biarritz train station to the centre takes around 10 minutes by taxi. We timed our arrival so we had a few hours of sunlight left to stretch our legs on the beautiful seafront.
Leg 3: Biarritz to San Sebastián by bus (journey duration 1h02)
We were happy to find out that it only takes an hour to reach San Sebastian from Biarritz on the bus. We caught a scheduled service in the afternoon from the centre of town, and had a very comfortable (and cool) ride in. The bus station in San Sebastian is right in the centre of town, so if you travel light you may not even need to get a taxi to your accommodation.
Leg 4: San Sebastián to Madrid by train (journey duration 5h30)
If you can bear to leave San Sebastian (we couldn’t and ended up staying a week) then it’s another six hours or so to Madrid by rail on a modern, air-conditioned Alvia train that takes you through the foothills of the Pyrenees. Train travel in Europe is very good-value compared to the UK, and you can expect to pay somewhere in the region of just 15 Euros per person for this section of the journey – amazing!
Buy tickets: We always start with Rail Europe to search timetables and fares on European train travel and try to book direct as more often than not it will save you some serious money.
Leg 5: Madrid to Lisbon by train
The final leg of this route takes just under 10 hours direct by train, so I recommend staying at least a day or so in Madrid to build up your energy (or if you haven’t got kids, go out the night before so you can sleep through the day!). The best way to travel from Madrid to Lisbon is on the overnight train that gets you in around 8.30am to Lisbon – the perfect time for a café and a pastel de nata.
Buy tickets: Your Madrid to Lisbon train ticket
Granted, this isn’t the fastest way to get to Lisbon overland, but is it the prettiest? without a doubt. This is the route we ended up taking last August though, and we absolutely loved every pintxo bite, asturias hikes and idyllic beaches.
Leg 1: London to Paris by Eurostar
London to Paris by Eurostar is a breeze and the best way to travel to the French capital. Sign up for their newsletter for the latest offers. I suggest getting an early train to arrive in Paris around lunchtime, which gives you some time to explore Paris should you want to stay overnight.
Leg 2: Paris to Biarritz by TGV
Also as above. You could easily spend a half-day and evening in Paris if you wanted, to break up the journey though.
Leg 3: Biarritz to San Sebastián bus
The San Sebastian bus was a breeze. After all the travelling we’d done a few days earlier, just an hour on a comfortable bus towards our new favourite city felt like nothing.
Leg 4: San Sebastian to Vigo by car
We decided not to go through central Spain in the end, as the heat looked so oppressive in August. So we hired a car in San Sebastian and drove, via a day in Bilbao, to the gorgeous Asturias region. We hired our car through Enterprise but there’s plenty of choice in central San Sebastian. I’ll have a blog about this beautiful region coming soon, but if you’re interested I recommend a read of my friend’s PODtravels posts about Asturias. If you want to really get away from it all in the Spanish countryside, I highly recommend it. After a relaxing week in Asturias, we drove to Vigo via a few hours in Santiago de Compostela, which is of course well-worth a detour.
Leg 5: Vigo to Lisbon by train
We spent a few days in Vigo, exploring the city and the insanely beautiful (and apparently Europe’s most beautiful beach) Cies Islands. We left our car in Vigo, as to drop a Spanish hire car off in Portugal would have been very expensive. From Vigo to Lisbon was the trickiest and least comfortable part of our journey. You have three options, all of which involve a change: Seville, Madrid or Porto. We chose to change in Porto, a short connection later and we were in Lisbon!
Leg 1: London to Plymouth
Take a direct train from London Paddington to Plymouth, then a taxi from the station to the ferry terminal. We always buy our UK rail tickets through The Trainline. We’ve recently bought a family railcard too which saves us quite a bit so long as our son travels with us.
Leg 2: Plymouth to Santander
We’ve never taken the Brittany Ferries crossing before but I’ve always wanted to try it. You can also go from Portsmouth to Bilbao or Santander. It’s an overnight route so you’ll probably want to book a cabin as well. This is definitely the most expensive way to go, but a lovely and relaxing journey at the same time. You can go as a foot passenger, if you’re planning to continue by rail, or with a car.
Leg 3: Santander to Lisbon
If you are driving, then it’s about eight hours by road to Lisbon from Santander. If you want to go by rail then I again recommend the super-efficient Trainline.eu for schedules and tickets. The journey is around 13.5 hours, and has one change, so definitely you’ll want to spend at least a day or so in Santander before continuing on.