Unusual City Breaks in Europe

By Abi King | Western Europe

Feb 28

The Best Places to Visit in Europe via @insidetravellab

Ideas for Unusual City Breaks in Europe

So, here’s a question I get asked a lot: where are the best places for an unusual city break in Europe?

It’s a topic I could write a whole book about (or, hey! At least a substantial section of a travel blog ;-) – see the best destinations in Europe page ) so I’ll break it down by answering specific questions instead.

Here’s the latest.

Unusual City Breaks in Spring That Aren’t Too Cold

I’ve got a few days leave left and want to go somewhere new in Europe in the spring. Four days or five max, including travel from within the UK. I don’t want to hire a car or travel far at the other end.

I’ve been to the obvious spots, the big cities like Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Amsterdam and Barcelona.

But I’d like to go somewhere new. Ideally with some sun.

Where do you suggest?

Tracking Down Unusual City Breaks in Europe

First off, the good news is that you’ll be spoilt for choice in Europe. Different architecture, history, language, food and all the rest every few hours by car.

Second of all, there isn’t really anywhere reliable in Europe for winter (or even indeed spring) sun unless you head off the coast of Africa to Madeira or the Canaries. And even then, it may not be the turquoise and white sand paradise of your dreams.

But, you can avoid the really cold spots and increase your chances of a balmy spring day by veering south (or at the very least, avoiding the north.)

For a short weekend break it’s often better to head to smaller cities where you can reach everything on foot, or with the odd hop onto public transport instead.

So, with that in mind, here’s my shortlist if you’re looking for an unusual city break in Europe that fulfils all the above.

You’ll notice plenty from Spain and surprisingly few from Italy despite both countries brimming with culture, forgiving weather and better roadside restaurants than many a slap up meal in Blighty.


Because Florence, Venice, Verona and Milan already pop up brightly on the travel bookshelf of life. Spain, though, still suffers from its cheap sand and sun reputation – despite its very many suitable destinations for an unusual city break.

But enough chatter.

Let’s get started.

Nuremberg: An Unusually Pretty City Break

For now, forget about the Nazis. Nuremberg is a beautiful, atmospheric, enlightening city to visit. Now championing humanitarian causes, Nuremberg’s medieval city centre is a pleasure to stroll around. You’ll find the world’s oldest surviving globe, artist Albrecht Dürer’s house, several sweet cafes and breweries and even the protected Nuremberg sausage.

And in case you do want to probe further into one of the worst events in mankind’s history, the Nazi Rally Grounds and Nuremberg Trials Courthouse make a deeply thoughtful pilgrimage, one that offers an ending filled with hope instead of despair.

Recommended place to stay: Hotel Sorat Saxx for modern flair and the most central location.

Valencia's City of Arts & Sciences by Night

Valencia’s City of Arts & Sciences by Night

Valencia: Stay Up Late, Feel Cultured

Yes, I’m heading straight into my first Spanish recommendation by picking a city with a beach…but hear me out! Valencia has a well preserved old town that serves tapas late into the night. It hosts the Grand Prix each year and serves stretches of sandy beaches that serve up authentic Spanish paella (this is actually the region of Spain that calls the dish its own.) But it also has its reformed and redirected riverbed and the gleaming white harp-like entrance to the City of Arts and Sciences.

View from the K&O Terrace in Graz

Graz: Cafe Culture and Cool Design

Austria’s second largest city was a revelation for me. As a UNESCO City of Design, Graz sweeps friendly aliens and swirling chrome into the old town Austrian feel of terracotta rooftops, church spires and secret recipes for sugar-dusted treats. Plus, it’s the original homeland for one Arnold Schwarzenegger. Who can resist a cultural pull like that?!

Recommended place to stay: the hipster cool Hotel Wiesler, reinvented from a former Graz classic.

San Sebastian Tapas

Donostia San Sebastian: Basque Brilliance and the Best Tapas in Spain

Only, it’s not called tapas. It’s pintxos. (And, yes, it is another Spanish city with a beach. But this place is oh so different to Valencia.) San Sebastian is the spot where window shopping and dining out combine. Huddle through the narrow streets past hanging peppers and Basque berets and choose your dinner by picking out the pintxos that most attracts your attention at the bar.


Cour des Loges Luxury Hotel Lyon

Lyons: Gastronomy, the Romans and a Grittier Side of France

If your vision of France involves people in striped T shirts cycling along with a baguette, then let Lyons be the French city to disabuse you of this notion. As France’s third largest city, it has many different faces and is one of the few on this list where travelling around on foot will not be enough.

Expect world class art, gastronomy and Roman ruins that spill along the hillside.

Turn up hungry – and keep your wits about you ;-)

Recommended place to stay: the velvet-furnished renaissance Cour des Loges

Ljubljana, Slovenia Art Nouveau

Ljubljana: Charming City with A Bubbly Sounding Name

Let Slovenia’s capital surprise you with her easy charm and compact centre. Ljubljana (pronounced lee-oob-lee-arna) may guard her gates with a dragon but her cobbled streets have a much softer side.

Look out for art nouveau, hearty jota stew and chic boutiques all within easy reach of one another – plus an intriguing look at life squeezed between the two sides of the Iron Curtain.

Recommended place to stay: the Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa

Toledo Spain at Night

Toledo: Spain’s Former Capital But Decidedly Easier to Navigate

Just a quick train ride from Madrid, Toledo is a teetering city built on a rock-earth spike in central Spain. (And there’s not even a beach at this one ;-) )

As an official capital of gastronomy in Spain and self-proclaimed protector of the works of El Greco, it offers a cultural overload without the sprawl of Madrid.

It also lays claim to the invention of marzipan and runs workshops to pass on the technique.

Recommended place to stay: the gold and cream Fontecruz Toledo in the old city centre.

Candle Festival Malta

Streets of Malta dripping with candles during the Birgu Festival

Valletta, Malta: Cities of Gold

If honeyed stone and the swoosh of surf appeals, then head to the island city of Valletta in Mediterranean Malta. Never have streets seemed so beautiful as they’ve told the true stories of real life knights and the real life Inquisition.

Baroque architecture, kwarezimal sweets and Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John await.

Read about my experience of a Travelshoot in Rome.

Have a travel question?

Have a travel question about unusual, thoughtful, luxury travel? You can reach me via the contact page or on many of the merry social media thingies such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.



Unusual city breaks in Europe via @insidetravellab

Amazing unusual city breaks in Europe from @insidetravellab


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • Hi Abi,
    Great post! And you’ve made me add a lot of places to my never ending list. I have just returned from a short break in Geneva, and it may be an obvious spot, but I found there were lots to do, beautiful weather and with a bit of research some fantastic eats without the big price tags!

    • Abi King says:

      Hi Vanessa – ah, yes, Geneva makes for a good city break, too. I stopped off there when trying to get up into the mountains one year. I didn’t have the beautiful weather, though ;-) But the centre was warm and cosy and the trip out to the Red Cross Museum was definitely worth it.

  • These are all perfect city getaways! Valencia is always a pleasant surprise. The Museum of Pottery is not to be missed. I am off to Malta in 3 weeks. Great post Abi!!

    • Abi King says:

      Ah, no! I did miss the Museum of Pottery :- ) ! You know what I need to do now? Head back to Valencia again one day! Enjoy Malta – fascinating set of islands.

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