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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?!
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.
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 ;-)
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.
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.
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.