Summer’s long gone and the Christmas festivities are still a few months away, so now’s the time to squeeze in a sneaky city break. If you’ve already ticked off the usual suspects, these underrated alternatives might tempt you to pack your bags…
Done Madrid? Then head to San Sebastián
San Sebastián is a seriously happening place, particularly when it comes to food. The capital of Spain’s Basque Country has more Michelin stars per head than any other city in Europe (with no fewer than three triple-starred restaurants, Arzak, Restaurante Akelarre and Martín Berasategu), plus a host of bars serving delicious pintxos (similar to tapas). But the cuisine isn’t the only draw – there’s a famous film festival, a beautifully preserved old town, some fabulous beaches and plenty of surf. Base yourself at Astoria7, a stylishly converted cinema near the city centre, or elegant Hotel Villa Soro.
Bored of Bruges? Try Ghent
Ghent has the canals, art and architecture of Bruges, but without the crowds. Add a forward-thinking atmosphere, an enormous number of restaurants and a lively student population to the mix, and you’ve got the makings of a fantastic weekend away. Wander along the leafy streets, where the modernism of Le Corbusier meets medieval and Art Nouveau styles, admire the world-class collection of contemporary art in the S.M.A.K. museum, browse the Sunday markets, and visit the Graslei, Belgium’s most famous quay. Then put your feet up at beautiful B&B L’Ecume des Jours or the wonderfully romantic Maison d’hotes Hotel Verhaegen.
Loved Lisbon? Give Porto a go
Sprawled along the Douro estuary, this Unesco-listed city of cobbled streets, Baroque churches and red rooftops has undergone something of an architectural and culinary renaissance. It’s now home to fabulous eateries, ultra-modern bars, contemporary museums and renowned concert halls (we loved the state-of-the-art Casa de Música) – not to mention famous Port wine lodges offering tours and tastings. Stay at The Yeatman or 6Only in the historic Ribeira district, or on the dramatic waved-lashed seafront at super-stylish Boutique Apartments Porto.
Seen Athens? Try Thessaloniki
You might not have heard of Thessaloniki, but it’s Greece’s second city – an interesting, energetic place, with friendly locals, a lively music scene and a history spanning almost 2,500 years. The safe, compact centre is made for strolling, and you can follow the waterfront to colourful multicultural neighbourhoods, designer boutiques, Ottoman hammams that have been converted into art galleries, and landmarks such as the White Tower, where the panoramic view includes legendary Mount Olympus. Stay at The Excelsior, a graceful hotel with a buzzy bistro and bar.
Been to Barcelona? How about Girona?
You might be aware of Girona’s culinary delights (Catalonia’s third-largest city is home to El Celler de Can Roca, widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world), but there are plenty of other attractions, too: the cobbled Jewish Quarter, historic sights such as the medieval walls and the Arab baths, the atmospheric shopping streets around the river. It’s also home to the two architect-designed apartments at Alemanys 5 – stunning both inside and out, and unbeatable for long, indulgent weekends.
All Paris’d out? Mosey over to Montpellier
Vibrant Montpellier – as grand as Paris, but far more manageable in size – is served by plenty of low-cost flights, making it an easy option for a quick escape across the Channel. Its honey-coloured lanes are lined with gourmet restaurants, chic shops and some fantastic boutique hotels (try Domaine de Verchant or Baudon de Mauny), and there’s no shortage of leafy squares for lazy flaneurs. As for culture, you’ll find plenty: art at the revamped Musée Fabre, concerts at the Corum centre, opera on Place de la Comédie, and a calendar of festivals covering everything from jazz to wine.
Fed up with London? Book Bristol instead
We have to confess a bit of bias here (we’re based in Bristol), but the West Country’s famously mellow capital really does make for a great British break. Its restored waterfront houses cutting-edge galleries and restaurants, it has the highest proportion of green space in any UK city, and its media and music scenes are crackling with creativity. Marvel at Brunel’s engineering icons (the SS Great Britain, Clifton Suspension Bridge), hunt out street art by Bristol-born Banksy, catch some culture at the Old Vic or Colston Hall, and chill out with a cider by the harbour. Our favourite base is Number Thirty Eight, a swish B&B near the boutiques and bars of sought-after Clifton.
Marvelled at Marrakech? You might fancy Fes
Increasing numbers of international visitors are discovering Fes, but Morocco’s oldest imperial city remains wonderfully evocative. It’s home to some of North Africa’s finest mosques and medersas (Islamic schools), as well as its largest intact medina – 10,000 labyrinthine alleys lined with carpet stalls, apothecaries, barbers, spice merchants and grocers, and jostling with mules and trolleys. Amid the tangle of souks, you’ll find pungent tanneries, intricate palaces, palm-shaded gardens and plenty of beautiful boutique riads.
Done Florence? Try Lucca
Often overlooked in favour of Tuscan honeypots such as Pisa and Siena, Lucca retains a refreshing authenticity – locals shop in the mercato, families stroll the piazzas eating gelato, and at weekends the tree-lined city walls are packed with joggers and cyclists. The medieval centre is pedestrianised, everything is walkable, and fine restaurants abound. As for sights, there are plenty – antiques markets, a stunning cathedral, the perfectly preserved Roman oval of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. Stay at elegant Lucca Boutique Apartment and enjoy a city full of art, history and dolce vita – but not tourists.
Captivated by Copenhagen? Consider Stockholm
Spread over a series of islands, Sweden’s capital is one of Europe’s most alluring cities. It’s idyllic in summer, when locals take to the lakes and the saffron-coloured buildings glow with light reflected off the water, and lovely in winter, when snow covers the ground and everyone gathers in cosy candlelit bars. Wander among grand palaces and churches in the cobbled centre, Gamla stan, and splurge on sleek Swedish design in the trendy enclave of Södermalm. Come evening, make the most of the excellent local seafood, then lay your head at one of the city’s fabulous boutique hotels.