The Best Short-Haul City Breaks
Updated: Feb 6, 2021
Cities around the world have been turned into ghostly metropolises by the pandemic. Landmarks are deserted, buses rattle eerily along with far more empty seats than usual, and small businesses such as independent shops and cafés sit dormant with their shutters closed, gathering dust. But it won't stay this way forever. Travel will ultimately resume, borders will reopen, and the streets will once more be filled with life and colour and noise.
However experts are predicting, even when we are able to explore again, that it will take a considerable amount of time before cross-continental travel bounces back - and that we will need to change the way we make these long trips in order to be more sustainable in future. Domestic journeys and short-haul hops will slowly be reintroduced first, and in Europe we are fortunate enough to have some of the most exciting cities in the world on our doorstep. Therefore, I figured now would be a great opportunity to compile a comprehensive guide to the best short-haul city breaks accessible in less than four hours by train or plane from the UK (or from pretty much any other country on the continent for that matter). Whilst I fully advocate us all making conscious efforts to fly less, I think if we travel with purpose and make each adventure really count, then progress is still being made. But if you would rather not fly, you can always choose to slow-travel with an expedition by road or rail to reach these locations.
I've included ideas in this list to suit every style of traveller, and each city can be enjoyed equally as well on a budget as it can be on a splurge. There'll be tips on how to get the best out of each of them, regardless of whether you're travelling solo or with others. As with any destination I profile in my posts, I have been to all of them - so hopefully this means I have some vague grasp of what I'm talking about! And; of course, this should go without saying - but please do not travel until it is absolutely safe to do so. Just keep this saved for later and savour the planning process while you can...
Best for: dreamy design
What makes it the best: It is no secret that Scandinavians have found far better ways to live than the rest of us, largely thanks to their hygge principles of cosiness, comfort and contentment. But their innovative ingenuity also sets them apart from the rest, and a few days in Copenhagen will show you why. From industrial-style interiors and chic fashion boutiques to striking architecture and game-changing 'bike bridges' which allow keen cyclists to roam without the threat of traffic; the Danish capital will captivate you with its feats of design and engineering. Whether you're into modern minimalism, the funky and functional, or historic spires and towers that pierce the sky, there is an abundance of creativity to appreciate in wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. Base yourself in vibey Vesterbro, the former meat-packing district, and explore the city on foot or two wheels from there.
3 unmissable things:
1) Lose yourself in Copenhagen's gorgeous galleries: My top picks are the Nikolaj Kunsthal, a former church repurposed as an art centre offering free entry on Wednesdays, and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, a museum of art, artefacts and sculpture which is a masterpiece of design in itself. Free entry on Tuesdays.
2) Follow the waterways for a design tour of the city: As you leave the Glyptoteket, cross the road and turn right. Turn left when you get to Langebro Bridge and walk along the embankment. This route will take you past architectural wonders such as the Urban Rigger, the Royal Library (or 'Black Diamond'), Circle Bridge, the Church of Our Savour, Danish Playhouse and the Opera House.
3) Spend a day in the Nørrebro district: Here you'll find quirky side-streets, urban parks, lakes, live music, indie shops, buzzing bars, food markets, designer outlets and the burial site of Hans Christian Andersen! It is the most diverse neighbourhood in the city and inarguably its beating heart.
Best for: perfect panoramas
What makes it the best: Just look! Surrounded by shimmering Adriatic waters and painstakingly preserved stone walls, it's not difficult to understand why Dubrovnik has become the busiest spot in the Balkans. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dubrovnik's Old Town is an ethereal labyrinth of sandy streets, giving way to coastal views and rocky slopes on all sides. On a clear day looking south, you can see the green hills of Montenegro in the distance as divers jump into the bay and kayakers row to nearby Lokrum Island for the day. The city's fame as a main filming location in the Game of Thrones franchise and its prevalence on international cruise itineraries mean the historic centre can get swamped in high season, so between September and March is the best window to go. If you love ancient cities with a side-order of seascapes, Dubrovnik is the ONE.
3 unmissable things:
1) Actively admire the medieval city walls: There is only one way to fully embrace the charm of this fortified gem, and that's to walk its walls! At 200 kuna per person (around £24), admission to the city walls isn't exactly cheap, but it can take up to 2 hours to complete the circuit and the views really are something else. Retain your ticket to gain free entry at Fort Lovrijenac.
2) Climb the steps to Fort Lovrijenac: Once you've worked your way around the circumference of the Old Town, have a little breather before scaling the coastal steps to Fort Lovrejenac. It's worth it for the view from the top, I promise!
3) Experience Restaurant 360: If you've read my 'Taste of Europe' blog post, this will be a familiar name to you. I ate the most delicious meal of my life here! Not only is the food utterly unrivalled, but the location is super special too.
Best for: hopeless romantics
What makes it the best: Now, I'm quite biased where Paris is concerned. It has played an integral role in some of my most meaningful milestones, from the first holiday I had abroad to my engagement. So I can categorically testify that it is, indeed, the most romantic city in the world. But even after four visits, there's so much of it I'm yet to see. That's why I am always ready to go back, because you are never quite done with Paris - or is it never quite done with you? And it's so easy to get to! The fact that you can hop on a train in London and be at the Gare du Nord a little over two hours' later is still amazing to me. There is simply no better city for people-watching, riverside picnics or pretty little nooks and crannies. Shabby cafés, regal squares and endless symmetrical avenues are just a few of its finest features - but Paris truly thrives after dark, when it really earns its stripes as being 'The City of Light'.
3 unmissable things:
1) See the Eiffel Tower from the Place du Trocadero: This, without doubt, grants you the most enviable perspective of the Iron Lady. Pitch up here at night to watch the hourly sparkle-show, or beat the crowds before sunrise to feel Paris holding its breath.
2) Enjoy a cruise on the Seine: With regular sailings from the Pont de l'Alma, Bateaux Mouches have been running river cruises in Paris since 1949. It is such a lovely way to see some of the city's most famous monuments, including the Notre Dame and the Louvre Palace.
3) Taste-test the best patisserie at Galeries Lafayette: Galeries Lafayette is an ornate department store in the 9th arrondissement, housing countless designer brands and a magnificent food hall. Treat yourself to an assorted box of macarons from Pierre Hermé, then venture outside to devour them on the steps of the Palais Garnier.
Best for: food & wine aficionados
What makes it the best: It is entirely possible that you could spend a weekend in Lisbon doing no more than eating and drinking in the various restaurants, markets and bars perched upon one of the city's seven hills. Lisbon has become a playground for some of Portugal's most elite chefs - José Avillez, Henrique Sá Pesso and Antonio Galapito all have premises here - whose culinary exploits have helped shape the city into the unofficial food capital of Europe. It has options to suit everyone; with humble tabernas, steakhouses and pizzerias occupying the same postcodes as Michelin-starred eateries and experimental tapas joints. From one neighbourhood to the next, you'll be greeted with the waft of steaming seafood, colourful restaurant tables cascading down sets of cobbled steps, and Lebanese spice kitchens inspired by the nation's Moorish heritage.
3 unmissable things:
1) Take your time at Time Out Lisboa: We spent a whole afternoon in the Time Out Market one day just continuously ordering food from different stalls! It has an incredible energy about it and captures the essence of Portuguese cuisine brilliantly. We especially loved the bavette steak and prawn surf-and-turf ciabattas!
2) Sample palate-pleasing petiscos in rooftop bars: Petiscos are traditional Portuguese small plates, and there are hundreds of bars across Lisbon trying out-do one another with their flavours and techniques. We ate at Madame Petisca on our city break, where the dishes include wagyu beef sliders, crispy croquetas and succulent ceviche.
3) Visit the fairytale land of Sintra for the day: Not food-related I know, but Sintra is somewhere you must see to believe. Hop on the train from Lisbon's Rossio Station and you'll arrive in a magical town of hilltop castles, painted palaces and secret gardens bathed in myth.
CORFU TOWN, GREECE
Best for: getting lost in
What makes it the best: Contrary to its English name, Corfu Town - or Kerkyra, as it is locally known - is actually a city. Nestled cosily between two Venetian fortresses, it is a maze of candy-coloured buildings, chaotic bazaars and cramped streets rendered in picture-perfect bliss against a backdrop of turquoise sea. Also the capital of the Ionian Islands, the city is a popular port-of-call for both national and international tourists, drawn in by its historical significance and proximity to the luscious landscapes and resorts of the island. Forego your map and surrender yourself to getting lost in Corfu Town's quaint matrix of alleys and passageways, before taking a coastal sojourn past the rose-toned Mandrakinas Church to a secluded lookout post with views of Albania.
3 unmissable things:
1) Wander aimlessly through the Old Town: Pick a point of entry and go meandering. You'll stumble across St. Spyridon's Church, who is the patron saint of Corfu, crumbling neoclassical townhouses, and shops selling all kinds of Grecian wares from shell necklaces to souvlaki.
2) Compare the new & old fortresses: Corfu was ruled by the Venetians for four centuries, and occupied a strategic defensive position against the advancing Ottoman Empire. Both forts date back to the 1500s, but the New Fort has seen the most continuous development over the years from first the Venetians and later, the British.
3) Explore the Corfu coastline by motorboat: We opted for an excursion to the seaside village of Paleokastritsa, which is about a half-hour's drive from Corfu Town and I'd highly recommend it. From here, you can take an idyllic boat tour of the area's crystal-clear coves and inlets.
Best for: culture vultures
What makes it the best: Berlin has gained rather a notorious reputation for itself as the home of hedonistic nightlife and risqué cabarets. And whilst those labels are neither unfounded nor undeserved, there is a depth to this city that goes far beyond its gritty underbelly - although that is to be responsibly enjoyed as well! Berliners have clearly sought salvation in their art, painting over "the Wall of Shame" but not erasing their murky past entirely. The city has been rebirthed out of pain and given a new, bohemian lust for life - which is reflected as much in its theatres, cinemas and art-houses as it is in basement bierkellers and nocturnal hangouts. It has a whole island dedicated to museums, and is itself a sort of exhibition of progressive culture-clashes: a harmonious, albeit eclectic melting pot.
3 unmissable things:
1) Support independent guides on a whistle-stop walking tour: Difficult to find these days as larger tour operators have saturated the market, but somewhere like Airbnb Experiences is a great place to start. There are tours catering to a range of niches, from vegan food to photography.
2) Be left speechless at the East Side Gallery: An open-air graffiti gallery stretching 1.3 kilometres, the East Side Gallery is a sobering and provocative collection of murals adorning what's left of the Berlin Wall.
3) Live your best hipster life in Kreuzberg: The subject of many an indie rock'n'roll anthem in my youth, grungy Kreuzberg is Berlin's answer to Shoreditch. Heavily gentrified since the reunification of Germany in 1990, it is now a hub of vibrant venues such as artisan coffee shops and techno clubs.
Best for: history buffs
What makes it the best: For a city significantly made up of ancient ruins, Rome is looking remarkably good for its age. Like a robust Italian wine, it has only strengthened in appeal with time. Once the centre of the world, Rome has since shaken off its imperial airs and graces and instead, has adopted a breed of scruffy elegance that's hard not to fall for. Despite being a living relic of the Roman era, the city also boasts a timeless quality - straddling a number of periods including Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque, juxtaposed by a contemporary swagger demonstrated in fluorescent Aperol Spritzes, porchetta sandwich-shacks and purring Vespas. Recover from sweaty days amongst the crowds by cooling off in shady churches, or with lazy dinners in trattorias and moonlit strolls down dusty roads.
3 unmissable things:
1) Stand on the shoulders of Romulus: According to legend, Palatine Hill is where the creator of Rome fixed his first foundations for the city. Overlooking the Roman Forum archaeological site, the Hill provides a wide-angle aspect of Ancient Rome and can be visited with a combined ticket granting you access to both the Forum and Palatine Hill, as well as the Colosseum.
2) Connect with Roman Catholicism: Rome is renowned for its historic Catholic culture, and cradles the most sacred city-state in the world. Whilst we didn't have the opportunity to explore Vatican City, it is certainly on our itinerary for when we return on a longer break. I did go inside the Pantheon though, which is definitely a must-see!
3) Saunter along the banks of the River Tiber: If you're lucky, street musicians will serenade you as you study the mind-bending structures of the Castel Sant'Angelo before veering off to steal a look at the Vatican from afar.
Best for: wide open spaces
What makes it the best: I know this is meant to be the best city breaks from the UK, but I am yet to find a city with more green space than London. It is one of the key things that makes living here, for me personally, just about bearable. And, considering we won't be venturing far beyond our backyards for a little while, I figured one local listing was acceptable. Whether you centre your staycation in Central London or in the leafy suburbs outside, you're never too far away from a Royal Park, sprawling common or sheltered oasis. From Hampstead Heath in the north to Crystal Palace in the south, there are ample opportunities to get out into nature and breathe the (sadly; polluted) air. Deer, foxes, hedgehogs and herons all make their homes here and you can enjoy seasonal favourites like lidos, festivals and ice rinks when the weather permits.
3 unmissable things:
1) Regent's Park: One of the city's opulent Royal Parks, Regent's Park is a hive of activity, culture and wildlife. ZSL London Zoo leads the way with its animal care and conservation, the Park's own Open Air Theatre produces Shakespeare, musicals and family shows for the summer months, and the exuberant rose garden, bandstand, playgrounds, deckchairs and pedalos keep visitors coming from all walks of life.
2) Blackheath Common & Greenwich Park: I've lumped these together as you only have to cross a road to get from one to the other. Blackheath is a village of musty bookshops, delicious foodie spots and Georgian villas in southeast London - well worthy of an explore before heading over to Greenwich for the Royal Naval College, Cutty Sark and sweeping views of Canary Wharf. Blackheath also hosts an epic Bonfire Night every year, complete with fun-fair and food kiosks.
3) St. James's Park: Maybe it's because I'm not a native Londoner, but I really like St. James's! It has a touch of the whimsical about it with its pelicans and island-dwelling Swiss cottage; and I feel like a Jane Austen heroine waltzing past Horse Guards' Parade. There are constant reminders you're in London though, with Buckingham Palace and the London Eye poking through the trees.
Best for: hustle & bustle
What makes it the best: When the powers-that-be recognised Prague was mainly becoming synonymous with stag parties and pub crawls, they took action. Noise restrictions were applied in residential zones, and the serving of alcohol to large groups was discouraged between certain hours by the city's 'Night Mayor'. I was there in September last year, and the streets irrefutably hummed with throngs of people, but not in a way that felt overwhelming or lawless. I would go so far as to say I loved the atmosphere of Prague; it was alive with early-autumn revelry, romance and a rebellious soul. Your days should be whiled away with walks in and out of the historic quarter - for Prague is more than the sum of its Gothic turrets and clock towers - chased down with plentiful brunches and late-afternoon Pilsner. Cross the river after sunset in search of the best of the restaurant scene.
3 unmissable things:
1) Visit Josefov (The Jewish Quarter): Czechia has a long and dark history of persecution against the Jewish people, beginning in the tenth century. Formerly a ghetto, Josefov was once the only place in Prague where Jewish citizens could live. It survived Nazi rule, and today its synagogues and cemetery symbolise the community's great losses and emancipations over the years.
2) Traipse the castle grounds and cobblestones of Malá Strana: Malá Strana, or the 'Lesser Town' of Prague, provides the gateway to the enormous castle complex. Before you make the climb up to Hradčany, bask in the district's effortlessly endearing gardens and have a bite to eat at the Café Savoy or Hergetova Cihelna - another of my top foodie finds in Europe!
3) Get a taste of microbrewery culture in the Old Town: The Czechs are proud of being Pilsner pioneers, so tasting it should be an experience rather than a reckless binge. We did a basic beer-tasting at U-Supa - the oldest brewery in the city with its own restaurant attached. They offer six different beers to sample, with my favourite being a cheeky cherry-flavoured brew!
Best for: an urban escape
What makes it the best: Ljubljana is the perfect city break for someone who would rather leave the hustle-and-bustle at home. It is tiny, temperate and owning an eco-friendly ethos that cities all over the world could learn from. Despite being the most un-citylike capital I've ever travelled to, Ljubljana is certainly no wallflower. The pristine streets are lined with traditional taverns, friendly dragon-themed memorabilia and even a dog bakery! It's seductively cute, quaint and quirky with an intriguing history and patchwork of influences contributing to its unique identity. Practically equidistant from Austria and Italy, the city sits somewhere in the middle of being Alpine and Adriatic, situated merely a stone's throw from both the Julian Alps and the Balkan coast. The result makes Ljubljana the ideal destination for those craving peace, tranquillity and escape in a city setting.
3 unmissable things:
1) Stock up on local produce at Ljubljana Central Market: As part of Slovenia's growing sustainability credentials, this market showcases "kilometre zero" products - meaning the vast majority of what's on sale is created, grown, harvested or reared locally to Ljubljana.
2) Relish car-free roads: The historic centre of Ljubljana has been pedestrianised since 2008, so you can casually enjoy perusing the city without having to negotiate any haphazard car traffic. For when your little feet get tired, there are bikes for hire and eco-taxis!
3) For a real escape, head to Triglav National Park: About 45 minutes by road from Ljubljana lies the only national park in the country. Home to Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj and the Julian Alps, Triglav is a natural paradise for hikers, rowers and anyone looking for fresh mountain breeze.
Best for: summer sunseekers
What makes it the best: Malta doesn't get anywhere near the level of attention it deserves. This sun-drenched archipelago luxuriates in over 300 days of sunshine a year and its capital, Valletta, is a great place to soak up those rays. With streets the colour of gold and foundations built by medieval knights, the city has an inherent understated grandeur that is enchanting. It may be a touch frayed around the edges - with paint flaking from its iconic wooden balconies and stone steps that have been relentlessly pounded by the footfall of thousands - but that all adds to its character. The nation of Malta is the smallest in the EU, making it so compact for your convenience that basing yourself in Valletta need not confine you to the city limits. The nearby bays of St. Julian's, St. Paul's and St. George's cater for beach-dwellers, whilst the culture-hungry flock to the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, Marsaxlokk fishing village and the 'silent city' of Mdina.
3 unmissable things:
1) Visit the Upper & Lower Barakka Gardens: Suspended high above the Grand Harbour offering stunning panoramic views, the Upper and Lower Barakka Gardens hug Valletta's bastions and barbicans cloaking them in flowers, monuments and memorials. Sublime on a sunny day away from the busyness of Strait Street.
2) Take the ferry to Birgu: Across the water from Valletta are the 'Three Cities'; a trio of fortified towns of which Birgu is the oldest and largest. With an impressive yacht harbour and interweaving ramshackle streets, it's a fun place for paths less-travelled and satisfying your curiosity.
3) Indulge in classical Maltese munchies: Maltese cuisine is distinctive for its amalgamation of Sicilian and North African flavours, given its unique position slap-bang between two continents. Try the pastizzi; delicate pastries filled with either soft cheese or a spiced pea mix, and gbejna; an indigenous cheese of Malta often served deep-fried in restaurants. Pasta, fresh fish and hearty one-pots are also typically found on Maltese menus.
AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
Best for: winter wanderers
What makes it the best: Last on this list, but by no means least, is the heartachingly handsome Amsterdam. Now connected to the UK by a Eurostar service, it has never been easier to pop across to the Dutch capital - once we're able to travel again, that is! I'm sure the city is beautiful all year-round, but winter in Amsterdam is the very epitome of magical. Fairylights catch the ripples in canals as caramel-coated clouds of hot breath emit from Stroopwafel stands; the space outside the Rijksmuseum is transformed with silhouettes of twirling ice-skaters and the city exhales with the easing of the crowds. The Dutch have a word for the warm-and-fuzzy feeling bought on by such things as chilly mornings in frosty parks, gin-induced tingles and thawing out in avocado-orientated cafés - gezellig. So grab a toasty cone of frites, layer up, and get your gezellig on!
3 unmissable things:
1) Cruise the canals for Amsterdam Light Festival: Every winter, the Amsterdam Light Festival takes over the waterways and the city becomes one huge illuminated installation. There is a different theme each year and artists from all over the world compete to be featured in the programme. A lot of the light-works can only be seen from the canals themselves, so a narrated boat tour is laid on at festival-time to help convey the meanings and motivations behind each piece.
2) Immerse yourself at the Van Gogh Museum: Vincent Van Gogh is one of the best-loved children of the Netherlands and this eponymous museum houses a substantial catalogue of his creations, taking you on an intense journey through his life and work. The storytelling that guides you through Vincent's art is deeply moving; honouring his talent, his demons and his humanity. As you can imagine, it's very popular, so remember to book your entry slot in advance.
3) Warm up with street food at the Foodhallen: With 20+ vendors packed under the same roof, the Foodhallen is any self-respecting foodie's heaven. Good luck finding a seat (you'll have to move fast!) but that is the joy of the experience - squeezing round communal tables, bumping elbows with strangers as you get into messy, comprising positions with dim sum, tacos and hot-dogs!