Cool European city breaks for 2017
Looking for an urban getaway that's a long, long way from Europe's well-trodden capitals? Here's how to see Europe with a difference this year
Published: Wednesday 3rd May 2017
Think Zurich is just full of boring bankers talking about finance and being massively dull? So did we. Until we visited and hit the Oberer Letten – a wide, gloriously clean mass of chilly water that’s a gathering spot for the young, cool, and very tattooed residents of the city. Visit in the summer and you can join them in sunbathing sessions on faded wooden decks, diving into the river every now and then for a float along the water.
To continue the like-a-local experience, check out app LocalBini, which specialises in tours in Zurich and Paris – visit local flea markets, try a Zurich-style boot camp or book a night out with a city wild child. For the best burgers get a table at The Bite; the outdoor courtyard is strung with dangly baubles and the chips smothered with addictive Tango-orange cheese. They’re £20 a pop, and you can thank Brexit for that. Finally, for something a little more cultural, check out the Museum für Gestaltung for its ‘100 Years in Tourism’ exhibition – this brightly coloured collection of vintage tourism posters will be on display until 9 July.
How: Kameha Grand Zurich is a very cool, very swish design hotel with reasonably priced rooms despite its swank. From £136 per room. kamehagrandzurich.com; Easyjet flies to Zurich from £50 return. easyjet.com
With winding cobbled streets and quaint rose-coloured buildings, it’s no wonder Toulouse, in southwest France, has picked up the nickname of ‘La Ville Rose’ – which means ‘the Pink City’. Set on a bend of the Garonne River and the 241km Canal du Midi, this compact city which comes complete with pretty Old Quarter and loads of waterways, is the ideal chilled-out city break combining history, relaxation and, of course, French pastries.
Start at the imposing (pink) exterior of Basilica St-Sernin – the 13th-century church is an important stop along the 500-mile-long Camino de Santiago, with pilgrims passing through on route to Galicia in Spain. Inside it’s full of gold sculptures, and worth popping your head in for a look at just one of the many blush-coloured churches and convents dotted throughout the laid-back city.
For a cool gallery housing a range of contemporary photography exhibitions head to Château d’Eau, a 19th-century brick tower which once pumped water, and has been amusing gallery lovers since the 1970s. Don’t leave without stocking up on sweet tarts and macarons for your friends back home at Au Poisson Bleu.
Bilbao and San Sebastian, Spain
For a Spanish two in one, twin Bilbao’s art scene and galleries with San Sebastian’s beaches, cobbled streets and dinky bars. Bilbao’s had a bad reputation in the past – and, admittedly, it’s not the prettiest of Spanish cities – but investments, in the form of shiny new museums including the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, now draw the crowds.
It’s worth a day, but afterwards you’ll be ready to hit up the quaint streets of San Sebastian’s old town, known as the Parte Vieja, where you’ll find hundreds of pintxo bars. They’re the perfect way to spend a relaxed evening, snacking on small plates of delicious food and sipping local wine – or, if you’d like something fancier, the city is home to more Michelin stars per square metre than any other. Book months ahead, obviously. As for day time, definitely hit the beach – whether it’s the wide, golden sands of Playa de la Concha or Playa de Gros, the city’s surf beach. Or both…
Bulgaria may be most famous for its cheap skiing and low-cost beach resorts but its capital deserves some credit, and shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re after a city break combining history and good bars – not to mention one that won’t break the bank. Architecturally it’s sure to keep you interested – whether it’s domed churches, grand mosques from when the country was part of the Ottoman empire, or Soviet Army monuments.
The latest find for the city, though – discovered when the new metro system was being constructed – is the Ancient Serbia Complex, the ruins of eight Roman city streets, which are open to see during the metro operating hours. Combine your visit there with a trip to Fabrika Daga, the city’s best coffee shop, with some pretty sweet cakes, too. Fore more history, the Boyana Church is a must.
Take a taxi out of town (€5 or so) and marvel at the medieval monument which sits at the foot of Mount Vitosha. The three buildings are impressive from the outside, but inside you’ll see frescoes dating back to 1259. Hungry? Bulgarian cuisine it is. Grab a sit-down meal at Moma Bulgarian Food and Wine, then head to Hristo Belchev and Angel Kanchev for after-dinner beers. If you need a late-night kebab, Ege Turk is our pick.
How: Urban adventures offers three-hour tours of the city that are a great way to blitz the sites in one swoop. From £30pp. urbanadventures.com; the city isn’t big on overly cool hotels – Sofia Hotel Balkan is a swanky choice from £69 per night. sofiabalkan.com;Wizz Air offers return flights from £43. wizzair.com
If we asked you to find Lecce on a map of Italy, the chances are you couldn’t. We couldn’t, and it’s supposed to be our job. But then we travelled to Puglia, on Italy’s east coast, and bumped into Lecce, a gloriously pretty city that creaks with history, and provides the perfect gateway to the sublime coastline of the Salento region. And when we say pretty, we mean jaw-to-the-floor at every turn.
You could walk for days through quiet streets, flanked by baroque architecture built from creamy Lecce limestone – each turn revealing yet another 500-year-old church or palazzo, gremlin or gargoyle, like it’s the most ordinary and unremarkable thing in the world. Graceful and relaxed, Lecce’s exactly the kind of place where you could lose a few days just slurping up rustic Puglian cooking (try family-run Trattoria Il Rifugio della Buona Stella) and churning through pastel-coloured ice cream at Gelateria Natale.
How: La Fiermontina is a boutique pick, with a garden that’s bordered by the city’s ancient walls. From £253 a night. mrandmrssmith.com; Ryanair offers flights to Brindisi (30 mins by train) from £45 return. ryanair.com