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Alternative European city breaks you've not considered

We love a city break; and with Europe on our doorstep we have fantastic history, culture, food and architecture within a stone’s throw of our coast.

The share of UK travellers heading for city breaks has declined a little each year since 2016, perhaps driven by uncertainty of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the uncertainty of the past few years travelling to Europe is simple and straightforward so we hope to see the resurgence of the long weekend away.

Nobody needs to be told about the wonders of Rome, Paris or Barcelona as popular cities for romantic getaways – but we would like to take a look at the places a little less well travelled where you can escape for a romantic long weekend and return to home to the envy of your friends and family.

Tallinn Skyline

Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia and first indications are that it was settled and stated to grow from 1219. In the 800 years since then Estonia has seen much change. Thanks to its unique location the country has been either invaded, occupied or fought over by the Danes, Germans, Swedes, Polish and Russians. These impacts can be seen in the mix of history and culture seen in Tallinn today.

Tallinn has two areas, the modern outer section of the city and the absolutely beautiful Medieval walled city. The old stone buildings, cobbled streets, beautiful squares and ancient city walls contain castle towers – such as the popular Kiek in de Kok, churches including the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Olav’s Church and St Mary’s Cathedral (the oldest church in Estonia) and the Town hall square which is a great place to relax, eat and drink.

The old town is easily walkable and you can probably get most things covered in 2 or 3 days.

Trips to Tallinn are equally as beautiful in the summer or the winter, snow covered church spires give the city a real magical quality but just beware it does get very cold in winter, so pack appropriately.

Got more time than a weekend? If you have more time then Tallinn and Helsinki are closely linked, a 2.5 hour ferry connects these two capitals so try to explore Helsinki too if you have time to do so. 

Ljubljana City Break

Slovenia is a real hidden gem of Europe. A small country nestled between Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, Croatia to the south and Italy to the west  it is home to some of the most beautiful and undiscovered Alpine landscapes and glistening lakes (Lake Bled).

Ljubljana is Slovenia’s capital and welcomes around 160,000 British traveller per year. It’s history dates from 1144 and became an administrative capital under the Hapsburgs of Austria. If you prefer the mythological story then Ljubljana is said to have been founded by Jason and his Argonauts.

Arriving in Ljubljana, one of the first things you’ll see is the castle overlooking and protecting the city. A short, but steep walk up the castle (there’s also a funicular if you prefer to ascend gracefully) allows you to see the city in its full glory.

If you head to the castle for sunset you can get some wonderful photos, they also have fantastic restaurants inside the castle walls and at times they also have open air cinema showings.  

On the whole, Ljubljana is a very relaxing city and nothing can be nicer than taking a stroll beside the river that bisects the city, along the way you’ll pass the Dragon Bridge and many of the city’s beautiful churches. As a reward for your walk you can treat yourself to a drink in one of the many quaint cafes and bars that span the river bank.

Got more time? Being so small Slovenia is very easy to travel across (about 6 hour drive end to end) but there’s a lot to see beyond Ljubljana. Rent a car and head to Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, Vintgar Gorge, Triglav National Park, Piran and Maribor to cover off as much of this beautiful country as possible.

Reykjavik City

Ok so we accept that Iceland has become more popular so maybe its capital Reykjavik cannot be considered a hidden gem, but nevertheless it’s well worth a visit.

There are number of excursions from Reykjavik that will give you the opportunity to visit the Thingvellir National Park, seeing the eruption of Geysir hot spring, visiting the continental divide and Gullfoss waterfall.

No trip would be complete without an attempt to see the Northern Lights, whilst there are many factors that will impact whether or not you see them you can improve your chances by reading our guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Europe.

Before you head home, consider a relaxing trip to the Blue Lagoon – which is handily between the city and the airport – serves as a great place to unwind before you head home. The Blue Lagoon is man-made so if you are looking for a genuine geothermic pool to bathe in there are many other options available.

Got more time? Take a trip outside of Reykjavik into Iceland’s fjordlands or glaciers. Try to reach Jokulsarlon’s glacial lagoon and if you can go further East to the town of Seydisfjordur you won’t regret it.

Verona Bridge

Romantic weekends and Italy are a match made in heaven. But if you look beyond the typical destinations of Rome, Florence and Venice you might just find Verona.

The city was the setting for the most famous work of literature – Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet – so it’s romantic credentials already take some beating.

A long weekend in Verona will likely see you explore its historic centre including Juliet’s house and balcony, churches, piazzas, cobbled streets and cafes.

Soak in the views across the city from the Castel San Pietro or if you prefer instead the Torre Dei Lamberti before exploring the markets in the Piazza Delle Erbe which is just beneath you. Then take a trip back to the Roman Empire by visiting the Roman Theatre which you can get to via a walk across the Ponte Pietra, one of the prettiest bridges in the city. Speaking of bridges, the medieval ponte scaligero provides fantastic photos to cherish.

The main Roman attraction, however, is the Verona Arena – one of the best preserved amphitheatres and a venue that is still used to stage events today – thankfully of a less gory nature these days.

There is a tradition in Verona called Passeggiata which is where local get dressed up and take a leisurely stroll around the city in the evening, what a wonderful way to wrap up your adventure through this historical city.

 Got more time? If you’re happy driving in Italy then you can combine a trip to Verona with Milan or Bologna. Or if you prefer to take things a little easier, then the stunning Lake Garda is a mere 30-60 mins away.

Porto Skyline

Porto in northwest Portugal is the country’s second largest city and dates back to 275BCE and was latterly used as a Roman outpost. The city is one of the oldest in Europe.

With so much history comes a long list of things to see and do a long weekend in Porto will be fairly action packed.

Some must do’s include exploring the religious history of the city with the Church of Sao Francisco dating from 1425, Church of Santa Clara from 1457 and the imposing Clerigos Church which can be seen from across the city.

Don’t forget the more modern features either such as Luis I Bridge leading to Porto’s historic city walls, the Foz do Douro for an amble along the coast and the Casa de Musica concert hall for a some modern culture.

With so much going on, you will want to reward yourself after a long day exploring and heading to Cais da Ribeira to unwind with some of Porto’s finest food and drink.

Got more time? If you’re a wine lover then the Douro Valley is a short trip from Porto, an area that produces more than 80 grape varieties, with popular ones including Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and Touriga Franca.

Annecy Town Centre

One of the hidden gems of France, Annecy is a medieval town set in the foothills of the Alps. The town itself set on the western side of the lake that bares its name.

The town has a quaint atmosphere with cobbled stone streets, and hidden alleyways that navigate you around the city and cafes waiting to refresh you all with the gleaming water of the river Thiou by your side. It is very similar to Bruges in Belgium.

Much of what you can do in Annecy revolves around the lake itself, whether you fancy a pedalo ride, hiring a motorboat, paddleboard or just fancy a swim there’s plenty to do. However, if you’d rather be on dry land then the walk around the lake is well worth doing, and if you fancy a tougher hike then you can try the tough ascent to La Tournette – the highest peak in Annecy – whilst tough you’ll be rewarded with the most spectacular views.

For romantic city breaks a visit to Pont des Amours is a must do, rumour has it that if you kiss your partner here then it is guaranteed that you will stay together forever.

Got more time? Depending on which way you plan to travel you can head towards Lyon – France’s food capital. Or if you prefer to head towards the mountains then the Swiss border is not too far so you can head towards Mont-Blanc (Europe’s highest mountain) for Geneva and Lausanne.

Pula Street Level

Croatia’s probably most famous for the walled city of Dubrovnik or party towns of Split and Hvar, but nestled in the northwest corner near the border with Italy is the beautiful city of Pula.

Given its proximity to Italy, it only natural to find Roman ruins in the city and the Pula Colosseum is the biggest example in the city. Built at the same time as the Colosseum in Rome but remarkably Pula’s is more intact and you can even stand in the tunnels where gladiators would have once been. Now, the Pula Colosseum plays host to several music concerts each year.

Away from the historical side of Pula, there are the beautiful beaches, modern art galleries, plenty of wineries as well as the opportunity to sample the Croatian nightlife. There really is something for everyone.

Got more time? A short trip from Pula brings you to the equally beautiful fishing port of Rovinj and coastal town of Perc. If you have longer in your itinerary you could head further south into Croatia towards Zadar and Split.

Bari City View

Italy has so many wonderful towns and cities to explore that it is difficult to narrow down the possibilities, but we’ve chosen the capital of Puglia, Bari.

Situated on the Adriatic coast is has a fabulous one kilometre promenade where you can take a romantic stroll and really get to appreciate the sun and sea.

The Old Town is the heart of the city and you’ll no doubt wander and get lost in the narrow streets here. The key landmarks that you should come to on your wander will be the San Nicola Basilica, San Sabino Cathedral, Via Sparano da Bari shopping street and the vibrant Petruzzelli Theatre.

The San Nicola Basilica is a particular highlight as it is a key pilgrimage site in Europe for Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Got more time? If you plan on renting a car, then a short 2hr drive further south will take you to Lecce, another beautiful city in the heel of Italy. If you have longer (and don’t mind a long ferry journey) you can sail the Adriatic and arrive in Dubrovnik, Croatia which is a wonderful walled city. 

Kotor Skyline

Croatia has really embraced tourism over the past few years, but the other Balkan nations are certainly less well travelled meaning you have an opportunities to be a visit before it starts getting overcrowded.

Kotor is a fortified Montenegrin city close to the border with Croatia and sits in the Bay of Kotor surrounded by mountains on all sides.

The city is a great quieter alternative to Dubrovnik. Its Old Town, Stari Grad, was built by Venetians and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can be accessed by an easy walk along the bay. Once inside, you can enjoy hidden courtyards and a labyrinth of cobbled streets as well as walking the city walls.

If you’re feeling energetic then you can head up to Kotor fortress to get an unforgettable view of the city from on high.

Heading out of the bay from Kotor and you’ll reach Prerast – an beautiful little town where you can catch a short boat ride out on to the lake and across to Our Lady of the Rocks – an island in the bay where you can visit the island church, view incredible frescoes and a museum.

Equally, if you just want to sit and watch the bay from the many hotel balconies that’s also a fantastic option for relaxation.

Got more time? From Kotor you can head into the mountains and get an entirely different experience of Montenegro, whilst if you have more time a 3hr drive from Kotor is Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina which is famous for its Old Bridge which was reconstructed in 2004 after being destroyed during the war, it’s a sobering but wonderful place to see.

Heidelberg Skyline

Heidelberg is a city in the region of Baden-Wuttemberg in southwest Germany. Sitting on the banks of the River Neckar - itself a tributary of the river Rhine – Heidelberg is famous for its Renaissance style castle and world-renowned university.

In fact, you can follow in the footsteps of the city's most famous academics by walking the Philosophers’ Way. It winds its way along the north side of the river and reveals some of the best views over the river and the city beyond – it is one of the most romantic walks the city can offer.

Heading down into the city itself, can explore the Old Town and Hauptstrasse which are full of squares and shopping streets with cobbled roads leading off them allowing you to find some hidden highlights.

As you wander through the city, you’ll no doubt come across The Church of the Holy Spirit from the 1400s. Don’t forget to take in the bridges that lead you into the Old Town either which are great landmarks in themselves. 

Got more time? Just a short trip east from Heidelberg is the ‘King’s Seat’ which is a hill revealing fantastic views across the Rhine valley. If you continue to travel east you’ll get to what has been voted the most beautiful town in Germany, Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The whole region is well worth some more time visiting.  

Bergen Old Harbour

On the Norwegian west coast in the heart of the fjords is the historic city of Bergen. Once an integral port to the Hanseatic League – Bergen along with other cities shaped the politics, trade and economies of northern Europe until the 1600s.

A weekend in Bergen today allows its visitors to explore both on the water and off it. Sognefjord - the longest and deepest fjord in Norway – provides opportunities for visitors to cruise the fjord itself, visitingnatural wonders of Bøyabreen glacier and Vøring waterfall plus much more. Whilst the nearby Hardangerfjord – the second biggest fjord- will allow you to see Trolltunga (Troll’s Tongue) a well-known and popular vista.

Once you are back on dry land, the city itself has so much to offer. Depending on the type of experience you wish to have you can spend time slowly discovering the city itself taking in the colourful builings of Bryggen – the old harbour. There are also a number of churches (St Mary’s Church and Fantoft Stave Church), fortresses and museums which give a good insight into this medieval city. 

Bergen also has an interesting art and music scene, with modern art galleries and installations like KODE(1-4) to the house of world renown composer Edvard Grieg – who lived out his life overlooking Bergen.

Or if you prefer an active holiday then you can hike one of Bergen’s seven nearby mountains or join one of the many cycling or horse riding experiences that the city has to offer. For those less energetic, there is a cable car or funicular to the top of the mountain offering fantastic views over the city and the fjord beyond.

Got more time? There are some wonderful small villages close to Bergen, two particular favourites are Skudeneshavn and Flam which both have a beautiful serenity about them. You could also venture further in land to the capital Oslo. A scenic train ride connects the two cities, and whilst it takes 6.30hrs you can sit back and take in the picturesque Norwegian landscape on the way.

Utrecht Canals

Utrecht is a culturally interesting city, like many of the other places on this list it has a medieval city centre but is known for its renowned university with celebrated alumni including Rene Descartes.

The city is a fantastic alternative to Amsterdam for those heading to the Netherlands. It is a very walkable city, most of the key landmarks from the Gothic tower which overlooks the city, to St Martin’s Cathedral and Molen Rijn en Zon - a rather peculiarly situated windmill in the middle of the street! - are all easily walkable within around 20 minutes

Its main canal, Oudegracht, meanders its way through the city whilst other waterways encircle it meaning your ever too far away from a riverside walk. Plus in Utrecht, you can walk at canal level, not just up above them.

Other sights of note include Castle de Haar, St Catherin’s Convent museum, Utrecht’s botanical garden and the Janskerkhof flower market. Utrecht is perfect to explore for a weekend break and anyone looking for a more relaxed and less touristy version of Amsterdam.

Got more time? The Netherlands is so much more than Amsterdam but Amsterdam should be on your travel list anyway. It is possible to reach the city within just 40 minutes from Utrecht so if you want to compare them it’s easily done. Other cities and towns that are easily reached from Utrecht include Rotterdam, Den Haag, Delft and our favourites Leiden and Haarlem.

If you are planning a romantic trip away, or just looking for some alternatives to the classic city break destinations then we hope you find some inspiration here.

Don’t forget that no matter what type of trip you’re planning or where you intend to go, make sure to get yourself protected with travel insurance  which can protect against unforeseen travel issues.

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