The Best European City Breaks

The beauty of Europe is how easy it is to flit between cities, whether you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway or a more leisurely stay. Of course, there are the old standbys – Paris, Amsterdam, Rome – but there’s also a slew of more offbeat destinations with a new dynamism and a new wave of hot hotels and cutting-edge restaurants. Some are known for their cultural splendour, others for their chic boutiques and world-class fashion scenes, and the best come with a swath of golden sand. Here’s our selection of the best city breaks in Europe.

Rome, Italy

rome italy

Rome is an open-air museum, not just a city. The cobbled streets of the centro storico and the grand boulevards are dotted with crumbling landmarks and classical ruins, while the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Pantheon mark the city’s 3,000-year history. It has a world-class art scene, Renaissance palazzos, Baroque churches, and, of course, a country within a country: Vatican City is the grand headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, an independent city-state, and one of the most imposing sites in the Western world. Head up the city’s seven hills to the cool neighborhoods of Monti or Trastevere, where lively trattorias spill out onto the pavements and piazzas and locals and tourists alike come out to enjoy the good life.

Best for: a step back in time

Where to stay

Copenhagen, Denmark

copenhagen denmark

Copenhagen is the ultimate destination for real-life interiors inspiration, rather than scrolling through images on Instagram, from the flagship store of beloved homewares brand Hay to Stilleben for accessories (smoked-glass vases, retro floral tea cosies, rose-quartz teaspoons) and art prints from the Paper Collective Design Gallery. Even the best restaurants, such as Noma 2.0 and the Ilse Crawford-designed Winterspring dessert bar, have appealing interiors, allowing you to pick up design ideas while you eat.

Best for: design ideas

Where to stay

Venice, Italy

venice italy

Venice is always a stunning destination. Beyond the obvious must-sees – the gleaming St. Mark’s Basilica, the Gothic Doge’s Palace, and the Rialto Bridge – there is a quiet labyrinth of cobbled streets and narrow canals to explore. Art lovers should not miss the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s 20th-century masterpieces (Miró, Mondrian, Dal) or the Venice Biennale, which runs from May to November.

Best for: unbeatable romance

Where to stay

Lisbon, Portugal

lisbon portugal

Lisbon, the hilly coastal capital with pastel-colored buildings in the old town and trundling yellow trams, has been gaining popularity in recent years. There are flea markets and food stalls, as well as street art by Shepard Fairey and shops that promote local design talent. In the evenings, join the young creative crowd that gathers at restaurants run by brilliant Portuguese chefs such as José Avillez, who has several restaurants in the city, and linger at upscale rooftop bars with dreamy cityscape views.

Best for: cool capital vibes

Where to stay

Valetta, Malta

valetta malta

Valletta is Europe’s sunshine city, with over 300 days of sunshine per year – and Malta’s tiny capital makes an ideal city break for those looking for a warm-weather escape. This modest beauty proudly wears its fascinating history. Once dilapidated, it is now a hub of design hotels and buzzing bars, with a packed calendar of cultural events. Fly between the opulent St John’s Co-Cathedral (which houses two of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces) and the starkly modern Parliament Building. Then cruise across the harbor to the Three Cities, a collection of ancient fortified towns so well preserved that it feels like you’ve stepped into a 17th-century time capsule. You can easily cross from one end of the city to the other in under half an hour, so if you’re staying for a few days, the island’s enticing countryside and coast are begging to be explored.

Best for: History buffs

Where to stay

Paris, France

paris france

Getting lost in Paris is half the fun; the only real way to explore the city’s 20 different arrondissements is on foot, stopping to people-watch on wicker-chair-lined café terraces spilling onto beautiful cobblestone streets. Not only does the most romantic city in Europe (and the world) have world-class culture, but it also has smart boutiques, cutting-edge concept stores, jewel-box patisseries, colorful flea markets, and a world-class food scene. And if you’re coming from London, you won’t even need to board a plane.

Best for: chic boutiques

Where to stay

Seville, Spain

seville spain

The sun-drenched capital of Andalusia is one of Europe’s hottest cities. Come for the orange-scented air, quaint medieval lanes, whitewashed houses, a fiery flamenco scene, extravagant Moorish architecture, and the world’s largest cathedral – with Columbus’ tomb hidden inside. Seville exudes old-world charm; 17th-century palaces have been converted into chic hotels, and horse-drawn carriages line up alongside pretty courtyards filled with tinkling fountains.

Best for: guaranteed sun

Where to stay

Reykjavik, Iceland

reykjavik iceland

Iceland’s capital is small enough to explore in a day, but its size does not prevent this Nordic star from pulsing with big city energy. The city hardly sleeps during the summer, with revellers pouring out of bars and clubs to chase the midnight sun. Instead of rushing between major attractions, this is a city to take in slowly. Spend a weekend soaking in the fresh air (a welcome respite from some of Europe’s busier capitals), bathing in the city’s geothermal pools, and joining puffin and whale-watching tours just offshore. After you’ve seen the main attractions, use the city as a base to explore the country’s more otherworldly wonders. You only need to drive 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik to see the glaciers, lava fields, and natural drama that have earned Iceland its bucket-list status.

Best for: Adventure

Where to stay

Amsterdam, Netherlands

amsterdam netherlands

Amsterdam has long since shed its stag-do image. Nowadays, the compact city is all about creatives riding their bikes around and buying artisanal bread and cheese at the Saturday Noordermarkt. Amsterdam offers heavy-hitting art galleries and museums (the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum are both must-sees), cool cafés, and independent fashion boutiques for a European city break (the best are in the Nine Streets neighbourhood). But nothing beats a morning spent strolling along the pretty canals lined with townhouses and soaking in the laid-back vibe of the place.

Best for: a laid-back, almost car-free city

Where to stay

San Sebastian, Spain

san sebastian spain

San Sebastian is the ultimate culinary destination, with more Michelin stars per square metre than anywhere else in the world. However, it is not only about the food. This sophisticated city is one of Spain’s most beautiful Atlantic resorts, thanks to its elegant architecture and two beaches (one a sweep of glorious golden sand, the other a surfers’ paradise). The best way to get under its skin is to sample the local pintxo-bar scene while sipping a glass of tzakoli fizzy wine. Make a reservation at one of the city’s gourmet hotspots, such as Mugaritz or Arzak, for truly once-in-a-lifetime cooking. Hike up to Monte Urgull to see the ruins of the city’s 12th-century fort, or paddleboard across to Santa Clara Island, where the cool waters lapping the shore provide welcome relief during the hot summer months.

Best for: Eating

Where to stay

Berlin, Germany

berlin germany

Berlin is a fascinating city and a living history museum. The Berlin Wall was demolished in 1989, but the political, cultural, and physical divide that existed for nearly 30 years remains. However, the city’s extraordinary past has not suffocated it; it is now hurtling headfirst into the future with hip bars and an unrivaled party scene, smart hotels, gourmet restaurants, and experimental art galleries. From the graffiti-covered remnants of the wall to Hitler’s bunker, the Norman Foster-designed Reichstag dome, the New Synagogue, and the Berlin Zoo, there is plenty to see.

Best for: the in-flux art scene

Where to stay

Athens, Greece

athens greece

Athens has undergone a real renaissance in recent years to become one of Europe’s best city breaks, with its alluring blend of ancient and modern and a skyline stretching all the way down to the Aegean. Of course, pockets of the city have retained their authentic grit – the Acropolis looms large over hilly streets filled with tumbledown buildings and politically charged street art – but a new wave of creative energy is driving the change. Today, the city is teeming with strange pop-ups, new businesses, art galleries, cool little boutiques, and a slew of exciting new hotels. There are also beaches: pine-fringed peninsulas and stretches of empty golden sand where rustic family-run tavernas rub shoulders with glitzy beach clubs.

Best for: a historical hit

Where to stay

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