Looking to escape the city for… another city? Us too. These are our favourite short-haul cities, and some very different ways to experience them. Open-top bus tours? Not for us, thanks.
Close to eight million visitors flock to this iconic city on the sea each year. Why? Well, those Gaudi buildings are pretty nice to look at (the towering Sagrada Família is up there as one of the best, and most memorable, churches in the world), and being able to stroll along to the beach after a day of city touring is pretty cool, too. Our pick though? The gigantic goblets of gin and tonic, the drink of Barcelona. Head to the Gràcia district and duck into the bars; they’re all decent, but we love Bobby Gin’s for hundreds of combos in huge glasses, and Boca Grande, where a mega-weird bathroom is crammed with dozens of mirrors. Football fans will know the iconic Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s stadium, but for something less obvious try RCD Espanyol’s ground in Cornellà de Llobregat. It’s a smaller, more local experience, for a team that’s, well, a little less successful – but the vibes are still there and it’s the taking part that counts, anyway. Isn’t it?
How: Stay at Casa Bonay, a 67-bedroom hotel in a converted 19th-century mansion. Some rooms come with yoga gear, which should give you an idea of what to expect from the place. Nightly rates from £140. Vueling offers return flights from £50.
Most visitors to Athens will be heading for the Acropolis, and rightly so – the ancient Greek ruins are some of the most impressive in the western world, while it’s pretty mind-boggling to think the Parthenon (the temple dedicated to the Goddess of Athena) was built way back in 447BC. Beyond all that though, you’ll find a city that couples grungy cafés with sophisticated bars. Soak it all up with a graffiti street art walk – the scene has gathered momentum since the 1990s, and there are now around 2,000 artists livening up the streets. A three-hour tour of the edgy murals and detailed stencils costs just £20 and comes with really interesting insider info that’ll have your knowledge of the city extending way beyond where to find the best souvlaki and cheap beers. To make some local friends try joining the Friday Freeday – a 5,000-person-strong bike ride around the city, starting at around 10pm and ending at around 3am. Sore arse plus a sore head? Good weekend, that.
How: Visit Alternative Athens for street art tour info, see the Friday Freeday Facebook page for starting point info. For bright tables, chairs, curtains and the rest, check out the ultra-modern Fresh Hotel. It offers Acropolis views from the roof terrace (with pool) and nightly rates start from £83 per room. Ryanair offers return flights from £65.
Head to Barcelona's Gracia district for gigantic goblets for gin and tonic
St Petersburg, Russia
Cities look better from a height – at least that’s what the queues for the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and London Eye suggest. For a cooler, less touristy experience and view, try a rooftop tour of St Petersburg, Russia. Along with some impressive skyline sights (think five Russian Orthodox cathedrals, minimum), it will give you an adrenaline rush that a slow-moving Ferris wheel never will. Shuffling along a load of slippery tiles 50ft above the ground? Hey, if pigeons can do it…
How: Book rooftop tours with BeAbo, a 90-minute climb costs about £20. For accommodation-with-a-view try the W Hotel, where you’ll find neon interiors and a rooftop bar. Nightly rates from £195. EasyJet offers return flights from £150.
Serious foodies are making the pilgrimage to Copenhagen for two-Michelin-star restaurant Noma, with its 20-course menus and 19th-century warehouse setting. Poor planners won’t be punished by the months-long waiting list, as if you arrive at 5.15pm on the day you can snag one of the 10 tables that are set aside for walk-ins. For a feast at the opposite end of the spectrum, try the nearby streets of Papiroen, where Copenhagen Street Food – a collection of close to 40 food trucks – serves food for around £7. You could easily spend an afternoon trawling the stalls and sampling different dishes, but be sure to stop at La Tienda for vegan Colombian street food (it’s decent, promise).
If your budget won’t stretch to Vegas, you might fancy a raucous pool party in Budapest instead. Tapping into the city’s history of thermal bathing, the gatherings, held at the Szechenyi Spa Baths, are an opportunity to party with similarly minded folk while comparing bikini bods and chatting about important things – like the soothing properties of the warm waters. Or perhaps you could compare notes on the city’s ruin bars – the crumbling, abandoned buildings that are now home to the best drinking dens in the city. A long-term favourite is the Szimpla Kert, translated to Simple Garden, a venue that pioneered the ruin bar. Along with local wines and artisanal beers, you’ll find open-air cinema sessions, contemporary art covering the walls and ad-hoc bike fairs. If size matters, try Instant, on the ‘Pest’s most manic nightlife strip. It’s two houses converted into a three-dancefloor, six-bar emporium full of locals out for a good time. When you’re not trotting around town checking out the boozy hangouts, consider riding the funicular up the hill to Buda Castle for views over the Danube river.
If you can't stretch to Vegas, try a pool party in Budapest instead
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Here’s a tip: don’t get your cafés and coffee shops mixed up in Amsterdam – we’ve made that mistake for you. If it’s nice macchiatos and cakes you’re after, try Lot 61 for some of the best caffeine in the city. When you’re not museum and cafe hopping, check out the city’s collection of vintage shops – try Laura Dols for girly accessories or Episode, where you can pick up anything from high-rise Levis to leather handbags, vintage cycling jerseys and brightly coloured ski suits (all in good nick, too). For insider tips check out new free app Sightseen, which is loaded with the best recommendations from the ‘Dam – a lot of which even the locals don’t know about (outdoor swimming pools for the summer? Yes please).
How: The Generator Hostel combines high design with all the social aspects of a hostel, and what’s more, dorm rooms are £12 a bed and twin rooms with private bathroom cost from £52 per night. EasyJet offers return flights from £50.
To really appreciate the great sights of Roma you need to be sitting in a pink vintage Fiat 500 negotiating tourists, mopeds and crazy Italian drivers while also having an argument with your partner. If that sounds like something you want to pay for, contact Alvise, a charming Italian who will lead a tour of his city (the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona) while you follow in convoy in your own restored Fiat. If you’re really, really into the Colosseum and its former residents, you may like the sound of the Rome Cavalieri hotel’s gladiator training programme, where you learn how to fight with a ‘gladius’ (the typical gladiator sword) and the trident, a three-pronged spear, in the lush gardens of the luxury hotel. You need to look the part to feel the part, so while you’re swishing your weaponry around in the air, you’ll be kitted out in a traditional tunic, Roman sandals, belt, leather gloves and helmet. Yoga is so last year...
Prague, Czech Republic
Open-top tour buses and clipboard-wielding tour guides aren’t for everyone, and Prague caters for visitors keen to understand how a city and its residents really tick. Pragulic is a tour company with a difference: all of the guides are homeless or formerly homeless residents of Prague, and they’ll give you an insight into the city that extends way beyond the polished sights. The company was set up as a way to “challenge the stereotypes associated with homelessness”, so you can opt for 24 hours sleeping on the pavements, or if that’s a bit much, take one of the half-day tours. Each guide specialises in a different part of town, meaning you could travel with Robert by rail through the Prokopské Valley to a famous squat area, or learn about the past and present drug issues in the city with Zuzka. For more traditional sightseeing, try travelling up the 700ft-high Zizkov Tower, for the best panoramic Prague views. Once considered to be one of the ugliest buildings in the world, it’s now famous for being one of the strangest – in 2000 Czech artist David Cerny attached sculptures of giant crawling babies onto the side of the tower.
How: Prague is a great city to try Airbnb out in – choose from a characterful apartment all to yourself, or stay with a local in one of their spare rooms. airbnb.com; Smart Wings offers return flights from £58.
Beer tours, sightseeing tours and now, finally, patisserie tours. Croissant and cake fanatics will get their fill in Paris, but with so many cafes and shops lining the streets, the question is: where’s good? Author David Lebovitz knows his stuff – he runs chocolate and gastronomy tours through the city, so popular in fact that they sell out months in advance. If you haven’t planned half a year ahead, try going it solo. Étienne Marcel is brilliant for cheap but delicious eclairs, Angelina is famous for that thick, indulgent hot chocolate and decadent pastries, L’Éclair de Génie in the Marais district is brilliant for arty eclairs while La Pâtisserie des Rêves creates modern versions of the classics. Hang on, that’s not all: Popelini concocts desserts using only choux pastry, while if looking at treats is as important as eating them, try Aux Merveilleux for brioche chocolatey goodness that’s crafted in front of you. Finally, because we have to stop somewhere, try Dessance – the famed dessert-only restaurant.
If you're really into Rome's Colosseum then try a gladiator training programme
There are more obvious choices of city for an art-inspired break: Florence, Paris or Madrid, for starters. But for a new twist on a classic, after a few days exploring the souks and medinas of Marrakech, make sure you also make time for the city’s new Museum for Photography and Visual Arts. The space hosts a number of permanent and pop-up exhibitions, including one entitled What Is Art? where gallery goers are encouraged to leave their answers on a chalkboard. For those keen to continue along the same lines, you can take photography classes capturing the best of the city, from the people-packed Djemaa El-Fna at sunset to the endless ramshackle rooftops during the call to prayer.
How: Art in the city doesn’t stop at the museums – the medina is packed with beautiful riads lined with colourful mosaics and their own form of art. Try Riad Farnatchi for cosy rooms, colourful throws and a restaurant with some great views. Nightly rates from £170. EasyJet offers return flights from £65.
Reyjkjavik may seem more of a jumping-off point to explore the countryside of Iceland, but the world’s northenmost capital demands a few days of exploration. Start with the museums. For weird, there’s the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which touts itself as the ‘only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country’. Elsewhere, Whales of Iceland is the largest whale exhibition in Europe – with 23 life-size models under one roof. Keen to see them in real life? Hop in a power boat with Whale Safari and take a one-hour tour spotting whales, dolphins and puffins in their natural habitat. Round your day off with some local brews – try Kali Bar, an Icelandic microbrewery, or Lewbowski, a colourful, eclectic bar with a generous 4pm-7pm happy hour and late-night opening.
Make time for Marrakech's new 'What Is Art' exhibition
Imagine a place where plaid shirts and beards are function not fashion. Where people speak French and smile ALL THE TIME. Where food and beer is so cheap that you can order everything again, twice. And now, thanks to low-cost airline WestJet, getting there is cheap, too. If you’re feeling a bit ‘been there done that’ about New York, try laid-back Montreal for food (Schwartz’s Deli serves sandwiches stuffed with beef), dive bars (BarFly is as dingy inside as outside) and street art (Le Plateau is great for a coffee-drinking and mural-admiring stroll). A trip here will work at any time of the year – visit over the summer for outside boozing, while in the winter the -30ºC temps (it’s OK – just wrap up) are a great excuse for poutine, maple syrup and foie gras gluttony (book a table at Au Pied de Cochon for foie gras burgers and jugs of syrup at the table).
How: The art-filled L’Hotel Montreal was built in 1870 and is just two minutes from the Notre-Dame Cathedral (you’ll want some pics of that) and offers nightly rates from £130. WestJet offers return flights to Montreal from £400.
The landlocked capital of Croatia is often bypassed by partygoers heading to the raucous festivals lining the coast. One word: error. Zagreb is a full-on party city, where the buzzing streets are crammed with bars and locals spill out onto the cobbles until the early hours. Head to Tkalciceva where some of the bars (including our favourite Kava Tava) play ‘80s classics (the good kind – S Express, Donna Summer etc etc). Ahead of the festivals, big-name DJs will often head to the city for warm-up sets – try the two-level Mansion club. You’ll probably be feeling it the next day, so join the locals at Jarun lake in the south of the city, for a swim and a sunbathe.