1 Istanbul, Turkey

Traffic, hills and the vast, murky Bosphorus make Istanbul a slightly overwhelming city to navigate. Start by taking a food tour with Culinary Backstreets, where you’ll stroll the streets learning about the history of the city – the mosques, the bazaars and the epic food scene (clotted cream and honey for breakfast as standard). In the evenings, head to the trendy Beyoğlu district, where the city’s young population guzzle beer on low stools. Then take a ferry over to Karaköy on the Asian side for a taste of local life, including pide, the cheesy Turkish version of pizza. gototurkey.com

How: Marti Istanbul is ideally located in the Taksim district, and a steal considering the luxe surroundings (rooftop bar and in-shower hammams? Yes please); nightly rates from £160. martiistanbulhotel.com; Turkish Airlines offers return flights from £100. turkishairlines.com

2 Newcastle, UK

Coal mining was once the livelihood of this northeastern city, but nowadays it’s the stomping ground of students and nightlife seekers. On the weekends the streets throng with friendly Geordies hopping between the city’s ‘trebles’ bars; if triple shots aren’t your thing, check out the concert schedule at the Sage and try a meal at the top of the restored Baltic Flour Mills, with views over the Tyne.

How: Plush rooms on the quayside are available at Malmaison. Nightly rates from £80. malmaison.com; Book in advance for cheaper train tickets. virgintrainseastcoast.com

3 Lisbon, Portugal

If the wallet won’t stretch to Rio, try the Portuguese capital instead. The city’s vibe and setting bear an understandable resemblance to Rio de Janeiro’s – there’s even a mini Christ the Redeemer. There are hills (seven of them), winding alleys of bars, and to top it all, golden curves of sand are a short train ride away. It’s also cheap – just €0.60 for a bottle of Sagres, and belt-loosening seafood meals (try Ramiro) cost far less than in most other European capitals. Bring us back some custard tarts, please.

Lisbon is cheap – just €0.60 for a bottle of Sagres, and belt-loosening seafood meals (try Ramiro) cost far less than in most other European capitals

How: Try H10 Duque de Loulé for views of the Tagus. Nightly rates from £110 per room. h10hotels.com/en; EasyJet offers return flights from £70. easyjet.com 

4 Palermo, Sicily (Italy)

Palermo isn’t the prettiest Italian city you’ll ever visit, but the Sicilian capital – once famous for the Mafia and The Godfather III – boasts a mishmash of global cuisine, with heavy Arabic influence. Take a street food tour with Streat Palermo for the best veal intestine and spleen sandwiches. Be sure to check out Piazza Garraffello – the buildings there have remained crumbling and neglected since the second world war, but Austrian artist Uwe Jäntsch has done his best to improve them with tasteful graffiti. Palermitans take their football seriously, so if you’re in town during a game, head to Stadio Renzo Barbera – sorry, the ‘Cathedral’ – for a night of intense Italian passion and noise.

How: Classic Collection offers three-night breaks from £572, including flights and transfers. classic-collection.co.uk; for food tours and football, try Streat Palermo. streatpalermo.it 

5  Palma, Mallorca (Spain)

Mallorca’s capital is often overshadowed by the lairy foam party antics of Magaluf, but good-looking Palma has serious long weekend potential. Check into one of the many new boutique hotels before strolling along cobbled lanes, dipping into baroque churches and visiting the Palau de l’Almudaina – the Islamic fort that was converted into a residence for the monarchy at the end of the 13th century. This is real ‘yachtie’ territory, so to catch some rays, hop aboard a half-day catamaran trip, and experience the best of the island.

How: Hotel Cort in the city centre has to be one of the prettiest boutique hotels on the island, with hot tub cathedral views. Nightly rates from £150. hotelcort.com; Iberia Express offers return flights from £120. iberia.com 

6 Cairo, Egypt

Turmoil in Egypt over the last few years has resulted in a drop in visitor numbers, but Cairo isn’t an unsafe city to visit. Contiki leads tours to Cairo and Egypt for 18-35s, spending time in the city’s cafés, while also cramming in the out-of-city pyramids – touristy they may be, but there’s a reason for that, as quite simply, they’re spectacular. Cairo also boasts a lively nightlife – to get involved, join the crowds drinking coffee and beer on the streets.

How: Eight-day trips from £652. contiki.com

7 Thessaloniki, Greece

For a true cultural melting pot – think Byzantine walls, Ottoman mosques and Turkish hammams – try the port city of Thessaloniki. It doesn’t serve up rustic Greek beauty at every turn, but the locals’ passion, particularly for seafood and pastry, more than makes up for it. What the city also has is history, and lots of it – from the iconic White Tower to stretches of sixth-century streets – while the large student population means the nightlife is heaving. If time allows, head down the coast to the powdery beaches of Halkidiki – it would be a shame to waste those sparkly waters, wouldn’t it? discovergreece.com

If time allows, head down the coast to the powdery beaches of Halkidiki – it would be a shame to waste those sparkly waters, wouldn’t it?

How: Try Hotel Excelsior for art deco glamour. Nightly rates from £80. EasyJet offers return flights from £100. easyjet.com 

8 Montpellier, France

Montpellier is one of France’s most multicultural cities, and eternally young at heart. Just off the coast (you can hire bikes and cycle 30 minutes to get to the sea), the city is an elegant, laid-back choice. It’s pretty, too – the trams have been labelled ‘the sexiest in the world’, though we can’t imagine the competition’s hot. Have a drink in the Place de la Comédie, arguably the most graceful square in France, but save your food for a wine and cheese picnic at Jardin de Peyrou for views over the city. 

How: You’ll find arty options on Airbnb. airbnbco.uk; EasyJet offers return flights from £60. easyjet.com 

9 Ostend, Belgium

Bruges and Brussels may flex their touristic muscles, but Ostend is where the local city-dwellers go for their jollies. The only city on the 42-mile ‘Belgian Riviera’, it boasts some of the country’s best restaurants (although you can’t go wrong with a portion of fries and mayo, a local delicacy). If you’re really fond of beer, visit during the North Sea Beer Festival, from 28-30 August, when you can try 150 varieties from 20 local breweries. If the dates don’t work, be sure to sample one of Belgium’s many fine brews at the Old Harbour. Just don’t, you know, fall in. 

How: Ferry/Airbnb it from Ramsgate in Kent. transeuropaferry.co.uk; airbnb.co.uk 

10 Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen’s got some edge, especially compared to its neighbours and Scandi sisters. There are Skittle-hued townhouses, world-class museums and, according to some people in our team, the most attractive residents in the world. There’s a decent reggae scene, 24-hour clubs and open-air swimming in the city – check out the Copenhagen Harbour Baths (which have won awards for their streamlined architectural design), or if sand’s your thing try Amager Strand, the urban beach where you can swim, sunbathe or play mini-golf.

How: Urban House is a hostel/hotel with hotdogs, rooms and a tattoo parlour. Beds from £18. urbanhouse.me; Ryanair offers return flights from £18. ryanair.com

11 Skopje, Macedonia

If you’re intesrested in design, you’ll probably know Skopje for its Communist-era brutalist architecture. But you’ll also find honey-coloured walls, majestic arches and the largest Old Bazaar in the Balkans (shopping potential = high). A highlight has to be the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which was built after an earthquake in the 1960s. Artists around the world were encouraged to donate, and now it hosts a brag-worthy collection of art that punches above the country’s size and weight.

How: Hotel Solul is a good-value hotel in the city. Nightly rates from £46. hotelsolun.com; Wizz Air offers return flights from £120. wizzair.com 

12 Bergamo, Italy

For a city with two identities, try Bergamo in northern Italy. There’s the tiny and pretty medieval hilltop town – La Città Alta – within the city walls, which connects by funicular to the modern lower town. It’s a great launchpad for the Lombardy countryside and Italian lakes if you have time, but if you’re staying in town we recommend heading to the small but atmospheric Piazza Vecchia for aperitivo – including the locally-produced Franciacorta from Brescia.

How: Splash out at Relais San Lorenzo, a 30-bedroom retreat. slh.com; nightly rates from £180. Ryanair offers return flights from £30. ryanair.com 

13 Thun, Switzerland

While hardly high on most travellers’ Swiss hit lists (you have one, right?), tiny Thun is every bit a storybook destination. There’s a turreted castle, it’s ringed by mountains and it sits on the shores of the dazzling Lake Thun (which you can sail around, too). Aside from the history, there’s a young, spirited vibe – join the local crowd hanging out at the riverside cafés.

Tiny Thun is every bit a storybook destination – there’s a turreted castle, it’s ringed by mountains and it sits on the shores of the dazzling Lake Thun

How: Stay in a local home with Airbnb. Airbnb.co.uk; SkyWork offers return flights to Bern from £120. flyskywork.com 

14 Strasbourg, France

Home to France’s second-highest student population, and the EU HQ, Strasbourg straddles the border between France and Germany. There are shops, but break up your backstreet meandering with tarte flambée – a traditional Alsatian dish of thin crispy dough with cheese and onion. Spring time is pretty in the region, but Strasbourg really comes into its own in the run up to Christmas – the markets (and sausages) are hard to beat. During the summer evenings, wander the lantern-lit plaza of Grande Île – Strasbourg’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed island. Here, pastel-coloured houses sit beneath the towering Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.

Spring time is pretty in the region, but Strasbourg really comes into its own in the run up to Christmas – the markets (and sausages) are hard to beat

How: Hôtel Gutenberg is a modern, zesty-walled option. Nightly rates from £46. hotel-gutenberg.com; EasyJet offers return flights from £48. easyjet.com

15 Cork, Ireland

Next time you’re planning an Irish city break, think beyond Dublin. Specifically, think Cork – the compact city in the south of Ireland that’s prime city break fodder. Hungry travellers won’t be disappointed; Cork’s food scene is arguably one of the best in the country, and the Franciscan Well Brewery, on the site of an old monastery, pours the city’s best selection of beer, lager and stout. For a full Irish the next day, try Tony’s Bistro – there’s even a huge €30 version if you’re really hungry/hungover. Wannabe chefs should book a session at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School.

How: The River Lee Hotel is a tranquil option. Nightly rates from £110. doylecollection.com; Aer Lingus offers return flights from £60. aerlingus.com 

16  Boston, USA

It’s a fairly long flight for a short city break, but the hardcore can handle it. And it’s worth your efforts – this friendly home of the Red Sox (and their fanatics) has just had its harbour revamped, resulting in handsome views out to sea. Hunt down the blue Cookie Monstah food truck for a signature Snickerdoodle or cookie and ice cream sandwich, then follow it up with a hike along the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail, where you can tick off 16 historically significant sites in one swoop. Still hungry? Try Mr Bartley’s for burgers with a 48-year history, and names such as the Viagra, the Snoop Dog and the Beyoncé.

Try Mr Bartley’s for burgers with a 48-year history, and names such as the Viagra, the Snoop Dog and the Beyoncé

How: Sleep on the water with Bed and Breakfast Afloat for cabin and boat optionsfrom £150 per night bedandbreakfastafloat.com; Virgin Atlantic offers return flights to Boston from £600. virgin-atlantic.com

17  Girona, Spain

Barcelona may be the more obvious city break choice in Catalonia, but for something a little smaller and more manageable, head for the cobbled streets and ancient churches of Girona. Food here has a regional variation known as mar y muntanya (sea and mountain) – chicken, lobster and rabbit all feature heavily. If you’re feeling flush (and organised, as you’ll need to book up to 10 months in advance), try the world’s best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, run by the Roca brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – who work together as head chef, sommelier and pastry chef respectively. Culture-wise, there’s a cinema festival in September, closely followed by a celebration of theatre in October.

How: Hotel Ciutat de Girona is ideally located in the heart of the old city. Nightly rates from £70. hotelciutatdegirona.com; Ryanair offers flights from £50 return. ryanair.com

18 Cape Town, South Africa

Splash some cash on a trip to the Mother City. It may seem like a long way, but there’s no jet lag. The open bus tour is actually really good, and a handy, quick way to see the sights in a day. The rest of the time? Hit the golden beaches – the water comes straight from the Antarctic, so a dip’s an exhilarating way to cool off. 

How: Daddy Long Legs is a cheap and colourful budget option, from £42. daddylonglegs.co.za; South African Airways offers return flights from £600. flysaa.com

19 Leipzig, Germany

Coffee runs through the blood of Leipzig’s locals. The city boasts one of the oldest coffee shops in the world, and if you’re really into your beans and grinds, there’s a museum you can visit, too. Also visit the Spinnerei Leipzig – formerly a cotton mill and now home to Leipzig’s top galleries and more than 100 artists’ studios. Known as the City of Heroes for the peaceful role it played in the 1989 revolution, the city is full of culture, with nightlife to rival Berlin. 

Coffee runs through the blood of Leipzig’s locals

How: Pentahotel Leipzig is a cool choice, with nightly rates from £110. pentahotels.com; EasyJet offers return flights from £60. easyjet.com