5 Of The Best Alternative City Breaks In Europe

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Paris, Rome, Barcelona – failsafe options you can rely on, but if you’re after something a bit different, why not try somewhere under the radar? From a coastal hotspot in Sweden to Sicily’s second city, here are five cool alternatives to consider.
Photography alexander serzhantov/unsplash

San Sebastian

Spain

Skip the hectic streets of Madrid and head to San Sebastian in Spain’s mountainous Basque Country. Quieter and more laid-back than the capital, it has more than earned its reputation as one of the world’s best food destinations, with more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. For casual dining, tapas bars line the streets – showcasing the best local produce from oysters to squid – before pintxos bars and basement jazz bars entertain locals in the evening. But it’s not all about the food. San Sebastián is a top choice for beach and city life combined thanks to the beautiful Playa de la Concha Bay, a popular spot for surfers. Hikers should head up Monte Urgull or Monte Igueldo for some of the best views, while those after a cultural fix could easily spend a day wandering around the Belle Epoque buildings in the old quarter. For an unforgettable meal, book dinner at the one of the most acclaimed restaurants – Arzak or Akelaŕe.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Villa Favorita

Set in one of the city’s grandest seaside buildings, Hotel Villa Favorita oozes old-school glamour. Overlooking La Concha Beach, the main draw is two Michelin-starred Amelia, headed up by Argentinian chef Paulo Airaudo – there’s a particular emphasis on seafood. The hotel also has an elegant bar for sundowners, as well as plenty of pintxos bars in the neighbourhood. Book a room with a sea view for the best experience. 

Rooms from £122 per night. 

Visit HotelVillaFavorita.com

El Bar De Villa Favorita

Gothenburg

Sweden

Set on the west coast of Sweden, Gothenburg is the second-largest city in the country. With the North Sea on its doorstep, it offers the best of both if you can’t decide between a city break and coastal retreat. Famed for its blue and white trams, the transport links are excellent, so you’ll be able to see much of the city in a weekend. Spend some time at Slottsskogen park and Trädgårdsföreningen, vast horticultural gardens home to rare species, before exploring cool neighbourhoods like the Haga district (a hippie hangout in the 70s) and Linné with its independent shops and quirky cafés. Gothenburg is famous for its craft beer and breweries, one of the best being Poppels Brewery in Jonsered. If wine is your drink of choice, there’s an abundance of chic Nordic-style bars. Visit Fiskbar 17 for black lobster and street food before booking a day trip to Bohuslän Archipelago, a coastal area of more than 8,000 small islands made for long bike rides, fishing trips and freshwater swimming.

Where to Stay:

Isbolaget

Scandi minimalism is at its finest at Isbolaget, a converted icehouse in Donsö harbour. It’s takes about an hour to reach the hotel via tram and ferry from the centre of Gothenburg, but it’s well worth staying a bit further out for the views alone – not to mention the delicious locally caught seafood at its restaurant. Rooms are simple yet modern, with clever storage solutions and neutral décor, and the east-facing rooms have wooden verandas. Guests can rent bikes and kayaks, and hire a nearby sauna.

Rooms from £145 per night. 

Visit Isbolaget.com

Isbolaget
Isbolaget

Catania

Italy

It’s no secret that Sicily is one of Italy’s finest destinations, but Catania to the island’s east is often overlooked in favour of capital Palermo. Set at the base of active volcano Mount Etna, the second city is a Unesco heritage site thanks to its Baroque architecture and ancient ruins. The central piazza is buzzy day and night, but the surrounding beaches and vineyards are where you’ll find locals kicking back. Lido Azzurro is one of the most exclusive beach clubs; if that doesn’t appeal, Le Piramidi Beach should be a go-to, with the towering Etna dominating the skyline. Food is another highlight in Catania, which claims to be the birthplace of both pasta alla norma and arancini. Make like locals and visit the busy La Pescheria fish market by day and the Via Santa Filomena neighbourhood by night to try local dishes al fresco. 

Where to Stay:

Modern Sicily Airbnb

Catania is yet to catch up with Palermo and Siracusa’s accommodation options – namely luxury hotels – but there are plenty of design-led Airbnbs to choose from, including this modern apartment in Barriera del Bosco. There’s an open-plan kitchen/diner that leads out onto a spacious garden lined with olive trees, as well as a home gym and main bedroom with an en-suite. Impress your other half with an aperitivo outdoors. 

From £150 per night. 

Visit Airbnb.co.uk

Modern Sicily Airbnb

Valletta

Malta

Malta’s capital is small, but there’s plenty to do in a weekend. Built by the Knights of St John, the city is a Unesco heritage site described as 'one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world'. When Malta’s festival scene took off a decade ago, many locals moved back to the city, but its charms remain. There are plenty of contemporary restaurants and cool bars, including Legligin, a cellar bar which serves local wine and tapas, and Tal-Kaptan along Valletta’s Baroque wharf. During a weekend, St John’s Co-Cathedral is a must-visit (not least because of its two Caravaggio paintings), as is the National Museum of Archaeology, filled with rare, ancient objects.

Phoenicia Hotel

Where to Stay:

Phoenicia Hotel

Phoenicia is a grand Art Deco hotel in the centre of Valletta. It has everything you need for a luxury break, including private gardens, a spa and a pool. Rooms are simple but thoughtfully decorated, and guests can even choose from a pillow menu. Elsewhere, there’s an all-day dining restaurant with excellent seafood choices, and an impressive-looking outdoor pool which runs alongside the city’s Knights-period wall.

Rooms from £160 per night. 

Visit PhoeniciaMalta.com

Tbilisi

Georgia

Dramatically cradled in a mountainous valley, Tbilisi really does have the wow factor. One of the world’s oldest settlements, Georgia’s capital has plenty of historic charm – its old town is a maze of wooden houses, thermal bathhouses and stone churches. In recent years, the city has been quietly reinventing itself, transforming industrial shells into cutting-edge galleries, techno music venues and design-led hotels. The city has all the makings of a great boys trip: craft breweries, wine cellars and outdoor adventures on your doorstep like hiking trails and canyon swings in the surrounding mountains. Back in the city, the old town has a village-like feel with its narrow streets and winding lanes – take the cable car from the end of Rike Park over the Mtkvari River for the best views. For drinks, modern Georgian dishes and live music, make Unfound Door Gastrobar your first port of call.

Stamba Hotel
Unfound Door Gatsrobar

Where to Stay:

Stamba Hotel

Four years ago, Adjara Group transformed the old HQ of a printing press into a contemporary hotel. The industrial bones of the building were brought to life with bold colours, plush furniture and an abundance of plants – trees even sprout up through floorboards in the lobby. Each room is spacious, with free-standing copper bathtubs and thoughtful touches like record players and a selection of vinyl. There’s also a library filled with an eclectic set of books, and the destination restaurant Café Stamba which serves modern dishes featuring traditional Georgian flavours. 

Rooms from £155 per night. 

Visit MrAndMrsSmith.com

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