The year before it all changed, back when you could travel on a whim and the only injection we chased was one of culture, was packed with cheap European city breaks for us here at Emirore. And travelling for less in Europe generally means one thing: stepping off the beaten track. From Italy to Serbia, here’s seven short city breaks to take when travel gets the green light again.
1. Bologna, Italy
Some 38km of porticoed walkways line Bologna’s pretty city streets but it’s by no means style over substance here.
At almost every restaurant, you’ll see plates overflowing with lasagne, tortellini and the city’s hero dish, tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese. This is the authentic stuff of course, all meaty and buttery, so don’t expect a tomatoey spag bol.
Take in the city’s sights under the shade of the arches to work off your meal, or get your heart pumping by tackling the 498 steps of the Torre degli Asinelli. You’ll be rewarded with glorious views of Bologna.
If you have a few days to fill on your Bologna city break, it’s worth heading out of the city to visit the hilltop Sanctuary of the Madonna of San Luca. More arches (666 to be precise) line the 3.8km path to the top but be warned: it’s a serious thigh-burner.
2. Toulouse, France
With sunburnt pink-brick buildings, a string of tapas bars and a local tongue (Occitan) that’s closer to Catalan than French, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in Spain when you touch down in Toulouse.
But while the southwestern French city, separated from Spain by only the Pyrenees, has certainly been influenced by its neighbour, don’t be mistaken: this is France, through and through. It’s allegiance is plastered primarily on its menus, on which you can expect fois gras, confit duck and regional favourite, cassoulet, a meat and bean stew that’s often made with Toulouse pork sausage.
Its museums, meanwhile, highlight the city’s pioneering spirit. Discover Toulouse’s proud role in the world’s first airmail service and delve into the booming Airbus industry, which is headquartered in the city. Kids too will leave inspired – at the Halle de La Machine, you can come face-to-face with steampunk-style machines, including an oversized Minotaur, while the interactive Cite de l’espace museum lets you step into the life of an astronaut.
3. Vilnius, Lithuania
It’s hard to compete with the enduring histories and cultural clout of better-known European countries, but Vilnius puts up a compelling fight. Since cementing its spot on travellers’ maps with a provocative ‘G-spot of Europe’ campaign, Vilnius has upped its game in both arenas to give us traditional Lithuania with a modern twist.
Discover the city’s hidden history in its newly revamped museums (at MO Museum, you’ll find recently rediscovered works from Lithuania’s time under Soviet rule, alongside local modern art) and in its food scene where old-school cuisine – think pigs’ ears, atomic-pink beetroot soup and eel – is served up with tantalising cocktail combinations and new wine varieties from local growers.
On Stikliu Street in the old town, young creatives fill shopfronts that have hosted generations of artisans and street art commemorates equally the old – Literatų Street is an open-air gallery mostly dedicated to writers and poets of the 19th and 20th centuries – and the new (follow Vilnius’ street art trail for contemporary works by international artists). It’s a city break with a difference but one thing’s for sure, you’ll leave Vilnius feeling satisfied.
4. Valencia, Spain
Even by Spanish standards, Valencia is one laidback city. It’s often quoted as one of the most liveable spots in the country, nightlife is buzzing, restaurants are as innovative as its architecture and getting around is super cheap.
In truth, Valencia is hardly packed with renowned cultural attractions – but that’s the city’s draw. Instead of rushing through a checklist of TripAdvisor top tens, on a city break in Valencia, you’ll be sunbathing on one of its two urban beaches, donning your chefs whites to learn how to make a proper paella or zipping along the winding paths of the 9km Turia Gardens on an electric scooter.
The gardens, a former riverbed that splices the city in two, are also home to one of Valencia’s most arresting sights – the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences. Gawk at the impressive structures (one is said to look like a blinking eye), then head inside the buildings for a day of activities. Europe’s largest oceanographic aquarium, an IMAX and planetarium, and a science museum filled with fascinating exhibitions can all be found here.
5. Porto, Portugal
Part of Porto’s allure is that it still lacks the touristy sheen of the Portuguese capital. You don’t need to go far to find life chugging along much as it always has: laundry strung up between buildings on hilly streets, resident-filled food markets and shops, and prices locals-only cheap.
No wonder then, this is a city that’s fast becoming a Portugal favourite. Head there soon to discover awesome architecture (the Dom Luis I bridge is as interesting on top as it is from either side), art-filled streets (colourful azuelo tiles and funky street art adorn many buildings) and port wine basically from the source.
As for attractions, Porto hides more than you might expect. Visit Livraria Lello for its statement staircase, gorgeous stained-glass ceiling and tons of Harry Potter – its said JK Rowling was inspired by the shop. Then, take a day-long cruise along the Douro Valley. The scenery is stunning – lush, terraced vineyards cling to the slopes – and you’ll even get to sample some of the wines. Win!
6. Catania, Italy
The cacophony of street vendors hawking their wares leads most Catania city breakers to La Pescheria, the city’s lively outdoor fish market, even if they’re not looking for it. The panto that plays out is worth the detour though: among the cuts of giant swordfish, slabs of squid and trays of all manner of sea life, buyers and sellers are haggling their hearts out.
Of course without a kitchen, hotel holidayers can’t really partake themselves but there’s plenty of seafood restaurants in town to try it prepared at the hands of a professional. Involtini, lemony swordfish rolls, are one of the local specialties.
Catania is also a great choice for lovers of the outdoors. The rumbling Mount Etna towers above the city at just an hour’s drive away. You can hike most of volcano alone but to reach the main crater, you’ll need to organise a guided tour. Not bothered about the walk? You can take a combined cable car and 4×4 tour to the top or take the single-car Circumetnea train around the base. Volcanic Randazzo is worth stopping in.
7. Belgrade, Serbia
Looking for a cheap city break? You can’t do better than Belgrade. More gritty than glam, Serbia’s capital isn’t about daytime attractions (although many are free or cheap to discover) but nighttime buzz.
Gear up for your nights out with a Turkish-style coffee in one of the city’s kafanas (cafe/coffeehouse), then head out in search of traditional live music and all-night raves. On the River Sava, you’ll find party barges permanently moored on the banks while cobblestoned Skadarska is perfect for music and a meal.
If the former sounds like your cup of tea, make your way down to Ada Ciganlija. By day, this river island (complete with a mini beach) is bustling with swimmers, for-hire pedalos and other watersports. Stay ’til nightfall for the party to start.
And don’t leave without trying Serbia’s take on the crepe, palačinke. It’s best served with Nutella-like Eurocrem and crushed biscuits.