Whether you want a quick whistle-stop weekend away or a long leisurely stay, Europe has a whole selection of beautiful and exciting cities to visit. Combining some of the old European city break classics, along with some more offbeat and up-and-coming destinations, this list of the best city breaks in Europe aims to give you some fresh ideas of where to go.
Some of the destinations on this European city breaks list are packed with cultural splendour, while others are famous for their shopping and world-class fashion scenes. Some have top quality cafes and restaurants, while others have expansive golden sands. No matter the kind of Europe city break you are looking to take, you are sure to get some great inspiration from this guide.
For more information on where to visit in Europe, check out my Backpacking Europe Travel Guide.
Top 15 Best European City Breaks
Where to stay: Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni – centrally located, yet discreetly tucked away on Florence’s most fashionable shopping street.
Flight time: 2 hours 10 mins from London.
Florence is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, packed with iconic art and architecture. Since former mayor Matteo Renzi ordered a clean-up of the city, banning motorised traffic from and sprucing up large areas of the city centre. The constant buzz of vehicles has been replaced by cheerful chatter, while the scruffy, run-down piazzas have been revamped to create a funky-fresh vibe across the city.
Today, Florence has a peaceful rural-urban vibe about it, with the outskirts of the city feeling like you’re in the middle of the Tuscan countryside rather than 30 minutes away from the thriving centre. This means that Florence gives you plenty of options when planning your city break. You can opt to be right in the middle of all the action or head for the peaceful hills on the city’s fringe.
If you choose the more traditional city break option of staying in the centre of Florence then you won’t be short of things to see and do. The city’s many hot spot sights attract millions of selfie-taking tourists every year, which can make it difficult to avoid the crowds. Stroll through the plazas and gawk at the exquisite marble statues, visit the host of museums that are filled with world-famous, pricless Renaissance art and soak up the stunning views of red-tiled roofs from the Duomo’s bell tower. Opera also plays a significant role in Florence’s culture – even if opera isn’t your cup of tea, it is worth taking a trip to marvel at the breathtaking architectural wonder of Cascine Park, a soaring, asymmetrical cubic 1800-seat theatre that hosts an impressive line-up of opera productions.
As well as the sights, Florence’s food scene is out of this world. The city is home to the 19th-century iron-and-glass Mercato Centrale, now a sprawling marketplace that showcases the region’s best artisan producers, selling everything from cured meats, freshly made mozzarella, pasta and fried fish.
Where to stay: Ambassade Hotel – decorated with antique furniture and modern paintings, this canal-side hotel combines the old and the new in the most perfect way.
Flight time: 1 hour 15 mins from London.
Amsterdam used to be well-known for its stag-do image. However, these days, this quaint city is all about creative minds pedalling around on their bicycles and eating atisanal bread and cheese in trendy little cafe’s by the canal. For a European city break, Amsterdam offers everything from art galleries and museums, independent fashion boutiques and buzzing cafes. Yet, the true showstopper on any Amsterdam city break is its maze of 200-year-old canals lined with picturesque townhouses and covered by pretty little bridges.
Shedding its reputation as stag-do capital of the world, Amsterdam has come alive with style, class and creativity in more recent years. With cyclists whizzing wildly through the city’s stony streets and well-dressed locals ordering their morning coffees at trendy cafes, Amsterdam now has the feel of a playground rather than a busy party-goer vibe. While you can still enjoy the many intoxicants available throughout the city, you can also have a great time just sticking to the more PG stroopwafels and apple pie.
Where to stay: Canto de Luz – hidden behind the traditional facade of a Portuguese townhouse is a beautiful modern entrance ready to welcome you to Porto.
Flight time: 2 hours 25 mins from London
Often referred to as Portugal’s second city, Porto certainly isn’t the second best. Perhaps suitably regarded as Lisbon’s quieter sibling, this underrated Portuguese city is undergoing a fabulous moment of rejuvenation. With a distinctly different character to its counterpart of Lisbon, Porto is hugely atmospheric in its own way. The city’s narrow streets and stepped alleys spread up the angled slopes of the Douro River to a centre brimming with luxurious squares, Neoclassical buildings and intricately tiled Baroque churches.
On top of fascinating history and culture, Porto has a lively nightlife scene, hip cafes and restaurants and a refreshed art selection, making it the perfect place for a long weekend away. Nowadays, the city’s river banks are bustling with trendy new bars and cool pavement restaurants. In more recent years, the city has seen a huge boom in tourism which is clearly reflected in the many hotels on offer across Porto. However, what Porto is probably most famous for is its port-wine cellars on the south side of the Douro River. Make the most of your Porto city break with a guided tour of the cellars, followed by a tasting, before wandering back over to the picturesque streets of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ribeira Old Town.
Porto is a city that is best seen on foot, making it ideal as a city break destination. Getting around on foot is made easy in Porto – but be aware that steep slopes and stone cobbles proliferate in this hilly city. To ensure you’re properly fuelled up for the pavement pounding ahead, make sure you take a well-deserved trip to Manteigaria for the best pastéis de nata in the city.
Where to stay: Hotel Moments Budapest – located on the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site of Andrássy Avenue, just a few steps away from the best sights of Budapest.
Flight time: 2 hours 30 mins from London
Since emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, Budapest has become one of Europe’s most popular city break destinations. And it’s not hard to see why. Hungary’s capital is broken into two distinct sides – Buda and Pest – with the stunning Danube River flowing right through the middle. The hills of Buda surround the western bank, home to the cobbled streets of the medieval quarter with its grand palace and colourful Matthias Church. Meanwhile, across the river sits the splendid Parliament building and the elegant 19th-century mansions that now contain hip shops, bars and cafes.
If you want to be in the tick of all the action, then Pest, on the east side of the River, is where you want to be. Here, you’ll find a whole host of classy restaurants, trendy street-food spots and cool, gilded cafes. If you want to immerse yourself completely in the Hungarian culture and way of life, take a trip across the landmark Chain Bridge to the more authentic side of Buda. Here, you can see the magical Buda Castle and some of the city’s best thermal baths.
Budapest also features a well-developed cultural scene, including world-class festivals, theatres, museums and concert halls. With regards to Budapest’s food scene, you must try the celebrated creations of Hungarian cuisine. From goulash soup and pörkölt (stew) to Fisherman’s soup and Lángos (fried dough) – your taste buds will be truly spoilt. While these traditional staples are still largely prevalent across the city, there is a whole new culinary revolution that has taken over Budapest. From delicious street-food made from all-natural ingredients to haute cuisine creations.
Where to stay: Downtown Camper – ideally situated for all the sites and restaurants, this is the ultimate base camp to take in Stockholm.
Flight time: 2 hours 25 mins from London
Stockholm is a classy and sophisticated city with a fabulous selection of great shopping, restaurants and hotels to keep you occupied. Spread across a total of 14 islands all connected by bridges, the best way to explore the city in the spring and summertime is by boat. Alternatively, make us of the city’s 57 bridges by touring Stockholm on foot or by bicycle. Stockholm makes for one of the best European city breaks.
Swedes are passionate about coffee, with the act of spending time in cafes having its very own verb: fika. There are incredible chic cafes and bars all over the city, so you won’t miss the opportunity to relax in true Stockholm style. Two great coffee shops that I would recommend for breakfast, brunch, lunch or even a light dinner are CAFE FOAM and STORTORGETS KAFFESTUGA. But, it’s not just all about the coffee! Stroll through the cobbled streets of the historic old town, Gamla Stan, then venture to the green oasis of Djurgården island.
Where to stay: Loft Hotel Bratislava – within walking distance to the historical old town, this hotel has a fabulous view to the garden of the Presidential Palace.
Flight time: 2 hours 12 mins from London
Bratislava is a modern city situated on the Danube River. One of the best destinations for a European city break, this capital city combines centuries-old history with a refreshing and thriving present. If you are looking for a city break in Europe brimming with culture, good food, exclusive experiences, a thrilling atmosphere and affordability, then Bratislava is the perfect pick for you.
Bratislava is a city that is very easy to get around, with its historical centre being incredibly compact. You can conveniently walk between the many heavy-hitting museums and art galleries across the city centre, while stopping on your way at traditional restaurants and cosy cafes and bars. All year round you can experience plenty of significant social and cultural events where the residents remember and appreciate the city’s extensive history and traditions. This is a great way to immerse yourself in the real atmosphere of Bratislava.
Yet, Bratislava is not just a European city break destination for culture and history. Just a hop away from the city centre is an abundance of green forests and parks to explore. Along the bank of the River Danube sits the oldest public park in central Europe, Sad Janka Kráľa. In fact, Bratislava has been ranked the third greenest city in the world, making it the perfect short-stay destination to recharge your batteries.
Where to stay: Scandic Byporten – one of Oslo’s most central hotels, located under the same roof as Byporten shopping centre.
Flight time: 2 hours 10 mins from London
Oslo is often overshadowed by its more well-known Scandi neighbours of Stockholm and Copenhagen, but this laid-back city deserves to be noticed. Although it is a fair bit pricier than most of the European city break options on this list, it’s kind of worth it to take advantage of its superior blend of top restaurants, beautiful architecture, flourishing art scene and fantastic museums. But that’s not all, this compact capital city is surrounded by mountains and sea so, even though there’s plenty to do in the centre, for those who enjoy staying active, visitors can hike in the summer, ski in the winter and stroll through the region’s lush fjords.
Given Olso’s diverse scenery and newfound confidence, it is no surprise that the city has been ranked number one in terms of quality of life among large European cities. While many Norwegian folk venture out of Oslo when they can to enjoy the stunning scenery encasing the city, there is also a new generation of creatives who are staying put.
Where to stay: 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin – where half of the rooms look out over the ape and elephant enclosure in Berlin Zoo, and the other half enjoy a view of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
Flight time: 1 hour 50 mins from London
Berlin is a city of fascinating history that should be on every traveller’s list of the best places for a city break in Europe. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, yet the divide between the East and the West still shows in political, cultural and physical elements of the city. Yet, the capital in no way lets this extraordinary past stifle its lively atmosphere – embracing the future unlike any other European city, Berlin now hosts an extensive selection of hip bars and an unbeatable party scene, smart hotels, classy restaurants and interesting art galleries.
Berlin’s lively past has led to the remains of plenty of things to see and do for today’s tourists. Since the Wall’s demise, Berlin has kept itself busy with transforming itself into one of the most stimulating and creative cultural centres in Europe. From the graffiti-covered remnants of the wall itself to Hilter’s bunker, the New Synagogue and the Berlin Zoo. This city is one that truly has something to offer everyone – whether you’re a party-goer, pleasure-seeker, hipster or history buff. Budget backpackers are catered for with the city’s wealth of quality hostels, while luxury travellers will be spoilt for choice with the grand selection of five-star hotels and Michelin-starred dining spots.
Where to stay: Electra Metropolis Hotel – the ultimate stay for luxury living, this hotel is located in the very heart of Athens and features an eye-catching sky-light Atrium at the centre.
Flight time: 3 hours 40 mins from London
As the birthplace of so many prominent concepts, the city of Athens was always bound to be a perfect European city break destination. Philosophy, democracy, drama – no other European city has been so influential on our society today. Named after the Greek Goddess of wisdom and inspiration, Athena, this historic city has always been a big player when it comes to culture. Yet, Athens is not only an expanse of world-class cultural heritage attractions but also a modern-day urban metropolis.
Athens beautifully merges the past and the present to create a stunning city of great contrasts. This Greek city is a sophisticated cosmopolitan hub with top-class restaurants, a thriving nightlife and a booming art scene. From the showstopping Acropolis that shadows the city to characteristic neighbourhoods and contemporary art galleries, you certainly won’t be bored during your Athens city break. With a recorded history of 3,500 years, Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world and so is constantly undergoing urban renewals to keep up with the ever evolving demands of time.
Where to stay: Eden Locke – both stylish and sophisticated, this aparthotel is located in Edinburgh’s New-town, just a 20 minute walk from Edinburgh Castle.
Flight time: 1 hour 30 mins from London or 4 hours 20 mins by train from London Kings Cross
For a European city break that is a little closer to home, Scotland’s cultural and political capital is also one of nicest. Take a stroll down the abundance of small cobbled lanes, climb one of the city’s seven hills for expansive 360-degree views of the turreted skyline, and marvel at the blend of Georgian and medieval architectural designs. From the medieval walks of the Old Town to the grace of the Georgian New Town, Edinburgh is thoroughly deserving of its reputation as one of the best city breaks in Europe.
I would recommend visiting Edinburgh in the summer, when the largest arts festival in the world – the Fringe – gives the city a whole new sense of life. But Edinburgh is not just a city for the summer – as the cold draws in, the city lights up for Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations. While there is a lot of culture and history to behold this Scottish city, it has transformed itself into a must-visit cosmopolitan metropolis too. With a whole host of Michelin-starred restaurants, a brilliant cafe culture, a diverse and vibrant nightlife, as well as great shopping and a strong arts scene.
Where to stay: Seventy Barcelona – a homage to Meditteranean hospitality, this classy hotel is situated between the refined Passeig de Gràcia and the timeless charm of the Gràcia neighbourhood.
Flight time: 2 hours 5 mins from London
While Madrid is the capital of Spain, Barcelona is wins for art, culture, leisure and nightlife. Drawing in huge crowds from all over the world, this Spanish city is unlike any other, combining Modernist Gaudí architecture, Michelin-starred restaurants and traditional barrios, with a pinch of sandy beaches thrown in for good measure. On one side of the marina, Barceloneta buzzes with locals in the summer months, while the other side offers emptier stretches of sand for a more peaceful place to soak up the sun.
In Barcelona, you don’t have to choose between culture, history, shopping and partying – you can have it all, neatly packed in one of the best European city breaks you will ever go on. Visit the plethora of museums to see Egyptian mummies and contemporary works of art, admire the window displays of the city’s modern designer and traditional shops, and dance the night away to Barcelona’s unrivalled electronic music scene and some of the world’s top DJs.
Prague, Czech Republic
Where to stay: Hotel Pod Vezi – situated in the heart of the city, right next to the famous Charles Bridge, this hotel is oozing with classy charm.
Flight time: 1 hour 55 mins from London
Very few of Europe’s most popular cities have as much to offer as Prague, with its unbeatable roster of attractions that really are a true treat for each one of your senses. Its stunning skyline is scattered with medieval church towers, while its cobbled streets are packed with eye-catching Gothic and baroque architecture. Within the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town is a torrent of uneven lanes and secret courtyards, magnificent cafes and quaint townhouses. But there is so much more to the city than what you usually see. The other, less-known side of the city features offbeat cultural venues, trendy bars and bustling markets all tucked away in hip neighbourhoods.
Prague is one of the most visited cities in the entire world and it’s not hard to see why. The Czech capital has so much more to offer than attractive architecture and a good brew. The city has impressively evolved along with other European trends in art, fashion, gastronomy and more, creating an alluring contemporary sheen that covers the entire city, merging perfectly with its historical talent. While you could spend days admiring the wealth of fascinating Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings, it is almost impossible not to be equally impressed by the city’s hip boutiques, sleek hotels, cosy cafes, chic cocktail bars and trendy microbreweries that are dotted throughout the streets.
Where to stay: Hotel Schani Wien – combining Viennese tradition with the modern way of life, you can experience the past, present and future of Vienna at this trendy hotel.
Flight time: 2 hours 30 mins from London
If you’re looking for the perfect winter European city break destination, then Austria’s capital might just be the one. Vienna really comes into its own when a crisp layer of snow covers the streets and glowing coffee shops light up the cobbled lanes that are lined with magical Christmas markets. Yet, with its enchanting blend of old and new, Vienna is one of the most outstanding city breaks in Europe and is astonishing at any time of the year.
Known for its imperial palaces, immaculate gardens and gilded ballrooms, Vienna is grand on all scales. Come enjoy the opera or listen to the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Vienna’s musical diversity spans that from the past and present – to this day, people are still dancing in three-four time to Johann Strauss’ renowned Blue Danube Waltz. Strauss’ golden statue still stands in the Stadtpark and remains one of Vienna’s most popular photo opportunities. Meanwhile, the Vienna Philharmonic has been captivating its audiences for 175 years. City festivals such as Wien Modern, Voice Mania and Gürtel Nightwalk display the huge diversity of music that can be enjoyed in Vienna.
It is not just about the music, traditions are rooted in other cultural aspects of the city too. From young people developing their artistic and creative talents to the culinary delights enjoyed across the city. During the Music Film Festival that is held on City Hall Square in the summer, twenty restaurateurs deliver specialities from all over the world. As the biggest culinary event in the whole of Europe, this unparalleled foodie event is accompanied by operas, ballet and concerts.
Where to stay: Grand Poet Hotel – the perfect romantic environment to spend your time in Riga.
Flight time: 2 hours 40 mins from London
In my opinion, Riga is a hugely underrated city break destination in Europe. As a crossroads of various nations and cultures, with more than 600,000 inhabitants, this European city is like no other on this list. Being so incredibly compact, you can easily get around on foot and see everything worth seeing in just a few days. But, that doesn’t mean to suggest that there isn’t much worth seeing in Riga – you will be spoilt for choice with everything from stunningly lush nature, a thriving urban centre, a unique blend of architecture and a hipster vibe.
Riga is well-known for its admirable cooperation with nature, with most of its residents incorporating their love of the environment into their daily lives. With its many public parks, forests, squares, lakes and the city canal, hills, islands and beaches, it is not difficult to see why nature plays such a huge role in the Riga way of life. You will also find an enchanting combination of architectural designs in the historical centre – from Baroque to Classicism, Renaissance to Art Deco, and Romanesque to National Romanticism. The city centre of Riga is also incredibly glamorous, brimming with creative energy from innovative start-ups, an excellent music scene, contemporary art and a dynamic gastronomic experience.
Where to stay: Hotel Canal Grande – a charming boutique hotel located in Ca’ Polacco, characterised by the furniture of Rococo style, typical of 18th century Venice.
Flight time: 2 hours 10 mins from London
Venice was always expected to be on this list of the best European city break destinations, with its obvious must-see landmarks, including the outstanding St Mark’s Basilica, Gothic Doge’s Palace and the Rialto Bridge. However, beyond these tick-box must-do’s there lies a peaceful labyrinth of cobbled streets and narrow canals to explore, and probably get lost in.
With 150 canals, 400 bridges and plenty of stunning 16th- and 17th-century palaces and piazzas, there is no surprise that Venice is considered by many as one of the most beautiful cities in the whole world. This city has become so popular as a European city break destination that there are many days when visitors to Venice outnumber locals two-to-one. While this extreme popularity can mean that the city gets fairly busy, Venice never loses its ability to captivate and it is definitely worth dealing with the crowds.
Even during peak tourist times, the huge crowds can easily be avoided and you’re never far from a secluded section of Venice with its quiet squares, churches and Gothic palazzi. And, despite being a historic city with a centuries-old past, it is also a hive of contemporary activity that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Locals are working hard to keep the city’s dwindling population and the city itself as creative, productive and vibrant as possible.
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