Europe is packed with city breaks for every type of trip. There are time-tested big hitters like Paris, Rome, Amsterdam and Barcelona but there's also a whole continent filled with lesser-known gems that are just as perfect for a short break. These underrated city breaks offer boutique hotels, exciting new restaurants and antique markets to boot – and they often mean fewer crowds and more affordable places to stay.
The best lesser-known city breaks in Europe
Bruges is like Amsterdam in miniature – a city of canals, elegant step-roofed mansions and exquisite architecture. Though supremely photogenic at all times of year, Bruges is particularly atmospheric in the clear, cold light of winter (and there’s an excellent Christmas market). Wrap up warm and stride out as the historic centre is small and easily covered on foot. Top sites include the Stadhuis, Belgium’s oldest town hall located in the Burg, the Gothic square at the heart of the city; the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a small phial said to contain a cloth splashed with the blood of Christ; and the Groenerei, the most romantic of all the canals in the city. Don’t forget to gorge on chocolate, beer and chips – all things for which this city is also famous. No need to fly – Bruges is best reached via Eurostar to Brussels and a short train ride on.
Where to stay: Stay at family-owned Hotel Van Cleef (doubles from £257 a night).
Everybody says ‘You gotta go to Noto,’” said Daphne to Harper in the Sicily-based season 2 of White Lotus, describing it as “this beautiful baroque town. . . There’s these amazing palazzos and artisanal shops.” While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking much of the show as gospel, we can confirm that in this instance, Daphne’s research was exemplary. And, a veritable jewel of Sicilian Baroque – “the past holds you in its grasp,” wrote Jean-Louis Remilleux in A Palace in Sicily – Noto is further blessed with beaches, good food, jaw-dropping interiors, excellent antiques shopping, and, of course, a Mediterranean climate and its accompanying tawny-gold landscape. Just in case further evidence of its charms were needed, interior designer Jacques Garcia, photographer Mario Testino, and fashion and homeware designer Luisa Beccaria all own houses in the area.
Where to stay: Stay at the boutique, family-run Battimandorlo, just outside the city (doubles from €170 a night).
One of Europe’s finest examples of post-war urban regeneration, Rotterdam now styles itself as an international hub for sustainable innovation and cutting-edge design. The vibe is still distinctly industrial – let’s not forget it is the largest port in Europe - so you are more likely to see a crane than a church spire, an old warehouse than a historical mansion. But it’s young, bold and dynamic, embracing diversity with a cosmopolitan outlook in both its architecture and its food. Serious foodies, in fact, are well-catered for with Rotterdam’s restaurant offering, and fashionistas and design junkies will find excellent shopping opportunities. Another plus - Rotterdam is easy get to, with Eurostar passing right through en route to Amsterdam. Arriving at the monumental Centraal Station provides the first taste of what’s to come.
Where to stay: Stay at quirkily affordable CitizenM (doubles from £143 a night).
This, the largest city in the Spanish region of Andalucia, is one of Europe’s true beauties with history oozing through every pore. Mudejar palaces and Baroque churches rub shoulders with cobbled alleys, bodegas and tapas bars overlaid with an abiding scent of jasmine and orange blossom and a signature flourish of flamenco. Where to begin on what to see? Everyone will have their personal tick list but must-sees include the Alcazar Palace and Seville’s cathedral with its famous Giralda tower. Plaza de Toros is the largest bullfighting arena in Spain and includes the Museo Taurino charting the history of bullfighting. If Santa Cruz, the old Jewish Quarter, is the tourist heartland of the city, then Triano, once the haunt of flamenco dancers and bullfighters is more neighbourly with lots of popular restaurants and bars.
Where to stay: Stay at boutique beauty Corral del Rey (doubles from £328 a night).
Mallorca’s capital is an absolute gem of a city at any time of year, bursting with top-notch restaurants, hotels and cultural treasures with excellent shopping to boot. Allow at least two days to explore, three if you can – hence a trip in the cooler months is best. A good place to start is to wander along Passeig del Born, Palma’s chic main avenue, diving off into its side streets as the mood takes you to discover numerous cafes, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. Culture hounds will head for La Seu, Palma’s cathedral, or perhaps circular Bellver Castle which has excellent views of the city. Hipsters will head for the trendy Santa Catalina quarter, a former fishing village which also boasts the city’s oldest food market.
Where to stay: Stay at Can Bordoy which has the largest private garden in the centre of town (doubles from £271 a night).
MAY WE SUGGEST: Holidays ideas for Mallorca off the beaten track
They say that Oslo is the capital of Scandi cool but hot on its heels comes Bergen, Norway’s second largest city with a charming, small-town feel. Situated on the west coast, Bergen is famous for its colourful waterfront of red, yellow and white timber townhouses and its proximity to the fjords. The city’s fishing heritage dominates many of the cultural attractions and its food – simply put, Bergen is the seafood capital of northern Europe with a famous fish market that’s second to none. Of the five museums housed within the four Kode buildings – the city’s artistic hub - one pays homage to the composer Edvard Grieg who was born here and whose music is ever-present. Really, though, consider Bergen as the gateway to a wider adventure in the great outdoors, so come prepared to get exploring.
Where to stay: Stay at Villa Terminus (doubles from £119 a night)
Soulful, high-octane, menacing Naples, the largest city in southern Italy is no less a masterpiece than the country’s other famous metropolises, albeit slightly lacking in tourist gloss. So loaded is Naples with ancient architectural, artistic and archaeological assets that there’s no shortage of cultural treasures to fill a mere weekend. And that’s probably even before you’ve made it to the nearby Roman remains of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Highlights of this sprawling city include the National Archaeological Museum, the Cappella Sansevero, the Duomo and the Museo di Capodimonte. And then there’s the food – a reason in itself to go to Naples, with many hailing this city as the food capital of Italy. Most famous, of course, are the classic Neapolitan pizza and its humble, fried alternative, pizza fritta; and sfogliatella, a shell-shaped sweet pastry.
Where to stay: Stay at Casa d’Anna (doubles from £105 a night).
Wedged between Italy and Austria, Slovenia is one of Europe’s unsung beauties and its capital, Ljubljana, one of Europe’s greenest cities. Two features stand out: the hilltop castle, reached via funicular, which looks down on the red roofs of the old town; and the Ljubljanica River which flows through the heart of the city, criss-crossed by beautiful bridges and with leafy, traffic-free banks that are perfect for a stroll, a cycle ride, a drink or a meal (try kranjska klobasa, Slovenia’s famous carniolan sausage, or štruklji, a rolled, sweet or savoury dumpling that comes with a variety of fillings). Super-compact, Ljubljana’s main sites can all be reached within a 25-minute walk but don’t miss Plecnik House – the former home of Joze Plecnik, a master of modern architecture, who designed large parts of the city centre in the early 20th century.
Where to stay: Stay at Vander Urbani Resort (doubles from £124 per night).
Off the tourist radar for years, Malta’s pocket-sized capital Valletta is a 16th century gem, created on a picturesque peninsula by the Knights of St John after their victorious defeat of the Ottomans at the Great Siege of 1565. This is Europe’s smallest capital, its honey-hued buildings and Baroque extravaganzas set off perfectly against the blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Famously ‘a city built by gentleman for gentleman’, Valletta boasts one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Don’t miss St John’s Co-Cathedral with its two Caravaggios, or the fabulous State Rooms of the Grand Master’s Palace, but much of Valletta’s charm is captured in its views of the Grand Harbour, best enjoyed from the colonnaded Upper Barrakka Gardens.
Where to stay: Splash out and stay at the Phoenicia Hotel (doubles from £192 a night).