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10 alternative city breaks for spring

Spring is the season of new beginnings, so why not try going somewhere completely different this year? Explore the stunning natural beauty of Macedonia, admire the thrusting modern architecture of Rotterdam or go back in time by wandering among the seventeenth-century buildings of Bergen.

1. Wrocław, Poland

Krakow and Warsaw are famous for their beautiful buildings, but Wrocław (pronounced vrots-wahf) is a rather less well known architectural gem. It has a unique mix of buildings displaying Bohemian, Prussian and Austrian influences, as the city has been ruled by all three nations at various points in its history. The Market Square is a beautiful showcase for this mix of styles – the breath-taking Old Town Hall took nearly two centuries to complete after work started in the fourteenth century, and the older, Gothic section on the right merges into later, Renaissance-style elements on the left. Head inside the town hall to check out the Museum of Bourgeois Art (open Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 6pm, entrance from 7 zł), which features an exhibition of the city’s rich treasury. Elsewhere, Cathedral Island is another highlight with its centrepiece the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, complete with two 91-metre towers that provide a commanding view of the city (open weekdays 10am to 4pm, entrance 4 zł). Along with places like Buenos Aires and Stockholm, we named Wrocław as one of the 8 most colourful cities in the world.
Where to stay: The five-star Grape Hotel is situated in a grand old house with a beautiful garden in a quiet area, 10 minutes from the centre of Wrocław. The 13 large rooms are named and styled after various wine regions – hence the hotel’s unusual name.
Wroclaw

2. Verona, Italy

Verona often gets overlooked in favour of its flashier neighbour Venice, but the ‘birthplace’ of Romeo and Juliet has plenty of its own charms – and far fewer tourist crowds. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, one of the city’s most popular attractions is the Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House), which features a very Shakespearean balcony – although seeing as Juliet was a fictional character, it’s exceedingly unlikely that she ever lived here. Better to spend your time admiring the tremendous and amazingly intact Roman amphitheatre, which doubles as an opera venue in the summer, or the Galleria d'Arte Moderna Achille Forti (open Tuesday to Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 11am to 7pm, entrance €8), which is not only home to an impressive collection of modern art from 1840 to 1940 but is also a stunningly beautiful medieval building in its own right. Verona also makes an ideal base for excursions to Venice, which is just over an hour away by train: take a look at our Venice guide for ideas on what to do in the Floating City.
Where to stay: Il Sogno di Giulietta is a guest house located in the courtyard right next to Juliet’s balcony, making it one of the most romantic spots in the city. Some of the 16 apartments even have balconies of their own if you fancy recreating one of Shakespeare’s greatest scenes.
Verona

3. Bremen, Germany

Bremen is known as a haven for free thinking, a fact perhaps best reflected in the bizarre architecture of Böttcherstrasse. This weird-looking street is home to the distinctive Robinson Crusoe House and the steel and concrete Atlantis House, as well as the ‘Lichtbringer’ a fervent tribute to National Socialism commissioned by coffee trader and Nazi sympathiser Ludwig Roselius. Hitler didn’t appreciate the gaudy monument, however, and airily dismissed the tribute – today it stands as an awkward testament to unreturned adoration. Elsewhere, the bizarre building theme continues with the Universum Bremen (open Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm, Saturday to Sunday 10am to 6pm, entrance €16), a science museum in the shape of giant metal clam. It’s packed with interesting exhibits on things like artificial intelligence, and there are plenty of hands-on activities to entertain kids. Now take a look at these other 10 incredible places to visit in Germany.
Where to stay: The Atlantic Grand Hotel is a spotlessly clean and beautifully appointed hotel located right in the heart of the old town. As well as a swanky bar and restaurant, this four-star hotel boasts of having an ‘alpine hut’ in its courtyard garden that serves traditional alpine cuisine.
Bremen

4. Varna, Bulgaria

This spring, why not hit the beach in Bulgaria? May can see highs of 20°C, so if you’re lucky you might get a tan while lounging by the Black Sea. Away from the beach, however, there are plenty of other attractions in this cosmopolitan city, not least the Sea Garden, which claims to be the largest landscaped park in the Balkans. It’s full of all sorts of oddities, including the Alley of Cosmonauts, which features a silver fir planted by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. Meanwhile, the onion-domed Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin (open Monday to Sunday 8am to 6pm) is a riot of stained glass and colourful murals, and just outside the city you’ll find the curious Stone Forest, a natural landscape of mysterious limestone pillars that stand up to 10 metres high (open weekdays 10am to 5pm, entrance 3 leva). Bulgaria is also a fantastically cheap place to visit: we named it as one of 12 of the world’s cheapest holiday destinations.
Where to stay: Stylish and modern, the chic Graffit Gallery Design Hotel houses an art gallery as well as two restaurants serving Bulgarian and international food. In a nice touch, chocolates are left in your room each day, and each room has its own coffee machine.
Varna

5. Carcassonne, France

Paris may be the obvious choice for a spring break, but there are plenty of beautiful small towns scattered across the French countryside. The inspiring medieval battlements of Carcassonne bring to mind a fairy-tale castle – and this storybook town in southern France draws in an impressive four-million dewy-eyed visitors a year. That means it tends to get heavingly busy in the summer months, so an early spring trip means you can avoid the crowds before they peak. The fortified section of town is known as La Cité, and it features two rings of battlements and 52 stone towers, which helped to defend the border between France and Aragon until 1659, when the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed. The famous walls have even inspired a hugely popular board game. To walk along the ramparts, head to Château Comtal (opening hours 9.30am to 5pm daily, entrance €8.50). Carcassonne features as one of our 14 fabulous places to visit in France – check out the pictures and be inspired!.
Where to stay: If you’re looking to treat yourself, try the Hotel de la Cite Carcassonne - MGallery Collection. Located right within the old city, many of the rooms have great views of the fortifications, and the hotel hosts its own Michelin-starred restaurant – La Barbacane.
Carcassonne

6. Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Whereas Amsterdam is defined by its canals, Rotterdam is all about contemporary architecture. There are flashy buildings and bridges wherever you look, most notably the enormous arch of the Marktal food market (open Monday–Thursday and Saturday 10am to 8pm, Friday 8am to 9pm and Sunday midday to 6pm). Completed in 2014, the arch spans 11,000 square metres and is covered by the world’s biggest piece of art, a mural by Arno Coenan. Meanwhile, Rotterdam Centraal Station is shaped like a giant boomerang, and the impressive Erasmus Bridge thrusts into the sky like the elongated neck of a silver swan. But it’s not all daring, futuristic constructions – Rotterdam has preserved its links with the past. The SS Rotterdam was the largest ever vessel to be built in Holland, and the cruise ship is now docked permanently in the city for visitors to explore. Clamber on deck for a cocktail in the bar as the sun sets. Head over this way for more ideas on what to do in Rotterdam, including where to find the city’s first speciality cider shop.
Where to stay: You can stay on the SS Rotterdam, which has been completely repurposed as a floating hotel and restaurant – but thankfully, the beautiful 1950s original fittings have been retained.
Rotterdam

7. Bergen, Norway

Bergen is Norway’s second-largest city, and until the thirteenth century it was its capital. But despite its size, it has the charm of a small town, mostly thanks to the gabled eighteenth-century buildings of Bryggen, the old wharf and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These colourful buildings have become a haven for artists and boutiques, and it’s easy to lose hours wandering along the old town streets. But the city also has its finger on the pulse of modern culture – KODE is one of Scandinavia’s biggest collections of art and design, including artworks by Edvard Munch, painter of The Scream. The collection is spread across four separate buildings, and the 100 NOK entrance fee provides access to all of them for two days. For something a bit different, however, you could always visit the Leprosy Museum (open daily 11am to 3pm, entrance 80 NOK), a monument to nineteenth-century physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered the bacterium that causes leprosy during his research in Bergen.
Where to stay: The four-star Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz has all of the beautiful modern design you’d expect of a top-notch Scandinavian hotel. But the ludicrously generous breakfast may make it difficult to leave the hotel at the start of each day.
Bergen

8. Essaouira, Morocco

If you’re looking for somewhere exotic to spend spring, then Essaouira (pronounced ‘essa-weer-ah’) is perfect. This Moroccan town faces the Atlantic head on, so although the daytime temperatures are relatively warm compared to the UK (around 18°C on average in April), the near-constant wind can make it feel a colder. Still, the views of the Atlantic waves crashing into the city’s historic fortified walls are stunning – in fact, this very image was the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1951 film version of Othello. Further into town, the spice-filled souk provides a heady thrill, and a visit to a hammam (Turkish bath) is an experience not to be missed. Ask at your hotel for advice on the best local hammam, where you’ll be thoroughly washed with perfumed soap and scrubbed down with a rough keesa glove. If you want to extend your trip, Marrakech is only around three hours away by road – check out our guide to see what the city has to offer.
Where to stay: Riad Baoussala has just six beautifully appointed rooms, providing an intimately welcoming atmosphere. It also offers a hammam, heated pool, massages and a garden to explore, making for a tremendously tranquil retreat.
Essaouira

9. Skopje, Macedonia

Macedonia has stunning natural beauty by the bucketload – despite its tiny size, it has 34 mountain peaks of over 2,000 metres, along with three national parks and 33 natural reserves. It’s packed with ancient monuments too, including an astronomical observatory dating from 3,800 BC: Kokino is a Bronze Age archaeological site just over an hour’s drive away from Skopje at an elevation of around 1,000 metres, and has stone markers that align with the sun and moon’s positions. Back in town, Skopje is famous for its Old Bazaar, a teeming mass of narrow streets that dates back to Ottoman rule in the twelfth century. The Ottoman influence is obvious: there are around 30 mosques and various other Ottoman buildings and monuments. Make sure to sample the delicious local food while you wander, such as koftinja (meatballs) and potato. If you want to extend your stay, take a look at these 8 great places to visit in the Balkans.
Where to stay: Villa Vodno is a family-run boutique hotel in a quiet neighbourhood of Skopje. The rooms are surprisingly huge considering the hotel’s small size, and it has a wonderfully tranquil garden to relax in.
Skopje

10. Helsinki, Finland

Probably the most exciting thing about Helsinki is that it’s home to an utterly massive sea fort called Suomenlinna (free entry; check website for opening times). This impressive fortification can be found on an island just a short ferry ride away from the city, and in the past it was fiercely fought over by the Russians and Swedes – although since 1973 it has been open to civilians. Nowadays you’re far more likely to see picnicking city dwellers than marauding Russians, and the island has become a hotspot for artists – there’s even a theatre. But perhaps its star attraction is a decommissioned submarine, which offers a rare opportunity to witness life from the perspective of a sardine. Back on dry land, the Old Market Hall is a must visit, if only to sample the sublime soups offered by Soppakeittio. Read more about the top nine things to do in Helsinki.
Where to stay: Hotel Katajanokka makes for an unlikely place to stay – until 2002 it was a prison. Much of the prison décor remains, so rooms have enormous metal doors, and the gantry that was once patrolled by prison guards is now stalked by holidaying families. The enormously thick walls certainly keep the cold out…
Helsinki

City breaks from £18 return

Make it your resolution to travel somewhere new this year – whether it’s to see the beautiful Belle Époque buildings of Bucharest or to enjoy the café culture of Sofia. We’ve picked out some of the cheapest flights in February so you can sample some of Europe’s best cities.

1. Doncaster to Sofia, Bulgaria from £18* return

Sofia sports numerous notable attractions – such as the distinctive domes of the 53-metre-high St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (entry free, open daily 7am to 6pm) – but the real draw of this city is its vibrant café culture and nightlife. The Antrakt café doubles as a gallery showcasing alternative artists, so you can appreciate Bulgarian art while sipping your coffee, and there are plenty of buzzing pavement cafés on the pedestrianized Vitosha Boulevard. Sofia is very much a party city, too: the clubs stay open well into the early hours, often as late as 6am, and the drinks are super cheap. Check out our guide to find out more things to do in the city, including where to see priest grafitti.
Sofia

2. London to Copenhagen, Denmark from £20* return

No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to the famous Carlsberg brewery (Monday to Sunday 10am–5pm; €13.42), which is dubbed by the company as ‘The Copenhagen ExBEERience’ (those wags). Naturally the price includes a free drink, and the brewery hosts a mightily impressive bottle collection as well as reams of text to read on brewing history. A nice touch is that you can circulate the exhibits with a beer in hand – a policy that perhaps should be brought in at all museums. And don’t worry if you think Copenhagen is too expensive – there are plenty of ways to see the city on a budget
Copenhagen

3. Manchester to Hamburg, Germany from £23* return

Hamburg’s most popular attraction by far is the stunning Miniatur Wunderland (entry €13, check website for opening hours), a sort of model railway set that has mutated and sprawled out of control. It features more than 13 kilometres of track and 900 trains weaving through central Europe and America, including a 6-metre-high representation of the Alps. But the airport is where it gets seriously impressive: you can watch planes taking off and landing, while the terminal buzzes with activity. Elsewhere, smoke pours from buildings as fire engines arrive, while police cars pull over drivers for speeding – something is happening in this tiny world wherever you look. Oh, and did you know that Hamburg is a haven for Yuccies?
Hamburg

4. London to Milan, Italy from £26* return

The beautiful white-marble cathedral in Milan – the Duomo – is undoubtedly the city's highlight. The building dates back to the fourteenth century, but construction took an astonishing six centuries: it was only officially finished in 1965. That's not surprising if you consider its size: at 160 metres long, this huge edifice is the fifth largest church in the world and the second largest in Italy (the largest is of course St Peter's in Vatican City at an impressive 220 metres). The cathedral is open daily between 8am and 7pm, and a 'Duomo Pass' costs €15. To see some of the city's best sights, including Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, check out our local's guide to Milan.
Milan

5. Birmingham to Palma, Mallorca from £26* return

The Arab Baths in Palma (open 9.30am–6pm all year round, small entry fee) offer a tranquil diversion and a reminder of the Palma’s forgotten past. The tenth-century baths were discovered by accident in the twentieth century, and they are all that remain of Medina Mayurqa, the Arab city that stood on the site before the construction of Palma. But the Arabs weren’t the first occupiers by any means – it seems the pillars of the baths were salvaged from Roman ruins. For more inspiring places to visit in Palma, including its famous cathedral with interior by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, check out this guide.
Palma

6. Glasgow to Brussels, Belgium from £26* return

The chips in Brussels are phenomenal. Not only that, they’re everywhere – frietkots selling paper cones of chips simply litter the city (Maison Antoine is a particularly good one). Aside from chips, Brussels is probably most famous for being the heart of the European Union, and the Parliamentarium (9am–6pm, free) does an amazing job of turning the potentially coma-inducing topic of EU law-making into an actually quite interesting afternoon out, thanks to all sorts of flashy lights and 3D models. Take a look at this guide for more ideas on what to see and do, including where to go in search of Tintin.
Brussels

7. Newcastle to Warsaw, Poland from £26* return

Warsaw was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and the Old Town was systematically blown up by the German army in reprisal for the Warsaw Uprising by the Polish resistance in 1944. After hostilities ceased, the medieval buildings of the Old Town were carefully reconstructed using the original bricks wherever possible, and today there is no clue that the entire area was once a heap of rubble. One boon of the reconstruction was that the new houses were linked to a district heating system rather than having individual boilers, which means that the city has far less pollution than Krakow. But an efficient heating system isn’t the only thing Warsaw has going for it: it does a mean line in Communist-era milk bars, too.
Warsaw

8. London to Marseille, France from £30* return

Marseille is the perfect place for culture boffs, as it boasts a vibrant street art scene along with cutting-edge museums and galleries – not least the mysterious black cube that is the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (open daily (except Tuesdays) 11am to 7pm, entry €9.50). When your long day of gallery hopping is done, head to the old port for an apero or two while you watch the sun set – Bar de la Marine (15 Quai de Rive Neuve) is the perfect place for a pastis. For more things to see in Marseille, from an enormous golden statue of the Virgin Mary to exotic markets, check out our guide.
Marseille

9. Glasgow to Bucharest, Romania from £31* return

Thanks to its tree-lined boulevards, Belle Époque buildings and reputation for the high life, Bucharest has earned the nickname ‘Little Paris’. After a walk in the beautiful old town, discover Hanul lui Manuc (open 8am to 11.30pm), one of Europe’s few remaining caravanserais. Built two centuries ago by Emanuel Manuc, an Armenian and one of the richest and most influential merchants of his time, it provided lodging and shelter for the caravans on their trade routes. Today it hosts events and is filled with restaurants, some Romanian – the perfect place to try a traditional mint lemonade. And there’s always Bucharest’s most notorious building, the colossal Palace of the Parliament, former home of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and one of our top ten picks for the city.
Bucharest

10. London to Madrid, Spain from £40* return

The Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid) is the official residence of the Spanish royal family – although you won’t find them there unless there’s a ceremony taking place. They actually live in Zarzuela Palace on the edge of Madrid in a building that’s a ‘mere’ 3,150 square metres in size – practically a shoebox compared to the enormous 135,000 square metre Royal Palace. In fact, the Royal Palace is the largest palace in Europe by floor area: Buckingham Palace is only around half the size at 77,000 square metres. The palace is open every day from 10am to 6pm, and entry costs €11. Now, for more ideas on what to see and do in Madrid, take some advice from a local.
Royal Palace of Madrid