May 25, 2011

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City breaks – 10 classic destinations vs. 10 unusual alternatives

Bob blk shirt 2When you think of a city break there are a few classic destinations that instantly spring to mind such as London, Paris and Amsterdam. But there are also some incredible, less explored cities that are perfect for a city break. So in this article we pit 10 classic destinations against 10 unusual alternatives that you may not have considered.

Classic Destinations

There are some cities that never fail in delivering a great city break experience whether you are looking for that short break or something a little longer. And they all have similar things in common making them the top choices for travellers year after year. From outstanding architecture to history, popular culture to art and design, entertainment and great food as well as an endless stream of events year round, there is always something to interest you. And these cities can certainly be affordable by booking ahead to access cheap flights or travel as well as bargain hotels.

1. London
The capital of United Kingdom and one of the truly world class cities of the world, London never fails to deliver. The options available are so varied that you could visit month after month, year after year and still find something new on every trip. The key to a successful break in the city is to decide what you want to get out of your stay and to book the right London accommodation for your budget and needs. You can even rent apartments now for the ultimate in self catering.

A good idea is to pick a theme for your break, whether it is shopping and entertainment, history, culture or sport so you can build up an itinerary to suit your needs. Don’t forget to plot some time to kick back and relax as well as some time to be flexible when you undoubtedly discover somewhere new you want to visit. Theatre Breaks also make a great way to spend time in London with all types of performance on offer. And if you don’t want to pre-book your show, then you can pick up last minute tickets at the Half Price ticket booth on Leicester Square.

2. New York
I will never forget my first visit to the Big Apple. Taking the transfer from JFK airport into the city I was taken aback about the scale of this city with skyscrapers on every corner, the constantly bustling atmosphere and the sheer vibrancy of the place. I never fail to be impressed by a holiday to New York City, one of the finest, bustling, vibrant cities in the USA.

At the heart is Manhattan Island surrounded by the various boroughs that make up the city. Home to the Empire State Building, countless museums and galleries, world class shopping, as well as the iconic yellow taxis and hot dog street vendors. It is one of the safest big cities with a low crime rate and areas have been cleaned up in recent years to appeal more to the family market, such as the famous Times Square. In fact there are lots of little neighbourhoods in the city that you can tour the world without leaving, from Little Italy to Chinatown and everything in between, it is a real melting plot of people and cultures. It really does have an edge, a sassy attitude and a real go getting appeal to the place.

With flights available non stop from eight UK cities, it has never been more accessible to visit and hotels offer deals in all price ranges.

Paris

3. Paris
The City of Light (La Ville Lumiere), is another city that never disappoints and in my opinion because it is so stunningly beautiful. Mapped out in the second half of the nineteenth century, the city is today a capital of wide avenues, imposing public buildings and green parks. There is an air of historic sophistication which contrasts sharply with the modern street culture of this vibrant city and again like London it really pays to plan your visit to get the most from your short break.

From Disneyland Paris to the Haute Couture of the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore, from the art treasures of the Louvre to the flea markets of Saint-Denis and from the Bateaux Mouches cruising the Seine to the countless bistros, there is a real variety to the city, truly something for everyone.

Hotel accommodation varies in style, and comfort from basic traditional cheap hotel rooms to luxury hotels that can match any in the world. Flights operate to Paris from all over the UK on both scheduled and low cost carriers and you even access in two and half hours by Eurostar.

4. Rome
The Eternal City and one that is the embodiment of living history. For over 20 centuries Rome has been key to the development of modern civilisation and culture with the all conquering Rome Empire spreading its wings from Italy across Europe and the Mediterranean. The city drips in monuments and buildings dating back through to Roman times, with the Colisseum, Pantheon and Trevi Fountain giving just a flavour of the city through the ages.  And you can’t forget the Vatican City with it’s imposing St Peter’s Basilica.

But Rome is not just history, religion and monuments, it is about La Dolce Vita, enjoying life, taking a stroll, enjoying fine yet simple Italian food as well as enjoying a glass of prosecco and watching the world go by.  From early spring to late autumn, the city is alive with warmth and colour and a city break to Rome is a great way to rest and relax and to take in a few sights without rushing around at breakneck speed.

5. Dublin
The capital of Ireland and a city to have a good time while enjoying Irish hospitality and Gaelic history and culture.

In recent years the city has become a perennial favourite for the stag and hen party brigade, however don’t be put off by this as the city is big enough to enjoy without feeling you are on a constant party fun bus. With a compact centre, the city offers excellent shopping, the culture and history of Trinity College and the many churches, excellent Georgian buildings as well as the world famous Guinness Museum.

You can easily visit the coastline or use the city as a base to tour a range of castles in the Dublin County area and of course no visit is complete without a night out on the town with Temple Bar the main draw for many. Whilst this is commercialised today, you can easily access many local bars and restaurants for an authentic Irish experience.

6. Barcelona
Another firm favourite with Brits is Barcelona, capital of the Catalonia region in Spain. This may not be a city of history but it certainly packs a punch with art and culture, led by the extraordinary architectural work of Antonio Gaudi and artists Picasso, Miro and Dali. La Sagrada Familia is now one of the city’s biggest draw and building work is still underway to complete Gaudi’s masterpiece.

For years Barcelona was a run down city not known for its status today as a world class city break. Hosting the Olympics in 1992 changed all of that as millions of pesetas poured into the city to remodel and develop the city centre. Parts of the water front were redeveloped, which today give the city breaker somewhere to visit and spend time that they would have wanted to avoid before. The television coverage and the more recent growth in low cost flights have really driven this city into the public conscience and it is now a form favourite with all ages. The relaxed Spanish style can still be found, although the famous Ramblas area is now very touristy, so head off the beaten track into the old Gothic quarter to get more of a Spanish feel.

Whilst hotels in Barcelona are not cheap it really does pay to shop around; however there is an ample supply of low cost flights to Barcelona as well as the other regional airports of Reus and Gerona.

7. Amsterdam
The capital of Holland is one of the most laid back cities in Europe with a relaxed and liberal attitude to life and a unique setting on the city’s canal system. You name it, you can do it and the Dutch love to enjoy life so you are sure to have lots of fun on an Amsterdam city break.

The city is famous for many things, although the names of Van Gogh and Ann Frank are synonymous with the city. Van Gogh is celebrated with an art museum by his name containing many works by the famous artist. The Modern Art Museum and Rijksmuseum are a must for art lovers. The story of Ann Frank is brought to life with a visit to the house where she was hidden during the war. This historical site is well worth the visit although arriving early or late will help you avoid the crowds.

You can hire a bike, hire a pedal boat or use the extensive tram system to navigate around the city or just walk around the canals and parks. It really is a city to relax and enjoy as well as to party or top up on culture.

Amsterdam is one of the best served cities from the UK with flights from nearly 20 airports. There are hundreds of hotels to choose from, from modern to traditional and even a boat converted into a floating hotel.

8. Prague
Prague is another city that has been dominated in recent years by stag and hen dos as low cost flights brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. However there is far more to the city than partying and beer halls and the image that the city has is unfair on what is on offer.

The city was one of the great centres of the Austrian Empire and today there are many places of historical importance. The city is overlooked by Prague Castle joined by Charles Bridge and is a beautiful sight, especially at sunset. Prague’s cathedral is set within the castle complex. The old town square is the home of the famous Astronomical clock as well as the many streets that surround the square offering old world charm to the city. The old fortress of Vyshehrad and the more modern Wenceslas Square offer yet more historical context to a city break to the Czech capital.

With the city a stalwart of the low cost flight operators there are frequent cheap flights to Prague from the UK. And there are plenty of hotels to choose from in all budget ranges.

9. Berlin
Since the reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall twenty years ago, Berlin has risen up the city break hot list and is now drawing huge numbers of tourists to the German capital. For years the city was a draw for its bohemian lifestyle and trips into Eastern Europe via the infamous Checkpoint Charlie, but today the city is being reborn. Massive rebuilding programs are underway, new shopping centres are springing up and the city is becoming a world capital with museums and art galleries galore alongside cutting edge art, design and pop culture and a real melting pot of people. The nightlife and performance art still remains and today this adds an added spice to this vibrant city.

Berlin is very spaced out with lots of green parks including the enormous Tiergartern that cuts through the centre of the city like a huge lung. The famous Berlin Zoo is at one end of this area and there are ample opportunities to take a stroll in the park gardens and pathways. And you can still investigate the former Iron Curtain history of the city and see some sections of the wall protected for posterity.

Cheap flights operate into both Tegel and Schoenfeld airports from around the UK and there are hotels in every price range to choose something suitable for you, including apartments.

10. Edinburgh
Scotland’s capital is a fabulous city to visit and never disappoints. Stunning buildings, the historic castle, views of the Firth of Forth and streets packed with shops, restaurants and bars to explore. World class museums and art galleries abound and it is a great city to enjoy both the surrounding areas as much as the vibrancy of the central area.

Travel there in August and you get to be entertained by performers of all types from all over the world at the Edinburgh Festival. There is no other arts festival like it anywhere in the world and is well worth a visit as there is something for everyone from ballet to comedy, avant garde art to events for children and theatrical events to specially created pieces to mark the festival.  And don’t forget to return at New Year for one of the classic places to enjoy a world famous Hogmanay.


Alternative Destinations

You may well have visited all these cities and want to try something new, so how about our Top 10 Unique Cities? Why not try somewhere different and take advantage of cheap flights and great value hotel prices to explore somewhere a little different.

1. Krakow
Located in the south of Poland, Krakow is an absolute gem of a city. Small and compact is has one of the best preserved medieval centres of anywhere in Europe and has been protected as a UNESCO heritage site, suffering very little during the ravages of the Second World War.

The wonderful town centre square Rynek Glowny, is surround by cobbled streets and gothic buildings and there is an imposing castle on Wawell hill.  There are lots of places to eat and drink in street cafes and bars and the shopping is spread out in the central area with lots to see and buy. You can even take a trip out of town to visit salt mines, from which the money was made to build the city in years past.

For many though, the city is linked to the Second World War and the history and legacy of the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The site is preserved and offers a thought provoking visit to learn more about the atrocities of the Nazis on the Jews of Krakow and many other areas of Western Europe from the war years.

With flights to Krakow and nearby Katowice from the UK there are lots of options to get here.

2. Reykjavik
Iceland may not be an obvious choice for a city break, yet Reykjavik has really taken off in recent years. It is a small capital city, yet packs punch as one of the most unusual places to visit for a weekend due to its combination of good humoured people, incredible landscape and historical culture and unique places to visit such as the Blue Lagoon.

Exploring the city centre will only take a day and be prepared for fairly limited shopping options, however, use the city as a base for taking trips out to see the world famous geysers gushing sulphurous water into the sky, take a trip out onto the ocean to see whales, go hiking among the lunar landscapes or view volcanoes, see the Northern Lights or simply soak in the healing waters of the Blue Lagoon between the city and the airport.  Local cuisine includes puffin and Hakarl – putrefied shark – certainly two dishes you will not have tried elsewhere.

Following the recent financial crisis, the value of the Icelandic Kroner has plummeted and made the city really affordable for a short break that you will remember like no other.

3. Seville
Many of us travel to the South of Spain to enjoy holidays on the Costa del Sol, yet only a couple of hours drive north west from the coast will bring you to Seville, the quintessential Andalucian city.  A short break here will really leave you enthralled by Spanish history and culture and is world famous for its Easter parades and festivities – the Feria de Abril

The city has a mix of architectural styles and embodies both traditional Spanish and North African influences throughout. The incredible Moorish building of the Royal Palaces together with Plaza Espana and the cathedral and the Giralda tower give lots to visit and explore.

It is a very atmospheric city in many ways, with great places to eat and drink although the more touristy elements linked to flamenco can be a little tacky. But you can still seek out authentic flamenco culture and enjoy the sensuality of the dancing in shows around the area.

Flights operate direct to Seville from London, although you can also consider options to Jerez or Malaga and add a car hire to make the city accessible.

4. Stockholm
Stockholm is a beautiful city to visit all year round. In winter it is covered by snow and ice and at Christmas has wonderful traditional atmosphere.  In summer it really comes into it’s own with the many waterways and islands offering a real sense of space to the city.  An excellent city to explore by foot or boat.

Stockholm is built on a series of islands with a preserved old town on Gamla Stan, excellent museums and galleries and shopping that focuses heavily on Scandinavian cutting edge design.  Food and drink are hearty and healthy and there are lots of places to enjoy nightlife of all types, whether you are looking for something traditional or something modern.

It does have a reputation for being expensive; however there are lots of cheaper eateries around town and quality of food and accommodation is excellent. The Swedes are also very welcoming and standards exceptionally high wherever you go.

5. Ljubljana
The capital of Slovenia is for many an undiscovered gem and is set midway between the Alps and the Med. It has an impressive old town and a castle overlooking the city and lots of historic buildings including the St Nicholas Cathedral. The best way to explore is by foot around the streets of the city centre which is compact and easy to find your way around.  It is set on the Ljubljanica river and you get great views of the mountains and city from boat trips on the water.

It is also an excellent base for an adrenaline fuelled city break to enjoy white water rafting, hiking and mountain biking in areas such as Bovec set in the nearby mountains otherwise know as the Julian Alps.  Skiing is also an option in winter months. So it gives a great option to combine the city with the outdoors with minimal effort. The Slovenians are very hospitable and food and drink are easy to come by with hearty cuisine and great prices compared to home.

6. Dubrovnik
Another city from the former Yugoslavian Republic, Dubrovnik is set on the Adriatic Sea and is known for its impressive fortified central area, packed with historic building and churches. Tiny alleys combine with wide streets in a maze, all surrounded by high city walls which you walk along the op of.

It is an easy city to explore and navigate, however it is really best used as a base to enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery of the area. If offers beaches, mountains and plenty of walking and biking as well as the chance to take trips out onto the Adriatic among the thousands of islands of the Dalmatian Coast.  We would really recommend this city for the summer months only when the area really comes alive.

In recent years prices have really rocketed and it is no longer a cheap option for many, however booking a cheap flight in advance can pay dividends and by staying outside of the city centre you can dramatically cut your accommodation costs.

7. Istanbul
One of Europe’s cities of culture in 2010, Istanbul is where east meets west and offers something very different to other short breaks in Europe.

The cityscape is peppered with the minarets and domes of the city’s many mosques, concentrated around the old town on the south of the city in Sultanahmet. You can explore the old Bazaar or the Egyptian market where you can shop and haggle for all manner of goods and take trips onto the Bosphorous to explore the city by water.

The highlight of the city is the extraordinary Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Empire and packed with treasures in the museum contained within the complex. The adjoining Blue Mosque and Aghia Sofia provide an incredible slice of history and culture and an excellent days’ sightseeing.

Evening time you should head to Beyoglu to the area north of the Galata tower where the streets are packed with restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. Nightlife here goes on till the early hours.

8. Bilbao
Set near the Northern coast of Spain, this city was for many years the centre of a heavily industrialised area, not known for tourism. And then the Guggenheim museum arrived and catapulted the city into the city break spotlight. The highly unusual bright shiny building looks completely at odds with its surroundings; however it works well and is truly unique.

Huge investment has gone into transforming and cleaning up the city and today it makes an excellent short break to enjoy the art and food of the area. And don’t forget the stunning green scenery, something that you don’t normally associate with a country such as Spain.

You can also use the city as a base to visit the nearby coast with its excellent beaches and for trips to see the bull running in Pamplona, a short drive away. Wine lovers will be able to visit Rioja and Navarra for sampling.

Flights head direct to the city from the UK or alternatively fly into Santander and take a car hire from there.

9. Bern
The Swiss capital is an unassuming city yet somewhere that offers an excellent city break. Another city with a UNESCO protected old town it sits on the river Aare which runs through the city centre and is surrounded by mountain scenery.

The city centre is dominated by the tallest church spire in Switzerland of the gothic cathedral and the parliament building which you can take a tour around. There are also world class art galleries including the Paul Klee centre.  The city streets are lined with exclusive shops and smart bars and restaurants.

Once you are complete with the city, then head out to the mountain ski resorts which are close by for winter sports or summer walking and hiking.

10. Marrakech
The Moroccan city of Marrakech has been a favourite now for many years, yet is still to be discovered by the mass city tourists. It really does assault the senses as you explore the centre of the old town and souk of the Medina, as well as the famous square of Djemaa el-Fna that comes alive at night with performers and hawkers. The stalls offer such a wide range of products and offer a real chance to haggle for great deals. To take a break from the hustle and bustle, you should visit the peaceful Menara Gardens or take a trip out to the nearby Atlas Mountains.

The buildings look stunning in the sunlight and once sunset begins the city glows with rich reds and oranges. The city gates are set around the city and are the entry point to the old town.  Outside of this, modern development has sprung up, although it does not spoil the views as has happened in some many other cities. Many hotels have been built although for a more authentic experience stay in one of the many riads, small hotels in traditional Moroccan buildings, although these days with every mod con.

Flights operate to Marrakech from all over the UK and there is a wide range of styles of accommodation in and around the city.

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