101 Short Breaks

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Annabelle Thorpe
The Times travel writer Annabelle Thorpe.

    Best city breaks in spring

    Venice in springczech republic prague, charles bridge at dawnBest city breaks in spring

    By Annabelle Thorpe, Editor of 101 Short Breaks

    Cities are the new beaches, according to a new survey by the Association of British Travel Agents, with city breaks now as popular with British travellers as the traditional seaside holiday.

    Budget flights, the improving rail network in Europe and new destinations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East means there’s never been such a wide range of affordable choices for a few days of urban pleasures. The only problem? Choosing where to go.

    For a romantic weekend it’s hard to beat Prague, where beautiful churches, cafe lined squares and cobbled streets create a fairytale feel. Daily classical, jazz and contemporary performances take place in many of the churches, while 9th century Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, offering fabulous views over the city.

    Dubrovnik is another wonderfully romantic city, dominated by the 12th century walls that separate the tangle of streets from the sea. Walk the walls as the sun sets over the Adriatic, or settle in to one of the pavement cafes and listen to the opera singers and classical musicians who busk on the streets. For classic romance, Venice remains the city to beat; whether floating along on a gondola, drinking bellinis at Harry’s Bar on San Marco Square, or exploring the quiet charms of the lesser known islands such as Murano or Torcello.

    Art-lovers should head to the Spanish capital. Madrid boasts three of the best galleries in the world, the Reina Sofia, the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemiza. The city is also home to spectacular gardens; the Jardins Botanico has 30,000 species of plants and offers a welcome retreat from the busy streets.

    Florence is another top choice for art, with the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia boasting some of the most famous art-works in the world, including Michelangelo’s David. The city is equally famous for the beautiful Duomo, the 15th century church designed by Brunelleschi; arguably the most beautiful in Europe. See a selection of hotels in Florence.

    But few galleries or museums can rival the Hermitage in St Petersburg, one of the largest and oldest in the world, with six buildings housing over three million works of art. Russia’s second city is also home to some spectacularly beautiful churches, with gold-leaf mosaics stretching from floor to ceiling across the internal walls.

    Another city that works for a weekend break is Copenhagen which is currently super-hip due to its contemporary design, laid back lifestyle and award-winning restaurants. Nearby Stockholm is a beautiful city set on an archipelago of small islands. Spring is a great time to visit as the days lengthen and the locals emerge from their winter slumber.

    Romantic riverside walksSt Petersburg city break in spring

    Foodies should head, of course, to Paris, where visits to classic sights such as Montmartre and the Arc de Triomphe can be punctuated with wonderful food – try the Latin Quarter on the south bank, or the hip Marais district, home to some of the oldest buildings in the city. Sty at the Hotel Notre Dame with one of the best views of the city, or Pavillon de la Reine in the Marais.

    Vienna is the perfect choice for those with a sweet tooth; coffee and cake is a staple part of any visit. The Sacher Cafe is one of the most famous in the city (home of the unctuously chocolatey Sachertorte), and there are also the wonderfully ornate former palaces of the Habsburg families to visit.

    Tapas-lovers should head to Seville, where the streets are dotted with tapas bars and stunning Moorish architecture, including the beautiful Giralda cathedral, giving a fascinating sight into the area’s Arabic history. Over in Portugal, Lisbon has wonderful restaurants, a growing art scene and some lovely boutique hotels.

    If you – or your partner – loves sport, how about one of these sporting breaks – everything from Grand Slam tennis (Wimbledon? New York?) to Formula One (Monaco? Monza?).

    For a blast of guaranteed sunshine, head to Madeira where you can walk the ancient mountain paths and relax at a luxury hotel or traditional quinta. There are non-stop flights from a dozen airports across the UK.

    Marrakech has to be the most exotic place you can reach in the shortest amount of time, just 3.5 hours. The old town, or medina, is an atmospheric tangle of streets and alleyways that offers fantastic shopping potential in the souks, while the main square – the Jemaa el Fna – comes alive at night, when dozens of food stalls offer barbecued meats and piles of salads, and story-tellers, musicians and snake charmers roam the square. Best places to stay include the owner-run Riad Hikaya and the sumptuous Villas des Orangers.

    In the UK, it can be difficult finding a cottage rental for a short break (most are sold in seven-day slots) but Bramley & Teal (Kent and Sussex) and The Lakeland Cottage Company (Lake District) offer flexible rentals from one night and up.

    The ultimate way to visit a European city is on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express. From London you can get to VeniceBudapestVeronaVienna or Paris.

    For something really unusual, Kiev in the Ukraine offers everything from beautiful churches such as the 11th century Saint Sophia’s cathedral, to the National Museum of Chernobyl and the Lover’s Bridge, which connects the city centre to the Dnieper Park.

    Of course city breaks and seaside holidays don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Palma, the capital of Mallorca, is a vibrant, easily walkable city, with a spectacular cathedral, atmospheric old Arab quarter and great shopping. If the weather is warm enough, the city also has some good beaches an easy walk or taxi hop away.

    Nice offers a similar mix of seaside pleasures – pair a stroll along the iconic Promenade des Anglais with long, lazy lunches at the trattorias in the pretty old town. And in Sorrento, on Italy’s southern coast, you can mix beautiful beaches, the spectacular scenery of the Amalfi coast and the sprawlingly impressive ancient site of Pompeii.

    If you want to escape to the countryside, check out the DDG Retreat, a hip hideaway in the hills of Andalucia only one hour’s drive from Malaga airport. Set in a national park, it has a spa, heated infinity pool, hammam, sauna and tennis court

    Also see my tips for the best city breaks in summer, autumn and winter.

    Last updated: 3 May 2018

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