Great European City Breaks You've Probably Never Considered

Great European City Breaks You've Probably Never Considered

We are familiar with the top european destinations, but there are some beautiful and unique cities to visit that you may not have thought of.

Kotor, Montenegro

The Montenegrin coast feels very different from neighbouring Croatia: it’s more Russian-influenced and beauty spots can be thick with jetskis, large black 4x4s, and beach bling. But Kotor, served by Tivat airport, is a gorgeous spot on a huge fjord-like sea inlet. For a good panorama, climb up to the castle, built by the Venetians (again), who ruled for almost four centuries and left an old town that is a Unesco world heritage site of labyrinthine lanes and piazzas, the 12th-century St Tryphon cathedral and city walls. There are pleasant boat trips and villages nearby. For food, Galion is an upmarket local favourite by the water, walking distance from Hotel Villa Duomo (doubles from €110 B&B) in the old town.
EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Manchester to Tivat (until 27 October then starting again next spring)

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Plovdiv’s Roman marble amphitheatre.
Plovdiv’s Roman marble amphitheatre. Photograph: Alamy

The name doesn’t help: I can hear David Jason sneering, “Oh Rodney, you total Plovdiv.” And there’s the assumption that all Bulgarian cities must be decrepit Soviet-era concrete monsters. Either way, on a warm evening, sipping a crisp local wine in a delightful open-air cafe in a quaint cobbled street near the amphitheatre, I hear no foreign voices, only Bulgarian. It has to be said that on lists of European destination gems, the non-appearance of this central-southern Bulgarian city must rank as the most egregious. It should be a top-ranking, must-go, bucket-list stalwart. And what is more, almost every empire in history thought so, too.

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Plovdiv has been Greek, Goth, Hun, Viking, crusader and Ottoman, among others. It was 4,000 years old when the Romans got here, slapping a gorgeous amphitheatre in a prime location, plus an aqueduct, an odeon and a stadium which now, by dint of some remarkable engineering, does a semi-subterranean cameo appearance in the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. More recently the voluptuous 19th-century merchant’s houses have made fine museums (check out the Ethnographic and the Regional History museums). But the real joy is the easygoing charm of the place and the idiosyncracies: street art, curious cats, laughter from high windows and snatches of music. There is also a gem of a boutique hotel, the Hebros (doubles from €99 B&B), and several fine restaurants, including local favourite Grazhdanski Klubb (Stoyan Chalukov 1), next to Vazrazdane Gallery. The temptation to stay and dawdle around the twisting narrow streets will be enormous, but the Rhodope mountains within easy reach for day hikes and monastery visits.

The food is sublime, the wine irresistible. I am, I freely admit, a total Plovdiv.
Ryanair flies to Plovdiv from Stansted

Pula, Croatia

An evening performance taking place beneath the Golden Gate of Pula, Croatia
Photograph: Alamy

Northern Croatia is a bit of an undiscovered gem, and Pula is the gateway to great coastal scenery and fine hill villages. The town is still dominated by its massive Roman amphitheatre, one of the best-preserved monuments of the ancient world. It’s capable of seating 23,000 and played by some big names.

Sadly the Roman tradition of sprinkling the audience with perfumed water from the four towers, all of which are still standing, is not continued. There are several other Roman monuments, but the real joy is the nearby Kamenjak peninsula, with lovely villages inland and clear blue waters along the rocky coast. The village of Banjole has a family-run taverna that’s worth checking out (Konoba Batelina, call +385 52 573 767 to book). Pula has a big tradition of music festivals: it will be packed this weekend for the Outlook festival. A good accommodation option is Hotel Omir (doubles from £68 B&B).
Ryanair flies from Stansted (until 2 November then starting again next spring), Thomson and Jet2 both fly from various UK airports (May-September only)

Palanga, Lithuania

Baltic sea coast in autumn
Photograph: Alamy

You might think you know a Baltic summer when you see one – we have those in Britain, don’t we? Palanga tells another story: a six-mile-long sandy beach covered in sun-soaking flesh in summer and delightful to visit in autumn too. Like Marbella? No. This is a decidedly central European location, so there’s a wonderful mixture of flavours from home-spun kitsch to party bling, with some wooden houses and fresh forest berries thrown in. The town itself is fun – grab that Vladimir Putin mask for the beach party. Don’t expect haute cuisine: the local speciality is cepelinai, a stuffed potato dumpling the size of a zeppelin.

More upmarket fare is available at seafood specialist Zuvine (zuvine.lt). The best accommodation option is an apartment rentals such as HomeAway, from £50 a night.
Ryanair flies from Stansted and Wizzair from Luton

Ohrid, Macedonia

Republic of Macedonia, Lake Ohrid
Lake Ohrid. Photograph: Alamy

There is nowhere quite like Ohrid. The town is on a huge lake of the same name, with over 200 endemic species of plant, fish and water creature. It’s visited in winter by birds such as Dalmatian pelicans and various types of eagle. Surrounded by hills, it feels sublimely relaxed and gentle. In summer the locals splash about in rowing boats, swim and sunbathe. The charming old town, on the eastern shore, has piazzas, narrow winding lanes, a theatre built in 200BC, numerous churches and several hotels in the old houses: Villa St Sofija (doubles from £28) is near the beach and centre. The town is dominated by the massive Samuel’s Fortress – named for the Bulgarian king who ruled in the 10th century. Just out of town is Galicica national park, one of Europe’s most biodiverse. For informal beachside eating, try Letna Bavča Kaneo (Kočo Racin 43) near Sveti Jovan church.
Wizzair flies from Luton (until 25 October)

Alesund, Norway

Alesund, Norway
Photograph: Alamy

The soaraway success of low-cost airline Norwegian has opened up a lot of new routes into the country, arguably none more interesting than this town in prime fjord country about 260 miles north of Bergen. Not only is the location great – on a narrow peninsula – but the town has renowned art nouveau architecture having burned to the ground in 1904 then rebuilt in the fashionable style of the times. Aficionados will want to visit the museum ; others will just want to wander.

The town is home to Norway’s biggest fishing fleet so expect plenty to look at, plus endless opportunities to sample seafood, especially the local favourite, dried salt cod. XL Diner on the waterfront is the restaurant of choice for many locals. There’s affordable accommodation in a jugendstil building at Alesund Hostel (dorm beds from £28).
Norwegian flies via Oslo from Edinburgh, Gatwick and Manchester

Chania, Crete

Greece, Crete, Chania, man wetting fish on stall to keep it fresh Also known as Khania, Hania or Canea
‘Chania’s food is legendary in Greece’. Photograph: Steve Outram/Getty Images

It’s hardly undiscovered, but certainly underrated, particularly in winter when it’s mainly just locals and students. Pretty Chania has a fabulous old harbour built by the Venetians, who bought the city in the 13th century for 100 pieces of silver. They left deep marks on the architecture, culture and cuisine: Chania’s food is legendary in Greece and there are heaps of tavernas and restaurants to try.

The waterfront is the tourist favourite, but head into the narrow back streets for more authentic experiences: try tsigariasto, a slow-cooked lamb stew, and keftedakia (meatballs). Thalasino Ageri, a mile or so up the coast, is known for its seafood, and the nearby village of Kalives has a large number of good tavernas, too. Handy for beach and centre, family-run Hotel Danaos has simple white rooms, some with sea view (doubles from €50 B&B). Within reach for day trips is the Samaria Gorge – there are plenty of tours, but it can be done independently: bus to Omalos, walk the gorge, ferry from Agia Roumeli to Sfakia, then bus back to Chania.
EasyJet (until 5 November) and Norwegian (until 30 October) both fly direct from Gatwick

Pristina, Kosovo

Pristina, Kosovo
Photograph: Alamy

A European capital still under the tourist radar, big ticket sites are not really Pristina’s style – Bill Clinton’s statue is rated as a top attraction – but the ethnographic museum is definitely worth a visit for a taste of Kosovar culture.

and there are some lovely narrow streets and traditional Turkic neighbourhoods to explore. But this city is more about the exuberance and energy of a brand new country finding its feet. Coffee is great – Pristina claims the best macchiato in the world – and the cuisine is heavily Albanian-influenced. But with a big UN and EU presence, there are, inevitably, some swish bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Try Liburnia for traditional food in an old Turkish house. For accommodation, Hostel Han (dorm beds from €12) has very friendly staff and a central location. Outside of the city, Germia Park is a good place to get enjoy forest walks, an outdoor swimming pool and restaurants.
Germania flies from Gatwick

Tirana, Albania

Apartment blocks. Tirana, Albania
Photograph: Alamy

Fun, vibrant, colourful Tirana? Surely a city that spent almost 50 years plunged in a grim isolationism more severe than Pyongyang must be dour and depressing. But it’s not. Tirana burst from its commie cocoon in 1992 all guns blazing and is now a chaotic good-natured riot. Ottoman, Italian, Islamic, Stalinist and capitalist influences are all thrown together in an architectural pot luck, spiced up after the millennium when many apartment blocks were painted in bright colours. As a result the city can resemble a box of liquorice allsorts casually scattered at the feet of forested Mount Datji (good for hiking). The heart of the nightlife is Bllocku (the Block), an area formerly reserved for high-ranking party officials, now a fast-changing and ebullient enclave of restaurants and bars. This conveniently allows a bit of communist-nostalgia sightseeing to be combined with local food and drink: the coffee is excellent and don’t miss the street specials, stuffed filo byrek and kebab-like souvlak. And few will want to miss a traditional breakfast of paçe koke, sheep’s head soup. An excellent local cafe is E7E (2 Rruga Jul Varibobba), and for budget accommodation, try Tirana Backpackers (dorm beds from €10).
British Airways flies direct to Tirana from Gatwick, but cheaper deals can be found via Italy with blu-express.com

Olbia, Sardinia

Costa Corallina, near Olbia, Sardinia
Costa Corallina, south of Olbia. Photograph: Alamy

Olbia usually gets forgotten by people rushing from its airport to the Costa Smeralda. What these visitors are missing is a fascinating historic centre with a pleasant laid-back atmosphere and some great cafes and restaurants. The one must-see is the museum on the site of the old harbour where an entire Roman fleet sank. It is being excavated and has a collection of ships’ remains and artefacts, plus relics of other cultures and an exposé of Nazi war crimes in the area. Watch out for the idiosyncratic opening hours and don’t miss the view from the roof.

Otherwise this is a town for strolling and eating. The side streets off Corso Umberto are the place to find authentic local cuisine like zuppa gallurese which is not a soup but a sloppy lasagne-like dish of layers of bread and cheese in tasty broth. It’s also worth the eight-mile trek north of town for the “typical Sardinian dinner” at Agriturismo Agrisole, which also has rooms (doubles from €60 B&B).
EasyJet flies from Bristol, Gatwick, Manchester, Bristol and Luton (until early October then restarting next spring)

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