News 5 off the beaten path city breaks that won’t break your budget

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5 off the beaten path city breaks that won’t break your budget

If you’ve ticked off the capital cities, toured the tourist hotspots, and you’re not sure what to do next, you may have missed a few absolute gems that are right on your doorstep. Not sure where to start? Don’t fret, we’ve done the research for you and picked out five alternative destinations you need to add to your European bucket list. We’re guessing you probably won’t have been to these cities before…

1. Aarhus, Denmark

Go here instead of: Copenhagen

Aarhus, Denmark
Photo by Henrik Hedegaard on Unsplash

It may have spent many years in the shadow of Denmark’s capital, but as the country’s second largest city, Aarhus is not to be ignored. It was even named joint European Capital of Culture in 2017 alongside Paphos Cyprus. With cobbled lanes and bicycle-only streets in the Old Town, it’s got a small town vibe that will charm the socks off you. Getting around is best on two wheels and it’s made even easier with the city’s free city bikes (yes, we really did say free). There are 56 bike parking racks around town, just deposit a 20-kroner coin to release the bike, and it’ll be returned when you take it back. Now your travel arrangements are sorted, cycle down to the Old Town, and pop along to the open-air museum, Den Gamle for an interactive history lesson. If you’ve headed to Scandinavia to learn about the Vikings (we’re guessing you have), then make sure you swing by the Moesgaard Museum, just south of the city, and learn about everything from the Stone Age to the end of the Viking Era. Even if you’re not about the museum life, the building itself is worth a look, seemingly rising from the ground with a roof carpeted in grass.

Where to stay:

For an affordable and perfectly placed hotel, the Scandic Aarhus City is situated round the corner from the main pedestrian shopping street Strøget. It’s modern, chic and as eco as hotels come – next to their 240 solar panels you’ll find the hotel’s beehives, which provide the honey you’ll be spreading on your toast.

Best time to visit:

Travel to Aarhus between May and September for the toastiest temperatures. If you want a busier, buzzier atmosphere, make sure to book your flights at the end of August ready for the 10-day Aarhus Festival, one of the largest cultural events in Scandinavia.

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2. Girona, Spain

Go here instead of: Barcelona

View of Girona, Spain
Photo credit: Pixabay

Think of the charm and culture of Barcelona, and picture it on a smaller scale and without the crowds. That’s Girona, an ancient city 60 miles north of the tourist hotspot, known for its watchtowers and medieval architecture. Skip the never-ending queues at the Sagrada Familia and tick off Girona Cathedral in Força Vella instead, an 11th century building complete with a large Gothic nave 23 metres wide, the widest of its kind in the world. Once you’ve visited the cathedral, walk to the back of the building and find more steps (stay with us) to start a walk of the medieval city walls. It takes around 40 minutes and will give you unbeatable panoramic views of the rustic, higgledy piggledy houses with a strong Game of Thrones vibe. 

Where to stay: Go for Hotel Ciutat de Girona – comfortable, contemporary and central. At a very reasonable price, there’s the bonus of a spa, pool, sauna and steam room so you can unwind after all that walking.

Best time to visit:

Temperatures top 30 degrees between June and August, but the chance of rain is pretty low all year round in Girona. The busiest months tend to between March and May so if you can stand the heat, wait until summer to visit.

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3. Porto, Portugal

Go here instead of: Lisbon

Porto, Portugal
Photo by Madalena Veloso on Unsplash

If, in the past, you’ve missed Porto in favour of the metropolis of Lisbon, give it a second chance. It’s the capital of the North and it’s on the rise, but we’d recommend heading there now before it reaches the lofty heights of Lisbon’s fame. Drop your bags and head straight to Livraria Lello in downtown Porto, a bookworm’s home from home but also a historical and architectural place of interest. Entry is €5 but it’s redeemable against a book, which you’ll be hard pushed to leave without. Get there as soon as the store opens to beat the crowds – it’s a popular one. With a good book under your arm, head to bakery Padaria Ribeiro and if the weather allows it, sit outside on the patio, the perfect place for people watching and munching on a Pastel de Nata (or four, we’re not judging).

Make the most of being in the birthplace of port and book yourself in for some port tasting. The city has produced it for the last 400 years so you’ll find tours and cellars all over the place. To get to the wine cellars, you’ll need to cross the river so walk across the Dom Luis Bridge on the way for unbeatable views of the Old Town.

Where to stay:

Book a room at Porto River ApartHotel to be right in the centre of the action, along the River Douro. The owners have turned a stone warehouse into a collection of exquisitely designed Scandi apartments, complete with their own kitchenettes so you can make the most of the local delis. 

Best time to visit:

Head to Porto either in late spring or early autumn, when the city is a little quieter but when the weather is warm enough to explore and sit outside. 

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4. Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Go here instead of: Sofia

Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Photo credit: Pixabay

If you haven’t heard of this Bulgarian city, we don’t blame you, it’s an obscure one, but not for much longer. It’s now been named the European Capital of Culture for 2019 so get booking before everyone else realises! This historic city was formerly known as Trimontium, which translates as ‘the three hills’, that can be seen in the city’s skyline. As the cultural capital, it’s only right to head to Kapana, a hub of craftsmanship over the past centuries, and now home to creative entrepreneurs. If you’re into your galleries, workshops and creative studios, this is the place for you. For the summer months, the Plovdiv Roman Theatre is open air and has swapped the Roman gladiator games of the 1st century in favour of crowd-pleasing plays and musicals. All cultured out? Take some time to wander the cobbled streets of the Old Town and take in the striking Bulgarian architecture where brightly coloured houses lean into the streets and create a warren of narrow alleyways. Then get out of the main city and into the open to visit the old ruins of Asen’s Fortress, set against an impressive backdrop of mountains – you may not have heard of Plovdiv, but once you’ve been, you won’t be able to forget it.

Where to stay:

Old Plovdiv House in the Kapana area has its own Turkish bath to help you unwind and an in-house restaurant serving traditional cuisine, all a short walk from the city centre. Prices start from £36 per night.

Best time to visit:

If you like the heat, the summer season (June to August) will bring you an average high of 30 degrees. For the operatic festival scene, book in June for the Verdi-festival held at the Roman amphitheatre over two weeks.

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5. Nantes, France

Go here instead of: Paris

Nantes, France

You could visit pretty much any city in France and fall in love with the romantic architecture and dreamy views, but Nantes should be at top of your list. Situated in the west of France, it’s got a lot of history to share – King Henry IV even signed the Edict of Nantes here, granting religious rights to all Protestants. Let the history continue at Château des ducs de Bretagne, one of Nantes’s oldest buildings surrounded by idyllic courtyards and fairytale turrets – you’ll also find the Nantes History Museum here. See the entire city on two wheels and book a segway tour where you can whizz along the cobbles and take in the inner walls of Nantes.

If you fancy a spot of shopping, Le Passage à Pommeraye an indoor centre in the historic quarter of Nantes, is worth a visit not least for its grand design – built in 1843, it’s now a listed monument.

Where to stay:

Hôtel La Pérouse may be simple, but its iconic 20th century design is slick. Pick a superior room for a view over bustling Nantes. Prices start from £86.

Best time to visit:

Yep, you guessed it, the summer months are the best time to visit France, but this European city is just as pretty in the winter months, if you don’t mind the cold.

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Ready to find your own unique city?