Can you recommend a city break for this autumn where I can get sunshine and culture?
Zack, Isle of Wight
Absolutely! In fact, three of my favourite cities are best visited in the autumn because it’s simply too hot in the summer (looking down to see my flip-flops were melting onto the pavement while waiting for a taxi in Marrakech made me realise it was not somewhere to visit in August, however cheap the hotels were…).
So – let’s start with Marrakech. It’s three-and-a-half hours away by plane from London (see: cheap flights to Marrakech, but it’s another world when you step into Place Djemaa El Fna, the main square. Snake charmers, story tellers, live dentistry – it’s an Arabian Nights carnival every evening.
Most visitors to Marrakech will find themselves in the Djemaa El Fna market at some point walking among its bright lanterns, elaborate mirrors, leather bags and belts, and jangling jewellery. There’s a constant buzz of banter in Arabic, French, Berber and English, and you’ll get countless invitations to join stallholders for tea or coffee.
Of course, there’s no obligation to buy something after accepting a drink, but if you feel uncomfortable doing that, you should visit one of the many coffee shops. This may not be the culture you are thinking of, but coffee shop culture is at the core of Marrakech society.
For culture of a different kind, you could easily fill a day ogling the extraordinary architecture of the Medina, the ancient walled city. I found a self-guided walking tour on this website, although many guidebooks will feature similar tours. Bab Ksiba gate, El Badi Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa are all highlights for me.
If you want to find out a bit more about the traditional crafts sold in the market, Dar Si Said Museum has some wonderful carpets, clothes, oil lamps, leather, Berber jewellery in the surroundings of a stunning former royal palace.
Istanbul is another great autumn city. You’ll find many cultural parallels with Marrakesh here; another coffee culture society and another sprawling, chaotic and wonderful bazaar. It’s three-and-a-half-hours flying time from London (see: cheap flights to Istanbul).
The city has culture by the bucket-load. I don’t often recommend “the biggies”, but a visit to Istanbul’s star attraction is an absolute must. Hagia Sophia has, since its dedication in 360AD, been a cathedral, basilica, mosque, and is now a jaw-dropping museum. The sheer size of it hits you first, then there’s the details – the haunting archangels, extraordinary tile work and upstairs, the beautiful gold leaf mosaics.
Not many tourists make it to Fener, the old Greek district of Istanbul. The 7th Century church of St Mary of the Mongols, with its secret 3km underground tunnel to Hagia Sophia, is worth a visit. Also hunt down the patriarchal church of St George. It may be comparatively modern (18th century), but many of its artefacts date from the Byzantine era, offering a fascinating insight into the pre-Ottoman Constantinople, the former name of Istanbul.
The city is four-and-a-half hours away so it’s a longer trip for an extended weekend break, but it’s worth it (see: cheap flights to Cairo). Again, the biggies have got to be crossed off – just try and do it the other way round from everyone else.
Go to the Egyptian Museum first (preferably early), then do the Pyramids second. Yes – it’ll be hot in the desert heat, but take a hat and water bottle and you’ll be able to enjoy it with fewer crowds.
Back to the museum. There is so much to see that you should really get the help of a guide – just make sure you go with a specialist Egyptologist. The King Tutankhamun treasures are the big draw, and certainly worth seeing, but so too is the mummy of Ramses II, the statue of Khufu and the many examples of elaborate hieroglyphs, on coffins, scrolls, jewellery and stonework. You can then visit the pyramids to put all these treasures, and your newfound knowledge of Egyptology, into context.
Cairo has over 1,000 mosques, the most famous of which is Muhammad Ali Mosque. An older, and less busy one, is Sultan Hassan Mosque and Madrasa. It is equally astounding – the peaceful inner courtyard, hanging lanterns and elaborate stonework.
If you want a bit of beach time with your city break, I’d recommend Tel Aviv (see: cheap flights to Tel Aviv). It has a wonderful laid back party vibe and you can mix beach culture with nightlife and history.
The city’s original downtown area, known as the White City, is rich in 1930s Bauhaus style architecture and was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003. The city has more than 5,000 Bauhaus buildings, owing to the fact that many students of the Bauhaus School in Dessau arrived in Tel Aviv when it was forced to close in the 1930s. The Cinema Hotel on Dizengoff Square and Zlotopolski House on Gordon Street are two striking examples of the style.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has some impressive permanent collections of modern art and unparalleled exhibits of Israeli photography, painting and sculpture.
It’s about the same flying time as Cairo, at four-and-a-half hours away, and you should come back culturally enriched and with a winter-sun glow.
Answer by Ginny Light – TimesOnline travel editor