Alternative winter city break ideas
With Aussie flu, French flu and plain old British flu doing the rounds with reckless abandon, you might, if you’ve managed thus far to avoid the dreaded lurgy, think a trip away for a long weekend offers a safer haven and also an opportunity to kick off 2018 by making a minor dent into that travel bucket list. Of course money is tight and the credit card bills and aftermath of the festive splurge remain like an annoying itch on the inside of your skin. However this really could be the ideal time of the year to head off for an alternative city break to some of the less visited European destinations. The perfect antedote to the those broken New Year resolution blues.
Situated about 100 miles southwest of Berlin in the state of Saxony, Leipzig might have made its way onto your radar in more recent times due to the success of their football team, and their qualification for the treasure trove that is the Champions League. However this thriving, bustling metropolis referred to as the ‘new’ Berlin has lots to offer weekend travellers looking for something a bit different. With a rapidly growing population of over half a million, Leipzig has become a home to wandering creatives and a hotbed of art and culture.
Must see sights include the Leipzig Market Square, a huge space with shops and restaurants a plenty. From there a trip to St. Thomas Church where one of Leipzig’s most illustrious sons, famed composer Johann Sebastien Bach’s remains are buried and right next door the Bach Museum. There are monuments dotted all over and plenty to look at, such as the street art that adorns many of the buildings, but a more contemporary piece of architecture is home to the Museum of Fine Arts and is well worth a visit. As evening draws near the student mecca that is Zentrum Süd & Südvorstadt or Southern Suburb is a vibrant area with bars and restaurants energised by its youthful presence. For dining options there’s lots on offer, Ratskeller in the tourist centre offers traditional cuisine and Auerbachs Keller is a bar/restaurant that dates back to the fifteenth century.
Stay at: McDream Hotel Leipzig-City (From £33pn)
No this accommodation is not affiliated with any American burger chain, so no Happy Meals at check-in we’re afraid. But at this price they’ll be some happy faces for what is a good standard for a budget fee. The hotel is close to the trendy area of Plagwitz, tick. The rooms are spacious and clean, tick. Plus there’s a lovely bakery just across the way where you can add ‘fresh’ to your continental breakfast, double tick.
(Return flights London Stanstead to Leipzig from £34)
Located essentially at the base of Europe and the gateway to the ancient world Sicily’s largest city, on the North West of the island has long been notorious for its association to organised crime and the Cosa Nostra. However in reality it’s a vibrant and enchanting place serving a gastronomic platter for foodie lovers and a wealth of historic landmarks, coupled with a range of markets reflecting the rich Arabic influence on the area. La Vucciria market place found alongside the Piazza San Domenico is the epitome of hustle and bustle as people haggle over prices. You’ll find wonderful examples of local produce, arts and crafts and it’s worth a visit just for a simple spot of people watching. For the slightly younger at heart there’s the Borgo Vecchio market in the east of the city which stays open well into the evening. With up to as many as one hundred churches, many of which are open to the public, Palermo has much to admire and for those who like a dose of the dark side on their weekend break. A visit to the Capuchin catacombs is a must, where you’ll find eerily dark underground corridors lined with the embalmed mummified corpses of the city’s passed residents.
As gruesome as it sounds, a visit to Palermo is not complete without seeing this bizarre attraction. Moving on and let’s face it no trip to Italy is complete without sampling as much of the local culinary landscape as possible and Palermo is right up there. A place where locally sourced fresh produce is given a home cooked feel in the vast array of eateries. The Osteria dei Vespri offers traditional cuisine with a contemporary twist and a favourite with locals Bisso Bistro, offers traditional quality, alternatively try out the incredible street food at the Antica Focacceria San Francesco on Via Paternostro.
Stay at: Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes (from £69pn)
In a city as beautiful as Palermo it’d be remiss to not stay somewhere in keeping with those good looks. The decidedly grand Grand Hotel offers palatial luxury for a price you’d struggle to book a Premier Inn at these days. The grandeur might be slightly faded, but it only adds to the charm of this very calm space. It’s in easy walking distance from the town, so not far to trot for a delicious hit of Italian cuisine or some sightseeing.
(Return flights London Stanstead to Palermo from £71)
Brno, Czech Republic
The Czech Republic’s second city is a lot less likely to be packed with tourists and worse still British stag do’s than the merry hell that inhabits Prague of a weekend evening, which is almost enough of a reason alone to visit this delightful place. Not to mention that you can get a flight there for the average price of a round of drinks in London. Brno (not to be confused with the Sacha Baron Cohen character) has a bit of a dull reputation amongst its countryfolk, but this definitely isn’t the case and the high student population keeps the place feeling quite buzzy whether your visiting it’s numerous cafe/bars or sampling the nightlife. Talking of sampling, the thirsty amongst you should take advantage of the microbreweries like Pegas and U Richard which churn out some quality Czech beers.
Those with a taste for history can check out the numerous sites of historic interest, such as the Spilberk Castle and for a more left field site seeing expedition maybe check out the 10-Z Bunker, the most highly classified nuclear fallout shelter from the Communist era. It’s now a cultural space with a retro bar that’s often home to great offerings of jazz and thankfully not radiation.
Stay at: Barcelo Brno Palace (from £70pn)
With flights as cheap as they are to Brno you might want to splash out a little in the accommodation stakes. The Barcelo Palace is about as good as it gets here, situated in the heart of the city with it’s charming oldy worldy building on the outside, yet with rooms kitted out to high modern specs. It even has an onsite spa so you can get in a little r&r after a day on the town.
(Return flights London Stanstead to Brno from £16)
The multicultural port of Marseille has been much maligned in terms of a travel destination, with it often falling far down the pecking order when it comes to thoughts of a trip to France. This is mainly due to it’s largely outdated reputation of a crime ridden dangerous city. In fact since money was poured into France’s third largest city after it became European capital of culture in 2013, Marseille has very much smartened up its act. There’s a host of new museums celebrating the rich history and maritime heritage of the area and significant exhibitions taking place such as Picasso, Voyages Imaginaires at La Vieille Charité museum from February 16th, so plenty to see and do for any culture vultures.
For those looking to get a bit more up close and personal with the locals you could always catch an Olympique de Marseille match, the Ligue 1 side currently sitting in a healthy 4th place in the table, or if you’re blessed with good sea legs take a boat trip just off the coast to visit the prison fortress Château d’If, that was home to the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.
Stay at: New Hotel of Marseille (from £96pn)
Only a hop, skip and a jump from the old port and the beach the New Hotel of Marseille is the perfect arty, chic retreat to bed down for the night. It boasts one of the best brunches in the city in its Victor Café that serves creative locally sourced dishes that’ll keep you coming back for more. TheCafé also doubles us as a gallery so you can soak in some art as you dine.
(Return flights London Stanstead to Marseille from £123. Or take the Eurostar from St. Pancreus)
Celebrating its 100th year of Independence in 2018, Vilnius, the charming capital of Lithuania is the perfect destination for a city break you may not have thought of, that won’t break the bank. The largest medieval old town in central and eastern Europe is a pleasure to behold with sumptuous architecture all around. Why not first head to the main cobblestone thoroughfare Pilies Street for a coffee and some people watching before following the street along to Gediminas Tower, a small local castle on a hill that withstood fierce attacks from the Crusaders back in the day, from here you’ll get the best views of the city. One of the most fascinating parts of the city is Užupis, hipster-villa utopia that declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997.
With its own forty point constitution that includes ‘everyone has the right to make mistakes’, this might be the liberal landing place you’ve always dreamt of. Situated on the other side of the Vilnia River, this natty little neighbourhood is a must visit for it’s quirky shops and trendy bars. You can even have a pint in it’s very own Parliament, now that’s democracy at work. With all this site seeing you’ll need a snack, don’t leave without tasting a Kibinais, which are similar to cornish pasties but a bit smaller, they come in savoury and sweet form and shouldn’t be missed.
Stay at: Artagonist Art Hotel (from £81pn)
This delightful new boutique hotel sits on a quiet street in the middle of the old town a mere stroll away from the picturesque sights of Cathedral Square (with the impressive Vilnius Cathedral and its separate Bell Tower) and Town Hall Square. Every home comfort you’d ever need is provided here and with spotlessly clean rooms and friendly helpful staff it’s hard to go wrong.
(Return flights London Luton to Vilnius from £47)
In contrast to the persistent nature and crowded chaos of Marrakesh, the chilled out coastal city of Essaouira is perfect for a short getaway. If good food, beach walks and leisurely shopping sound like your thing then this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the place to go. In the sixties it became something of a destination of choice for musicians and artists alike and it’s not hard to see why. A vibrant, colourful destination, it has a uber relaxed vibe and in recent years has seen something of a resurgence, emerging as the place to go for the young and the restless, but also with a bit of something for everyone. There’s a notable and consistent breeze/wind whistling through the port, which has made it a popular choice for thrill seekers looking to get some kite surfing and wind surfing alike.
With an array of restaurants to choose from, there’s modern cuisine and sumptuous traditional offerings like squid Tajine, taking advantage of the daily fresh seafood hauls. No trip to Morocco would be a fully rounded one without a Hammam cleansing ritual and they can be found at any number of the hotels and Riads. The shopping in the Medina is less challenging than the frenetic souks of Marrakech and on the surface maybe with more comfort to explore, Essaouira seems to offer a greater variety of interesting goods, and it’s easy to get lost in your own little world in the art quarters where the vibrant and colourful paintings turn the streets into a moving gallery.
Stay at: Villa Garance (from £46pn)
For the ultimate Morroccan experience you need to visit a Riad. This one offers a comfortable tranquil experience just away from the crowds in town. Take breakfast on the rooftop in the sun, soak in the ocean views and try and forget that you’ll be flying back to the cold of Blighty in a few days.
(Return flights from London Luton to Essaouira from £65)