Off-beat Destinations for a European City Break

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

The seasons each lend their distinct charms to Europe, with wistful leafy days in the spring and autumn giving way to cheery hot summers and snow-blanketed winters. But those blissful summer days bring the crowds, and with them, one begins to expect packed streets and restaurants booked out weeks in advance. But in crisis comes opportunity, and clever travellers react to the swelling crowds and rising temperatures by planning accordingly, saving peak travel destinations for the off-peak seasons, and trying something new under the peak summer sun. With this in mind, we’ve curated a few of our favourite off-beat travel destinations for a summery city break with a twist (The twist? Fewer crowds, manageable temperatures, new things, and new places).

Manhattan on the Maas: Rotterdam

Renowned for its post-war efforts to modernise and build anew, rather than repairing and rebuilding as was the norm, Rotterdam is a startling modernist city often unfairly touted as an alternative to Amsterdam. But where Amsterdam is known for its long, historic townhouses hunched over pretty canals, Rotterdam is all about its modern design, contemporary skyline and industrial charm that have earned it the moniker of Manhattan on the Maas. At the city centre, the horseshoe-shaped Markthal stuns in the evenings with its vast mural, Horn of Plenty, an illuminated art piece of colourful fruits, flowers, and insects, but inside, there’s a huge food market, offices and affordable housing, showcasing Rotterdam’s penchant for mixed-use architecture. Close by, the striking yellow Cube Houses, built by Piet Blom in the 1970s look like they stepped out of one of (Netherlands native) Escher’s bizarre optical illusions, and can feel disorientating up close.

The canals of the Maritiem District hide boat bars and playful architecture linking to the impressive Erasmusbrug cable bridge. Travellers in search of typical Dutch charm should skip over to Delfshaven, which escaped wartime damage and has a quaint collection of cafes and restaurants nestled around the Nieuwe Maas.

For a local view, stay in The Slaak, a former press room turned contemporary hotel in leafy Kralingen.

City Walks For Oenophiles: Ljubljana

There are few capitals as charming as Slovenia’s flowery Ljubljana. The city is endearing and walkable, with colourful architecture and cobbled streets, and the idyllic Ljubljanica River is lined with willow trees and crossed by stone bridges like Plečnik’s iconic Triple Bridge in Prešeren Square with its pink Franciscan Church. From here, a short walk leads to Saint Nicholas Cathedral and its remarkable bronze sculpted doors commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit. Take a break in a wine bar on the Ljubljanica to experience the riverside atmosphere that can be surprisingly raucous on a warm evening. Summers bring the now-annual Ljubljana Wine Route event to the city, ladening the air with the sizzle of local food stalls and robust bouquets swirled around glasses fresh from the wineries of Slovenia's three wine regions.

It’s almost impossible to recommend travelling to Ljubljana without mentioning the delightful Lake Bled, a beautiful cerulean dot of a lake in the Julian Alps. Hike to the castle for the views, enchanting year-round, before taking a traditional Pletna Boat to the Island at the edge of the lake. There’s little but views and the sound of ringing bells, but it’s stunning and an ideal spot to relax after a long walk.

Classical Architecture via the Adriatic in Pula

While it’s true Croatia is getting busier every season, Pula, for all its beauty, doesn’t enjoy nearly the renown of Split or Dubrovnik. Perhaps this is because the little town is a bit conventional by Croatian standards, with colourful houses and a dramatic coastline, all extremely stunning but repeated throughout the country. But dig in, and Pula’s historic punctuations quickly set it apart. There’s a 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre hosting live music — one of the best-preserved Roman Amphitheatres anywhere in the world, old city walls and gates, two temples, and an arch. All of this history is tied together by a story that weaves through the ancient Histri peoples, the Romans and Jason and the Argonauts of Greek Mythology. Its sublime setting on the Istrian coastline makes it an excellent option for a sailing trip, and a fantastic starting point for sailing the Kvarner Gulf’s stunning archipelagos.

Extend your trip to the Istrian peninsula with a stay in the pretty waterfront Grand Park Hotel in Rovinj, with Michelin-starred dining and views of the teardrop-shaped old town surrounded by so much dreamy blue Adriatic.

Crossing the Danube in Budapest

The iconic Danube cuts a fine lacy figure through central Budapest and is decorated with a collection of necklace-like bridges in various styles. Of note are the 19th-century Széchenyi Chain Bridge and the jade green of the Liberty Bridge — often bejewelled by trams, that bookend the city centre and make stunning ornaments glittering across the water. But the Danube also acts as the border between historic Buda and modern-ish Pest. Up in Buda, city views bring Pest's parliament into sharp contrast with the antique castle district (best reached by the Funicular to Castle Hill), but the parliament is impressive up close too and exudes endless charm with those rattling yellow trams snaking through the streets.

Nightlife in Budapest is something of a mixed bag, with Ruin Bars giving new life to dilapidated warehouses, but where once it was the sole domain of maze-like spaces serving impressively cheap wine, like the excellent Szimpla Kert, newer offerings like Mazel Tov supply the grungey exteriors — complete with crumbling walls and missing roofs, but with a slightly more refined experience in mind. The food is good — meze and cocktails for the most part, but the decor is chic in its simplicity, with plants scaling disintegrating walls and glass inserts where the roof gave way.

Stay in the Aria Hotel, a palatial neo-classical hotel with wings divided into musical styles and a rooftop garden boasting panoramas of Budapest's evocative skyline. 

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