7 of the best European city breaks

Date Posted: 01/07/2013

Pictured: A geyser in Iceland.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your next group city break with easy, direct access from the UK, consider our top picks. Mark Henshall walks us through seven of the best.

The explosion of no-frills airlines shrunk Europe in a way that we can easily take for granted today. But how much are groups taking advantage of short trips that are sometimes comparable in price to any major UK city break?

There has never been a better time to explore new destinations and re-visit more familiar ones as shorter journey times mean we now have a longer interval to experience all they have to offer. Whether you’re looking for a fast-paced whirlwind itinerary of attractions to tick-off; to discover a city and its surroundings through a more relaxed approach; or hit on a single interest your group has such as wine, history or music, there’s lots of easy options to cherry-pick.

From music in the Czech Republic and one of Spain’s most individual cities, to Germany’s modern avant-garde powerhouse and Iceland’s distinct adventures, plan your next trip below.

1. Budapest: Hungary

Budapest emerged as the best value city at £134.76 for 12 typical city break items, including meals, drinks, two nights’ weekend accommodation, sightseeing and city transport costs in a report by Post Office Travel Money. Prices in the Hungarian capital are less than a third of those in Europe's most expensive cities.

With new, free fast-track security checks being introduced by easyJet (from £79 one way) and East Midlands, the third UK airport (after Manchester and Edinburgh) to offer flights to Budapest by budget carrier Jet2.com in November, travel to Hungary has never been easier.

Autumn is best when visitor numbers fall and the city’s cultural life kicks back into play

Take the sikló (funicular) to the Castle District and enjoy beautiful views. Stroll around the Royal Palace, the Hungarian National Gallery and the Fisherman’s Bastion.

In the evening catch an organ concert at the Neo-Gothic-style Matyas Church. View the Parliament building by enjoying its astonishing façade from the opposite bank of the Danube. Then cross the chain bridge and enjoy one of the tours to see the building’s highlights. Afterwards, wander around the old town of Buda and enjoy a break in one of the lovely old cafés.

Hungary has a rich culinary legacy, with game a speciality. Try gulyásleves, the traditional goulash served as soup and take in an opera at the fabulous State Opera House. Or visit Europe’s largest synagogue and take in a concert at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, built in 1906.

2. Copenhagen: Denmark

In Copenhagen you get double value for your money by being able to visit another country in the same trip. The elegant Oresund Bridge (featured recently in the award-wining Swedish/Danish serial crime drama The Bridge) links Denmark to Sweden, and it’s just 35 minutes by train to Malmo, a fascinating city.

Copenhagen itself is a compact city with bikes ready to explore, canal boat sightseeing and city beaches (with water clean enough to swim). July is peak season but also the jazz festival if your group likes music – ten days of free outdoor concerts and street parades.

Rosenborg Palace has a fairy-tale air and houses the Crown Jewels, while the National Gallery is nearby. Explore the side streets and squares off Strøget, some of the most interesting little shops are minutes away from the main pedestrianized shopping street.

Many museums are free on Wednesdays, and so is Ny Carlsberg Glypotek (Carlsberg is probably Denmark’s most famous brand) on Sundays, plus none of the churches charge entrance fees. And, of course, no trip is complete without a sightseeing boat tour to see The Little Mermaid, the statue commemorating Hans Christian Anderson’s famous tale.

3. Helsinki: Finland

Capital of Finland, Christmas can be a great time to visit with a raft of activities taking place. Throughout Scandinavia on 13th December, Santa Lucia – the Festival of Light – is celebrated, with a young woman chosen to wear a crown of burning candles to bring light into homes, hospitals, places of work and schools, and processions taking place.

Get your bearings by exploring the small area that wraps around the harbour, before heading to the Art Nouveau Katajanokka neighbourhood for the women’s Christmas Fair (2nd to 6th December).

Discover Helsinki’s design district, with the Design Museum, Museum of Architecture and the Design Forum. Visit Temppeliaukio Church, carved out of solid rock and rent skates for those more daring in your group at Tekojäärata to glide across the ice. Take a boat to Suomenlinna Island, a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s largest sea fortresses.

Back at the harbour, visit the Russian Uspensky Cathedral and stop for hot chocolate on the cosy sailing ship/café Kathrina before spending the evening in Esplandi market.

Buy a Helsinki card to visit museums and encourage people to use the tram; plus hotel discounts. You should experience a sauna at least once; these are usually not mixed-sex except when shared by families. Helsinki also has an extensive and useful system of underground passages, connecting Metro stations, department stores and entire subterranean shopping arcades.

4. Amsterdam: Netherlands

Amsterdam’s popularity has spread to the regional airports with Swiss regional carrier Darwin Airline to start flights from Cambridge airport to the capital of The Netherlands, running 24 flights weekly from September with SkyTeam alliance member Alitalia.

Start with the Old Masters, getting up early to beat the hordes at the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedeliik or Rijksmuseum, home of Rembrandt’s famous Golden Age (1584-1702) painting The Night Watch. Picnic in the sun at the Vondelpark with tasty Gouda and some home-made bread bought from the farmers’ market on Noordermarkt. Late April is the time to catch blooming tulips and beautiful canals with decent weather. You can also party with thousands of others in the Dutch Queen’s birthday celebrations.

It’s the finer details that impress in Amsterdam – make your way to the Golden Bend on Herengracht for a stretch that is particularly ornate. Walk the canal system and soak up the sunlight catching the boats, the cyclists over cobblestones and 17th century facades.

Amsterdam’s colonial heritage means you’ll find some exotic delights to eat, particularly from Indonesia, or try the traditional stampot (a smoked stew with puréed potato).

For a day why not flee Amsterdam for the stunning fields of the Keukenhof near the town of Haarlem, just north of the capital?

5. Reykjavik: Iceland

Fans of fantasy TV drama Game of Thrones and its epic landscapes will be buoyed by the news Icelandair is doubling frequency from Gatwick to help boost short breaks with frequency to Reykjavik to rise to four flights per week in September 2013.

This is, no doubt, one of the expensive cities on the list, but where else can you soothe your skin in the mineral-rich waters of the Blue Lagoon and sip a glass of wine in a natural hot spring?

For its wild nature, Iceland is unmatched in Europe and its natural forces are its greatest assets. The country lives and breathes geology, from sheep pastures nurtured by rich, volcanic soil and sparkling glacial run-off, to the aromatic geothermal heat that powers most of the country.

Its expansive glaciers, active volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, mountains, wild rivers and innumerable waterfalls are food for the soul.

Take the renowned Golden Circle Tour to see the dramatic Gullfoss waterfall, watch the world’s original geysers at Geysir, and stroll around the intriguing Pinvellir, where the world’s first parliament was born.

For the adventurous have a remedial shot of brennivin (literally, burn wine) ready if you want try some of Iceland’s delicacies such as hákarl (putrified shark meat) or súrsadir hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles). Better still find a cosy local seafood restaurant for your group and a few beers in a local pub - perfect.

6. Prague: Czech Republic

Tourists face higher prices in 22 of 25 cities surveyed in the latest costs barometer from Post Office Travel Money. One of three exceptions (including Berlin and Lisbon) was Prague where, with prices down, spending money will stretch 6.8 per cent further.

Walk up to the Castle District for a whistle stop tour of Prague’s most famous sights: Golden Lane, St Vitus’ Cathedral, Lobowicz Palace and St George’s Convent.

For music lovers, Prague is a great special-interest destination. From mid-May to early July you can experience the Spring Festival concerts with performances early evening.

The highlight is saved for the last night, held at Obecní Dum and devoted to the music of Beethoven. The Obecní Dum was completed in 1911 and is a concert hall, ballroom and café/restaurant with an exuberant design built at the height of the Art Nouveau period at the turn of the century. The building is embellished with delicate stucco and lots of statutory, and above the main entrance is a gargantuan mosaic by Karel Spillar entitled Homage to Prague.

7. Barcelona: Spain

Barcelona hit its stride post Olympics and has never looked back. This summer it tops a list of the top 25 summer destinations put forward by users of US travel site Gogobot. The Best Summer Destination selections were drawn from the more than 60,000 places visited by more than 2.5 million registered Gogobot users, their friends and like-minded travellers in their network.

Come to Barcelona for the art, architecture and food. The city’s favourite son and eccentric architect Antoni Gaudi’s cathedral Sagrada Familia is unmissable, while early sketches at the Picasso museum are astoundingly mature and the exquisite Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, the city’s finest Gothic church, is a must see.

Try Parc Güell for a ramble among its brilliant mosaics. Catalan cuisine is rich and varied; choose a selection of treats from a tapas bar or some cured meats – take a seafood lunch en masse at the old port, and relax.

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