45 European city breaks

Whether you follow the footsteps of Dostoevsky in St Petersburg or visit the fashionista haunts of Stockholm, a European trip is rich if you follow a theme.

By Rhiannon Batten
Published 8 Feb 2012, 11:25 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:23 BST

San Sebastián: Cider, pintxos and chipirones

Home to a trio of three-Michelin-star restaurants, its menfolk love to cook, while over-eating is practically de rigueuer…  San Sebastián is now a byword for stylish, flavoursome food. Words by Michael Raffael

We waited by the barrel. The spigot turned. A thin stream of heady cider looped into our glasses. We returned to our bench and plates of Basque T-bones. Then we went back for another glass, and then another. Eating and drinking in San Sebastián is at the limit. Is it excessively generous or just excessive? The town has more bars per inhabitant than anywhere in the world. The size of Bournemouth, it has a trio of three-Michelin-star restaurants — more than London.

A scalloped bay, La Concha, opens to the Cantabrian Sea, with its perfect sandy rim, a tourist magnet. But its food obession, deep-rooted in the fact Basque men love to cook, should be a big draw. At 200 Gastronomic Societies (private clubs) men rule the stoves and share their specialities with friends: salt cod al pil-pil (with garlic and olive oil); marmitako (fish stew) or piperrada, simmered red, green and yellow peppers.

Ratcheted up, these regional recipes have become restaurant specialities. Moustachioed Pedro Subijana, chef-patron of Akelare, rolls chipirones (baby cuttlefish) inside out on his finger to stuff them. Juan Marí Arzak, with daughter Elena, invents post-modernist edible sculptures. Martin Berasategui turns cheeks scooped from hake heads into delicacies. At Andoní Aduriz's Zen-like Mugaritz, nature and science fuse into culinary surgery. Rubber-gloved chefs plate salads with tweezers.

Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas (the word describes a cocktail stick or toothpick used to spike a titbit). From snacks dished up as appetisers they've evolved into an art form, with their own code and culture. Basques enjoy them while taking part in their own take on the pub crawl, or txikiteo. In the Parte Vieja (old quarter), bars pile their counters high with goodies. One minute a place is empty; the next it's heaving. Skewers act as a tally and you pay when you leave. Honesty is a point of honour.

Some pintxo classics like the Gilda have histories. A combination of mild chilli, olive and anchovy, it commemorates Rita Hayworth's role as a femme fatale in the 1946 film of the same name. Some draw on local produce: sheep's milk idiazabal cheese or xistora, similar to chorizo. Gourmets can choose scallops, stuffed langoustines or foie gras; perhaps an artichoke bottom with ham and aged mustard vinaigrette. Some bars, such as Iturrioz, offer cutting-edge tapas, made to order: squid and pata negra (Iberian ham with squid ink sauce) or a seafood shot with a nut-encrusted gamba (prawn).

It's eating on the hoof, grazing in the truest sense. And rough cider isn't the drink most San Sebastián folk would choose when they're on the razzle. That's more for a sit-down occasion. Nor do they prefer the dry white Txacoli wine from Getaria along the coast. They quaff zuritos, short-stemmed glasses of lager. It's large enough to slake the thirst; something to swallow with a couple of pintxos before moving on.

And that's key: eat and drink a bit, walk a bit and then start over. There are literally hundreds of bars and not even the most hardened citizen of this beautiful Basque town can have tried them all.

Further info: Iturrioz is the name of twin pintxos bars regularly voted among the city's top 10. Akelenea is a cider house serving Basque food at communal tables. Mugaritz is rated one of the world's top 10 restaurants and is creatively faithful to its Basque roots.

Alternative: Lyon — for bouchons, bistrots and Beaujolais, as well as frogs legs, charcuterie and cheeses; exquisite patisserie from Bernachon; and the Bocuse d'Or, a biennial world chef championship. 


Friendly, English-speaking locals, plenty of green space, an adjacent archipelago ripe for day trips by boat and a city centre amusement park make West Sweden's capital a child-family destination. 

One of the great benefits of a trip to Lisbon with children in tow is that you can cover the sights fairly quickly and then head to a nearby beach. Don't know where to aim for? Try wide sandy Guincho.

Like Lisbon, the big attraction here is the combination of city and sea. Once you've spent a day or two exploring the sights of this UNESCO World Heritage city, head to the beach or one of the offshore islands; Mljet, with its national park, is very popular. 

The home of Tintin, waffles and delicious frites. The city's museums cater well for kids and there's even a dedicated Children's Museum

Most attractions, while not geared specifically for children, are very tolerant of them, whether you're aiming to climb the Giralda tower or let off steam in the Real Alcázar's gardens.   

St Petersburg: A literary wealth

Rich in history and architecture, Russia's cultural capital has its fair share of literary greats who have helped to shape the city and bring it to life. Words by Chris Moss

Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Nabokov, Brodsky, Akhmatova… St Petersburg is definitely a contender — along with Paris and London — for the literary city crown. Not all the above authors were born there, but all used the city's streets, political and historical significance, mood and weather as key elements in their work. Many classics have come out of St Pete's (as many travellers call the city), ranging from Ukraine-born Gogol's satirical and absurdist short story The Nose (1835) — in which a nose leaves the face of an official and goes for a walk — to Crime and Punishment (1866) by Dostoevsky whose protagonist, Raskolnikov, lives in poverty in the city. Dostoevsky, born in Moscow but a resident of St Petersburg for much of his life, was subjected to a mock execution in the then capital of Russia in 1849 for revolutionary activities.

St Petersburg is an atmospheric city, especially in the colder months, and a literary narrative adds further depth. The namesake of Pushkin's verse-form novel Eugene Onegin (1825-32) is an arrogant Saint Petersburg dandy; put your headphones under your ushanka (Russian fur cap) and listen to the audio version.

If you fancy a literature-themed walk, start at Mikhail Belov's moody 1997 statue of Gogol on Nevskiy Propsekt. The cafes along this iconic street are legion; the Literary Cafe is something of a landmark, not least because Pushkin claimed to have met his double here before setting off for the duel that would end his life. In the Russian Museum, as well as some impressive ancient icons and avant garde paintings by the likes of Kandinsky and Malevich, there's a portrait of Anna Akhmatova made by Russian Cubist Nathan Altman. It was completed in 1914 when she was 25. Branded 'half-harlot, half-nun' by the Soviet authorities, Akhmatova's work was banned for decades.

You can't do a literary holiday without at least one pilgrimage to an author's home and the all important desk: the Pushkin House Museum will give you a peek into the everyday working and home life of Russia's most revered writer, while the Dostoevsky House Museum is the last home of the tortured genius. The Nabokov Museum is notable for its architecture — it was built in the Neo-Renaissance style — and for the story of the author's family's exile and how this collection was built using donations from far-flung friends and relatives.

Most writers love eating — and drinking. Palkin, founded in 1785, was the haunt of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Chekhov and serves some superb 'Imperial Russian' cuisine: try black caviar and salmon dumplings or one of the rich game dishes for a late dinner. Vegetarian bibliophiles might prefer Idiot, which is not strictly a meat-free restaurant but nonetheless has plenty of tasty veggie options.

The Brothers Karamazov hotel, which opened in 2005, is close to the Dostoevsky House Museum: each room is named after a female character from his fiction. A more atmospheric — and good-value — hotel with literary connections is Domik V Kolonne, where Pushkin wrote several books from 1816-18 and where the decor hasn't really changed since.

Read on
Foreign writers have long sought inspiration in this remarkable city. St Petersburg — and, specifically, the 900-day siege of Leningrad, from 1941-44 — is the backdrop to Helen Dunmore's brilliant historical novels, The Siege (2002) and The Betrayal (2011). As a way into the city and its history, they'll soon have you reaching for Russian novels and poetry — or the vodka.

Also good for Ice skating: If you visit St Pete's in the winter, you can either shiver and drink hot chocolate or get into the local groove: al fresco ice skating. The largest open-air skating rink is found in the park behind the TV tower (£4 per adult), but the cosiest rink is in the heart of Tavrichesky Garden, one of the oldest parks in the city — it's free and open till 5am

Alternative: Oslo has to be the current 'alternative' literary city, and not only because of Jo Nesbo. Take Knut Hamsun's famous novel Hunger to read while you're there and use it as a sort of anti-guidebook for your aimless walks and slow window-gazing coffees (at one point, its famished protagonist gnaws on a chip of wood he finds on the street).

Oxford: Student daze

The dreaming spires have inspired generations of academics, as well the mythic tales of Tolkien, Carroll and Lewis. Words by Sarah Barrell

Some cities are elusive. London, for example, reveals itself slowly and only to those who nose out its endlessly layered histories in unexpected corners. Oxford is not one of those cities. It's a place that displays its past like an elaborate storybook, leaving residents and visitors alike with the thrill of having played a part in a great gothic tale. As a student of the former polytechnic, I didn't inhabit frescoed university halls but the tatty Victorian terraces of the city's eastern edge. Here, where local bands like Supergrass, Ride and Radiohead made debuts on sticky-floored venues, and Caribbean curry houses held late night lock-ins, was a very different Oxford. Riding down the Cowley Road on my bike towards 'town' would always feel like stepping through a Lewisian wardrobe.

Crossing Magdalen Bridge — past the Eden-green Angel & Greyhound Meadow, under the turrets Magdalen College Tower where, fittingly, The Chronicles of Narnia author CS Lewis was once a fellow — the world would fill with a fairy-tale potential. It's no wonder Lewis, Tolkien and Carroll were all schooled here; a city whose riverbanks surely house mythic white rabbits; its gargoyles the gateway guardians of netherworlds. At least that's how it seems when you've eaten a handful of psychedelic mushrooms, as Carroll himself was often charged with doing.

Magdalen Bridge still feels to me today like the entry point to Wonderland. Jumping from it into the river Cherwell is a rite of passage for students on May Day morning. In the early 1900s, artists climbed its Tower to paint popular postcard views of the city's spires: All Saints Church, the Radcliffe Camera's moony dome and twin towers of All Souls. At Magdalen, I'd ditch the bike and follow the Cherwell's banks to Christ Church's elegant meadow. Here, herds of long horn cattle graze, just as they did in the 1700s, and WH Auden's poetic prayer — May the meadows be only frequented, By scholars and couples and cows — is still answered.

Alternative: Prague's Old Town and Mala Strana are the quarters to aim for. Or drink in the city's history with a coffee under the art nouveau ceiling of the Café Savoy, once a hangout of Kafka. www.ambi.cz


Scotland's second city has long been a mecca for fans of visual art. Traditionalists have Kelvingrove but those looking for more contemporary work should take their pick from GRID's art map of Glasgow. www.glasgowlife.org.uk  

Home to Frank Gehry's shimmering Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is also one of Spain's most visitor-friendly cities, with cafes and historic buildings to enjoy while you explore.

Government cuts have led to erratic opening hours but the city's two major cultural attractions — the Acropolis and the museum at its base — are well worth waiting to see. 

There's more to Frankfurt than finance and sausages. Visit Goethe's birthplace or explore the Museumsufer, a collection of 10 museums. 

Austria's second largest city has plenty to keep culture vultures entertained, including the Kunsthaus, a Tellytubbyish bubble of a building known as the 'Friendly Alien' that houses some impressive modern art.

Nîmes: Roman reinvention

Home to the only complete Roman temple, Nimes' ancient architectural elegance is reflected in its adventurous modern design. Words by Jonathan Glancey

On the border between Provence and Languedoc, Nîmes was founded as a colony (Nemausus) in the first century BC for veterans of Julius Caesar's campaigns in Egypt. Even today, the symbol of this compact, southern French city is a crocodile chained to a palm tree. Made glorious by the Emperor Augustus, it has some of the finest and best preserved Ancient Roman monuments.

As well as a formidable, three-tiered arena — used for bull-fighting and concerts today — Nîmes has a grand tower and other military fortifications, the ruins of a Temple of Venus and the incomparable Pont du Gard, a magnificent, 160ft-high aqueduct bridge spanning the River Gard on the road to Uzes. It also possesses the only complete Roman temple. Known as the Maison Carrée ('Oblong House', a name derived from its shape), this Corinthian temple was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa, original patron of the Pantheon in Rome, and dedicated to Caius and Lucius Caesar, grandson and adopted son of Augustus. Crafted by masons from Rome, the temple survived intact largely because it was converted into a Christian church, with little alteration, in the fourth century.

Facing the Maison Carrée across what was once the colonnaded Roman forum is the Carre d'Art Mediatheque, a 20th-century steel, glass and concrete temple of the arts designed by British architects Foster Associates. Opened in 1993, this elegant, high-tech interpretation of a Roman civic building was commissioned by Jean Bousquet, founder of the Cacharel fashion chain and Mayor of Nîmes from 1983-95. Bousquet called the Carre d'Art, with its library, art galleries, cinema and cafes, a 'Beaubourg of the South'; the Norman Foster design was a key move in demonstrating that Nîmes could update itself architecturally, while maintaining a respectful, even creative, dialogue with its feted Roman past.

Controversial when first announced in 1984, the Carre d'Art has become a popular building that's helped breathe fresh life into the city centre. Today, many visitors to Nîmes take tours of the adventurous new architecture that followed the Carre d'Art's wake. The most striking of the Bousquet-era designs include the Nemausus social housing project. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, and completed in 1987, this takes the form of two ship-like concrete and steel blocks housing 114 apartments. These give way onto sundecks and, internally, can be sub-divided into small rooms, or opened up into open-plan spaces.

Another social housing project — Colisee, by Japanese architect Kisho Korokawa — adopts the form of a great hemicycle on the edge of Nîmes, a reflection of the city's Roman Amphitheatre, 2,000 years its senior.

Alternative: Arles boasts a Roman arena, theatre and aqueduct as well as the striking Musee de l'Arles Antique.

Stockholm: Fashion parade

The Swedes have been at the forefront of fashion for over a decade, with Stockholm leading the way. Words by Rhiannon Batten

The cavernous modern photography gallery Fotografiska opened in 2010 and is a great place to start a tour of the city. Not only is it home to some of the country's most cutting-edge exhibitions but the cafe on its top floor overlooks a swathe of Stockholm, so is an ideal spot from which to get your bearings. Later in the day, hang out with Sodermalm's hipsters at the Rio cinema. Despite a recent makeover, the original 1940s architecture is one of its biggest attractions.  

Eat & drink
Soak in the bohemian atmosphere in the bar at Story Hotel; go at the weekend to hear local DJs taking over the decks. Also a good base for a weekend, it's surrounded by the upmarket boutiques of Östermalm. Hornstull Strand is another safe bet if you want to dance chic to chic with Stockholm's in-crowd. A waterside restaurant/club, it gets packed but is always friendly.  

Vintage style is as big as you might imagine in Abba's homeland. Two of the best-known hunting grounds sit almost side by side in Sodermalm — Judit's Secondhand and a Filippa K Second Hand shop. Nearby is a branch of Beyond Retro.

For more modern threads, head to preppy Whyred, lifestyle store Grandpa, and denim powerhouse Acne.

Don't leave the city without a design souvenir. Classic homeware stores for both established and up-and-coming names include DesignTorget and Svenskt Tenn but, for a more current design fix, head to Flux

The Alternative: The avant-garde 'Antwerp Six' (including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester) studied in Belgium's second largest city in the early 1980s. It's now home to a cutting-edge fashion museum


Many attractions, cafes and hotels are committed to sustainability, and the best way to explore them is on two wheels, as Bristol is the UK's first Cycling City. For a longer ride, try www.bristolbathrailwaypath.org.uk.

Norway's 'sustainable city' lives up to the hype with shops, restaurants, transport and hotels that walk the green talk. The most low-impact way to see the sights — and the neighbouring fjords — is by kayak.

Frequently topping quality-of-life surveys, this green-minded Swiss city has enviable natural surroundings, a fabulous public transport system and what claims to be Europe's oldest (but now resolutely contemporary) vegetarian restaurant

Berlin: Music and after-hours

Liberal and fun-loving, Berlin's music scene is built for bon viveurs. Never mind the 24-hour party people, the German capital has the stamina to go all weekend, and then some. Words by Juliet Kinsman

Anything goes in the city that gave us bohemian cabaret culture in the Roaring Twenties. The Wall may have fallen over two decades ago but in pockets of this now-tolerant town they're still partying like it's 1989. Zeitgeisty neighbourhoods such as Mitte and Kreuzberg have long been cheap to live in — luring musicians, entrepreneurs and artists from all over the world, guaranteeing an über-vibrant nightlife with bars and clubs to suit every mood.

Live and let live is the essence of Berlin's club scene. Dip into chi-chi spots for cocktails, then let your hair down in gritty, graffiti'd industrial spaces. Clubs get properly going in the wee hours, so there's plenty of time to rev up in a bar. Glamour junkies, join the posers at Tausend and sip Wasabi Gimlets in plush banquettes under a giant 3D eyeball installation. Or get on the guestlist for the Berlin outpost of members' club Soho House where the Red Room regularly hosts friends-and-family gigs. Convention-buckers can hunt down one-off events from record labels such as Greco-Roman in converted townhouses and disused swimming pools, or seek out avant-garde parties in art galleries. In Alexanderplatz, ogle the iconic TV tower from the 1960s high-rise that houses buzzing Weekend at the top. Ricardo Villalobos and Richie Hawtin are still perennial headliners, as are Paul Kalkbrenner and Sven Vath, but look out for fresher talents such as Modeselektor, Boys Noize, Ellen Alien and Steffi.

Former factory, Berghain in Friedrichshain, remains a Saturday-night institution, pulling in the cosmopolitan crowds to hear banging beats, thanks to its electric atmosphere and world-class sound system. Salute sunrise from its little sibling, Panorama Bar, overlooking the Spree. Or enjoy a grandstand river view from Watergate another a stalwart where international big-namers keep the dancefloor moving under a Space Odyssey-meets-Boogie Nights light installation. Quirkier and wonderfully ramshackle is Salon Zur Wilden Renate in Treptow, a multi-roomed house party beloved by young hedonists. Savvy night owls should track down its subterranean labyrinth where the atmosphere is even more underground. Techno haunt Bar 25 may no longer exist but its spirit lives on in super-friendly and relaxed Kater Holzig, replete with chic restaurant, Katerschmaus. Dancefloor in a lather? What else to expect from a former soap factory? Indeed, if you only have time for one outing, this venue captures the best of Berlin's nightlife.

For a taste of Alexanderplatz's Soviet-tinged skyline, find out if there's anything on at MADE on the ninth floor. More than mere art space, all-sensory events featuring the likes of Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and Moby are the result of global creatives collaborating in this melting-pot city.

Where to stay: Located in hip Mitte, with rooms from €109 (£91), Weinmeister wears its music cred on its sleeves: band-referencing murals, a suite dedicated to synthpoppers Hurts, and DJ-friendly gadgetry throughout. Michelberger is a budget bunk-up in Friedrichschain that hosts its own mini music festival in August. Rooms from £55.

The Alternative: Ibiza Town. The Balearic isle of Ibiza offers beach bacchanalia. Pacha does its thing all year round, but the International Music Summit kicks off the summer with the likes of DC10 and Amnesia, while Ushuaia's beachside bar offers laid-back fun. It's not all dance anthems: Ibiza Rocks brings bands to Ibiza for intimate gigs. Itching to get on a guestlist? Speak to VIP concierge Deliciously Sorted.


Spend an evening sipping cocktails with shisha with the locals. 360 is great for views; head to Urban for the atmosphere. 

Hit one of the bars and restaurants around the Gothic Quarter and El Born for tapas, then party the night away at clubbers' favourite, Razzmatazz or chic Cafe Marula

The stereotype may be of scantily clad, drunk teens roaming the streets but the North East's liveliest city caters for all, whether you want to rave at Digital or hear live music at The Sage

Order a shot of dark herb liqueur Riga Balzam to get your stay in the Latvian capital off to a spicy start, then head to Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta to dance it off. 

Spend the evening in the home of the original Irish bar. Two of the most genuine articles are The Stags Head and Doheny and Nesbitt.

Florence: Art & the city

This proud Renaissance city can blow your mind in an afternoon — and continue to do so, visit after visit. Words by Amy Raphael

I lost my heart to Florence when I was 19 and living just up the road in Bologna for a year. I used to jump on the train and speed south to Florence just to breathe in its history. In this great Renaissance city, compact enough to move around on foot, you can almost touch the ghost of Michelangelo Buonarotti. Back in the 15th century, Florence was embracing a new age — quite literally a rebirth — of art. A proudly independent place, controlled by the Medici family, it nurtured artists, sculptors and architects that changed Western art forever. This is, after all, the city of Leonardo da Vinci, of Cellini and Brunelleschi. Today, some six centuries later, it's a living museum.

There are downsides to Florence: tourists and an almost overwhelming amount of art. You would need a lifetime to see it all. Best, then, to cherry pick what you want to see and avoid the high season. Tuscany is particularly beautiful in early spring and late autumn — it gets very hot in the summer and seriously cold in the depths of winter — when the golden light can be breathtaking.

It's tempting not to even mention the Uffizi Gallery given the endless queues to get in and the inevitable crowds of people peering at Botticelli's Birth of Venus. But get a ticket for the last slot of the day and head for the three different versions of the Annunciation, as painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and the Siennese artist Simone Martini. A little more off-the-beaten-track is the Casa Buonarroti. A beautifully restored Renaissance townhouse and once home to Michelangelo, it includes early work such as the Madonna della Scala, an intricate sculpture he did in his teens.

One of the most satisfying places to feel Florence's magic is the Bargello National Museum, which is to sculpture what the Uffizi is to paintings. Here you'll find masterpieces by Donatello, Verrocchio, Cellini, Brunelleschi and the ubiquitous Michelangelo. Contrast Renaissance sculptures with more recent work by visiting the Marino Marini Gallery dedicated to the sculptor (1901-1980) of the same name. Occupying the former church of San Pancrazio, the space is dominated by a bronze of a horse and rider.

The Palazzo Strozzi Foundation has been integrating historical and modern art since 2006, but Florence is not celebrated for modern art but for its rich artistic heritage; it's a place where the myriad churches are as inspiring as any gallery. Go to San Marco to see several works by Fra Angelico; the Brancacci chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine for Masaccio frescoes; the Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinita for Ghirlandaio frescoes and the Basilica of Santa Croce for an epic display by artists, from Cimabue to Giotto.

Alternative: Edinburgh. Tempting though it is to think of Edinburgh only for its comedy and film festivals, it also hosts an impressive collection of art: within walking distance of each other are the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.


The Danish capital has been home to some of the biggest players in the furniture design world since the 1940s, not to mention glassware, ceramics, textiles and silver. For a quick primer, head to the Danish Design Museum, or to buy, visit Normann Copenhagen.  

With nearly 46,000 designers working in London, the city remains the UK's design capital. Don't know where to start? The Design Museum is a good bet. Or get a group together and book a London Design walking tour. 

Home to some of Europe's most creative citizens — and the illustrious Gerrit Rietveld Academie, specialising in fine art and design — Amsterdam has plenty to attract design-minded visitors. Pick up a souvenir at Droog


An American in Paris, Funny Face, Last Tango in Paris… the list of films where the French capital takes a starring role is almost as long as the Champs Élysées. A decade since Amelie was released, many of Montmartre's visitors are still following in the footsteps of the film's eponymous heroine.

The Eternal City has long been a hit with filmmakers. From Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita and The Talented Mr Ripley to Eat, Pray, Love and Nero Fiddled, a steady stream of cinematic hits has ensured an equally constant flow of location-hunting tourists.

It isn't only director Pedro Almodóvar who's filmed in Madrid, but so deeply are his movies associated with the Spanish city, you'd be forgiven for thinking that was the case. His location choices don't often sync with the city's big tourist sites, but two exceptions are the Plaza Mayor (which appeared in The Flower of My Secret) and the Puerta de Alcalá (a starring role in Live Flesh).

Budapest: Danube romance

Sometimes it's all about your love affair with the city and not the love affair you have in the city. Words by Adrian Phillips

Romance seemed a long way off during my first hour in Budapest — indeed, no city could have played harder to get. After a trip in the company of a taxi driver with unhealthy passions for chain smoking and overtaking on blind corners, I was met by a shoulder-shrugging hotel manager who denied all knowledge of my booking. Tired and hungry, I took a sagging seat in a tatty restaurant and blindly ordered a plate of what I later discovered were cockerels' testicles.

But love can blossom despite unpromising first dates, and I quickly uncovered Budapest's softer side. It's at its softest in the centre, where the Danube sweeps through one of the world's most romantic spots. Hills loom above its western Buda bank, crowned by the turquoise dome of the Royal Palace, while opposite, in Pest, stands the Parliament Building, modelled on our own Palace of Westminster. A night-time stroll is a pleasure, with the Chain Bridge casting its light upon the water. It's a noble bridge, with supporting arches and lofty stone lions guarding each end; legend goes that the sculptor was so pleased with his big cats he promised to throw himself into the river if anyone faulted them.

I'd bet a fair few forints that the hilltop Castle District has seen its share of marriage proposals. The medieval alleys and pretty townhouses — painted in powder blues and buttery yellows — are the stuff of picture postcards, and the views from its outer walls make your heart sing. Every stone is symbolic of faith and steadfast determination against the odds (the district was reduced to rubble when the German army made its last stand here during WWII) and it had to be rebuilt from scratch. For high romance, head to the Matthias Well in the castle complex. The fountain depicts a scene from a poem about a peasant girl's love for a handsome hunter; on discovering that he's actually the Renaissance King Matthias — and that her love can never be returned — the beautiful Ilona dies of a broken heart.

Across the river, you'll find romantic expression of a different kind: this is a place of broad boulevards rather than quaint cobbled streets. Pest has a distinctly Parisian flavour, at its richest along Andrássy Avenue — unsurprising given that it was inspired by the Champs Elysées. It offers an arrow-straight walk past pavement cafes, grand apartments and the opulent State Opera House. Best of all, it culminates at the leafy City Park, where you can finish the day with a visit to Széchenyi Baths and a wallow under the stars in its outdoor thermal pools.

Further information: For romantic dining, Gundel offers high elegance at a high price (mains from £19). For something cheaper and more intimate, try Rivalda with main from around £8.   

Alternative: Sarajevo. Emerging from the conflict of the 1990s, it has gone on to become a thriving city with good restaurants and a centre with wonderfully evocative Ottoman-era architecture.


England's top spa town regained its place on the relaxation map in 2006 when Thermae Bath Spa opened. Enjoy the UK's only natural hot springs with a Watsu (underwater shiatsu) treatment. 

Forty minutes from the city centre, the Blue Lagoon is Iceland's premier spa, and powered geothermally. 

Be warned: with a treatment menu as long as the local Grand Prix circuit, Les Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo is potentially more dangerous for your wallet than Monaco's casinos.

Soothe aching limbs at the spa of the Romantik Hotel Schwarzer Adler after a day on world-class slopes, just an hour from this elegant Austrian city. 

In a country where almost every household has its own sauna, it's little surprise to find the capital has some of the best. For luxury head to the spa at Hotel Kamp or try Kotiharjun, a public wood-burning sauna. 

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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