European cities to dream about

Living on the rural edge of a Home Counties commuter town, I’ve always enjoyed the best of both worlds. So it’s no wonder I have something of a split personality when it comes to holidays. I love countryside breaks in unspoilt natural spaces, but I also love the buzz of a city break too.

As I write this, we have no idea when international cities will re-open to visitors, but by the time they do, I’m confident that we’ll all be used to a new way of interacting although we may need to plan a more carefully. Visitor numbers to major museums will almost certainly be limited and will probably require timed tickets, and we may need to book restaurants in advance rather than be spontaneous. So there will be big advantages by booking with a specialist tour operator such as Silver Travel Advisor partner Kirker Holidays who can make recommendations and reservations for us.

So whilst I await the start of lockdown release, I’m researching cities still on my wish list, and I’m also enjoying looking through photos of favourite cities I hope to visit again before too long. Meanwhile, many cities, galleries, and visitor attractions are keeping in virtual touch with the travelling public through new videos and behind-the-scenes content on their websites. Just sit down with your favourite comfort drink and browse the web on Google.

In case you are in need of a little inspiration to get you started, here are six cities that really surprised me on my first visit:

Naples

I’m a big fan of Italian cities and I love the big hitters like Rome, Florence and Venice. Last autumn, I fell in love with Bologna, heading out by train on day trips to Parma and Modena. But the city that surprised me most was Naples. 

Pompeii mosaic - Naples Archeological Museum Like many historic ports, Naples has long had a reputation for being frenetic and rather down-at-heel, but that’s only part of the story. Yes, it’s predictably scruffy in parts and Napolitan drivers are a law unto themselves, but Naples has an authenticity and a buzz all its own. Just use common sense with possessions in crowded places. Naples offer plenty of beauty too – the fine mansions and designer shops of the Chiaia district, the flamboyant opera house, and the magnificent Baroque churches, plus of course that glorious bay in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. 

Naples is an easy train ride from picturesque Sorrento and the ruined Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Then you can come back to the city to see original artefacts in the archaeological museum, and enjoy the atmosphere of one of Italy’s most exciting cities.

Lisbon

So many of my friends recommended Lisbon that I feared I might expect too much when I planned a surprise trip for my husband’s birthday last year. Not a bit of it. One of Europe’s smaller capital cities, Lisbon seems to embrace visitors to its spacious squares and broad avenues with arms wide open. We stayed just off the Avnida Liberdade, Lisbon’s answer to the Champs-Elysées, and a comfortable walk from the Tagus quayside and main sights. 

Lisbon historic centre Yes, Lisbon does have some steep hills. Seven of them in fact. But lifts, funiculars, and an efficient tramway system make for easy access to the different districts, all liberally dotted with some excellent museums and art collections. We particularly enjoyed the National Tile Museum where traditional blue and white Portuguese tiles are effectively displayed inside a 16th century convent building. 

And no trip to Lisbon is complete without a visit to Belem, a short journey by bus or tram along the banks of the Tagus. Visit the UNESCO-listed church and cloister; stroll the waterfront gardens, but don’t miss the home of the original Pasteis de Belem custard tarts! Delicious.

Moscow

If ever a city took me by surprise, it was Moscow. I still laugh to think back to our first evening in the Russian capital, newly arrived at an international hotel within ten minutes’ walk of Red Square. Better not take the camera or a guidebook, we thought; don’t want to look like tourists. So we left everything behind and just followed the throng towards the towering walls of the Kremlin, emerging into adjacent Red Square to find this vast space full of families with children in buggies and tourists taking videos with iPads!    

St-Basil's Cathedral Moscow Moscow has some grand and glorious buildings to explore. The multi-coloured-domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, for instance; the four churches and Armoury Museum inside the high walls of the Kremlin; and the ornate decoration of the famous Moscow Metro. 

The women too are surprisingly well dressed. At least in the city centre. “Fashion victims” remarked our deadpan Russian guide who arrived each day wearing stunning monochrome outfits with killer heels. A city and a people we will never forget!

Antwerp

Talk about a Belgian city break and most people immediately think of Brussels or Bruges. Both are fascinating in different ways, but if you’ve never visited Antwerp, you’ve got a treat in store. This historic port is one of the great ‘Art Cities’ of Northern Europe and is easy to reach by train from London for those who don’t fancy flying in the near future.

Grote Markt, Antwerp Like Bruges and Brussels, Antwerp has a magnificent square surrounded by gabled buildings in typical Flemish style, and two of my favourite museums anywhere are located in the old quarter. Visit the home and studio of artist Peter Paul Rubens, and the extraordinary Plantin-Moretus House, home to a 17th century printing empire. Explore city history at MAS – the Museum aan de Stroom on the old harbour quayside – and maybe head to the Diamond Quarter for a sparkling souvenir!

Easily explored on foot, Antwerp also offers plenty of elegant cafes where you can take the weight off your feet over coffee and scrumptious cake or handmade chocolates. Belgian goodies at their very best!

Stockholm

I love the coast and countryside of Scandinavia but whilst I had visited a number of its cities from Bergen to Copenhagen, Tromso to Helsinki, somehow Stockholm had always eluded me. Until last year when I tacked a short break onto the start of a Baltic cruise and was bowled over by this glorious waterfront capital.

Water bus, Stockholm The historic centre is easy to explore on foot, whilst a city sightseeing bus or shuttle boat will quickly transport you round its indented coastline. You could spend a day in the five museums of the Royal Palace, but if time is limited, make sure you see the lavish Royal Apartments. Don’t miss the extraordinary Vasa Ship, sunk 20 minutes into her maiden voyage in 1628 and recovered in 1961. And absorb the atmosphere of historic Sweden at Skansen open air museum.

I loved wandering the quaint streets of the Gamla Stan or Old Town with its tempting restaurants and cosy cafes. And at the time of writing, Stockholm is already re-opening for business, so this could be one of the first cities to welcome visitors under the ‘new normal’ guidelines. Put it high on your list …!

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays for city breaks.


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Gillian Thornton

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