• Michael Donlea

My Top 5 European City Breaks for 2020

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Be honest. How many of you take living in Europe for granted? I know I do. My guilt resurfaces whenever I’m in conversation with strangers who fondly recall frequent city breaks to different corners of Europe. There are wonderful experiences to be had on the other side of the challenge, and with 2020 around the corner I thought now would be better than ever to provide a little inspiration for your next weekend away.

1 - Granada, Spain

The Moorish and sun-washed city of Granada lies in the region of Andalucia, southern Spain. With the south under Arab rule for 700-odd years, the occupation left a profound mark on Granada and I think this is why I enjoyed my time here so much. The many hammams (traditional Arabic baths), the old city wall and the Albaicin (muslim quarter) are all fascinating throwbacks to the city’s former rulers, but by far the most impressive is the reconstruction of the Alhambra. This impressive palace is Spain's number 1 tourist attraction and sits on La Sabica Hill which overlooks the city. The reconstruction is absolutely magnificent, and hours can easily be spent wandering the hallways, admiring its intricate design and enjoying the views of the city below. The Alhambra aside though, you can while away the days here ambling through the city centre, dining on sumptuous tapas and wine and popping into little old antique shops and art galleries scattered around the city.

Did you know that any Spanish word beginning in al- descends from the Moors?

Any extra tips?

Climb the steps up to the Mirador San Nicholas in the Albaicin for a wonderful view of the Alhambra. Visit on a clear day and you will see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the backdrop. Enjoy an evening view and you will find the castle walls illuminated in a soft gold hue. If you don’t deal well with heat, I would suggest you avoid visiting in July and August as the city becomes a furnace.

The Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background

2 - Porto, Portugal

I’ve been told you prefer either Porto or Lisbon. Well, for me, there’s no contest. On either side of the Duoro River sits Portugal’s 2nd city, a masterclass of culture that feels as old as the locals are welcoming. The food is fantastic, with dishes like bifana (spiced shredded pork in a toasted bap), francesinha (a cheese toastie in a bowl of tomato soup) and pastel de nata (a custard tart that has made it as far afield to the former Portuguese colony of Macau) all worthy of mention. Porto’s most famous export however is its port wine. Friendly relations with Britain and its navy many centuries ago ensured that sailors picked up a taste for this wine, and soon enough wineries started popping up along the river. Many of these wineries are still in business today, and for just a couple of euros you enjoy a short tour of the wineries before several tastings.

Any extra tips?

One for the wine lovers here - Enjoy a day of wine tasting in the stunning Duoro Valley (easily accessible on a day trip) where you can learn first hand of the intricate process behind Portugal’s most famous export before tastings and lunch.

Porto and the Duoro River

3 - Edinburgh, Scotland

There are few cities I can think of that are as full of charm as Edinburgh’s historic centre. Its maze of cobbled streets, winding alleyways, inviting little cafes and cosy pubs are wonderful to explore, and it's no surprise that the inspiration for a great deal of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from this fantastic city. Potter fans can join one of the many walking tours of the centre, and the rest can create their own weekend itinerary that may include spectacular sights like Balmoral Castle, the Royal Botanical Garden of Edinburgh and the Real Mary King’s Close - a network of streets underneath the Royal Mile. Whisky lovers can enjoy a tour and tastings of one of the capital’s distilleries, and those with an interest in the past will enjoy learning some of medieval Edinburgh’s most grisly secrets on a ghost tour by night. This atmospheric city really does cater to all.

Any extra tips?

Every August, Edinburgh plays host to the Fringe Festival, an event where comedians (both up-and-coming and established) and theatrical performers descend on Scotland’s capital for the entire month. I experienced my first Fringe Festival this year and absolutely loved it. Performers came from all across the world and I left thinking that a long weekend is not enough! Just try to secure your accommodation well in advance as options in the city centre sell out very quickly.

4 - Berlin, Germany

Berlin is a city where anyone with an interest in history - particularly modern - should visit at least once in their lifetime. The wealth of monuments and museums on offer here mean that there’s always somewhere new to discover on your next visit. For those who like to lean on the knowledge of a local, companies like Berlin Walks offer a wide range of walking tours catering to everything from a dedicated WWII tour to edgy East Berlin’s street art scene and a festive tour of the capital’s Christmas Markets.

In terms of Berlin’s gastronomy, many visitors enjoy the hearty German cuisine, but if you’re looking for something different then why not head to one of the city’s many Turkish restaurants? After all, Berlin is home to the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey. Other options include Syrian cuisine - something which Berliners have also developed a taste for since the migration of Syrians across Europe several years ago.

Any extra tips?

Visit in late Autumn/early Winter when the Christmas Markets are in full swing. Enjoy a currywurst whilst you wander the network of stalls and their twinkling lights before heading into a beerhall for a brew. Also, consider visiting the Reichstag - the seat of Germany’s parliament. The roof terrace offers a fantastic view of the city and audioguides in 11 languages can be obtained free of charge.

The public pathway up the Reichstag

5 - Krakow, Poland

My first and only visit here was back in 2009, on an Interrail train journey that took me up through Italy, across Slovenia and into Hungary before finishing here. Krakow was a highlight of that trip and remains one of my favourite cities to this day. I remember being awe-struck by the beauty of Krakow’s regal Old Town and its Main Market Square - the largest inner-city square in Europe. This same square is littered with restaurants, cafes and bars, and is a hub for tourists, locals and an array of street performers. Explore the square before visiting Wawel Royal Castle, the former seat of the Kings of Poland. The castle is one of Krakow’s highlights, and in addition to its stunning collection of artwork, it also overlooks the entire Old Town of Krakow. Needless to say therefore that Wawel Royal Castle should certainly be on your list.

Sightseeing aside, the food is magnificent, with many delicious meats and cheeses to be found in Krakow and excellent local dishes such as gotabki (beef, onions and rice stuffed inside boiled cabbage leaves) and pierogi (vegetarian/meat dumplings) found in most eateries across the city.

A five-note trumpet call plays every hour from the top of St Mary’s Basilica, in the Main Market Square. This is to commemorate a trumpeter who, in 1240, upon receiving word of a Mongol invasion, sounded the alarm.

Any extra tips?

Head back to the Old Town at nighttime to see the Main Market Square beautifully illuminated.

Krakow's Main Market Square

Which cities are you planning on visiting in 2020? Are there any you have visited that you feel should make this list? Let me know in the comments section below, and if you've enjoyed my content so far, please do enter your email address in below.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!

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