BEST FOR ART AND CULTURE
Bulgaria’s second city has a good claim to being Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited centre. Its glory days were under the Romans – who left a marbled hillside amphitheatre and 200,000 square metres of elaborate mosaics inside the Bishop’s Basilica (reopened last year after two decades of stop-start restoration).
The old town is home to colourful 19th-century buildings whose larger second storeys teeter towards one another. Amid so much antiquity are many modern-art spaces. The most influential contemporary gallery is Sarieva, a large white cube whose proprietor, Katrin Sarieva, developed the Alternative Map of Plovdiv, with various free-to-download routes introducing unsung corners of the city.
In the time-trapped Hadji Hassan Mahala neighbourhood, for example, Roma residents still use horse-drawn wagons. The city is built on six hills: the finest view is from leafy Bunardzhik, which also sports a typically whopping statue of a machine gun-toting Soviet soldier.
Any saunter should take in pedestrianised, cobblestone Kapana. This once-derelict quarter is now a pedestrianised area with low prices. Every effortlessly cool craft-beer bar (Cat & Mouse), coffee house (Craftex), shoe store (Piuma d’Oro) and natty handicraft shop (Rakodelnicata) is affordable and ultra laid-back. Also here is the city’s most in-demand restaurant, Pavaj, which uses fresh local produce for sophisticated versions of Balkan classics. Its fiery fruit brandies are fun to try, too.
La Coruña, Spain
The biggest monuments here on Spain’s north-western tip were built to guide sailors in, like the Torre de Hercules, the world’s oldest working lighthouse; or to repel them, like the Castillo de San Antón (now housing an archaeological museum with Celtic remains).
The most dazzling – and the source of the sobriquet “city of glass” – are the glittering galerias (glass balconies) of the modernist houses facing the harbour. The tourist office has a downloadable Modernist Route and more gems can be found with a wander through barrios of Ensanche and Pescadería.
Its Picasso Route is shorter – he lived here for five years as a child, but the Pablo Picasso House museum (with reproductions) is worth a snoop. For original works, there’s the Museo de Bellas Artes, and one of Galicia’s best museums at Fundación Luis Seoane.
Public sculpture appears at every turn – the stone columns of Menhir Forest at the lighthouse sculpture park are unforgettable and a growing number of interactive, educational museums, such as the Museo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (Muncyt), futuristic Domus, (an exploration of man) and the unsurprisingly popular MEGA Mundo Estrella de Galicia inside the city’s famous brewery.
Tapas culture abounds in the narrow streets off Plaza Maria Pita (try Calle Franja, and O Tarabelo on Calle de la Barrera) and there’s modern, stylish feasting in barrio Orzán (Terreo Cocina Casual and el de Alberto). Life here’s all about the sea (the semi-detached Orzán and Riazor beaches are spectacular), and stays with sea views include Hotel Riazor (doubles from €89 room-only) or good-value favourite Hotel Alda Galería Coruña (doubles from €60 room-only) near the main plaza.
If it hadn’t been the capital of Lithuania from 1919 to 1939, Kaunas may not have become the cracking little city it is today. Its short reign sparked a building boom that rode the art deco craze, creating a sizeable centre of interwar architecture that has seen it nominated for Unesco world heritage status.
Taking on the joint mantle of European capital of culture this year has also sharpened Kaunas’s appeal. And it’s easy to reach, with trains from Vilnius taking a little over an hour.
There’s a ruined medieval castle on the riverside, lively pavement bars (try the local Genys taprooms), good food and electric scooters for hire. But Kaunas sees just a fraction of Vilnius’s visitors – and certainly no stag and hen parties. Its walkable centre also has a distinctly creative feel, with street sculptures, murals, design studios and more museums and galleries than one might expect for a city of this size.
The tourist office has produced hand-illustrated mapsto plot street art and architecture tours. This year the city’s MK Čiurlionis National Art Museum launched a Trail of Angels VR experience, which sweeps you into the surreal world of one of Lithuania’s greatest artists, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.
Daugirdas Hotel (doubles from £67 room-only) in the old town is in a 16th-century merchants’ quarters and has a rooftop restaurant.
BEST FOR NIGHTLIFE
Lyon’s nightlife is flourishing, with something for all tastes in various neighbourhoods. Music lovers can start in the afternoon, browsing vinyl in Onigiri records, which specialises in Japanese electronic music, or Sofa Records, with about 10,000 to choose from.
A good start to a night out is a pastis at Le Broc’ Bar in the centre, followed by dinner at Café du Jura (€29 for a full menu with saucisson brioché and local red wine). For smaller budgets there’s Le Barcandier, with vegetarian tapas for €10. Le Sucre –– an electronic music club on the roof of a former sugar factory with views of the River Saône – helped put Lyon on the map for nightlife, with top acts from Laurent Garnier to Anetha.
My favourite spot is Les Subs. First a convent, then a barracks, it’s more than a club – with dance, music and theatre, depending on the time of day.
For a more underground scene, with indie rock and electro dance nights, Le Sonic is a club on a small barge moored at the Gare de Perrache. Kraspek Myzik in the centre is a temple of indie music, and Grnd Zero, in the suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin, is an squat turned underground music venue.
Those who insist on sleeping could choose Mob Hotel (doubles from €75 room-only), which is a real centre of cultural life. For a hangover feed the next morning, Les Desjeuneurs or Newtree do a €12 full brunch of vegan and organic food. Louise Grossen
Halfway between Warsaw and Berlin, Poznań is the home of Polish Catholicism and many reactionary, rightwing types. Yet it also hosts a staunch liberal scene, epitomised by the country’s oldest squat, Rozbrat, now an anarchist social centre. A comparable schism informs Poznańian nightlife. Those lured by cheap lager populate cheesy bars around the cobbled Stary Rynek square, but those in the know head for the underground venues in neighbouring districts.
Projekt LAB’s three rooms sit just north of the centre. One of Poland’s best-known DJs (and LGBTQ+ champions), Monster, frequently plays her trancey beats here, alongside acolytes of smooth house or dystopian techno. Extended garden afterparties are common. If the queue looks too long, continue west to two more electro dens. Próżność has repurposed a classical 1930s building, with neon signs illuminating the ballroom’s original brass chandeliers; or there’s petite, pulsating Schron, in whose second world war concrete shelter “vulgar people, instigators, quarrels or fights are not welcome”.
As an alternative, or as a precursor to clubbing, Dragon Social Club’s labyrinthine, ramshackle building is home to shadowy bars, balconies, corridors and courtyards where jazz jams occur at all hours.
Within stumbling distance is the new Hotel Liberte 33 (from £61 B&B), a renovated 1920s villa with bright rooms and a sauna. At the nearby Wise Cafe, breakfast simply must involve Poznań’s speciality: giant, iced rogal świętomarciński croissants, piped with a paste of white poppy seeds, almonds and raisins.
BEST FOR FOOD
The opening of Dijon’s Cité International de la Gastronomie earlier this year cemented the capital of Burgundy’s reputation as a foodie destination. It has exhibitions on the history and culture of French food, restaurants and cafes, a wine school, a cinema and a food arcade.
Beyond it, head to Les Halles de Dijon food market for great local produce, from oozy cheeses such as époisses and soumaintrain to garlicky, buttery snails. There are glasses of fizzy, blackcurranty kir at the fantastic Buvette bar too.
No visit to Dijon would be complete without trying its signature product – mustard. Visitors can learn about it and even make their own at La Moutarderie Edmond Fallot. For a sophisticated evening, Cibo, run by Angelo Ferrigno (who received his first Michelin star aged just 23) is a good choice. And new cocktail bar Monsieur Moutarde has an ever-evolving drinks list, as well as finger food and a Sunday brunch menu.
The Hotel du Palais (doubles from €110) has a great wine cellar and offers cookery classes.
There’s a real buzz around the food scene in this lively port city: from local speciality cooking classes to street food and day trips to the adjacent Carso plateau for rare cheeses aged in limestone caves. Trieste is a capital of coffee, home to the famed Illy brand, which is open for tours, as are small local roasters such as Bazzara Espresso. Join a tour of literary cafes much loved by James Joyce, such as Tommaseo, Specchi and La Bomboniera. There’s an annual coffee festival, from 27 October.
Trieste’s mitteleuropean cuisine makes it stand out from that of other Italian cities, with dishes such as bread gnocchi, goulash and strudel, the local specialities. Visitors can learn to cook these (and stay) at boutique B&B Seven Historical Suites (flats from €139 self-catering, guided by local cook Rita Mazzoli
Eataly emporium, an Italian food store with branches across the world, is in a lavishly renovated waterfront wine warehouse, and offers courses in everything from puff pastry to fresh pasta. For a taste of local life, join the lunchtime crowds in a Da Gildo, for smoky pork and tangy fermented cabbage or hearty jota bean soup. At Caffè San Marco, owner Alexandros Delithanassis has brought in two new creative chefs, who may well realise his dream of a Trieste caffè winning a Michelin star.
By all means head for traditional Croatian restaurants including Kod Šime and Nokturno, where grilled meats are king – but bear in mind that the food scene here is shifting in search of fresh flavours, with new places opening all the time. Croatian cuisine is a blend of central European, Adriatic and Italian, but Zagreb’s young chefs are now throwing Asian into the mix, with SOI Fusion Bar in the cool Swanky Monkey Hostel and Izakaya leading the way. The cocktails are good here too. At Theatrium by Filho, in the atrium of the Youth Theatre, innovative Croatian dishes are created with local ingredients.
Michelin-starred Restaurant Noel features an entirely vegetarian tasting menu (€89). There’s a wide selection of global-influenced bars and restaurants along Tkalčićeva Street, which is home to Lebanese, Greek and Indian food, and the Mali Medo craft brewery. And La Bodega has a broad selection of excellent, underrated Croatian wine.
Run by two sisters, boutique B&B Casablanca (doubles from €84) is a friendly place a 10-minute walk from the centre, with a covered terrace, courtyard garden, sauna, communal kitchen and bikes to rent.
BEST FOR RELAXING
One of the most eco-friendly cities in Germany, Freiburg has much to offer travellers looking to kick back. Tucked away in the south-western corner of the Black Forest, this pretty medieval city is surrounded by mountains and a river runs through it. With twice as many bikes as cars, super-efficient public transport and renewables supplying almost all the city’s energy, Freiburg’s clean air, eco-vibe and low noise pollution make it perfect for a chilled city break.
The Frelo cycle-scheme bikes is a good way of exploring the Münstermarkt (cathedral market) and the charming cobbled old town. It’s also worth catching the Schauinslandbahn cable car up the mountain for views over the city. Longboards (extra long skateboards) can be hired from Layback Skateshop for tackling the Himmelreich tour, a 14km cycle path from Himmelreich on the outskirts of town into the city centre.
Renowned for its 19th-century breweries, such as Ganter and Feierling, the illustrious Albert Ludwig University provides the city with enough young blood to keep things lively. Schlappen bar offers spirited evenings cheek by jowl with locals and students, and the lighter, cheese-free, regional take on pizza, flammkuchen.
The solar-powered sustainable suburb of Vauban gives a glimpse of a green future. Instead of cars, it’s full of community gardens, organic cafes, plus-energy housing, bike paths and farmers’ markets. There’s a green place to stay, too: minimalist Green City Hotel (doubles from €100 room-only, ).
Vejle had a moment in the sun during this year’s Tour de France – the only alpine-grade ascent in an otherwise flat country. But there’s more to Vejle than cycling. The terrain is perfect for hiking and Danes make the most of the water with year-round sailing, kayaking, paddleboarding and rowing (there are boats to rent from Fårup Sø Kiosk) often alongside the porpoises and seals that call the fjord home.
There are multiple beaches, many popular for winter bathing, including Tirsbæk, which also offers a waterfront sauna pre-plunge from October to May.
Then there’s the culture. In 965, Viking King Harald Bluetooth said goodbye to Nordic gods and converted to Christianity, chiselling a commemorative rune stone and building burial mounds and a church. Since 1994, Jelling monuments has been a Unesco world heritage site and is free to visit. There’s more about the Vikings at Kongernes Jelling museum, while Vejle Art Museum has a leading collection of graphic works and 51 etchings by Rembrandt.
Nightlife isn’t quite Copenhagen standard, but the Musikteater has hosted everyone from Snoop Dogg to Elton John, and Vejle boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants: the extravagant Lyst (from £260 a head) and the seasonal MeMu (£170). For brunch or lunch, locals swear by organic cafe Onkel A. One of Denmark’s oldest hotels, the Jelling Kro, dates back to 1773 (doubles from £225 half-board).