Top 10 alternative city breaks

Forget Paris, Amsterdam and Rome, we’re highlighting our favourite alternative cities this week.

Featured image: Saint Petersburg

Antwerp not Bruges

Bruges, a chocolate-box pretty city, has canals, gabled houses and the almost year-round aroma of chocolate. It also has lots and lots of tourists. Antwerp, 100km or so to the east, has a magical medieval centre, more than 80 masterpiece-stuffed museums and churches and fewer tourists. It’s also the centre of the diamond trade in Belgium and a visit to the city’s biggest diamond shop (Diamondland) will not only educate you in the ways they are cut, polished and graded but might also liberate several hundred euros from your bank account.

Avignon not Paris

Forget Paris, Avignon was once the home of popes and the magnificent Gothic Palais des Papes is still one of the must-sees. The city on the Rhone’s medieval walls, cobbled squares, quirky museums and markets are all wrapped up in a wonderful, sunny, lavendar-scented climate.

Bilbao not Barcelona

Barcelona is the capital of cool, boasting party-loving locals, magical architecture and one of the world’s biggest football clubs, but it can get crowded so we’re going to Bilbao, in the heart of the Basque country, where the traditional has fused with the contemporary (thank you Peggy Guggenheim) and created an inspiring city. When you’ve had your fill of art, fill up on pintxos, the tapas that are served in this part of Spain, and wash down with some gutsy local wine.

Cologne not Berlin

Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is one of the iconic city sights, but we’re going to Cologne to climb the 509 steps of Dom tower and then feast on beer and chocolate, two things the city does exceedingly well. The third thing Cologne excels at is putting on a Christmas market. Towards the end of November the city’s seven markets set up their stalls, mull wine, bake gingerbread and sell the most Christmassy items imaginable.

Cork not Dublin

Dublin hosted Queen Elizabeth and her entourage during her tour to Ireland in 2011, but it was Cork, the Republic’s second city, that gave her the warmest welcome. This cosy, compact city on the River Lee has a plethora of pubs (look for Blarney Blonde and Rebel Red on tap) and restaurants that express Cork’s innate “foodiness”. The Queen visited the English Market on her visit, a landmark offering a peek into the local diet – tripe, drisheen and spiced beef are just a few of the delicacies.

Cesky Krumlov not Prague

Now that Prague has become synonymous with stag-party revelry, Cesky Krumlov is our choice for a long weekend. The town is a Unesco World Heritage site, all red roofs, sturdy Renaissance buildings and, overlooking it all, an imposing castle. The city is stuffed with art galleries and restaurants serving the rich and hearty Czech cuisine.

Gothenburg not Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, is a photographer’s dream. Its 14 islands, linked by bridges and ferries, is a charming fusion of medieval and modern architecture. On the west coast, the port city of Gothenburg is smaller and friendlier with a dash of bohemia. Explore the Avenyn, lined like Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, with shops and restaurants, stopping for coffee and fika along the way.

Perugia not Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, is a staple on the see-before-you-die lists, but Perugia, the capital city of Umbria has as much artistic sensibility as Rome and an events calendar that is almost as packed. Perugia is a noted city of the arts with beautiful, old buildings such as the Cathedral of San Lorenzo and Palazzo dei Priori (the town hall). Its differing streetscapes rewards the walking tourist, no better way to work off the local Perugina and Baci chocolates.

St Petersburg not Moscow

Moscow’s colourful onion-domed churches are no match for the swirling magnificence of St Petersburg. This fine European-style city was Peter the Great’s “window on Europe”. With more than 500 bridges, the Hermitage Museum, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg is a step back into Imperial Russia.

Utrecht not Amsterdam

Amsterdam has the canals and the stag parties, but Utrecht’s 30,000 students give it an altogether cooler energy. One of the most popular things to do on a weekend break is to climb the 112-metre high Domtoren, the Netherlands’ tallest church tower. Weather permitting, there are views as far as Rotterdam and Amsterdam. If you have little ones in tow, a visit to the Miffy statue at the Nijntjepleintje and the dick bruna huis at the Centraal Museum will go down a treat.

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