By Laura Tait
Sure, the likes of Paris, Berlin, Rome and Prague have a lot to offer - but with popularity comes bumped-up prices, not to mention a gazillion other tourists with a similar itinerary bumping into you. If you fancy a city break not quite so bang-in-the-middle-of-the-beaten-track – or you’ve done all the obvious destinations and can’t decide where’s next – here are ten great choices…
Marseille has been chosen as European Capital of Culture for 2013 and with good reason. Once a bit rough with a high crime rate, it’s had a massive overhaul, without losing its character or historic appeal. Vieille Charité, a pretty set of buildings dating back to the 17th century and originally designed to take in vagrants and orphans, is now home to an art centre - with two museums, several art galleries, a café, a restaurant and a bookshop, along with Le Miroir, an arthouse cinema. Another must-see landmark is Saint Victor Abbey, built in the 5th century.
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Utrecht, The Netherlands
Whether it’s the canals, the bike rides or the Red Light District that attract you to Amsterdam, you’ll find them all in the centrally located city of Utrecht. As an added bonus; it is the best destination to quench your culture thirst. Highlights include six impressive museums known as the museumquarter, as well as the Domkerk - an old cathedral incorporating cloisters dating from the 14th century and the beautiful Domtoren, the tallest bell tower in the country, with views over Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
St Petersburg, Russia
You’re missing a trick if you think of Moscow as the obvious city break in Russia – St Pete is overflowing with nightlife and culture and has a very bohemian feel to it, with its edgy art galleries, cool restaurants and underground clubs. Built by Italian architects, it bears more resemblance to Venice than it does the Russian capital, but unlike other European destinations there are the legendary ‘White Nights’; the summer months where the sun barely goes down.
Slovenia is still a relatively undiscovered tourist spot, even its capital Ljubljana, as people still tend to head to its bordering countries of Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, making it more relaxed and less commercialised than most capitals. That’s not to say there’s not lots to do – there’s enough in the museum/galleries/castle camp to suit your sightseeing needs, their small and friendly bars are plentiful and unlike most capitals, restaurants are reasonably priced even at the top end.
Another underrated capital city. A labyrinth of cobbled alleyways interspersed with around 50 churches, and tons of cafes, bars and restaurants; Vilnius has plenty of culture to soak up. If you fancy a cry, the Museum of Genocide Victims makes for a moving visit, or for a laugh head to Uzupis - the bohemian quarter – and read its 41-point constitution, which includes ‘A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times’ and ‘Everyone has the right to understand nothing’.
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Not only is it cheaper than Brussels, it’s smaller, and because it’s less spread out you can explore it by foot – from its medieval town centre, to the fashionable area of Zuid, where you’ll find a cluster of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Photography. Highlights include the monumental Central Station (dubbed Railway Cathedral) and historic castle ‘t Steen, and the city has a vibrant nightlife to boot.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
While Prague is still a decent destination, don’t be tempted to visit off the back of those tales of 30p pints – as its popularity has grown over the past few years, so have its prices. A cheaper choice these days is Cesky Krumlov – with its cobbled streets and landmark castle, it’s reminiscent of the capital but smaller, more quaint with something very fairytale-town about it. While many people take a daytrip there you’ll notice how uncrowded it feels in the evenings.
While most tourists flock to Barcelona just up the coast, Valencia should not be underestimated. Its churches are among the city’s most majestic buildings, while the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences cultural complex offers a modern contrast. The nightlife incorporates trendy bars, open air discos and parties that start on Friday night and end on Sunday morning, and the fact it’s the birthplace of paella tells you all you need to know about the quality of the local food.
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Berlin’s reputation for nightlife precedes it, but other German cities will equally please party animals. Like Hamburg. Its legendary nightlife mile, the Reeperbahn, overflowing with great bars, restaurants, clubs etc, attracts an eclectic bunch, from fans of the area’s famous Red light District to theatre-goers. The latter are spoilt for choice - Hamburg is the world’s third largest musical metropole after New York and London, though head to The English Theatre of Hamburg if you don’t understand German.
Slap bang in the middle of the country, Perugia is the best-preserved medieval hill town of its size – nothing has changed architecturally for 400 years. It is also high in the art and culture stakes, with numerous museums and churches, and the two historic universities helps keep the lively nightlife happening, and there’s a never-ending stream of events and concerts. If all of this isn’t reason enough to visit, it’s home to Italy's best chocolate, Perugini.