The best European city breaks for 2017

Tired of the same old tourist-filled cities on everyone's travel bucket list? Get ahead of the crowd with the best European city breaks of 2017

A typical day in Aarhus: locals relaxing by the new waterfront next to star-shaped building Navitas
A typical day in Aarhus: locals relaxing by the new waterfront next to star-shaped building Navitas © Photopop – VisitAarhus

Why put up with crowds of tourists and rocketing prices when you can travel to lesser-known towns radiating with genuine charm? Be it for a quick weekend break or a longer stay, you’ll get much more than you bargained for with our picks of the best European city breaks in 2017.

Bristol, England

Hunt down the striking street art in Stokes Croft

Hunt down the striking street art in Stokes Croft

Move along, London! Bristol is leaving its industrial past behind and reinventing itself as England’s new creative hub.

If there’s something you’ll quickly notice here, is a love for street art. Along narrow alleys and passageways, on building walls and bridges, graffiti art will demand your attention. One of Bristol’s rebel sons, the world-famous Banksy, has adorned many of the city’s walls with his signature graffiti styles. Open-air graffiti gallery Stokes Croft is a good place to discover Bristol’s many identities.

From Instagramming graffiti art, you’ll dive directly into Bristol’s underground music scene. Former police station The Island, electronica joint Cosies, and live jazz pub Bristol Fringe are a few of the city’s music venues, where you can listen to England’s new music. Keep your energy levels high: munch on Mediterranean-inspired goodies (Bellita), indulge in locally-sourced innovations (Bulrush), and discover your new favourite bread (Hart’s Bakery), all in one day.

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Graz, Austria

Murinsel – where locals come to relax and enjoy the view

Murinsel – where locals come to relax and enjoy the view

Put together architectural diversity and experimental art, and you get Graz – Austria’s second-largest city. The architecture here spans Renaissance courtyards, baroque palaces and avant garde buildings. A stroll through the cobblestoned Old Town will unravel beautifully-preserved buildings from the 17th and 18th century, such as the majestic Landhaus featuring a Renaissance-style arcaded courtyard, the stucco-decorated Haus am Luegg and the 28-metre-tall Clock Tower on Schlossberg, the hill towering above the city.

Graz is not only about grand European architecture. The spaceship-like Kunsthaus Graz and the man-made Murinsel, a steel island floating on the river Mur, make up some of the city’s ultra-modern architecture. With events such as Steirischer Herbst, an avant garde festival bringing 650 artists together, and experimental exhibition centres like Forum Stadtpark, there’s plenty to cut your teeth in.

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Wroclaw, Poland

One of the many dwarf statues spread around the city

One of the many dwarf statues spread around the city

Located on the sprawling river Oder, Wroclaw is made up of 12 islands, 130 bridges, multiple waterways and riverside parks. For a brief moment, you’ll think this is Venice.

Due to its mixed heritage, the city boasts Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture. The splendid market square Rynek brings together all these different styles – walk around and spot the Gothic 13th century Old Town Hall and the many townhouses with wonderfully-embellished facades. Keep your eyes wide open while strolling around – the city is plastered with over 300 small dwarf statues that first appeared in 2001 as part of the Orange Alternative anti-communist movement.

Wroclaw isn’t just another postcard-pretty city though – its cultural heart doesn’t skip a beat. Theatres, major festivals, a vibrant nightlife and affordable eating are just a few of the things on the menu here.

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Aarhus, Denmark

'Your rainbow panorama' provides one of the best Kodak moment settings in town

‘Your rainbow panorama’ provides one of the best Kodak moment settings in town © ARoS, Aarhus Kunstmuseum – VisitAarhus

Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city and self-proclaimed ‘happiest city in the country’, is making a name for itself when it comes to cultural offerings and innovative gastronomy.

Art museum ARoS houses Denmark’s largest art collection outside of Copenhagen and, thanks to ‘Your rainbow panorama’, a permanent art installation by Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson reigning on top of the building, is now one of the most iconic buildings in the cityscape. There are plenty of festivals throughout the year to make the heart of any traveller beat faster and, the cherry on top, Aarhus will be one of the two European Capitals of Culture in 2017, which means a good deal of cultural events to fill your city break with.

In-between sightseeing, replenish your energy with delicious meals. Michelin-starred restaurants Frederikshøj, Substans and Gastromé have taken the food scene by storm.

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Funchal, Portugal

Shop with the locals at Funchal's farmers' market, Mercado dos Lavradores

Shop with the locals at Funchal’s farmers’ market, Mercado dos Lavradores

Funchal – meaning ‘plantation of fennel’ – is the capital of Portuguese island Madeira. The city became a settlement in the 15th century and, throughout time, transformed from a small pirate-plagued port city to a flourishing trade centre and important stop-over for caravels. The Madeira Story Centre maps the turbulent history of Funchal through multi-media exhibitions, even including fragrance recreation of a specific environment.

History and art intersect in the city’s oldest neighbourhood, Zona Velha, where the doors of age old houses have been painted by various artists as part of an initiative to revive the deteriorated area.

Locals come together in a beautiful Art Deco hall hosting Mercado dos Lavradores, a market where farmers from neighbouring villages bring their fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and seafood every week. Taste a juicy custard apple and fill your snack box with fresh figs and dwarf bananas.

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Turku, Finland

Bike, relax, take a bite, soak up the sun – Turku's riverbank offers plenty of choice

Bike, relax, take a bite, soak up the sun – Turku’s riverbank offers plenty of choice

While Helsinki reigns as Finland’s capital and largest city, it hasn’t always been so. When Russia conquered Finland in the early 1800s, the capital was moved closer to the Russian border, to Helsinki. Prior to this, Turku, located on the southwest coast of the country, was the largest city and served as Finland’s administrative centre.

Founded in the late 13th century, Turku can easily be described as a classic European medieval city: it has a historic castle, a cathedral a river streaming around it, and a market place. But it’s much more than that – thanks, partly, to the large amount of students calling the city home. The riverbank along the Aura River is the beating heart of the city: when the weather allows it, people gather here to eat, drink and listen to live music. River boat restaurants are lined along the bank, offering scrumptious meals paired with unmatched views.

During summer, music festivals and cultural events take the city by storm: from one of the oldest festivals in Europe, Ruisrock, to the historical re-enactment event Medieval Market of Turku, summer seems endless in its possibilities.

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Bologna, Italy

 Bologna's Fountain of Neptune, Italy

Bologna’s Fountain of Neptune, Italy

Why visit Pisa for the leaning tower, Venice for its canals and Florence for its arcaded galleries, when you can find all three – minus the blabbering crowds of tourists and steeped up prices – in gritty yet graceful Bologna?

Home to the Europe’s oldest university, and all the creative curiosity and cultural events that go with it, wander the city’s medieval grid under miles of terracotta porticoes shielding you from the elements. Visit the famous Fountain of Neptune, rest in graffitied piazzas in view of romantic palazzos and towering basilicas, and browse the artisan workshops of the Old Jewish ghetto and contemporary art scene of the Saragozza neighbourhood.

Needless to say, chatty hosts in endless trattorias and osterias eagerly await to spoil you with the wholehearted decadence of the Italian aperitivo.

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Glasgow, Scotland

Shopping in Glasgow, Scotland

Shopping in Glasgow, Scotland

Both grounded and spirited, a solid working-class heritage meets cheerful modern hedonism among the serious Victorian buildings and restored 18th century warehouses of notoriously friendly Glasgow.

People-watch at the infamous Barras market, gorge on West Coast seafood in Merchant City and spot local luminary Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tributes to Art Nouveau dotting the landscape as you roam around town.

When the weather inevitably turns gloomy, head for the city’s eclectic museums (nearly all of which are free), go hunting for vintage vinyl, or down a wee whiskey in one of many cherished bars and clubs, alive with music and the contagious charms of Scottish personality.

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Córdoba, Spain

Arches in the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

Arches in the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

Strains of Spanish guitar echoing through sleepy covert courtyards. The scent of orange trees and palms lingering over shady patios. The old Jewish and Muslim quarters a jumble of narrow and crooked streets. Once Europe’s biggest and most relevant cultural centre, this now listless and serene ancient city keeps its mystical Moorish allure mostly to itself.

The incontrovertible crowning jewel of the city is the Great Mosque of Córdoba, a testament to its sophisticated and worldly past – and a masterpiece that reveals itself anew with every visit.

For a taste of modern Andalucian life (and its delectable dishes!) hang out in Plaza de las Tendillas or on the bustling Guadalquivir riverfront.

Find a flight to nearby Sevilla

Bergen, Norway

Bryggen's quayside houses in Bergen, Norway

Bryggen’s quayside houses in Bergen, Norway

The pure Nordic grace of the old town of Bryggen, with its wooden alleyways and rows of gabled buildings leaning amicably on each other, is only surpassed by the sublime landscape of rugged mountains and dizzying valleys that surround it. This is nature at its most theatrical.

Nestled among fjords and hills, Bergen is surprisingly lively in spite of its remoteness. Watch artists paint idyllic seascapes on the waterfront, gobble down a king crab sandwich at the Fisketorget and croon over a piping hot skillingsbolle (cinnamon roll) at a cosy quayside café. High culture can be found at KODE 3, home to the biggest Edvard Munch collection outside of Oslo.

And the cherry on the cake? Due to the currency exchange rates, it has never been cheaper to visit Bergen than today.

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Utrecht, The Netherlands

Cafés on Utrecht's waterfront

Cafés on Utrecht’s waterfront

Only 30 minutes away from Amsterdam, packed with students (and matching prices) and quintessentially Dutch, old-world Utrecht is the best-kept secret in the Netherlands – and its young, laid-back and progressive vibe is its major selling point. Things to do in Utrecht? Cruise the sights by boat, cycle through tree-filled parks and snack on croquettes along the Oudegracht before climbing the 465 steps of the looming Dom Tower for panoramic views.

Philosophers, poets and wanderers roam the cobbled lanes while placid canals reveal a surplus of subterranean life; from restaurants to music venues and artsy boutiques, the city’s cellars are heaving with cosmopolitan culture waiting to be discovered.

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Montpellier, France

A stroll through Place de la Comedie in Montpellier, France

A stroll through Place de la Comedie in Montpellier, France

Confident and multicultural, refined but easy-going, sunny Montpellier oozes stylish Mediterranean chic without giving up its youthful heart. Stately boulevards lined with elegant private homes and quaint squares with moss-covered fountains are offset by the rickety streets of the old quarter and balmy beaches only a stone’s throw away.

Walk around the car-free historic centre, shop for antiques and have a coffee at Place de la Comedie, or ride the Christian Lacroix-designed trams across the city. Take an artistic stroll at Musée Fabre, visit the architecturally progressive district of Antigona or brave the urban jungle at the Jardin des Plantes.

Naturally, there are ample wine bars in which to gab the warm night away. You’re in the South of France, dah-ling.

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Leipzig, Germany

Leipzig Old Town, Germany

Leipzig Old Town, Germany

Its past populated by such greats as Bach and Wagner, Goethe and Nietzsche, and labelled The City of Heroes for its pivotal role in the fall of the Berlin Wall, effortlessly cool Leipzig has proven time and again that it has just as much substance as it has style.

Forest and lakes sprawl across the cityscape, dotted by every architectural style from the baroque to the post-modern. The industrious hum of young creative talent is palpable.

Check out the artists’ studios at the bohemian Baumwollspinnerei (the old cotton-spinning mill), hang out with beer in hand at grungy MoritzBastei or dig the Berlin-esque techno and club scene. You’ll soon see what all the fuss is about.

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Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp Centraal Station, Belgium

Antwerp Centraal Station, Belgium

Not-so-subtle evidence of its rich trading past, pay attention and you’ll find that boats pop up in all shapes and sizes across the international port city of Antwerp. Its medieval heart lays further proof; among labyrinthine streets, the Grote Markt emerges as a cluster of towering glass-faced guildhalls – ornate symbols of mercantile prestige.

Absorb the proud Flemish heritage in the docks district or at the home and gardens of the great master Rubens, marvel at the palatial turn-of-the-century Antwerpen-Centraal train station, and gaze in awe at the brilliant stones that make this city famous for its diamond-cutting trade.

A Belgian expedition would not be complete without a sizeable portion of mussels and chips – and Belgian waffles to finish, of course.

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Bratislava, Slovakia

A walk in Bratislava's Old Town, Slovakia

A walk in Bratislava’s Old Town, Slovakia

Surrounded by vineyards and densely-forested mountains, and sitting on the crossroads between Vienna, Prague and Budapest, the Slovakian capital is at once a slumberous rural town of the past and a European city firmly heading forward. Far less crowded or pricey than its neighbours, Bratislava’s onion-domed churches and Hapsburg hunting lodges emanate humble pastoral charms, whilst its bustling sidewalk cafés and party-heavy night scene betray a distinctly cosmopolitan pulse.

A boat ride along the snaking Danube is a wonderful way to see the city, and the ramparts of the castle afford beautiful views.

Garlic soup and bryndza (a creamy sheep cheese) are staple delicacies, and be sure to join the friendly but reserved locals in a round of Borovicka brandy – they’ll warm up soon enough.

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Basel, Switzerland

Overlooking the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland

Overlooking the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland

Basel may be small but its art scene is almost too big for its breeches. Its unfaltering sense of aesthetics is everywhere, from its world-class museums and elegant architecture to its polished restaurants and pretty boutiques.

Scavenge the Petersplatz flea market for second-hand clothes, used books and bric-a-brac, catch a ride on a current-powered ferry or climb the Romanesque Gothic Münster Cathedral to spot the Rhine bending over to Germany. Visit in February for the grand Basler Fasnacht spring carnival.

Even a Swiss city has a gritty underbelly; head to the working-class Kleinbasel district for urban bars with a little more edge.

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Looking for more great travel inspiration? Visit momondo Inspiration and discover inspiring Art Deco architecture around the world and the some of Thailand’s unseen places