Finding the best city breaks in Europe is fast becoming a hobby of mine!
I mean, European city breaks are just the best. There’s so much diversity, and local culture can change within only a few miles; traveling about the continent and taking in the different places, lifestyles, and foods is definitely something that should be on your bucket list. From the cosy, winter wonderlands of northern Europe, to the sun-kissed perpetual summers of southern Europe, there really is something to suit every taste.
But I see a lot of people make the same mistake: they rush it. They dash around Europe desperate to see it all, spending a day here, a day there. They count countries, and want to tick it all off as fast as possible. We’ve all been at a sightseeing spot, and seen those people – the ones who arrive, take a selfie to prove they’ve been there, and disappear off to the next location within minutes. They don’t pause to appreciate what they’re seeing, or really take it all in. It’s just a bit…hollow.
Sometimes, it’s better to travel slow.
And luckily, there’s a concept called slow travel that’ll allow you to do just that!
You can do the research legwork and come up with your own tour, or you can use a bespoke slow travel tour company such as Inntravel. They specialise in carefully crafting an itinerary based around your wishes, giving you the ultimate unique travel experience!
But what if you’re not sure what slow travel is, or how you can use it to score yourself an awesome city break in Europe? Read on for the answers to all your questions! (well, except that one about the meaning of life. We all know that it’s 42, after all.)
What is slow travel?
You might’ve heard of the concept of slow food, which began in Italy and endorses local dishes cooked in a traditional manner.
Think of slow travel as being in the same vein as slow food – you take your time, rather than trying to do 10 countries in 11 days. You seek out traditional experiences over the mass tourism sites. Eat where local people do, rather than at restaurants near tourist areas. You avoid anything with a tourist menu like the utter plague.
I know so many people who come back from a city break in Europe, and they’re more exhausted then they were before they left. It’s fast travel, and they’ll tick off another box on a list of all the countries in the world they’ve visited – but they miss out on the real travel experiences. They don’t know much about local culture if you ask them about it: they only saw the top two attractions listed at the front of the travel guides, and never got off the beaten path. Then it’s back home again.
Instead, imagine being in a European city, and taking the time to really know it. You get to see daily life for its residents, and you converse and spend time with local people. Stroll through a city centre, decide at the last minute to pop down a quiet, attractive street and find a cafe filled with locals. You can browse Christmas markets, take in the gifts and products on offer, really take time to breathe in the scents of cinnamon and mulled wine. You can walk through the snow wherever your heart takes you, and discover things that the majority of tourists never see.
Doesn’t that sound a lot more fun?
How long is slow travel?
This is the awesome thing about slow travel. Because slow travel is a mindset more than anything else, you can make it as short or long as you like!
Obviously, having more time is better – I’d recommend at least one week for most European city breaks – but there’s nothing to stop you following the same concept on a short break.
Having a longer amount of time allows you to have a more flexible trip – wake up with a hankering to take a day trip to somewhere you’ve never heard of? No problem; you’ve got time! Or just want a day off your feet, lounging in the sunshine at your accommodation? You can do that too.
Sounds great! Who do I go to for slow travel tours?
Have you been bitten by the slow travel bug?
I don’t blame you: once you learn about all the authentic experiences you can discover simply by spending a bit more time in a place, it’s hard to go back to the concept of fast travel! But knowing where to start with slow travel can be confusing – after all, it means a lot of planning, and a lot of flexibility. If you’ve only ever fast travelled, it’s a pretty new way of booking a trip.
Luckily, if you’d like someone else to take care of all the hard stuff the first time you do it, there’s a slow travel tour company with your name on it!
Inntravel are based in the UK, but they’ve been taking care of travellers from the USA, Canada, Australia and beyond since 1984. The great thing is that they’re a small team founded by a family – they keep things small even though they’re one of the UK’s leading specialist tour operators, meaning that you’ll get excellent and personalised customer service!
Check out the Inntravel website, and you’ll see what makes them so special. They’ve got destinations aplenty; you really will be torn on which one you most want to visit! Inntravel provides you with a self-guided itinerary of highlights you shouldn’t miss, full of information and details on what you’ll be seeing. But – and this is the genius part – they allow you to do it slowly, and explore wherever you desire.
Inntravel takes care of booking your hotel accommodation, and transporting your luggage from stop to stop. All you have to do each day is drop your luggage off in the hotel reception, and it’ll be waiting for you in your next hotel. You can explore as much as you want in-between those two stops, giving you a full slow travel experience without having to worry about what you’ll do with all the baggage. Perfect!
Give it a look, get some dates selected, and see what you can find!
Where to go for city breaks in Europe?
You’re spoilt for choice if you’re looking for the best city breaks in Europe, and they all lend themselves beautifully to slow travel!
But whether you’re traveling fast, slow, or somewhere in between, here’s my rundown of some of my favorite European city breaks. I’ve picked ones with plenty of mainstream sights, but also loads for you to stop and explore – whether it’s local culture, cuisine, or having a walk on the local hiking trails!
An Amsterdam weekend has become synonymous with city breaks from London – the two cities are mere half hour flights apart – but Amsterdam offers so much more than you can see in two days!
The city centre is packed with world-class attractions, but can also be jam-packed with tourists, especially around the infamous Red Light District. Take advantage of the city’s excellent transportation system to explore away from the crowds!
Major highlights: Amsterdam fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as London or Paris when it comes to the quality of its museums and galleries. The daddy of them all is the Rijksmuseum, which dominates the Museum Quarter and holds treasures such as Rembrant’s The Night Watch.
A stone’s throw away is the Van Gogh Museum, devoted to one of Amsterdam’s favourite sons. The museum is a vast depository of Van Gogh’s works (including Sunflowers!), as well as some by his contemporaries. It’s actually one of the most-visited art museums in the world, so expect queues – it’s wise to get there early!
Another big draw is the Rembrandthuis, the townhouse where the renowned artist lived between 1639 and 1656. It’s an incredibly faithful recreation of his working and living conditions, and you’ll feel like he’s only recently vacated it! It’s well worth a look, even if you’re not super acquainted with his art!
Slow travel tips:
One of the greatest joys of Amsterdam is to simply wander – the city is famously full of scenic canals, and you can easily devote a day to following them and seeing what you find.
Wander away from the city centre, and into the Jordaan, one of Amsterdam’s most scenic districts. When there, be sure to head into one of the neighborhoods brown cafes – Dutch pubs – and spend the day relaxing and meeting locals. Try a jenever, the precursor to gin, from a glass which will be completely full. Ask a local how to drink it!
Make sure that you eventually end up at the Vondelpark, a large splash of green in the city! It’s a wonderful park, perfect for relaxing in – buy some street food, have a picnic, and watch the local dog walkers and cyclists going about their day. You might even see the parakeets who’ve taken up residence!
Major highlights: It’s practically impossible to visit Paris, and not see the Eiffel Tower – whether you like it or not! The Iron Lady dominates the city skyline, especially at night when it’s entirely lit up. The area beneath the tower tends to get very crowded, but you can see it just as well (if not better) from the Trocadero across the river.
The Arc de Triomphe is another of Paris’ major sites, and you can get an excellent view of the city simply by ascending the staircase to the top. This is another place where you’d be wise to arrive early – Napoleon’s triumphal arch gets busier as the day goes on. Also, don’t be tempted to try crossing the road, or you’ll soon be flatter than a pizza (more on that later!).
The third of Paris’ Holy Trinity is Notre Dame, which is sadly closed at present due to the devastating fire in 2019. However, it’s still well worth visiting in order to see the glorious outer decoration, a masterpiece of the Gothic style of architecture! If you’re keen to see some ecclesiastical interiors, visit nearby Sainte-Chappelle with its stunning stained glass windows.
Slow travel tips: Though it may seem unusual to have a major attraction on a slow travel list, consider The Louvre. The world’s biggest museum is accordingly vast – it would take an estimated nine months to look at each one of its works, and travelers visiting on short breaks can barely scratch the surface. But if you’re slow traveling, you can devote as much time to it as you’d like!
One of the best ways to see Paris is to get thoroughly lost! The city is so crowded with tourists that one of the best ways to see the real heart of the city is to just throw away the map, and explore the side streets. You’ll find bistros and cafes which are much cheaper than anywhere else, and really get a taste of real Parisian life! It’s also incredibly romantic – Paris isn’t known as one of the best city breaks for couples for nothing!
Want to explore outside of Paris? You can take a train for a short time to reach Chantilly, one of the region’s most beautiful – and most underrated – towns. Crowds are rare, and you easily be able to explore the town’s gorgeous collection of gardens and stunning architecture! Have dinner at a local eatery for a true slow travel experience!
Major highlights: at the heart of the city, you’ll find the vast plaza of the Marienplatz, bordered on one side by the impressive Rathaus (the town hall). It’s not quite as old as it looks, but it’s well worth a visit thanks to the adorable Rathaus-Glockenspiel located on the building. Every day, at 11am and 12pm, the glockenspiel plays – and there’s usually a crowd found below watching it!
St. Peter’s Church is a spectacle in itself – check out the white and gold-decorated interior, which is especially magical during a service – but its tower is also a tourist attraction! For a small fee, you can ascend a great deal of wooden steps to get to the top, and take in some stunning views of the city! Bear in mind that the steps are very narrow, and a tiny bit wobbly if it’s busy – not for the faint hearted!
The Hofbrauhaus is a Munich institution, and the city’s most famous beer hall! What it lacks in local color (most of the patrons are tourist groups – check out the graffiti on the tables, which hails from all over the world) it makes up for in size. It’s huge, and beautifully decorated, with fantastic paintings on the ceiling. The place is a massive tourist trap – it even has its own souvenir shop – but it’s an enjoyable one!
Slow travel tips: if you want to get away from the crowds, consider a trip to the huge Englischer Garten park, which is one of the biggest public parks in the world. The southern park can be a little busy, so my advice is to get a metro to Munchener Freiheit station, and take a slow walk through this pretty area. Head north once you reach the park, and you’ll be away from the tourists. It’s a great place to go for a gentle walk, and feel far away from the city!
If the Hofbrauhaus appeals, how about doing a slow travel version? Munich has a plethora of great beer halls and traditional restaurants, and the further you go from the city centre, the more authentic they get. Do what I did, and while away an afternoon at Gasthaus zur Festweise – as well as excellent beers, you can treat yourself to traditional foods! Ask the staff for their recommendation, but I highly suggest the roast pork!
If you really want to get out of the city, consider traveling to Königssee lake in the Bavarian Alps. Two and a half hours out of the city, this stunningly clear lake is almost fjord-like. You can take a boat ride across this unspoiled stretch of water, or for a true slow travel experience, hike around its edges and explore the local villages!
Major highlights: Want to see one of the most famous theme parks in the world? No, it’s not Disneyland, but Tivoli Gardens – a park so famous that people travel to Copenhagen purely to experience it. Operating year-round, it’s equally as magical in winter as it is in summer, thanks to glorious decoration (including realistic snow and ice!) and cosy speciality food and drink. You can’t fail to enjoy the rides, especially The Demon!
Although it’s something of an anti-climatic experience, you still can’t visit Copenhagen without visiting The Little Mermaid statue. The focus point of the eponymous fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, the statue has been watching over the harbour since 1913, and has become the symbol of the city – you’ll see her on plenty of postcards and souvenirs around town! You’ll have to walk a while to visit, but she’s still one of the city’s must-sees.
Nyhaven is Copenhagen’s prettiest area, and where you’re bound to experience the famous “hygge” vibe! Colourful buildings line a canal which is just perfect for strolling along, and you’ll be able to duck into warm cafes and shops whenever you fancy. It’s perfectly photogenic, especially in winter when Christmas markets string along the street – and even the moored boats have Christmas decorations on them!
Slow travel tips: Where better to get away from the crowds and take it easy than a cemetery? It may sound weird, but Assistens Kirkegaard is one of Copenhagen’s most peaceful spots – for the living, as well as the residents! You’ll regularly see locals simply strolling through the cemetery, or relaxing with a book, and you’re more than welcome to join them. You can spot a few famous Danes, too – Hans Christian Andersen is buried here.
Christiania is an oddity in Copenhagen, and possibly in the world! It’s a hippy commune, famous for its very relaxed rules on smoking dope – but if that’s not your thing, there’s plenty more to it than that. The buildings are decorated with vibrant art, and markets selling handmade products are held here, making it a great place to grab a unique souvenir! Be sure to read the rules outside before you enter, and to only visit during the day.
Torvehallerne is a must-see for foodie slow travellers! This adorable indoor market sells the best produce that Copenhagen has to offer, from fresh fruit and vegetables to bakery goods and wines. It’s a perfect place to stop for lunch thanks to the plethora of eateries selling sandwiches and pastries, but you’re best served by buying something to take away – the hall isn’t that big, and can get crowded. Buy a traditional sandwich, and eat them al fresco!
Major highlights: Austria’s second city is known for its beautiful scenery, grand hotels, and producing one of history’s most famous men. So how about starting at his birthplace, at the Mozart Geburtshaus! It’s a comprehensive collection devoted to Salzburg’s favorite son, including items such as his first violin and a lock of his hair. Visit early, as it’s a popular attraction and can get quite busy!
Salzburg is a popular day trip from Vienna, and the majority of visitors will visit Salzburg Fortress, which dominates the skyline atop a hill. In fact, the craggy location means that the fortress has never been breached, not even once, throughout its long history. It’s excellent for taking in some of Salzburg’s history, as well as getting some excellent views!
If a love of The Sound of Music has brought you to Salzburg, how about taking in one of its most memorable filming locations? The Mirabell Palace gardens is where the “Do-Re-Mi” sequence was filmed, and you’ll recognize the spot at the side of the palace straight away. You can hop up and down the steps just like the Von Trapps!
Slow travel tips: Just like nearby Munich, Salzburg has an appreciation for taking life easy with a good glass of beer. Spend the afternoon in the outstanding Augustiner Brauhaus, a former monastery which now sees hundreds of locals arrive every day. In the summer, you’ll sit outside, and share a table with local families – don’t be surprised if they invite you to join in on their picnic!
Salzburg’s old town is often choked with visitors, but make a short journey across the river, and you’ll soon be in streets inhabited only by its residents. Take a stroll down the scenic Linzer Gasse, stopping to check out the small shops and cafes as you wish, and ended up taking in the views from the undervisited vistas of Kapuzinerberg. It’s well worth the walk!
If you really want to get away from it all, take a bus into Austria’s beautiful Lake District. Although Hallstatt has become a popular attraction, there’s still plenty of achingly beautiful villages with views of equal quality – and far less tourists. Take a journey down the Austrian Romantic Road, and go wherever your heart leads you!
Major highlights: Prague is a strong contender for the title of my favourite European city, with friendly locals and a quirky attitude. At the heart of the Old Town is the Astronomical Clock, which you’ll see on every postcard in town! Gather underneath on the hour to watch the clock strike, and see a procession of wooden saints nod down to you. If you want one of my best travel tips, be sure to get here early.
Another sight to see early in the day is the Charles Bridge. One of the symbols of the Czech Republic, this beautiful bridge is extremely historic, and even more photogenic! It’ll be busy with tourists all day (it’s also a popular venue for wedding photos), but you can expect it to be something of a scrum from midday onwards.
Completing Prague’s big three sights is Prague Castle, another well-visited location. Buy a ticket at the office, and choose which route you want to take – one ticket is more expensive than the other, but includes entry to more buildings. At the very least, don’t miss the splendid St. Vitus’ Cathedral, and the pretty Golden Lane.
Slow travel tips: Prague Castle feels a bit too busy and hectic? The city offers you a more relaxed alternative in Vyšehrad Castle, an easy walk south of the city centre. It’s an idea place for taking a stroll through an ancient fortress (this is supposedly where Prague was founded), exploring narrow passageways and cemeteries, as well as the gorgeous interior of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.
One of the joys of visiting Prague is the pubs – but not the type frequented by stag parties! Beer is a real passion in the Czech Republic, and many pubs brew their own. Add hearty fare such as goulash (meatier and less spicy than the Hungarian version), pork knuckles, and fried cheese, and you’ve got a winner. Go well away from the touristed areas, and pop into a local pub with a non-English menu.
Prague has a large central train station located at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, and it provides you with the ideal excuse to explore Bohemia and beyond! Check out some of the small towns which are easily accessible, or venture onwards to the second city of Brno – it’s much quieter than Prague, but fun to explore!
Major highlights: The magnificent structure of Florence’s Duomo is one of Europe’s highlights, and still manages to dominate Florentine life. Adventurous types can climb the seemingly never-ending flight of steps to the top, in order to gain an amazing view of the entire city – you’ll need to buy a separate ticket, however. Take time to look at the glorious decoration on the exterior, especially near the front door.
The Ponte Vecchio is Florence’s next best-known attraction, and you can expect it to be busy from morning to evening. You can also expect it to be heavily guarded, thanks to the number of jewellery shops located on the bridge itself! Whether you’re in the market for some shopping or not, a visit is well worth it for views out on to the river and beyond.
Florence holds one of the world’s best art galleries in the Uffizi (be sure to visit early in order to gain a time-stamped ticket – if you leave it too late, they may run out). Once inside, you can marvel at masterpieces by the likes of Botticelli, Da Vinci, and Rubens. If you’re looking for the famous statue of David by Michelangelo, he’s at the city Accademia gallery.
Slow travel tips: It’s impossible to visit Florence, and not take advantage of its wonderful food scene. Move towards the Santa Maria Novella area, and you’ll find many restaurants where the tourists are outnumbered by the locals. If you want to really try some of the local flavours, head into the Mercato Centrale, and try a tripe sandwich!
Similarly, you shouldn’t visit Florence – or Tuscany – without sampling some of the region’s famous wines. The world-renowned Chianti region is only a short trip by bus or car, and you can easily make a day out of exploring the ridiculously scenic villages whilst sampling wine from one of the many family-owned vineyards.
If a day trip from Florence is appealing, consider taking a train to Lucca. This pretty medieval town is yet to be discovered by mass tourism, and there’s plenty of cobbled streets to wander down and explore. Don’t miss out on taking a walk along the city walls, which give you views of the city on one side, and the magnificent scenery of Tuscany on the other!
Major highlights: The most-visited attraction in Naples isn’t in the city itself, but lies in one of its suburbs. Pompeii is a must-see for anyone visiting the area; the ruins of the town destroyed by the nearby volcano of Vesuvius – which is still active, by the way! A visit here is a somber reminder of the fragility of life, but a fascinating step back in time. Be sure to bring a sun hat and plenty of water; Pompeii is notoriously oven-like.
If the ruins of Pompeii have captured your imagination, how about seeing the original objects found there? The Archeological Museum in Naples is located in the city centre, and has a seriously impressive collection of antiquities. The Farnese Collection, including the massive Farnese Bull, is a highlight, but most people come here to see the Pompeii relics – especially those of the Secret Cabinet, which were considered too risqué for public view!
Naples is surrounded by stunning scenery, and some of the best is to be found on Capri, just a short boat trip from Naples. Popular for weekend breaks, this island really brings the glamour – and once you’re there, you’ll never want to leave. Whether you want designer shopping or beautiful hikes, Capri comes up with the goods. Boat trips from Naples to Sorrento or Positano are also great ideas!
Slow travel tips: Naples really comes up trumps with regard to providing excellent slow travel alternatives to its most popular sights. For instance, if you want to avoid the crowds and chaos of Pompeii, how about Herculaneum? Smaller than its sister city, Herculaneum actually manages to be more impressive – the objects here survived the volcano’s eruption far better, and it truly feels like walking through a working town. It’s also far less crowded than Pompeii!
If Capri appeals, but the crowds don’t, try the neighbouring island of Ischia. This gorgeous location is bigger than Capri and much less visited, making it easy to disappear off into its pretty streets, and explore your own little slice of paradise. Explore Ischia’s history as a fortress at Castello Aragonese, or head over to the other side of the island and visit one of its luxurious thermal spas!
Much like Florence, you can’t visit Naples and not explore its food scene. Specifically, you need to rediscover the area’s most famous dish – pizza! Neapolitan pizza is in a class of its own, and whilst eateries such as L’Antica Pizzeria di Michele are ancient and traditional, they can get busy. The good news is that it’s hard to find a bad pizza anywhere in town! Head into neighbourhoods such as Vomero or Chiara, and see if you can discover your own new favourite restaurant!
I really hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to slow travel, and tips on how to have the best city breaks in Europe! This article has been graciously sponsored by Inntravel, so go give them a look, and see what takes your fancy. You might discover a whole new way to do the things you love!
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