Take a little staircase down from an old tollbooth on one of Leiden’s 88 bridges and hop on to one of the electric tour boats. I loved drifting along the canals of this stunning old Dutch city past townhouses as fine as any in Amsterdam, the botanical gardens, windmills, university buildings and the 17th-century observatory. Except in summer, ducks, swans and local wild swimmers outnumber tourists. You can scout out the best waterside terrace cafes for lunch, daydream about living on one of the many well-kept houseboats with their flower-filled decks, and plan excursions by water further afield; the city canals link up along the waterways for countryside day cruises to Delft, Haarlem or the coast.
Bremen is a little bit like a German version of York: the medieval Schnoor quarter is a maze of narrow cobbled lanes lined with half-timbered buildings and brass plates hanging overhead. Today, most of the buildings house independent shops and cafes and you could easily spend a few days just hanging around the Schnoor and the equally delightful street of Böttcherstraße with its expressionist architecture. Here you’ll also find the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, dedicated to one of Germany’s finest female painters, and just one of many art galleries and museums that will keep you occupied in this small but perfectly formed northern German city.
La Spezia, Italy
La Spezia, with its neoclassical townhouses, wide boulevards and maritime heritage, is a favourite Italian city break. I love the open air market for ripe tomatoes and delicious cheeses. In one of the many tiny bars you can sample local wine and feast on golden focaccia dripping with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary. The city is the second largest in Liguria – Genoa is the largest – and is an affordable gateway to gorgeous Cinque Terre villages. I’ve spent relaxed days there hopping on and off boats, floating past pastel houses perched on cliffs and walking the scenic paths linking the villages. It’s well connected by regional and fast trains to Genoa, the cities of Tuscany, Milan and Rome.
Peja, Kosovo’s fourth-largest city, is perfect for a weekend city getaway, including some trips into the surrounding countryside. Start by strolling the old town and admiring the Ottoman architectural heritage, including the Zallç bridge. Indulge in the city’s vibrant cafe culture along pedestrianised Adem Jashari. We took a taxi a few miles out to the 25-metre high White Drin waterfall, which plunges down from the Accursed Mountains, and explored the Radavc cave. Lunch at the stylish Trofta e Drinit beckons. If you want more outdoorsy action, Balkan Natural Adventure organises hiking and cycling in the Accursed Mountains as well as ziplining in the Rugova Gorge near Peja. We also visited the exquisite medieval Serbian Orthodox 14th-century Dečani Monastery, which is under Nato’s Kfor protection as it has been attacked in recent years. During the Kosovo war in 1998-1999 the monastery sheltered refugees of all ethnicities in the region.
Austria’s second city, Graz, halfway along the train route connecting Vienna and Ljubljana is an architect’s dream, from the Unesco-listed city centre, which mixes styles from the middle ages to those of the Habsburgs and the modernist Kunsthaus art gallery. The Schlossberg, a castle partially destroyed by Napoleonic forces in 1809, is set on a wooded hill. It conveniently has a beer garden at the top with views stretching from the Alps to the north to the wine hills of the south.
My teenage son needed to practise his GCSE French, so we went to Lille. Arriving by Eurostar, we stayed at the friendly Hotel Chagnot, opposite Lille Flandres station. Confounding preconceptions, Lille delighted us with its medieval streets and Flemish and French architecture. All teenage priorities were met: all-you-can-eat breakfast, moules, frites, waffles, and the incredible carbonnade flamande (beef stew) in the traditional estaminet (tavern) that we stumbled across on our wanderings. It wasn’t all about the food – a tram took us to the eccentric Musée la Piscine de Roubaix, an art gallery within an art deco lido, and a day trip to Bruges completed one of our most enjoyable weekends ever.
If you are looking for a super-chilled break, with good art galleries (Kode is superb), and great cafes and restaurants, Bergen is a sound choice. It’s also one of the few city breaks where you can pack walking boots as well as town clothes: head up one of the seven mountains that surround the city, the most popular of these being Fløyen. There’s plenty of hiking on the many paths around the summit. Back down in the city, have a hot chocolate or something stronger at one of the many great little bars (avoid the harbour and head back a few streets to places like Baran, Henrik, or the superb record shop/bar Apollon). It’s the perfect size city for a weekend.
Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic
Ceske Budejovice, capital of the South Bohemian region, goes mostly unnoticed by British tourists but is deservedly popular with German visitors. The old town is outrageously picturesque, with the central Přemysl Otakar II Square, 16th-century Black Tower and baroque city hall. The Budweiser Budvar brewery is on the outskirts and runs tours, while the wider area offers lovely scenery with trails to explore and a ridiculous number of castles. And everything is a third of the price of Prague.
Don’t get the train straight from Seville to Granada but stop off in Córdoba. This is a wonderful city with Roman and medieval history. The star of the show is the huge mosque-cathedral but don’t miss the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos with its beautiful gardens. We stayed at Macià Alfaros, which is very central and has a great pool area. It was £215 for two nights in June including a terrific breakfast. There are lots of good places to eat and drink around of course but the best thing was just walking around admiring the beautiful buildings and courtyards (patios).
Winning tip: Zagreb, Croatia
Head up to medieval Gornji Grad-Medveščak (upper town) for wonderful views over a sea of red roofs and cathedral spires. An afternoon can be well spent wandering the cobbled streets and admiring the historic buildings. Make sure you check out St Mark’s church with its striking tiled roof displaying the Croatian coats of arms. Our absolute highlight was a trip to the Museum of Broken Relationships, where people have contributed mementos of their previous relationships to the collection – the quirkiest of which had to be a scab! For drinks the Garden Brewery offers an oasis of IPAs and greenery.