5 unusual cities you need to visit

Oh! How we miss the buzz of urban life in these strange times. The energy generated by the throng of people concentrated in the world’s best cities is infectious and there is always so much to see and do! Fabulous architecture, a concentration of culture and so many seductive cafes, bars and restaurants providing plenty of opportunity for people watching.

If you too are dreaming of crowded streets, squares, shops and the chance to grab a coffee, glass of wine or meal whenever the mood takes you, join us on this week’s armchair travels for some city slicking.

They say a change is as good as rest so a city break can be the perfect tonic when you’re short of time. We’re going to change things up a little further by skipping past the popular Paris, Venice and Rome options to five more unusual choices:

  • San Sebastián, Spain
  • Reims, France
  • Malmö, Sweden
  • Athens, Greece
  • Tbilisi, Georgia

They are all very different but all guaranteed to reinvigorate and revive. 

San Sebastián: Fabulous for Foodies

The Spanish Basque Country is a splendid region with great scenery and exceptional gastronomy. San Sebastián sits on a gorgeous bay and its compact size, picturesque charm and fabulous foodie scene make it a great fit for a short city break. Take a flight to Biarritz or Bilbao (2hrs from London) and it is just an easy bus or taxi ride from the airport. 

San Sebastián is a foodie’s paradise comparable with Paris for gourmet cuisine. It is famous for its creative and delicious pintxos – the Basque version of the Spanish tapas, served on a piece of bread. The area behind the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and Calle 31 de Agosto in the old quarter is the place to go for Basque pintxos bars and it is worth joining a Pintxos Tour. The tours not only take you to the best places in the city but also provide insider tips and knowledge about the city’s history and culinary evolution.

It also has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. An example is Azurmendi, chef Eneko Atxa’s restaurant which includes both a posh restaurant and a lower budget menu. Akelarre and Arzak are two other famous 3-star restaurants. You should also look out for the Basque Ciderhouses (sagardotegi in the Basque language) which are known to serve giant cider drums and some of the best steaks in the country.

To help burn off a few calories, a stroll along the Playa de la Concha’s charming promenade by the Cantabrian Sea offers a tranquil atmosphere and beautiful scenery. If you’ve really over indulged on the food front and feel a hike is more in order, you can head out from San Sebastián on the Camino del Norte, one of the Camino de Santiago routes. Follow the impressive trails along the coast to discover the most beautiful villages. The ‘San Sebastián to the fishing village of Pasajes de San Juan’ hike is a popular Sunday outing among locals.

Whilst you are in the vicinity, modern art lovers will want to hop on a bus to spend a day in nearby Bilbao and pay a visit to the iconic Guggenheim Museum. 

Reims: Let’s get Fizzical

To paraphrase Bette Davis “There comes a time in every person’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne”. So it’s definitely time to be heading to Reims, one of the centres of champagne production.

The Eurostar from London to Paris takes just 2.5 hours, then it’s a short walk to Gare de l’Est to pick up the 45minute train to Reims. Or it’s a 45minute drive from Charles de Gaulle airport.

Reims is small enough to explore on foot and it is a delight to wander around appreciating the fine Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture. The standout landmark here is the cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 13th century and witness to the coronation of many French kings. To learn more about the history of this building, you can enjoy the impressive Rêve des Couleurs sound and light show. The town of Reims offers this delightful show for free during the summer months so you can see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in all its historic glory. 

But we are here for the champagne of course! Reims is home to many of the largest champagne-producing houses, known as les grandes marques. They have their headquarters here and most open for tasting and tours (it is important to book ahead). Champagne ages in the many caves and tunnels under Reims, which form a sort of maze below the city. Carved from chalk, some of these passages date back to Roman times. Ruinart is the longest established champagne house and Taittinger is one of the few independently owned houses still managed by the family who appears on the label. 

Before leaving town, go to the Musée de la Reddition (the Museum of Surrender). During the war, the building acted as the headquarters for President Eisenhower and was the site where the German Third Reich surrendered to the Allied forces in World War II. The actual room where the document of surrender was signed was left untouched, allowing visitors the chance to see the maps, plans, and even pencils left just as they were in May 1945.

Malmö: Join the Cool Gang

Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city and was voted the happiest (and some say hippest) place to live in Sweden which makes it definitely worth a look. It is the perfect size for a city break as there is plenty to do for a weekend but not so much that you leave feeling you haven’t got to know the place. This friendly city with it’s young (average age a tender 36!), cosmopolitan vibe will have you feeling instantly at home and ready to join in the outdoor fun of the long summer days. It successfully combines its medieval roots with the 21st century and with acres of green parkland and beaches too, it is a blueprint for family friendly urban living.

To get your bearings, take a leisurely boat ride along the network of canals. Look out for the Turning Torso,( the world’s first twisted skyscraper and the tallest building in Sweden,) punctuating the skyline. Back on dry land, walking along the cobblestone streets of the Old Town (Gamla Staden), you’ll get a taste of life in years gone by. That is, until you stumble upon one of the many funky galleries, trendy boutiques or stylish cafés that line the narrow streets. 

In the midst of all this urbanity, you’ll find several green oases. Slottsträdgården, just west of Old Town surrounding Malmöhus Castle, is a 12,000 sqm garden resplendent with ornamental plants, an orchard garden, a rose garden, a Japanese garden as well as edible crops. Meander along the verdant pathways and enjoy a coffee at the garden’s café. Kungsparken is Malmö’s version of Central Park providing 34 hectares of green space across the canal from Slottsträdgården.

If you want to swap the green for a dose of the deep blue sea, head to Malmö’s city beach, Ribersborgsstranden (known to locals as ‘Ribban’). A short 6-minute bike ride from Västra Hamnen, or less than 10 minutes from Old Town, this sandy stretch of coastline is perfect for cooling off on a warm summer’s day. Luxuriate with a spa experience or just take a dip in the sea at the historic Ribersborgs Kallbadhus (outdoor bath house).

The culturally diverse makeup of the city means the international food scene in Malmö is top notch. If you’re more interested in sampling local delicacies, Lyran won’t disappoint. Chefs expertly combine ingredients from local farmers, fishermen and hunters to create their daily 4-course menu that changes based on available fresh ingredients. You can sip a local craft brew accompanied by some American-style BBQ at Malmö Brewing Company or indulge in Michelin-star creations at Vollmers and Bloom in the Park. Whatever your tastes, Malmö has a culinary experience for you. And for the more daring foodies, a visit to the Disgusting Food Museum will test your limits and expand your palate in ways you never thought possible.

For nightlife all roads lead to Lilla Torg or ‘Little Square’. A convivial hub for the stylish and sociable, Lilla Torg is compact, picturesque and brimming with bars, restaurants and cafes. Built in 1592 as a market square, the mainly-pedestrianised cobbled precinct is ringed by timbered houses and dining terraces and is a great spot for people-watching. Half the population head here for After Work, the Scandi-English term for Happy Hour. After Work begins commendably early, about four o’clock, and lasts for a good three hours.

It is possible to fly direct or make for Copenhagen and then take the short train ride across the majestic Oresund Bridge (made world famous thanks to the Swedish-Danish hit television series The Bridge) which links the two cities. If you can stay a bit longer it makes sense to spend a few days exploring Copenhagen too.

Athens: Travel Back in Time

A little bit further to travel (3hr 45 mins flight from London) but still definitely doable for a short break is Athens. Greece’s capital is a fabulous mix of ancient and modern but it’s the ancient history that’s the main draw. The ideal base to experience this is the Plaka neighbourhood. Nestled at the foot of Acropolis Hill, its narrow streets offer glimpses of the majestic Parthenon above, glistening in the sunshine against a clear blue sky by day and luminous against the midnight blue sky at night. This is the oldest section of Athens and inevitably it is touristy but also popular with locals so this doesn’t detract at all from its charm.   

You will not want to miss a visit to the The Acropolis Museum which was founded to exhibit all the significant finds from the Sacred Rock and its foothills. The modern airy building hosts its collections across three levels, as well as in the archaeological excavation that lies at its foundations. A good plan for your day would be to visit the museum in the morning, grab an outside table in the shade for a leisurely lunch in whichever street-side restaurant takes your fancy. Enjoy a little mooch around the shops then head up the hill to enjoy the splendour of the Parthenon in the late afternoon sunshine before closing time. Not only is it a little cooler but it is also less busy at this time.

Like any city, Athens has something for everyone in the way of nightlife. The warm summer evenings are perfect for enjoying the rooftop bars and open air dining. One of the most atmospheric rituals of an Athenian summer are the open air cinemas which generally run from May to September. One of the best is Cine Paris in Plaka. Your attention will be deliciously divided between what’s on the screen and the magnificent Acropolis view visible from the terrace. The bar stocks a great range of whiskeys and warm cheese pies.

A night enjoying a play, concert or opera under stars – just as the ancient Greeks once did – is possible at the amphitheatre of Odeon of Herodus Atticus. You’ll be literally sitting in ancient history as you enjoy some of the best performances in the country and the talents of some of the best international artists that happen to be on tour in Greece. But do book ahead to ensure a seat. 

Start day two with a visit to The Panathenaic Stadium. It is a classical cultural and touristic monument of Greece and the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble. Located on the site of an ancient stadium, it’s where the first Modern Olympic Games took place in1896 and also the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. It is also the place from where the Olympic flame begins its journey to the cities of the Olympic Games, both Winter, Summer and Youth. For an unforgettable work-out, the running track inside the stadium is open to joggers from 7.30am to 9am.

If all the sightseeing has you needing to cool off, head to Piraeus Port to join the modern Athenians for a day by the Aegean sea and a seafood lunch accompanied by a few glasses of ouzo in the refreshing breeze.

Tbilisi: East meets West

Perched on the banks of the Mtkvari River against the striking Caucasus mountain backdrop, Georgia’s capital is one of the world’s oldest settlements. Tbilisi represents the epitome of East meets West: a Silk Road crossroads where Arab, Ottoman, Mongol, and Russian imperial forces each left their own distinctive cultural mark making for a very unique city. It is both ethnically diverse and architecturally eclectic. It is also very picturesque with the pretty wooden houses of the old town contrasting with Art Nouveau buildings. 

Today it is on the cusp of change. It has a thriving art scene and the vibe is distinctly Bohemian – some people refer to it as the new Berlin. To fully experience this creative originality first hand, stay at the Stamba hotel (complete with a glass bottomed rooftop pool) or it’s adjoining sister hotel, Rooms. Converted from an industrial 20th century publishing house, they are a celebration of modern Tbilisi talent. 

The old town is a fantastic place to wander on foot with its maze of squares, narrow lanes, inviting cafes and bars, ancient stone churches and shops selling colourful rugs. At the weekends head to the lively Dry Bridge flea market for all sorts of knick knacks – anything from shaggy shepherds hats to jewellery and Soviet memorabilia. 

The word tbili in Georgian means warm and the city is named after the warm sulphur springs. A trip to the baths is integral to Tbilisi life. It’s not exactly pampering with a soak in the hot bath followed by a vigorous scrub, massage and ice cold rinse, but it is invigorating! You can choose between cheaper public baths or opt for a more expensive private bath. There are dozens in the Abanotubani district including Gulo’s Thermal Spa which is authentic and beautiful.

Wine is central to Georgia’s national identity – and for good reason: Georgians have been producing excellent wine for over 8,000 years although very little reaches the West. The G.Vino Wine Bar in the centre of the old town offers regular tastings from small, independent wineries. Georgians are also proud of their food and anyone looking for a food-based break away from the usual hotspots should add Georgia to their list right now. For a list of local recommendations click here . And you can’t leave town without a taste of cha cha, the local tipple: a grape brandy produced from winemaking leftovers.

If you feel the need to stretch your legs, take a hike up Mount Mtatsinda right in the middle of the city. This is where the locals come for some recreation and entertainment. There is an amusement park at the top complete with Ferris wheel which offers fantastics views across the old town from its highest point. There is a Funicular railway if you don’t fancy the hour walk uphill. For some shade on a hot day, head for the National Botanic gardens. It’s easy to wander for a couple of hours in these tree-filled and waterfall-dotted gardens. They were opened in 1845 on what had earlier been royal gardens and are today beautifully kept, with a river running through them and some wonderful views.

The relatively recently introduced direct flights to Tbilisi from Gatwick take just under 5 hours. The autumn, when the summer crowds have thinned but it is still T-shirt weather, is a great time to explore this vibrant, friendly city with a hip nightlife to match.