So you want to plan that perfect short escape. You have that weekend marked in the calendar but somehow you’re not sure how to get started? Then get packing and preparing with a few simple tips on how to enjoy the perfect European city break.
Maybe you can’t decide between springtime in Paris or summer in Berlin, or you’re worried you’ll arrive to find yourself completely lost and confused before you've even left the airport. From finding the perfect city to saunter round, that new favorite café where you can sip espresso while watching the world go by, to the more practical details like finding flights and accommodation, follow our tips for the ideal escape to Europe.
Get Inspired and Find the European City Break for You
You may not have a city in mind, and that’s OK. With so many beautiful and historic cities in Europe to choose from, it’s no easy decision. Ask yourself why you want to go on a city break? Is it your dream to wander the boulevards of Paris or get lost among the ruins in Rome? When it comes to finding great city breaks, first you want to find a city that has matches your personality the best. If you love art or architecture, then Madrid or Barcelona are a good choice. For history? Then Athens, Rome or Istanbul. Each city has its own personality, so you’ll find one that matches yours.
The other consideration is your budget. Scandinavian or Swiss cities are great if you have the funds for them, but if you’re looking to be kind to your wallet, then you might find the charming central European cities like Prague or Budapest a better fit.
Also, landscape and nature may influence your decision. A destination by the sea or one by in the mountains will capture a different feel, especially if you’re simply looking to lose yourself in one of Europe’s most photogenic destinations.
To get started, why not make a list of everything you want from your city break from the practical aspects right up until your personal interests. Read some city round ups, or travel magazines or blogs and get inspired. Once you find the city break for you, then you can start to make your travel dreams come true. Of course, there are a few destinations that shouldn’t be missing from any list of European city breaks, such as Paris, Rome or Barcelona, which is why it might be useful to get started with a round-up of Europe’s best cities.
If you’re left undecided between more than one destination, then draw up a table and do some research. Include aspects like budget, flight prices for your chosen dates, climate or even food. You can leave the options open for a while as you look for flights and accommodation. Maybe one of your destinations has a low-priced flight for that weekend or you find a hotel deal you can’t afford to pass up. Maybe there is even an event going on you’ve always been meaning to go to. There is no right answer, only the one that suits you.
Finding a Flight
Now you picked your destination for your European city break, how do you get there? The easiest way is to fly, but even finding the best flight for you can seem complicated at first. It’s best to use a site like Skyscanner to look for flights. You can see all the available routes, their times and prices together in one table, which helps you find the best deal.
You can also browse airline sites for direct flights. EasyJet is a popular airline, being one of the cheapest and most flexible, but take care when booking a low-cost flight, as you may have hidden costs such as baggage and seat selection fees, not to mention you may also have to check in online and print your own boarding pass. When booking a trip, finding the right flight is the most important and first thing you should buy before airfares go up.
You can also sign up to some airlines’ newsletters for information on special offers. Maybe your favorite airline as a 10 or 20% discount on flights. Doing your research can pay off and get you the best deal for your city break.
Tip: Some cities have more than one airport, so take care when booking to make sure the airport is easily accessible. Some low-cost airlines fly to destinations that are far outside the city.
Finding the Perfect Accommodation
Your accommodation is your home away from home. Book the wrong place or one that's in the wrong location, and your trip can turn from being a dream into a nightmare. Consider your ideal vacation and imagine where you’re staying. Do you want to be in the hub of the city, where you step out the door and everything is within walking distance or is a room with a view more important? Also, there are so many accommodation options out there, from luxury to boutique hotels, or even apartment rentals. Would you like staff to wait on you hand and foot or would you prefer to go fully self-catering?
First, pick a location and then decide what kind of accommodation you’re looking for. A site like Booking.com can help you set the parameters and your dates, showing you what’s available. Check to see if the hotel ticks the boxes that are important to you first. Then, read the reviews on the booking site or on a place like TripAdvisor - the last thing you want is to end up in a hotel that has great photos but doesn’t live up to its standards. If you have any specific questions, you can also pick up the phone and ask the hotel directly.
For apartment rentals, Airbnb is a good place to find them, but make sure you read the reviews of the apartments and the host before taking the plunge and making that booking.
Tip: If you’re still not 100% sure about your travel plans or you’re concerned about flexibility, some sites like Booking allow you to cancel your reservation for free even up to a few days before your trip.
Organizing Your Paperwork
Do you need a passport or a visa for your European city break destination? Make sure you get all your documents in order before the trip.
Even if you’re not planning on skiing or undertaking any risky activities, you should invest in travel insurance. This should cover any unexpected health or accident issues, but a good insurance would also include any baggage lost on flights, or even flight cancellation. You can either talk to your bank - some credit cards include some form of travel insurance or get an insurance when you buy your flight. Otherwise, research into the travel insurance available on the market, making sure it covers you for everything you need to be safe on your European city break.
Researching Your Destination
Nothing beats that feeling when you discover all the places you plan to visit on your trip. You sit there reading the guidebook, perusing blogs and check out pictures on Pinterest of the highlights of your European city break destination. Research is not only fun but useful, too.
One of the most important things to research before your city break is the transport. Is there a bus or a metro connection from the airport, a door to door minibus or do you need to take a taxi? And if so, how much does it cost? A little bit of research can make your trip go so much more smoothly. If you’ve pre-booked your airport shuttle bus or have the transport system all mapped out, then you’ll find your arrival at the destination will make your trip go so much more smoothly.
When it comes to taking a taxi, make sure you know which taxi service is a legitimate one. Some cities suffer from cowboy taxi services that are looking to make a quick buck. You can usually find a list of reputable numbers from the city's tourism board.
Also, make a list of the places you want to see. Perhaps some attractions are located in the same area, so you can plan to do them in a block. If you want to dig further down, look up some recommended restaurants, either in a guidebook or on TripAdvisor to see if you can find the best place to refresh. Blogs by locals or expats can also give you an insider’s touch.
If there are any museums, monuments or tours you’re interested in visiting, make sure to book or buy tickets in advance. For example, you can skip the mile long queues at the Vatican Museums if you buy your tickets before you go, so you can just walk straight in without waiting in a long line under the hot Roman sun. Some cities also sell Museum or City Cards, where you pay a single fare and can see a number of attractions at a discount price.
You can also buy diaries for specific cities in which you can jot down notes about your European city break destination. Your diary can become a valuable resource with places and tips you’ve encountered during your research, and also offers you a place to add some of your own discoveries, should you want a nice memento of your city break, use it for your next trip or help out a friend planning to travel to that destination in the future!
Tip: Check out the city’s official tourism board. You may find lots of practical advice and useful information about your destination.
Getting Prepared Before the Trip
You’re getting excited about your upcoming European city break. You have your flights, accommodation, and papers in order, and you also have a rough idea of what you want to do when you get there. In the week or two leading up to the trip, you may want to undertake some final minute preparations. One of the first concerns is money. What currency does your destination use? Are you planning to change money or rely on the ATM? If you need to change money, Euros should be easy enough, but if you’re traveling to Switzerland, Hungary, Czech Republic or other non-Eurozone countries, you might need to order your currency in advance.
And if you’re planning to rely on the ATM, make sure you notify your bank you will be out of the country, to prevent any issues with your card. The last thing you want is getting your card blocked as part of a security protocol!
Also, if you may want to brush up on a few local phrases. While most people will speak English when you travel, it’s polite to say your please and thank yous in the local language, not to mention it can be handy to read a menu or signs around the town.
Tip: You can have fun learning a language on the go with an app or a program like Duolingo.
What to Pack
Be sure to pack appropriately for your destination, this means you won’t be packing a bikini for Copenhagen or a winter coat for a summer city break in Seville. Also, think about the kind of places you’ll be going to. Do you want to enjoy a spot of fine dining in Paris? Make sure you take that cocktail dress. Whereas more casual attire (and lots of black!) will do for a night out in Kreuzberg in Berlin.
Shoes are also important, especially if you plan to do the sights walking. The mosaic covered city streets of hilly Lisbon will kill your heels, so you might want to pack some comfortable walking shoes.
Then there are the essentials, like sunscreen, toiletries, and cosmetics - but if you’re flying with a hand luggage only, make sure you take small travel sized bottles in a seal see-through bag as given by the airport security.
However, when it comes to cosmetics and medications, most of the basics are easy to get hold of at your European city. You’re not heading off into the outback for a month or riding off into the Sahara desert on the back of a camel. Pack only the essentials, and anything else you may need can be acquired at your destination. Also, you might be surprised to find all the essential toiletries in your hotel room.
Of course, don’t forget to pack your toothbrush!
Tip: Pack clothing that can be combined together in layers so you can adjust to the weather or occasion. A little black dress can go far if you take pantyhose, a jacket and a scarf, or even a pair of jeans with a few tops.
While You’re There
The plane has touched down and you’ve made it to your accommodation. You’re in a new city and it’s time to explore! You’ve done the research and you have an idea where you’d like to start. European cities are very walkable, so get out there and just explore the neighborhood and saunter. See if any cafés or spots pique your interest. If you want to orientate yourself a bit more, you can find the tourist information center to grab a map, but there are plenty of apps, like Google Trips or Lonely Planet’s city maps, that can help you get your bearings while you're on your European city break.
Get chatting to locals. Found a new favorite café? Ask your barista or waiter what their hot tip is for the city. Guidebooks are useful to an extent, but nothing beats local wisdom. If you’re feeling shy about talking to people, there are plenty of sites with local tips. Spotted by Locals is a good place to check out some cool, hidden gems the guide book might miss!
While you may feel hungry to see as much as possible, remember, being in a new city isn’t just about ticking sites off the list. Have a vague plan, but feel free to break it if a café takes your fancy, or stop to look up at a beautiful building. If you want a more in-depth idea of the city when you arrive, many tourist information centers organize free walking tours, which could help you get some context about the place you’re visiting. Try to balance relaxation with exploration.
Some European cities operate their public transit on a “trust” based system, where you may not get your ticket checked at all times. However, getting caught without a valid ticket by a plain clothes ticket inspector can ruin your holiday, not only with high fines but also from the sheer unpleasantness. Make sure you understand how the transport network works. Can you buy a weekend ticket? Does it need to be validated? Ignorance won’t get you out of this one so take extra care.
Discovering a new city can be intoxicating, but make sure you keep an eye on your belongings. Even the most romantic cities have pickpockets, so take care to keep your valuables safe at all times. Make a photocopy of your passport and all your important documents, and keep them in a safe place.
And of course, you may want to bring your loved ones back a few gifts. What is that city famous for? If you’re in Brussels you may want to take some chocolates home, or if you’re in Madrid, then a packet of jamón would go down a treat. Or perhaps you can take home some piece of local design if you’re in a city like Budapest, Tallinn or Kiev. You can even keep an eye out for a unique item at one of the local markets or shops.
The most important thing, though, is to take your European city break at your own pace. You want to come home with a collection of memories that you’ll treasure. So get prepared, get ready to explore, try the local food, explore the best sights and museums, and above all, have an amazing city break!