City breaks can be hard to plan. You want it all – art, culture, quirky hotels, top restaurants – but also the chance to relax. Fortunately, there some cities where you can find both. These eight European destinations don’t skimp on urban culture, and have nature on their doorstep for when you need a breath of fresh air.
Reykjavík is the ultimate city-and-nature destination. This diminutive capital brims with Nordic-chic boutiques and cool hotels, yet lies just a few hours’ drive from the country’s most earth-shatteringly gorgeous landscapes.
Catch a ferry out to the islands of Viðey, Lundey or Akurey to see thousands of breeding puffins; hike up the “city mountain” Mount Esja; and explore still-active Eyjafjallajökull volcano, just 90 minutes outside of town.
You can also use Reykjavík as your base before embarking on the famous “Golden Circle“. This route encompasses the geysers at Geysir and roaring waterfalls at Gullfoss, with bathing opportunities in thermal pools such as Fluðir or Laugarvatn along the way.
Back in the city, make time for Reykjavík’s growing number of innovative restaurants, many of which use locally sourced ingredients such as cloudberries or lamb. Try Michelin-starred DILL or the more affordable Sjávarbarinn for freshly caught seafood.
Image by Diana Jarvis
You’ll find some of Germany’s most beautiful architecture in Munich, Bavaria’s historic capital. Start by exploring the fifteenth-century Gothic Frauenkirche, or climb the tower of St Peterskirche, the oldest church in the city, for unparalleled views over the rooftops.
Munich’s green heart is the Englischer Garten, one of Europe’s largest urban parks, designed by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1789. If you’re looking to explore further afield, hire a bike and spend a day cycling south along the river Isar, detouring to the lakes of Sternbergersee or Ammersee for a spot of swimming.
Alternatively, head north and you’ll find yourself on more rugged trails through forested areas. All S-Bahn, underground and regional railways take bikes, so you don’t have to worry too much about the return journey.
Oslo might be Norway’s largest city, but its ever-present waterfront – opening out onto Oslofjord – will lure you away from the centre in no time at all.
The best way to explore this island-studded channel is on a kayak tour, taking you close to lighthouses, nesting birds and small beaches from which you can swim or picnic before paddling back to the marina.
Off the water, make time for Oslo’s world-class restaurants – Maaemo has three Michelin stars – and some excellent museums, including the fascinating Nobel Center and National Museum, home of Edvard Munch’s Scream.
© Diana Jarvis
As European Capital of Culture in 2017, Århus brims with contemporary art and architecture. ARoS is the city’s best-known art museum, featuring Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s circular 150-metre walkway lined by multicoloured windows, entitled Your Rainbow Panorama.
Head down to Åarhus Ø (Aarhus East), the recently redeveloped harbour area, to wander among landscaped gardens, stop at the canalside coffee shops and admire the striking architecture of the new public library, DOKK1. Open-water swimming fans can even take a dip in the icy bay; a dedicated channel is cordoned off from harbour traffic.
When you want to get away, Denmark’s Lake District, Søhøjlandet, is less than an hour out of the city. Hire a bike to cycle a portion of Hærvejen, known as the ancient road, or learn to canoe on the River Gudenå.
Home to some of Gaudí’s finest architecture, one of the world’s best city beaches and the country’s top cava bars, Barcelona offers many well-chronicled urban delights. Less well known are the city’s green spaces.
Head north from the centre and in less than 45 minutes you’ll find yourself in the Serra de Collserola. The city’s “green lung” rises above the urban sprawl, offering long vistas out to sea from among the pinewoods. The park is easily navigated on foot, but for a more exhilarating experience saddle up to see it on horseback, or spend a night under the glittering skies on an astronomy tour.
During September and October, head to Margola Peak where you can watch thousands of birds of prey – including honey buzzards, goshawks, kestrels, marsh harriers and sparrow hawks – as they migrate south for the winter.
With architectural styles running the gamut from neoclassical grandeur to contemporary modern minimalism, Helsinki is a fascinating place to explore on foot.
This year, the city also celebrates one hundred years of independence. Visit the Helsinki Art Museum to mark the occasion, where a major exhibition on Finnish modernism covers national contributions to the world of art, architecture, design and photography.
Summer is one of the best times to visit, particularly if you plan to visit Nuuksio National Park, just 40 minutes away. Rock climb at Kolmoislammit and Romvuori; hike one of the many trails, keeping an eye out for nightjars, woodlarks and flying squirrels; and spot waterbirds from the Lake Matalajärvi observation tower.
Guided tours can teach you how to forage for bilberries, lingonberries and yellowfoot chanterelle mushrooms, while at night you can stay at one of the designated campsites. Make sure you try a “tent sauna” (a real sauna in a tent, not just your own very hot tent), followed by a swim in the ice-cool freshwater lakes.
Thanks to a large student population, there’s lots going on in Ljubljana. Check out alternative Metelkova for artists’ studios, galleries, installations and sculpture, or visit in early February for MENT, a music and culture festival that’s Slovenia’s answer to SXSW.
The rest of Ljubljana is compact and easily explored foot. The city was crowned Europe’s Green Capital in 2016, and is encircled by the 35km Path of Remembrance and Comradeship, built for walkers and runners. It’s even possible to cross-country ski several sections on snowy winter days.
For adventure sports, a half-hour bus ride from the city centre takes you to the village of Tacen where there are adrenalin-inducing options aplenty, including whitewater rafting. Head an hour northwest and you’ll reach Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj and Triglav National Park, popular for watersports and hiking.