The best city breaks in Europe with rural escapes

written by Diana Jarvis

updated 5.02.2024

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 are enough cities in Europe where you can find it all. These city breaks in Europe don’t skimp on urban culture, and have nature on their doorstep for when you need a breath of fresh air.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guides guidebooks — your essential guides for visiting the world.

1. Reykjavík, Iceland

Reykjavík is the ultimate destination for city breaks in Europe. This diminutive capital brims with Nordic-chic boutiques and cool hotels yet lies just a few hours' drives 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 the 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 the roaring waterfalls at Gullfoss. There are also fantastic 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.

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Waterfall in Iceland

For a city break with rural escape, it's hard to beat Iceland © Diana Jarvis

2. Munich, Germany

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.

 

Other worthwhile sights include the Pinakothek trio, three galleries each dedicated to a different era of art. Or take time to explore the futuristic BMW museum and Schloss Nymphenburg on the outskirts of the city.

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.

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Munich, Germany

Munich's picturesque city squares are delightful to explore on your city breaks in Europe ©/CC0

3. Oslo, Norway

Oslo might be Norway's largest city, but its ever-present waterfront – opening out onto Oslo – 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. For a central location Scandic Grand Oslo puts you in the heart of it all. Oslo can hardly said to be a cheap city break (a glass of wine can set you back £15), but the setting more than makes up for it.

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Oslo Opera house © trabantos/Shutterstock

Oslo Opera house © trabantos/Shutterstock

4. Budapest, Hungary

Split in two by the Danube River, Budapest is famous for its impressive Royal Palace, its octet of bridges, thermal baths and ruin pubs. Hungary’s capital is one of the best destinations for city breaks in Europe, with a colourful history and a thriving cultural scene.

You’ll always find something going on in the Hungarian capital. Keep an eye out for pop-up events, as there are a number of outdoor culinary and cultural festivals taking place throughout the year in the city’s public spaces. But beyond that, Budapest has a full programme of events gracing its auditoriums and quirky smaller venues, not to mention behind the crumbling walls of its ruin pubs and basement bars.

If you want to get out into nature there is no need to leave the city limits. The Buda Hills are popular for their hiking trails, residential areas filled with beautiful villas and for the unique Children’s Railway. The highest point of Budapest is János Hill (János-hegy), whose lookout tower can be seen in the far distance from most parts of the city.

This route includes a bit of hiking, plus some relaxing sightseeing that won’t require any walking.

Keen to explore three of Europe's capital cities but short on time? This tailor-made three-country trip to Danube capitals allows you to visit Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, three remarkable capital cities with a wealth of history and culture at your fingertips.

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Budapest from the Gellert hill © Resul Muslu/Shutterstock

Budapest from the Gellert hill © Resul Muslu/Shutterstock

5. Barcelona, Spain

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.

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serra-de-collserola-barcelona-spain-shutterstock_137946098

Serra de Collserola, Barcelona, Spain© Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock

6. Helsinki, Finland

With architectural styles running the gamut from neoclassical grandeur to contemporary modern minimalism, Helsinki is a fascinating place to explore on foot. Visit the Helsinki Art Museum 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 yellow foot 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.

Helsinki enchants with its blend of modernity and nature, entertainment and tranquility accessible everywhere and all the time. Explore the Finnish capital with our tailor-made city hopping trip in Finland and Estonia.

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Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki/CC0

7. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Thanks to a large student population, there’s lots going on in Ljubljana. Check out the alternative Metelkova district 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 on 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. Ljubljana might even be the best destination on our list of city breaks in Europe with rural escapes.

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 — a popular for spot for watersports and hiking.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Ljubljana

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana offers plenty of culture as well as adventure sports like whitewater rafting © Pixabay/CC0

8. Split, Croatia

With its seafront cafés and ancient alleyways, shouting stallholders and travellers on the move, bustling, exuberant Split is one of the Mediterranean’s most compelling cities. It has a unique historical heritage too, having grown out of the palace built here by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 295 AD.

Diocletian’s Palace remains the city’s central ingredient, having been gradually transformed into a warren of houses, tenements, churches and chapels by the various peoples who came to live here after his successors had departed.

Just a few kilometres outside Split, the Roman city of Salona and the medieval fortress of Klis are both worthwhile half-day excursions. Each is easily reached on local buses. The road to Split airport runs past the string of coastal villages known collectively as Kaštela – the botanical garden at Kaštel Lukšić is well worth a stop-off.

Split is famous for the vivacious outdoor life that takes over the streets in all but the coldest and wettest weather: as long as the sun is shining, the swish cafés of the waterfront Riva are never short of custom.

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Split, Croatia © novak.elcic/Shutterstock

Split, Croatia © novak.elcic/Shutterstock

9. Delft, Netherlands

Delft, in between Den Haag and Rotterdam, has the most beguiling of centres, a medley of ancient red-tiled houses set beside tree-lined canals intercepted by the cutest of humpback bridges. It’s no surprise, then, that the town is one of the most visited spots in the Netherlands, but most tourists come here for the day. In the evenings, even in the summer, the town can be surprisingly – and mercifully – quiet.

Delft boasts a clutch of handsome old buildings, most notably two fine churches – the Nieuwe Kerk and the Oude Kerk. Here you will also find a fascinating museum, the Prinsenhof, which holds an enjoyable collection of Golden Age paintings, and the imaginative Vermeercentrum, celebrating the life and times of Delft’s best-known son, Johannes Vermeer.

And then there is the Delftware, the blue and white ceramics for which the town is famous: more than anything else, it’s this that pulls in the day-trippers, who throng a battery of souvenir shops and a factory or two.

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delft-city-netherlands-shutterstock_710184700

Delft city, Netherlands © Shutterstock

10. Verona, Italy

Built in the distinctive local pink marble, Verona has a rosy hue, as if the sun were constantly setting. What was once a thriving Roman settlement is today one of the most prosperous and elegant cities in Italy. Shakespeare’s setting for Romeo and Juliet appeals to lovers of all ages. You can now even get married on “Juliet’s Balcony”.

Set within the low amphitheatre that the wide River Adige has carved out of the hills, Verona conveys a sense of ease that you don’t find in the region’s other cities. Close to Santa Maria in Organo you’ll find one of the finest formal gardens in the country, the sixteenth-century Giardino Giusti.

After feuding between some of the heirs to the Giusti estate, the grounds and the splendid Palazzo Giusti (which is not open to the public) have been put up for sale, and rumour has it that it will become a luxury hotel. But for the time being the garden’s fountains and shaded corners continue to provide the city’s most pleasant refuge from the streets, as they have done for centuries.

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Verona image during summer sunset © Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

Verona image during summer sunset © Rudy Balasko/Shutterstock

11. Prague, Czech Republic

Located in the heart of Europe – perhaps a little further north and west than most people think – Prague (Praha in Czech) is set on the banks of the Vltava River. The site was chosen both for its strategic advantages and for its beauty, and the heart of the old city nestles in a bowl formed by rolling hills.

Some of the suburbs of Prague have a preponderance of dour modern apartment blocks to house the growing population. However, not all are so grim and there are a number of attractions that make a trip out on the metro or tram well worth the effort.

The Stromovka was for many centuries a royal hunting ground before being designated a public park in 1804. Today its woodland and lakes provide a pleasant alternative to the sometimes hot and dusty city streets.

Set on the banks of the Vltava opposite the Jewish Quarter, Letná Park (Letenské sady) is another open space within easy reach of the city. It offers superb views upriver and across the Old Town. Visitors are also drawn to a strange modern sculpture that sits on a concrete plinth overlooking the Vltava.

Also read our guide to where to stay in Prague and find more attractive accommodation options.

Prague @  Ihor Pasternak/Shutterstock

Prague @ Ihor Pasternak/Shutterstock

12. Dresden, Germany

Demoted by the Communists to a mere district town, princely Dresden is once more the capital of Saxony. The reconstruction of its great historic buildings has restored Dresden's famous skyline and its unparalleled artistic heritage draws visitors from all over the world. The natural areas surrounding the city makes Dresden a wonderful destination for city breaks in Europe.

The impact of Augustus the Strong was felt far beyond the city limits. His pleasure palaces in the countryside include the huge hunting lodge of Schloss Moritzburg north west of Dresden. Rising from the middle of a great artificial lake on which lavish water pageants were held, it has an interior crammed with trophies of the chase.

Upstream from the city and best reached by pleasure steamer, the mock-Chinese extravaganza of Schloss Pillnitz the palace park open all year until dusk. Bergpalais stands among the vineyards rising from the riverbank. It makes a fine home for a superlative decorative arts collection.

The steamer continues upstream from Pillnitz to the historic town of Pirna, then passes beneath the most spectacular feature of the national park Sächsische Schweiz (Saxony’s ‘Little Switzerland’), the crags and pinnacles of the Bastei rock.

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Zwinger Palace art gallery museum Dresden, Germany © Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock

Zwinger Palace art gallery museum Dresden, Germany © Georgios Tsichlis/Shutterstock

13. Edinburgh, Scotland - city breaks in Europe for a refreshing countryside

Venerable, dramatic Edinburgh, the showcase capital of Scotland, is a historic, cosmopolitan and cultured city. The setting is wonderfully striking: perched on a series of extinct volcanoes and rocky crags which rise from the generally flat landscape of the Lothians, with the sheltered shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the north.

Beyond the compact city centre, there’s a great deal to be discovered in Greater Edinburgh. The attractive coastal suburbs of Cramond, Newhaven and Portobello are all popular at weekends when the sun shines.

The pick of the historical destinations includes the imposing fifteenth-century Craigmillar Castle on the south side of the city. Or the sleepy medieval village of Duddingston, with its ancient pub, on the far side of Arthur’s Seat.

The Pentland Hills, a chain some eighteen miles long and five wide, dominate most views south of Edinburgh and offer walkers and mountain bikers a thrilling taste of wild Scottish countryside just beyond the suburbs.

The simplest way to get a taste of the scenery of the Pentlands is to set off from the car park by the ski centre at Hillend, at the northeast end of the range; take the path up the right-hand side of the dry ski slopes, turning left shortly after crossing a stile to reach a prominent point with outstanding views over Edinburgh and Fife.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Edinburgh

Street view of the historic Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland ©  f11photo/Shutterstock

Street view of the historic Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland © f11photo/Shutterstock

14. Lisbon, Portugal

Mainland Europe’s westernmost capital, Lisbon is a fascinating and inspiring place to spend your city breaks in Europe, thanks to its wonderful waterfront location, balmy climate and quirky range of attractions.

Strung out over a series of hills facing the glistening waters of the broad Tejo estuary, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most handsome cities. Although its modern suburbs are ungainly, the historic centre is relatively compact and easy to explore in just a day or two.

The most popular excursions from the city are to the beach resorts west along the coast from Belém, which can be reached by train from Cais do Sodré. There are fine beaches at places such as Oeiras, though you only really reach the ocean proper at Estoril and Cascais.

For large, wild stretches of sand, head north to Guincho, or cross the Tejo by ferry to reach the Costa da Caparica, a 30km stretch of beach to the south of the capital. Further south still, there are good, clean beaches at Sesimbra and in the Parque Natural da Arrábida, a superb unspoilt craggy reserve, while the large town of Setúbal is noted for its Igreja de Jesus, Portugal’s oldest Manueline building.

This exciting short tailor-made city break to the Essential Portugal will take you to the exciting and stunningly beautiful Portuguese cities of Lisbon and Porto. This trip you will be taken through guided tours of the historic old towns, and on to the pearls of north Braga and Gamares.

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Sao Jorge Castle, Alfama, Lisbon © Shutterstock

Sao Jorge Castle, Alfama, Lisbon © Shutterstock

15. Istanbul, Turkey

Maybe it’s the magic of its famous trio of names – Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul – but this is a city which has always brought out the fantasist in visitors. Even today when it is bulging at the seams with an estimated 16 million residents, Istanbul can still seem ineffably romantic.

Bounded by sea on three sides, even in the most built-up parts of the city you’re never more than a glimpse away from a coruscating stretch of water. Glance up from a narrow alley in the bazaar and, rising imperiously from atop one of the old quarter’s seven hill tops, are the graceful domes of an imperial mosque.

Most visitors to Istanbul concentrate on the Historic Peninsula, the triangle of land at the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, separated from Thracian hinterland by the 5th-century Land Walls. Here it’s just about possible to forget about modernity and revel in a dream of ancient splendour.

Just a tram and funicular ride away the modern city waits to be discovered on frenetic İstiklal Caddesi. Here suddenly the average age of a passerby slumps to about 25, and virtually every vestige of the ancient past has given way to shops, clubs, restaurants and bars.

Explore two absolute highlights in Turkey - Istanbul, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire with its many landmarks on our tailor-made trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia. After a few days in the city, fly to Cappadocia and explore the surreal surroundings, either on day tours or from above in a hot air balloon.

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Harem in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey © AdobeStock

Harem in Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey © AdobeStock

16. Athens, Greece

In Athens the past looms large – literally, in the shape of the mighty Acropolis that dominates almost every view, as well as on every visitor’s itinerary. Modern Athens has been transformed in the twenty-first century. Home to over four million people, it’s the vibrant capital of the nation and a place full of interest.

The vestiges of the ancient Classical Greek city, most famously represented by the Parthenon and other remains that top the Acropolis, are an inevitable focus. Along with the refurbished National Archeological Museum, the finest collection of Greek antiquities anywhere in the world.

The majority of the several million visitors who pass through each year do little more. Many never manage to escape the crowds and so see little of the Athens Athenians know. Take the time to explore some of the city’s neighbourhoods, and you’ll get far more out of it.

Wander this maze of charming streets, where the modern sits beautifully with the ancient; discover the Acropolis and the Parthenon, the crowning architectural achievements of the Classical Age. Indulge your sense with delicious Mediterranean food at local tavernas on this tailor-made trip to Athens: City of the Gods.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Athens

Acropolis, Athens © Shutterstock

Acropolis, Athens © Shutterstock

17. Florence, Italy

Florence, the Cradle of the Renaissance, has been the focal point of creative activity for some of the world’s greatest artists. The city’s major churches, such as Santa Croce, and world-renowned museums and galleries like the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia proudly watch over their prized masterpieces.

The greater Florence area has a number of towns and attractions to entice you on a day trip from the city or even act as a base for exploring the region. City buses run up to the hill village of Fiesole, while inter-town services run south into the hills of Chianti, Italy’s premier wine region.

A long-established Florentine retreat from the summer heat and crowds, Fiesole spreads over a cluster of hilltops 8km northeast of the city. It predates Florence by several hundred years: the Etruscans held out so long up here that the Romans were forced to set up permanent camp in the valley below – thus creating the beginnings of the settlement that was to become Florence.

Florence. A mere mention of the name conjures up grand images of Renaissance romance, awe-inspiring art and astonishing architecture. Try our tailor-made trip to Florence and see for yourself.

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Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore in Florence Italy © Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

Duomo Santa Maria Del Fiore in Florence Italy © Songquan Deng/Shutterstock

18. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin is a fast-paced, youthful city – Ireland has the youngest population in Europe – and is home to over a quarter of the country’s total population. The city pulsates with culture, creativity, and history. At night, Dublin’s streets are lively with revellers who pour into the city’s pubs, bars, clubs, and theatres. By day, people throng the popular shopping streets, cafés, restaurants, galleries, and museums.

On the banks of the Liffey, just 3km (2 miles) from the bustle of O’Connell Street, lies Phoenix Park. Comprising some 709 hectares (1,750 acres) of landscaped gardens, woods, pastures, and playing fields, it is one of the biggest urban parks in Europe.

The park is a graceful and elegant expanse with fine views of the mountains, much loved by Dubliners since it was first opened to the public in 1747. Black plaques mark self-guided heritage walks and nature trails, while bikes can be hired at the gate lodge.

Bus tours will take you to the various destinations, and some are accessible by city bus. Visit Dublin at Palace Street has all the information, and can arrange tours. Car hire is available at the same site. It is worth hiring a car so you can go at your own pace. Driving in the city is difficult, but it is worth hiring a car to explore the surrounding countryside.

You will find more accommodation options in our guide to where to stay in Dublin.

Streets of Dublin, Ireland  © massimofusaro/Shutterstock

Streets of Dublin, Ireland © massimofusaro/Shutterstock

19. Vienna, Austria

The sophisticated Viennese enjoy what is known as the Wiener Lebensart, a cultured appreciation of all life’s pleasures. Not only is this reflected in Vienna’s glorious art, music and architecture, theatres and coffee houses, but where else would you find vineyards within a city’s limits?

If your visit gives you time for only one side-trip it should unquestionably be along the Danube Valley, in particular the magical area known as the Wachau between the historic towns of Melk and Krems.

About an hour west of Vienna, this is where the Danube Valley is at its most scenic, by turns both charming and verdant with vineyards, apricot orchards and rustic villages, then suddenly forbidding with ruined medieval castles and rocky cliffs half hidden in mist. This is a landscape whose atmosphere is heavy with myth.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Vienna

Hofburg palace on St. Michael square (Michaelerplatz), Vienna, Austria © Mistervlad/Shutterstock

Hofburg palace on St. Michael square (Michaelerplatz), Vienna, Austria © Mistervlad/Shutterstock

20. London, England

London is full of surprises – a city of contrasts – constantly evolving while holding onto its old-world charm. Historic monuments can be found on just about every corner, sprawling parks offer respite from the thronging city streets, secret passageways reveal pubs stuck in time warps. Meanwhile the city’s skyline sprouts futuristic gherkins and giant walkie talkies.

The capital’s traditional landmarks – Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London among them – continue to draw in millions of tourists every year. Things change fast, though, and the regular emergence of new attractions ensures that there’s plenty to do even for those who’ve visited before.

Most visitors are amazed at how green and pleasant so much of the city centre is, with three royal parks – St James’s Park, Green Park and Hyde Park – forming an almost continuous grassy belt that stretches for nearly three miles.

Hyde Park, together with its westerly extension, Kensington Gardens, is the largest of the trio, covering a distance of a mile and a half from Speakers’ Corner in the northeast to Kensington Palace in the southwest. You can jog, swim, fish, sunbathe or mess about in boats on the Serpentine, cross the park on horseback or bike, or view the latest in modern art at the Serpentine Gallery.

Find more accommodation options with our guide to where to stay in London.

River view of Big Ben and-Houses of parliament in London, England, United Kingdom © S.Borisov/Shutterstock

River view of Big Ben and-Houses of parliament in London © S.Borisov/Shutterstock

For more inspirational travel tips for your future trips check our Rough Guide books.

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Top image: Ljubljana © Shutterstock

Diana Jarvis

written by Diana Jarvis

updated 5.02.2024

Diana is a photographer and writer based in Margate, Kent. She has shot ten guidebooks for Rough Guides and undertaken numerous commissions for Visit England, National Geographic Traveller (UK), GreenTraveller and Cool Camping, among others. She is currently the editor of Eye for the Light a subscription-only, digital publication in association with Travel Photographer of the Year and is also the Publishing and Photography Director at the British Guild of Travel Writers. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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