Heading to Paris or New York is all well and good – it’s hard to miss the bullseye on a break to a classic capital.
But if you’re looking for a weekend away - or a holiday hop - to somewhere just a little less obvious, and with a few more bragging rights, then you need to get adventurous. Pick any of these 10 urban hotspots for 2016 and you’ll be well ahead of the city break curve. You know where it’s at.
Lesser cities might find sitting in the shadow of Barcelona just up the coast a bit much. But elegant, progressive Valencia is confident enough to know that while it might not have Gaudi, it’s got style. Turn away from the short break stampede to Barca, and you’ll be rewarded with a city whose ancient center butts up against the spectacular steel and glass City of Arts and Sciences, built by ‘starchitect’ Santiago Calatrava as a monument to forward thinking. The ‘city’ runs along a three-mile park and has revitalised Valencia since it was built in 1998. Cycle through its space age domes and curves, slurping a lemon ice ‘granita’ and you’ll feel as if you’re in The Jetsons. The future never looked so good.
The hills are alive with the sounds of Salzburg! It's the Austrian birthplace of Mozart and backdrop to Julie Andrews listing her favourite things – one of which should surely have been this fantastic confection of spires and Baroque buildings clustered around the Salzach river. Coffee and cake is culture here; find a café and order chocolate Sachertorte, best eaten to the genteel strains of classical music. You can go to the Mozart House if that’s your bag, but you’ll probably get far more of an idea of his soul with a wander down the side streets and through the manicured parks. This is a city as tight and elegant as a minuet – nothing too showy, nothing too modern, everything beautifully in its place. Let Salzburg sink in – and breathe out.
With its start up and arts scenes building up a head of steam, laidback Lisbon has quietly become one of Europe’s most dynamic cities over the past few years. The cool and the entrepreneurial are drawn here by the same things that charm the city break savvy: sun, sea, a lively vibe and good value for money. Out of the centre of boulevards and elegant squares, sharp sunlight throws angular shadows down the cobbled streets that wind up its seven hills - hop on the antique trams if you’re feeling lazy. Principe Real, Barrio Alto and Cais do Sodré are neighbourhoods to put on your must-visit list - the latter is home to Pink Street, Lisbon’s party capital. Plus, there's an exciting food and drink scene that has raised the game from salt cod and custard tarts to a brave new world of suckling pig, seafood and trendy tapas.
Now that America is friends with Cuba again it’s a race to see Havana in all its dilapidated beauty before it’s ‘discovered’ so completely its authenticity disappears. Don’t listen to friends that went ten years ago and insist it’s so over. There’s still time, sun-bleached colonial buildings and plenty of Buena Vista Social Club vibes to soak up. In particular, Havana is a time capsule which is bubbling with new creative optimism and entrepreneurial zeal, bringing much-needed boutique hotels and bars such as the Hotel Saratoga and La Fábrica de Arte Cubano to the crumbling party. But leave it too long, and you’ll face the inevitable chains, sprawling resorts and fast-food restaurants in the wake of its popularity.
Rio de Janeiro
Come summer it’s going to be all about Rio as it hosts the Olympics this year, but it has more than a fortnight of fun up its sleeve. Piggy back on the pre- or post-Olympic high here and you’ll surf a party vibe that’s merely amplified by the sporting spectacle coming to town. This is, after all, the place where Carnival means two million people doing the samba together every year. Outside the sporting hoopla, Brazil’s second-largest metropolis is a jumble of experiences – some good, some gritty, but all full of irrepressible energy. Where else can you sashay in your Havaianas from Copacabana beach to the samba-filled bars of Santa Teresa without missing a beat, while Christ the Redeemer watches from his mountain perch? You definitely become the girl from Ipanema here.
If they were giving out prizes for easy-living cities, Slovenia’s relaxed capital – and Green Capital of Europe 2016 - would be right up there. Pint-sized and relatively low-key, Ljubljana might not have the pomp of a Paris or a Rome, but it packs a lot into a pretty and unusual cityscape of Baroque points and twirls and modernist buildings from the Vienna Secession period. Up on the hill, there’s an impressive castle, great to get your bearings from. But the real wholesome fun is down in the city centre, totally car-free and great for even the wobbliest cyclists to explore. For added challenge, you can also paddleboard down the Ljubljanica river that cuts through the city for a different perspective.
A true 24-hour city, Seoul is East Asia’s coolest yet-to-be-discovered city. Ok, Gangnam Style, named after the city’s poshest area, gave it notoriety, but there’s more to the city than you can shake an imaginary disco lasso at. Plunge into one of the world’s most densely populated spaces – a jumble of gorgeous 14th century palaces and shrines against skyscrapers – for an assault on the senses. Hang out in trendy Apgujeong and enjoy a Korean craft brew, soak up Korean modern art in the galleries of Samcheongdong and take a steam in the hot pools of the ubiquitous jjimjilbang bathhouses. Night time is the right time for karaoke, as a thousand karaoke bars throw tuneless versions of Bon Jovi into the restless streets til dawn.
Southern cooking and live music are the lifeblood of Nashville, the rhinestone in the crown of Tennessee. This is the country music capital of the world – but you don’t have to own a pair of cowboy boots and a cheatin’ husband with a pick-up to feel the love. This is a place where American soul meets youthful regeneration, a recent young liberal influx making Nashville the fastest-growing city in the US and giving it a fresh energy. Away from the honky tonks and country music flashiness of central ‘Nash Vegas’, you’ll find independent stores, craft beer and cool Americana in hip neighbourhoods such as East Nashville and Hillsboro Village. Plus live music everywhere, from blues and rock to jazz, to provide a soundtrack as you go.
You’re going to have to learn to pronounce it before you can visit it – it’s not ‘rock-law’, but ‘Vrots-waff’. But once you’ve got that mastered it’s a cinch to enjoy yourself in Poland’s most exciting cultural hub and this year’s European Capital of Culture and World Book Capital. It’s just as pretty as Krakow and Warsaw, and even better value for money (the stag dos haven’t found it yet). This means you can kick back and enjoy one of the many, many arts festivals it hosts every year - and get maximum bang for your zloty from its stage set of Germanic churches and colourful medieval houses. Chow down on steaming pierogi dumplings from the street food stalls on the beautiful Rynek Square and wonder how the Poles have managed to keep it all so quiet.
Ok, so it’s an old faithful for a weekend away, but with a new direct Eurostar service to Amsterdam launching later this year the capital of the Netherlands has gained another good reason to (re)visit in 2016. The city’s greatest draw has always been its effortlessly relaxed vibe and not just because of the fragrant smoke on street corners. Away from the tram-clangingly busy central areas, quiet streets are filled with canals that reflect the townhouses and the whizz and ting of bikes flying over small bridges. Stay in the Jordaan, with its canalside candlelit bars and second-hand markets or Amsterdam-Noord which is full of old warehouses re-purposed into bars and restaurants. It'll be like discovering a whole new city.