Sometimes it can be difficult to choose a good location for your city break. You want something new or unexpected. Here are my recommendations for 4 alternative city breaks. They all have a lot going on to fill a long weekend, but are a bit off the beaten track.
Northern Norway’s snowy mountains are a constant reminder that you’re in the arctic circle. Like snowy owls poised for take off, they’re a silent companion to the choppy fjords.
Tromso has been inhabited for 11,000 years but the population has grown with the increase in scientific research in the arctic and the number of people wanting to hunt the Northern Lights.
If you’re lucky enough, the Lights will grace your city break with their green and purple dance whilst you’re wandering between bars. If not, there are also loads of things to increase your chances. For example, 4WD excursions and boat tours which will ‘chase’ the lights to the locations with the highest chances. Alternatively, staying out of the city at Malangen Resort is a warmer option. It has a fire-lit shelter over a frozen lake to stay late into the night.
There’s a strange mix of Scandinavian-style log buildings in green and maroon and old, wooden ships. These are set against the toberlone-y Arctic Cathedral, and the fallen-domino Polaria, which is the world’s most northernly aquarium.
The seals, including two harbour seals Lyra and Loffen, play in a cleverly-designed enclosure. It disorients you whilst you walk over, under and through their pool. Keepers feed them in front of visitors daily with a set of carefully chosen activities to entertain the seals and feed them responsibly. This way, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a ‘show.’
In the evening, try Steakers for their great steak choices and view of the mountains behind the harbour. Walk around the restaurant to see their wine selection on display in medieval-style shelving and in temperature-controlled cupboards.
Agenturet Bar has a great atmosphere for relaxing and chatting. They have over 120 beers and 250 wines to choose from, so there is certainly enough to keep you going.
Switzerland is the 7th largest consumer of wine per capita in the world, which means there isn’t much Swiss wine left to export to other countries. They have some unique grapes, like petite arvine and amigne, which aren’t planted anywhere else in the world. For a friendly and welcoming (as well as very informative!) tasting session see the Wine Guru on Wheels.
If that isn’t enough, the Les Trois Rois’ is formal inside but has a relaxed terrace overlooking the river; perfect for wine, cocktails and cigars. Downstairs in the basement are dusty boxes to nod at as you pretend to understand why the contents are valuable.
It’s hard not to be taken in by the class of this city. There are two old parts to Basel. Timber-framed buildings have hand-painted dates above the doors, some dating all the way back to the 1300s. In other areas, stone buildings impose themselves with a certain dignity, like they have wisdom to pass on if only we would stop and listen.
Basel is one of the easiest cities to explore because of its extensive tram network. Your hotel will give you a Basel Card, giving you free access to public transport and the city’s Wi-Fi network whilst you’re on the move. This is great because it isn’t part of the EU’s free data roaming network.
Summer temperatures can be in the high, when I was there it was 38˚! To cool off, borrow a dry bag from your hotel and join the constant stream of people floating down the Rhine. Then get out, walk back upstream and repeat until you can stand the heat again.
The current is strong and it looks scary at first because people are floating downstream much faster than you could walk the same distance. If you follow the crowd, it’s quite easy to swim to the side and grab onto the chains before climbing out up the steps.
Basel’s biggest festival is after Ash Wednesday and lasts exactly 72 hours (starting at 4am on the Monday). Residents are generally granted 3 days off work to celebrate and there are parades where people where extravagant masks. The imagery of the harlequins can be spotted through the city all year, on lamps, street art and doorways.
Legend has it that Norwich’s city walls protected a church for every Sunday of the year and pub for each day. Largely untouched by the industrial revolution, a walk through the city will take you past picturesque flint buildings, two cathedrals and wonky medieval windows.
Stand elbow-to-elbow with locals in the annual beer festival each October in St Andrews Hall, surrounded by paintings of grand Lord Mayors in their red robes.
Local and smaller national breweries attend, and the beer and ciders are available in ⅓, ½ or pints (for the brave). There’s also an international tent for lagers by the bottle. The glasses make great souvenirs because they have a different design each year, normally containing a dragon.
In 2014, Norwich won the Great British High Street award because of its huge selection of independent shops, restaurants and bars. Here’s a map here to help you navigate. For lunch, I’d recommend the market because there’s a huge range of food stalls from hog roast to noodles.
There are so many great independent restaurants here. If you like Italian, try Trattoria Rustica which is owned and run by a family from Sardinia, so the quality of food and variety of dishes is a lot better than standard chain restaurants.
Alternatively, Delia’s (by Delia Smith) is open each Friday and Saturday nights. It has a slightly formal but relaxed atmosphere and a great menu which changes every 6 weeks.
Although Bilbao is a huge, industrial city, you can sit in a pintxos bar and watch as local people tour from bar to bar to greet friends and relatives as if you’re in a village somewhere in the provinces.
Some of these pinxtos bars are very traditional, with a glass display area on the bar showing the different dishes on offer. Others, like the oyster and wine bar, El Puertito, are more modern. This bar displays oysters on ice from different regions across Europe for you to choose from. You can pair them with their extensive choice of wines.
The Artxanda Funicular railway heaves itself up the mountain from downtown Bilbao. At the top, the city spans out before you. Rooftops merge from old to new, with the Guggenheim front and centre against the river.
The Guggenheim itself is great to see up close. I loved standing by the river and waiting for Fujiko Nakaya’s fog sculpture to shroud both tourist and building in mystery. Unless you’re really into modern art, I’d recommend being satisfied by the sculptures outside and then moving on.
The museum is walking distance from the old town of Bilbao, Casco Viejo, connected by bridges over the river. It’s curling, confusing streets are easy to get lost in (“I think we need to turn right at this ice cream parlour?”). I loved the Pampling T-shirt shop, which is floor-to-ceiling pop culture on shirts.
If you’re a cocktail fan, the Sir Winston Churchill Pub is back over on the modern side of the city and has more than 400 spirits and liqueurs to choose from. The expert bar team can provide any cocktail combination you can think of.
For more ideas on how to explore a city, check out my Airbnb Experiences vs Get Your Guide comparison.
Also, if none of these take your fancy, why not see 7 Things to do in Madrid.