Need a pick-me-up – without feeling like you’ve suffered a shake-down? We’ve tracked down city-break bargains and budget accommodation to beat the winter blues for all types of urban escapes, from exotic to easy-going
Best for adventurers: Fez, Morocco
Now that Marrakech has gone Gucci, Fez is the most exotic mini-break on the map, with emerald green minarets and the call to prayer at dusk, craftsmen and donkeys in alleys, and temperatures in the just-right low-20s late winter. All the action takes place in one of the world’s largest medieval medinas, Fes El Bali – a car-free labyrinth of living history built of souks.
Pick up butter-soft slippers, hand-woven carpets, traditional lamps and spice, then hang out in street cafes serving mint tea and tagines, before perusing sights, like the still-working medieval Chouara tannery. First time in Fez? Ask your hotel to arrange a guide for a day – this is one of the most labyrinthine medinas on earth, where even frequent visitors get lost. As you twist and turn through ancient arms’-width alleys, you’ll forget your back-home blues and get swept up in this city’s gleeful otherworldliness.
Flight From £40 return
Hotel A garden courtyard and richly tiled interiors – Riad Louna is pure Moroccan romance, with doubles from £22.
Best for culture-lovers: Valletta, Malta
Valletta shines as a European Capital of Culture this year. The surprise is that it has taken such a monumental event for everyone else to notice this beautiful city. This citadel on the sea is crammed with set-pieces, such as the Baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral – plain outside, a riot of gold and marble within – plus cutting-edge new constructions by the architect of London’s Shard, Renzo Piano. A new National Art Gallery is opening soon. All very nice, yet you come as much to star in your own historical movie. Every corner holds a new discovery in this Unesco World Heritage destination that crams a metropolis’s sights into a town barely 1km long.
Flight from £40 return
Hotel Historic character and plush luxe feature in harbourside Osborne Hotel, with doubles from £80.
Best for incurable romantics: Verona, Italy
Yes, it’s the city of Romeo and Juliet. But the kitsch “Juliet’s house” is fake news compared to the true story of this Italian beauty. Verona is better understood as a romantic stage-set of a city. There are more Roman ruins here than anywhere else except Rome – the 2,000-seater amphitheatre is the big sight in every sense. There’s also all the swagger and style of a Unesco-listed, Renaissance city that’s doing rather nicely, grazie. The catch? It’s chilly in early months. Leave this one until late March.
Flight From £39 return
Hotel Location, location – Hotel Europa (no relation to the Brno Europa) puts you smack in the city centre, with doubles from £71.
Best for hipsters: Lisbon, Portugal
Welcome to Europe’s hottest city – not the mild winter temperatures, but the creative heat currently searing through the Portuguese capital. An energetic international crowd hops between bars and restaurants in the old red-light district, Cais do Sodre. Intendente neighbourhood has regenerated with one-off boutiques, while local trendsetters have reclaimed warehouses for artisan outlets in the Marvila region. Small wonder Madonna recently bought herself a Lisbon pad. Framing it all is traditional Portuguese soul: tiled palaces, Art Nouveau wine bars, the historic #28 tram (pictured above) pootling up streets spanned by washing lines – all yours for low prices on a midweek February break.
Flight From £140 return
Hotel Super-central My Story Hotel Ouro offers boutique style on a budget, with doubles from £72.
Best for spa-goers: Budapest, Hungary
Brave the bitter winters of this bohemian Baroque beauty for its abundance of natural thermal baths. Most have been here for centuries, and so you get the bath-house spa experience but at prices low prices enough warm the heart – nearly all are less than £20 for a day pass, with optional ‘hammam’ mud scrubs typically just a few pounds on top. Bear in mind these are traditional bathhouses, though, not five-star hotel spas, so they’re typically busy with the chattering classes – which makes them all the more fun.
Three of the most popular spas to tick off: beautiful but perennially-busy Szechenyi Baths, its outdoor Belle Epoque lido atmospherically wreathed in mist in winter; Gellert’s glorious Art Deco pools, the most luxurious choice; and 16th-century Rudas Baths, the most authentic option, where you steam with the locals in a series of Ottoman-era baths and steam rooms – being scrubbed down afterwards by a burly bloke in the hammam is an experience not to be missed (unless you’re averse to ‘therapeutic’ pain). All baths are hot and steamy, and offer massages at a quarter of what you’d pay in the UK – the ideal winter pick-me-up.
Flight From £56 return
Hotel The three-star City Hotel Matyas has five-star river views and a conveniently central location, with doubles from £32.
Best for hedonists: Brno, Czech Republic
Is it wrong in a relaxed city of medieval courtyards and friendly locals to focus on price? Perhaps but, blimey, Brno is cheap. Beer – the speciality of the Czech Republic’s second city – comes in under £1 a glass, even in a brilliant bar like Super Panda Circus. And a filling, winter-warmer bowl of goulash won’t set you back more than £2.50. But what really makes Brno sizzle in winter is the nightlife, fuelled by a population where one in every four inhabitants is a student. The best bit? There’s not a lairy British stag do or hen party in sight.
Flight from £56 return
Hotel Classic-modern décor is pepped up with modern art in three-star Hotel Europa, from £41.
Best for sun-seekers: Malaga, Spain
The important number first. Malaga’s daytime temperatures in February average 18˚C. T-shirt weather, basically – they don’t call this the Costa del Sol for nothing. And you’ll find the beaches and promenades free off glitzy summertime crowds at this time of year. However, there’s more to this Andalucian city than sun, sea and sand. Its Moorish heritage is self-evident in the Hammam Al Andalus and gardens of the Alcazaba palace. Its cultural role is visible in the small but perfectly formed Picasso Museum (Pablo was born here), the first Pomipdou Centre outside Paris and in a revamped Museum of Fine Arts.
Flight From £44 return
Hotel No scruffy dorms at that Alcazaba Premium Hostel. This has a fab rooftop bar and Scandi-chic ensuite doubles from £57.
Published January 2018. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of writing and are subject to change and/or availability.
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