“Hi Team JFC!! Thanks for all your hard work!
I love going to places with good booze, good food, and a good book for a long weekend as a solo traveller or with friends. I love smaller cities where you can just wander around and stop as you please. I've been to Brugge for Belgian beers and mussels, Bilbao for Pinxtos, Bordeaux for gooooood wine and goooood food.
I'm a little stuck on where's next! Please share any ideas, especially for the different seasons!
We’d be thrilled to help you out, reader!
Here are our top tips for smaller or less-visited European cities which you can see in a long weekend (and sample some of that local food and drink you’ve been enjoying in Brugge, Bilbao and Bordeaux).
And if you want to continue that ‘only visiting places beginning with a B’ theme that you seem to have accidentally stumbled onto, we’ve even got some recommendations for that, too.
Autumn 2022: Glorious Gdansk
Only around 300,000 foreign tourists visit Gdansk on Poland’s Baltic coast every year - compare that to the nine million visitors who descend upon Brugge every year.
It’s a huge pity; the city boasts a magnificent old town with some stunning Mannerist architecture and a number of lush walking routes and cycling trails to keep you occupied.
And in the autumn, Gdansk (when it isn’t raining) comes alive in colour - Poland is famous for its ‘golden autumn’ in October when the beech forests are particularly gorgeous. It’s a great time to drop in on Gdansk’s scenic 10-hectare Oliwa Park, which features stunning beech alleys, duck ponds, and the Groty Szeptów, or ‘Whispering Caves’.
Eating and drinking
Traditional Polish pierogi are popular in town, as are potato pancakes and rosół meat soup. For a properly authentic experience, head to one of the city’s ‘milk bars’ - low-cost diner-style restaurants popularised during the Soviet era. (The folks at Nothing Familiar have some tips here on the best milk bars to visit.)
And to drink? Well, there you’re spoiled for choice. The city has an almost ludicrous volume of beloved craft beer bars, but there’s also Polish vodka ( remember to toast), the cherry liqueur wiśniówka, and Gdansk’s resident fancypants drink Goldwasser, containing gold flakes and made famous by the European royals who believed it held alchemical properties.
Perhaps most surprisingly to foreigners, winemaking has a centuries-old history in Poland and it’s seeing a resurgence across the country, mostly led by talented enthusiasts - Gdansk has one such ‘amateur’ winery, the Winnica Modzrew, which is well worth checking out (just call ahead and let Mr Mirek know if you’re planning to pay him a visit).
And beginning with a B…?
While perhaps a little chilly in the autumn (the snowy season kicks off in November), Bialystok in north-eastern Poland is a truly delightful city, surrounded by natural landscapes and famous for its chocolate lounge.
Winter 2022: Lovely Ljubljana
Slovenia is one of Europe’s least-visited countries overall for international travel - but we’re here to shake the extraordinary capital of Ljubljana in your face and tell you why that needs to change.
Ljubljana is a small city with a young vibe - about a sixth of the population is taken up by its 50,000 students - and a complex history that dates back to the Roman era.
And in wintertime, Ljubljana becomes…look, we’re going to resist the urge to use the words ‘fairy-tale’, but there is something particularly charming about its snow-capped architecture, its splendid Christmas lights and markets, its outdoor ice skating, skiing day trips, and - yes - its massive outdoor New Year’s Eve celebrations.
For us, though, the real trump card is Ljubljana’s quite frankly ludicrous artistic scene - over 14,000 cultural events take place in the city every year, ensuring that you’ll never be at a loose end on a rainy day.
Founded as a squat in an old army barracks in 1993, the Metelkova neighbourhood is a punky cultural centre and network of clubs, and it’s rightly famous as the city’s alternative, underground heart. (The neighbourhood hostel, Cecilia, is an old prison that welcomes guests into its 20 colourfully-designed cells.)
For travellers whose raving days are long behind them, however, the city centre also holds a wide variety of museums, concert halls, theatres, and much, much more.
If you can’t make it for Christmas, then we’d head to Ljubljana in February, in time for the Pust or Karneval celebrations, where in Slovenian tradition fearsome masked figures parade to chase the winter away. (In Ljubljana, the parades are led by the city’s mascot, the green dragon.)
Eating and drinking
With a heavy emphasis on pork and deliciously doughy desserts, Slovenia is a great choice for warming winter food - but Ljubljana is way too trendy to rest on its laurels. Last year, the city had 17 mentions in the Michelin Guide, with praise going out to its talented chefs fusing traditional Slovenian cuisine with Mediterranean, Thai and Japanese influences.
While we haven’t been there ourselves, we’d be tempted to take a cab out to the delightfully infamous Gostilna Skaručna, an eccentric family-owned restaurant serving traditional Slovenian cuisine just outside the city.
Wash it all down with an excellent glass of Slovenian wine, local plum schnapps, or the up-and-coming local vodka - which, for some reason, has Bill Murray as its ambassador. (Maybe Lost in Translation gave him the idea?)
Beginning with a B?
It’ll be better in the summer or autumn, but we’d head to Bled to check out the town’s rightly beloved lake.
Spring 2023: Nuremberg
Bavaria’s second city is a complicated, beautiful, sometimes weighty wonder to visit - after it was devastated by bombings during the Second World War, Nuremberg’s citizens spent 38 years painstakingly reconstructing its medieval architecture (from the castle all the way down to the gargoyles).
Nuremberg has its own world-famous Christmas market, but we’re going against the grain and suggesting a springtime visit not just for its charming Folk Fairs by the city’s lake (which take place next year from April 8-23, 2022 and May 4-8, 2023), or May’s Blue Night, where dazzling public art displays are projected onto buildings across the city, but also for the spring blossoms, which will be particularly lovely - in Germany, the cherry blossom season is known as the kirschbäume.
If you’re left desperate to sample even more beautiful medieval architecture, it’s just an hour’s train ride to nearby Regensburg (which also has the highest concentration of bars in Germany).
Eating and drinking?
Nuremberg’s particular brand of bratwurst is small (‘three in a bun’ is the traditional serving) - one tradition implausibly claims that they were designed this way to secretly feed prisoners. Try the rotbier - it means 'red beer' - to go with it.
Beginning with a B
Visit lovely Bonn in Western Germany - whether you want to check out Beethoven’s house or simply stuff your pockets full of gummi bears at the home of Haribo, there’s something there for you.
Summer 2023: Make for Montpellier
Montpellier in southern France is another city with a huge student population - 60,000 of the 260,000 residents are there to study, and the average age is just 25.
In other words, it’s a good location to head for during the summer: a good chunk of the population will have headed home for the holidays, leaving you free to enjoy the cobbled streets, beautiful beaches and gorgeous sandstone buildings. (A couple of tips from our Flight Finder Larissa - take a picnic to the Promenade du Peyrou for some wonderful sunset views, and then drive out to the unspeakably pretty village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.
Eating and drinking
You’ve got a great range of choice in Montpellier when it comes to eating out - from Languedoc staples like cassoulet to delicious Mediterranean-style seafood. But our top tip would be to try the tielle sétoise - it’s a little Italian-inspired pie filled with spicy octopus meat.
And we hear the Minervois region has one or two wines, too…?
Beginning with a B?
You can’t go wrong with the stunning city of Béziers - just be mindful that a million visitors will crowd into the streets every August for the Feria de Béziers and its bullfighting spectacles.
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