Cheap flights, free attractions, exotic allure – welcome to this winter’s best urban escapes
Why? One of Europe’s best-value breaks
Lisbon has been named one of the cheapest city breaks by comparison site Kelkoo. But Porto, Portugal’s second city, is arguably even better. It’s undergone an incredible transformation of late: always a jumble of architectural styles, now urban renewal projects have preserved the historic centre, and seen the creation of modern marvels and an efficient metro.
For a taste of the old visit the golden Gothic splendour of São Francisco church and climb the 225 steps to the top of Clérigos Tower, for panoramic views. For the new, try Casa da Música, a state-of-the-art venue designed to be inclusive – catch a free concert in one of the various rooms, or take an hour-long tour (€3)
Porto isn’t short on cafés but the Majestic, built in 1921, is one of the most opulent; linger over tostas (toasted sandwiches, €2). The lively Bolhão Market stocks all manner of cheeses, meats and fresh fish, alongside local staple bacalhau (salt cod). But it’s the port trade that dominates the city’s history – learn the difference between tawny, ruby and vintage on a free tour and tasting at one of the oldest producers, Taylor’s, across the River Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia.
Best freebies: The Fundação de Serralves art museum (free Sundays, 10am-2pm); browsing in Livraria Lello, a beauty of a bookshop.Go now for… the cool Guimarães Jazz Festival, an hour from Porto (11-20 Nov)
Getting there: Ryanair flies to Porto from regional airports, from £5 one way (plus extras).
Why? The aromas of North Africa
Make a break for the exotic – the Tunisian capital offers a spicy mix of mosques and super souks for Christmas shopping plus a dash of French chic.
Most fun is the old medina – plunge in at the Bab Bhar and negotiate your way past ancient medersas (Islamic colleges) and carpet-sellers. If you get chilly visit one of the city’s hammams (bathhouses); Hammam Sahib on Place Halfaouine will scrub you clean for about £1. Or grab a bowl of cheap and warming lablabi, a chickpea and harissa soup.
Consider visiting the Bardo Museum (£3.50), 4km from the centre, the most marvellous collection of Roman mosaics, housed in a palace – though note it’s currently undergoing renovation so only around a fifth of the exhibits are on show.
A bargain 40-minute train ride will take you to the coast at Sidi Bou Saïd. This bright-blue and whitewash town of narrow alleys is a tourist favourite, but much quieter off season, and the perfect spot to sip mint tea overlooking the Med.
Best freebies: Medina maps from the tourist office; free mint tea from carpet-sellers eager to make a sale; wandering around Sidi Bou Saïd.
Go now for… fine weather – temperatures in November still hit up to 20°C.
Getting there: BA flies to Tunis from the UK from around £120 return.
Why? For outdoor art and snow fun
Try Turin this winter: with 18km of portico-covered pavements it’s easy to shelter, plus the nearby Alps look lovely under snow.
There’s the requisite Italian mix of the Roman, medieval and baroque, plus piazze to wander and excellent food – try bicerin, a hot choc-coffee-cream winter warmer (NB: drink at the bar – tables cost more).
Ascend the Mole Antonelliana, a 167m tower atop the Cinema Museum (€9), then visit the Basilica di Superga (free), the Egyptian marvels at Museo Egizio (€7.50) and the beautiful Biblioteca Reale library (free). Don’t miss browsing Porta Palazzo, a vast open-air market with 700 stalls.
The real beauty of a winter break here, though, is the mountains. Ski novices who don’t want to dedicate an expensive week to trying it can take the train to Bardonecchia (60 mins) and spend a day in the snow.
Best freebies: Duomo Di San Giovanni Battista, home to the Turin Shroud (hidden away; there’s a replica on show); stuzzichini – snacks often served free with drinks.
Go now for… the free Luci D’artista art exhibit, which lights up the city Nov-Jan.
Getting there: Ryanair flies to Turin from £19.99 one way. By train, Turin-Paris takes six hours; one-way fares from £29.
Why? Affordable festive Finnish fun
Finland? Cheap? OK, the Nordic nation is not bargain-basement but Tampere – a former industrial hub, but beautifully balanced between two lakes – offers plenty for scrimpers while also delivering classic Finland: clear waters, wilderness access and plenty of crisp, chill air.
Founded in 1779 (though the city’s medieval Messukylä Church is older), Tampere mixes 19th-century and art nouveau architecture with former factories and warehouses repurposed into galleries and museums. Start in the Keskustori (Central Square) and explore the compact city on foot, taking in a few museums – try the Vapriikki Museum Center (€2-7), which showcases everything from the history of shoes to ice hockey; the Lenin Museum (€4), housed in the building in which Lenin and Stalin first met in 1905; and the Moomin Valley Museum (€4), which contains original drawings of the famed Finnish characters.
For a proper local experience, however, make the most of the frozen lakes: hire skates (€10/hour) then head to the traditional Rauhaniemi sauna (€4.50) for a sweat followed by an ice swim! The city is also home to hundreds of kilometres of cross-country ski tracks, a great way to enjoy the surrounding wilderness.
For food, head to the Kauppahalli indoor market, a great free attraction and one of the best places to eat speciality mustamakkara, sausage with berry jam. Another cheap eat is Vohvelikahvila, which serves the city’s finest waffles (from €3).
Best freebies: Lakeside scenery and walks; Mältinranta Art Centre; walking tour maps from the tourist office; free internet (Metso library).
Go now for… the sparkly Christmas market (10-23 Dec) and the Year of the Bear exhibition at Vapriikki (until 9 Jan 2011).
Getting there: Ryanair flies from London Stansted and Edinburgh to Tampere from £14.99 one way.
Why? City strolling and bargain peaks
Comely and compact, Slovenia’s capital makes a pretty city break. You’ll save on transport: only your feet are needed to explore the baroque townhouses, churches and medieval squares of the Old Town, lorded over by Ljubljana’s hilltop castle – free to enter, though it’s worth paying the small fee to climb the clocktower for Alp views.Stay in a cell at Hostel Celica (from €17pppn), a former prison. Then stroll the Tivoli Park, cross the bridges over the River Ljubljanica and hide from the winter weather in the Ethnographic Museum (€2). If you time your visit right, raise a glass at the Brewery Museum (open first Tues of month).
For more activity, leave the city – the ski resort of Krvavec is 25km north, and skiing in Slovenia is far cheaper than nearby Alpine areas.
Best freebies: The Path of Remembrance, a 34km trail around the city along the line once marked by German barbed war; Ljubljana Life listings magazine, available locally; Ljubljana Castle.
Go now for… festive tunes – there’s a free Christmas concert on 24 Dec in Mestni trg Square, with more outdoor music 26 Dec-2 Jan
Getting there: easyJet flies Stansted-Ljubljana from £20.99 one way.
Why? Scandinavian style – for less
As revealed in a Skyscanner survey which compared people’s price perceptions with the actual cost of destinations, Sweden isn’t as expensive as you think. And with new low-cost flights, green and watery Gothenburg on the country’s west coast is prime short break fodder.
Start by buying a Gothenburg Pass (£21/29 for 24/48 hours): this one-off outlay covers transport (including trams and ferries – perfect for exploring the glorious archipelago; left), entry to many museums, a boat trip to Elfsborg Fort and more. Don’t miss the stuffed blue whale in the Natural History Museum (£3.50; free with pass), the Maritime Museum (£3.50; free with pass) and the Haga district, a cluster of old red-brick and wooden houses, and quirky curio shops.
Fill up on a dagens rätt (daily lunch) – usually including a main, a drink and a salad, it’s the best value way to dine. For snacks head to the Saluhallen Market hall. Note, there’s an alfresco café scene even in winter – many places provide blankets.
Best freebies: Wandering Slottsskogen Park, complete with free zoo; food – bars often serve free nibbles on Friday evenings when you buy a drink; sniffing around the Feskekörka, the city’s fine fish market.
Go now for… Sweden’s biggest Christmas market (12 Nov-23 Dec).
Getting there: easyJet’s new flights to Gothenburg start from £27.99 one way.
Why? For Christmas craic
Ireland isn’t cheap. But second-city Cork, thanks to its high student population, has more to offer the stingier traveller, plus a lively bar scene and a residual architectural buzz left over from 2005’s Capital of Culture designation.
By day explore the compact and walkable city, strolling along the banks of the River Lee and into the boutique-lined lanes of the Shandon area (home of St Anne’s Church where you can try bell-ringing; €6). Pop into Cork Public Museum (free) and buy a cheapie lunch at the Old English Market – a labyrinthine food haven.
Take the train (25 minutes) to Cobh for blast of brisk, Irish Sea air and colourful houses clustered around the harbour; touristy in summer, the winter months should ensure smaller crowds. But return to the city by evening – find a snug pub hosting a live band and enjoy the craic.
Best freebies: Music – many of Cork’s pubs host live musicians, for listings see www.whazon.com; free guided tours of the modern Glucksman Gallery (fortnightly) and the Crawford Art Gallery (Thurs 6.30pm, Sat 2.30pm); walks around the Lough – this lake is decked with fairy lights for Christmas.
Getting there: Ryanair flies to Cork from around £14.99 one way. The new Cork-Swansea ferry sails overnight; from €99 for a car and driver: www.fastnetline.com.
Why? For festivities on the cheap
Krakow is perhaps the cheapest place in Europe to sip mulled wine and buy wooden shepherds during the festive season; its Christmas markets are also among the most atmospheric – snow is near guaranteed December-February.
It’s a good city to just wander, though bargain sites include: the Old Town’s medieval cloth hall, now a covered market; the many churches (mostly free to enter); and the many wings of the National Museum (combined ticket 22 zloty; free Sundays). Elsewhere, explore regal Wawel Hill (complete with cathedral, palace and armoury) and Kazimierz, the resurging Jewish quarter – now home to the liveliest square (plac Nowy). In the Podgórze district, Oskar Schindler’s famous factory now hosts a moving exhibition (15 zloty; free Mondays).
Best freebies: Three-hour guided walking tour leaving from St Mary’s Church daily at 11am (freewalkingtour.com); the outer courtyard of the Wawel; the Silesian House, chilling former Gestapo interrogation centre.
Go now for… cheap and very cheerful Christmas markets – Rynek Glowny, the main square, is a-sparkle with sausage stalls and szopki (nativity scenes) throughout December.
Getting there: Several airlines fly to Krakow; easyJet flies from various regional airports to Krakow from around £22.99 one way.
Why? Winter sunshine without the crowds
Mallorca conjures images of resort hell – which does exist. But capital Palma retains authentic Balearic charm, and in the winter low season is pleasantly tourist-lite.
Start at Le Seu, the enormous Gothic cathedral (free), which dominates the city, then wander the alleys of the Old Town, home to comely squares, shops and a tenth-century hammam. The city is more about atmosphere than sites, especially after 10pm when tapas-time kicks in. Don’t miss Abaco (www.bar-abaco.com), Palma’s most outlandish bar – not cheap, but the cabaret-style décor is worth the splurge.
The best day trip is the train ride to Soller, a 28km trundle aboard atmospheric old carriages into the Tramuntana Mountains (€17 return; www.trendesoller.com). It’s a pretty spot, and the staging post for brisk (free) strolls into the hills.
Best freebies: Castell de Bellver – a striking fort with great views (free Sundays); walks along the medieval city walls; the Moorish delights of Palau de l’Almudaina (€4; free on Wednesdays).
Go now for… average daily temperatures around 15°C (Dec). In the Tramuntanas, almond trees blossom January-February.
Getting there: Many low-cost airlines fly to Palma; one-way fares with easyJet start from £45.
Why? For a festival of lights and a good feed
The finest food in the foodiest country... get to Lyon before the New Year diet resolutions kick in. This by turns Gothic, Renaissance and thoroughly modern hub in the Rhône Valley is famed for its cuisine (especially meat-heavy dishes). To get involved try a cookery course on the cheap: L’Atelier des Chefs runs speedy, 30-minute classes where you learn to whip up lunch then eat the spoils for €15.
To work off all this Lyonnais loveliness, do a bit of exploring. The vélo’v city-bike scheme is a cheap way to cycle between sites; registration is €1, the first 30 minutes are free, up to an hour costs €1.
Make sure to wander the cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, hike up Fourvière Hill (to the basilica, and for views over the city) and visit the old silk-weaving district of Croix Rousse. Nip into the Musée de la Résistance (€8) for an insight into France’s freedom fighters and clock the 100-plus trompe-l’oeils (painted walls), a city speciality.
Best freebies: Map of the traboules (secret passages) that dissect the city – available from the tourist office; strolling Parc de la Tête d’Or; the cloistered grounds of the Museé des Beaux-Arts (it’s €7 to get into the museum, but there are two Rodin sculptures in the public garden).
Go now for… the sparkling Fête des Lumières (8-11 Dec) and to make use of new flights.
Getting there:London-Lyon (via Lille) by train takes around five hours. Several airlines fly to Lyon; from 18 Dec easyJet will fly from Bristol and Liverpool to Lyon, from £25.99 one way.