There’s nothing like a city break to jump-start us out of the great winter slump – but why wait until spring? European cities don’t sleep during winter months; they bask in a tourist-free normality, with queue-less museums, dinners that don’t need reservations and the chance to experience some of the world’s most renowned tourist sites without being submerged in cruise crowds.
Many are also bathed in warm sunshine in February and early March (March 20 is the first day of spring this year). True there may be a greater chance of rain – but even damp days can be romantic if you’re in the right place. One of my favourite recent travel memories is sitting under a restaurant canopy in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, eating pizza and drinking Moretti while the rain bounced off the pavements, watching delivery men scurry back and forth and market vendors huddling inside their stalls.
Best of all, hotel rates at this time of year are around half what they would be in April. Here are seven places to kick off the city break season early.
With average highs of 18C in February and five or six hours of sunshine a day, you’ll need T-shirts and sun cream to explore Seville’s extraordinary Moorish heritage. The big hitters – the Giralda, Cathedral and the Real Alcázar – will be less crowded and it’s far easier to snaffle counter space at some of the city’s best-loved tapas bars.
Try El Rincocillo (Calle Gerona 40), the oldest in the city, or La Brunilda (Calle Galera 5; 00 34 954 22 04 81) – although a reservation, even in February, is still a good idea. Even in the depths of winter there are regular flamenco performances, with tickets usually available; the Casa de la Memoria cultural centre, dating back to the 15th century, holds nightly performances – some of the best in the city.
A ride on Tram 28 – the city’s best-loved trolley car, dating back to the 1930s and taking in all of Lisbon’s most charming neighbourhoods – can be fraught with stress in high season: long queues, people jammed in, tempers fraying in the heat. In winter, there’s rarely a queue at any stop; get off at Alfama for lunch at O Cartaxeiro before heading on to the Castelo de São Jorge for a spectacular view across the city. Dip into the crowd-free Calouste Gulbenkian gallery to see the three Rs – Rembrandt, Rubens and Renoir – and browse for bargains at the Feria de Ladra, the city’s 800-year-old market (Tues-Sat).
By April, Rome is already teeming with visitors, but in February and early March it’s still possible to see the big draws – the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Pantheon – with far fewer people around. Book tickets late in the day to the Vatican museums (most people think going early is the best time, which means it’s always at its busiest) and dip into the Doria Pamphilj museum for a glimpse of life in Rome at its most ostentatious. Foodies should dip into the Testaccio neighbourhood, home to the city’s best-loved food market, with more than 100 stalls and street food vendors.
Wizzair flies to Rome from £68 return, departing from Gatwick. Stay at the newly opened CitizenM, which is offering 30 per cent off room rates until March 31, meaning doubles start from £95 room-only (00 39 06 8587 1180; citizen.com)
Take your party shoes if you’re heading to Athens in late February or early March; Apokries, the Greek equivalent of Carnival, sees the capital explode with three weeks of parties, restaurants and bars hosting special events, with the Plaka neighbourhood at the heart of evening celebrations. If the weather is good, walk or take a cab up Lycabettus Hill for lunch or dinner at Orizontes, which has spectacular views over the Acropolis. If it’s chilly, the Acropolis Museum immerses its visitors in the artefacts, sculpture and culture of ancient Greece – without the summer crowds. Keen skiers can even get a day on the slopes; the Parnassos Ski Centre is around 2.5 hours away.
Last year, at the beginning of March, I managed to get sunburnt sitting on Nice’s Cours de Saleya having lunch; every outdoor restaurant table was taken, the entire city gleefully soaking up the sun. Nice has had a serious facelift in recent years; the Promenade des Anglais offers dreamy, sunkissed strolls, while the old town is fabulous for an afternoon of pottering in and out of fromageries and perfumiers – don’t miss Tresors Publics (11 Rue de Pont Vieux) for traditional gifts, or Nicolas Alziari (14 rue Saint Francois de Paule) – home of the best olive oil in town since 1932. Head to rooftop bar Seen by Olivier for a rose-fuelled lunch in one of the city’s most beautiful Belle Époque buildings, now home to the Anantara hotel.
Sitting by the lake in the El Retiro Park – Madrid’s vast, elegant green heart – with hot chocolate and a saxophonist busking nearby, is one of my favourite moments from a recent December visit. Blue skies in February are equally possible; on cooler days, dip into the city’s extraordinary food markets – skip the touristy Mercado de San Miguel, and instead settle in for empanadas and a cana (a small, 200ml beer) at Mercado san Fernando in the Lavapies district, or Mercado de la Paz in leafy Salamanca. There may still be queues for the Prado, but in December, I walked straight into the Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the world’s most extraordinary private collections, while the Sorolla museum – the original house and studio of artist Joaquín Sorolla – is one of the loveliest spots in the city.
Exploring Istanbul is so much easier in winter: roads are less jammed, ferries less busy, everywhere feels just that bit less frantic. Explore the city’s newest museums – Istanbul Modern and the Hagia Sophia History Museum – and discover the rich history of hamams at the 500-year-old Çinili Hamam, recently reopened after 13 years of restoration. To mix culture with culinary adventures, head to Çiya in Kadikoy (the Asian side of the city) for spectacular meze, created from traditional Anatolian recipes; Kiyi in Tarabya, one of the city’s best fish restaurants for the last 60 years; or join the hip crowd at Michelin-starred Arkestra, with pre-dinner cocktails upstairs in the chic Listening Room bar.