02 Oct Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now
Autumn might just be one of my favourite times of year to get away. And happily, it might just be the best time of year to explore Northern Europe. Trees ablaze with copper colours, cosy cafes, charming cobbled streets in the late afternoon sun – it sounds good, right? With the seasons start to turn I’m sharing my secrets for the perfect city break now.
After the crowds have melted away and the leaves have started to turn bronze and gold, Northern Europe comes alive. It’s the perfect time of year to find out what Europe is really like, and live like a local.
In the autumn, it’s easy to worry about unreliable weather and shorter days, but you won’t notice if there’s plenty to see and do. If the weather isn’t up to scratch you can still explore local events, enjoy fabulous seasonal foods and find places to snuggle up indoors with a comforting coffee or craft beer.
And in my mind, cooler weather is best for heading out on foot and really getting to know a place. Besides, it’s also the perfect time to kick up copper-coloured drifts of leaves in city parks.
For me, the ideal autumn getaway location must have two things. Open spaces to explore and experience the changing colours, and great places to cosy up indoors. If you’ve got that covered, you’re onto a winner.
There are five cities that I think fit the bill perfectly; Stockholm, Vienna, Tallinn, Munich and Bratislava.
I’ve tried-and-tested these five as city break destinations over the last couple of years and had a whale of a time. Here’s why I think you might want to take a punt on them.
Cosy cafes in Vienna, Austria
The Austrian capital has a reputation for elegance and sophistication that doesn’t disappoint. It’s also famed for its cafe culture – and if you want to experience this at its best, visit in the autumn or winter.
I’d recommend heading off the beaten path and saying a polite nein, danke to the famous Café Demel and Figlmüller, where queues trail out of the door all day long. There are some absolute delights to be found elsewhere, without any hint of cliché. In the old town, seek out Kaffee Alt Wien that’s the epitome of old-fashioned Viennese coffee houses. Dark, smoky and eminently cosy, it’s charmingly real – a juxtaposition of excellent drinks and service with a delightfully dishevelled interior. I could have spent all day here.
Explore beyond the old town and you’ll find more fantastic coffee shops on almost every street corner. They’re packed with locals at any time of day, and the perfect escape from a chilly autumnal afternoon.
For seasonal colours, stroll along the canal or visit the Prater Park. Head away from the amusement park to reach the more natural woodland at it’s far end, meandering as you go. But if you want to see autumn in all it’s glory, you’ll need to hop on a tram.
A surprise at the city limits
Nussdorf is at the end of the line but less than half an hour from the city centre. And it’s a gateway to a world of the unexpected. Vienna is a wine-producing region, and Nussdorf is home to its vineyards. From here, there are miles and miles of wanderweg (or footpaths to us English-speaking folk) that’ll help you to explore this glorious little region. We ventured up the Kahlenberg for views over the city – only to discover it was so misty we could barely see a thing! But the vineyards themselves and winding trails more than made up for it, ablaze in greens and golds and bounteous with autumn fruits.
Nussdorf feels both a million miles from the capital yet curiously close-by.
Find out more about what to do and where to eat in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital.
Beauty on a budget in Tallinn, Estonia
There’s something very fairytale-like about Tallinn. You can’t help but fall for it.
The medieval old town is the heart of the Estonian capital, and more than enough to make you love this city. With it’s winding cobbled streets, ancient guildhalls and charming towers and spires, it’s picturesque – but without feeling false. There’s plenty to keep you occupied in the old town with some excellent museums, bustling basement bars and cafes and viewpoints just begging to be enjoyed at dawn and dusk. And here’s the thing – come in the autumn and you can enjoy it without the crowds. You find just enough other people to make the cafes feel cosy.
Step beyond the historic walls of the old town and you’ll find the colourful Teleskivi district. Home to covered markets, contemporary restaurants, Scandi boutiques and hipster bars, it’s what you’d expect to find in any Scandinavian capital. But unlike it’s neighbours a hop across the Baltic sea, it’s a fraction of the price.
If it’s autumn colour that you’re after, you won’t find much better than Kadriog park. A short tramride from the old town, this majestic expanse of woodland and lawns is enough to satisfy anyone’s urge to indulge in leaf-throwing. And if, like us, a smattering of snow brings a different colour to the park during your visit, the vibrant yet elegant traditional-style houses in nearby Kadriog neighbourhood will bring a smile to your face.
The best bakeries
Tallinn’s old town is brimming with delightful places worthy of stopping for a steaming cup of coffee. But trust me and head half a mile outside to Rotermanni. This former warehouse district is where you’ll now find chic bars and restaurants, and Rost Pagar – a bakery home to quite possibly the best cinnamon buns in the known universe. There is nowhere better for breakfast on a chilly autumn morning.
Read my complete guide to Tallinn in A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital
Fall foliage in Stockholm, Sweden
Don’t be put off by the northerly location of Stockholm – the dusky evenings and chilly air add to the atmosphere of this vibrant city.
Stop for fika
The Swedes love fika, a coffee break with a pastry or bake to nibble on. So Stockholm is packed with enticing cafes. In the delightful streets of the old town, they’re a little on the pricey side, but worthwhile as an exuberant treat just for the atmosphere. But wherever you go in the city, a good kaffe won’t be far away.
A patchwork of autumn colours
Stockholm is a city of islands, each characterful in their own way. I’d recommend spending some time exploring Djurgarden, close to the old town. It’s an enchanting place that’s a patchwork of formal gardens, wild woodland and ornamental buildings – with views across the water to the city centre.
Alternatively, head a little further out from the city centre to Hagapark. We arrived here on the most perfect autumn morning, all blue skies and cascading gold and copper leaves. Choose a woodland walk and kick up leaves underfoot or stroll through the more formal parkland. Look out for some of the more extraordinary buildings in the park, including the Chinese Pavilion and Copper Tents. These slightly magical additions were whims of Swedish royal family in the 18th century, who built Haga Palace at the centre of the park. It’s fun to plan a route around them.
Cooler evenings call for comfort food, and I can’t suggest better than the awesome Meatballs for the people in Södermalm. It’s one of Swedish-cool kind of places that you can’t help but like. The atmosphere is dark, cosy and candlelit and it’s a whole lot of fun. It serves everyone’s favourite Scandinavian dinner (homemade and organic, as a bonus) alongside local craft beers.
Bavarian beer halls in Munich, Germany
‘Oktoberfest’ I bet you’re thinking.
A bit obvious? Exactly. I don’t do obvious.
Whilst the world’s biggest beer festival takes over the Bavarian capital in late September and early October, don’t rule out this city once the festivities are over.
We visited at the end of October, and it was brilliant. The city centre is packed with monumental department stores, gothic civic buildings and some fantastic contemporary additions – like the Viktualianmarkt covered market.
But the real showstopper in Munich is the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the centre of the city. It’s here that the changing seasons come to life, with sweeping woodlands turning every colour of the rainbow. And even in October, the outdoor beer gardens are still packed as locals make the most of days light and warm enough to still be out.
The Englischer Garten can happily occupy hours of any visit, but once the sun starts to go down, what next?
Beer halls. You don’t need to visit during Oktoberfest to discover Bavaria’s brewing heritage and love of comfort food. There are beer halls open all year round and they’re fantastic. The Hofbrauhaus is the arguably the most famous – with 400 years of history and a cavernous interior it’s not hard to see why. But don’t just stop here. There are more peppered throughout the city, each with their own brews to try and different menus (although admittedly heavy on the mashed potato and pork). We also loved the Augustiner Brauhaus on Neuhauserstrasse for it’s cosy atmosphere and delicious Weissbiers.
Geography fans will tell you that Munich sits just on the northern edge of the Bavarian Alps. On a clear day you can see the mountains, but better still take a train out from the city centre towards them.
The metro lines will take you as far as Starnberger See, a vast alpine lake where the mountains meet the water and fantastic walking can be found. This is where the wealthy of Munich built extravagant summer homes in days gone by, and it’s glorious. Stroll around the lakeside, kick up leaves and reward yourself with a steaming hot chocolate in town.
Copper colours in Bratislava, Slovakia
Bratislava is an underestimated central European gem that’s perfect for a short weekend away.
The old town centre of Bratislava is charming at any time of the year, but in autumn you’ve got the best of both worlds. There are heaps of delicious cafes and bars to explore and none of the summer crowds to share them with. At the end of October when we visited, it was mostly locals these spaces with – and it helped us warm to the city all the more. Snuggle up outside with a blanket and a hot chocolate, and enjoy the architecture and the world passing by.
Walk up to the castle for displays of autumn leaves – complemented by the warm earthy tones and green copper roofs of the old town below. You’ll suddenly realise the whole town looks like it’s decked out to celebrate the changing seasons. Then there’s the sweeping, tree-lined Danube, drawing a line between the modern city and sprawling Slovakian forest on the other side.
Bratislava is less than an hour away from Vienna, so for bonus points combining both capitals into one trip. This is what we did – and I loved the contrasts between the two.
Find out more about Bratislava in my guide to Bratislava in a day: Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian style.
So there’s my highlights for exploring at this time of year – beauties any time, but extra special as the trees turn in colour and the nights draw in. The end of the summer doesn’t mean it’s no longer a great time to explore northern Europe – for me, it’s an even better time.
What are your favourite places you’ve enjoyed in the autumn? And where should I go next year?!