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 it might just be the best time of year to explore Northern Europe. Trees ablaze with fall 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 copper and gold, Northern Europe comes alive. It’s the perfect time of year to find out what Europe is really like, rather than the version intended for summer travellers. And I much prefer it.
It’s easy to worry about unreliable weather and shorter days, but the truth is that you won’t even notice if it’s a little inclement when there’s so much to see and do. You’ll find heaps of local events, fabulous seasonal foods and plenty of places to snuggle up indoors with a comforting coffee or craft beer if the weather isn’t quite up to scratch. With it being cooler, it’s also a better time to head out on foot and really get to know a place – it’s my favourite time to go stomping through drifts of leaves to discover new parks, museums and beautiful streets.
For the ideal autumn destination, there are two must-haves for me;
1. Open spaces to explore and experience the changing colours of the season
2. Great places to cosy up indoors to escape cooler days and nights
There are four cities that I think fit the bill perfectly – Stockholm (Sweden), Vienna (Austria), Munich (Germany) and Bratislava (Slovakia).
I’ve tried-and-tested these four cities over the last four years and had a whale of a time. I’d go back to each of them in a flash. Here’s my top tips to inspire your own adventure.
Autumn 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 beautiful, vibrant city.
The first thing that struck me about Stockholm was how immaculately well-cared for this city is. Locals take great pride in their capital, and the city streets manage to be immaculate without feeling false.
Secondly, you can’t miss the Swedes love of fika, a coffee break with a pastry or bake to nibble on. So Stockholm is packed with enticing cafes. In the old town, they can be pricey, although for a one-off treat it felt like an exuberant delight. But wherever you go in the city, a good kaffe won’t be far away – so don’t be put off.
Stockholm is a city of many islands, each characterful in their own ways, with watery views around every corner. I’d recommend spending some time exploring the island of 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 these bewitching additions.
Cooler evenings call for comfort food, and I can’t suggest better than the awesome Meatballs for the people in Södermalm. It’s a bit of a hipster Swedish-cool kind of place that serves everyone’s favourite Scandinavian dinner alongside local craft beers. The food is homemade and organic, the atmosphere is dark and cosy and candlelit and it’s a whole lot of fun.
Cosy cafes in Vienna, Austria
The Austrian capital has a reputation for elegance and sophistication that doesn’t disappoint. It’s also famed for it’s cafe culture – and if you want to experience this at its best, you’ll want to visit in the cooler half of the year.
I’ll be honest and say that I can be a little sceptical of anything that falls into the category of ‘most famous for’ when visiting a new city, as it can also often mean clichéd, crowded and inauthentic. But provided you steer clear of Café Demel and Figlmüller, where queues trail out of the door day-long, there are some absolute delights to be found. 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 spend 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.
Nussdorf is at the end of the line but less than half an hour from the city centre, and well within the city limits. And it’s a gateway to a world of the unexpected. Vienna is a wine-producing region, and Nussdorf is the home of it’s vineyards. From here, there are miles and miles of Wanderwegs (or footpaths to us English-speaking folk) that’ll help you to explore this glorious little region that feels both a million miles from the city centre yet curiously close-by. We ventured up the Kahlenberg (more of a hill than a mountain) for views over the city – only with our usual luck to discover it was so misty we could barely see a thing. But the vineyards themselves and winding trails were a joy, ablaze in greens and golds and bounteous with autumn fruits, and more than made up for it.
Read more about my adventures in Vienna in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital.
Bavarian beerhalls 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, you shouldn’t rule out this city once the festivities are over.
We visited at the end of October, a few weeks after the excitement had died down. It was brilliant. Firstly, you can explore without the crowds. It’s a charming city centre packed with monumental department stores, gothic civic buildings and some fantastic contemporary additions, such as the Viktualianmarkt covered market. But the real showstopper is the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the centre of the city. It’s here that feels really alive as the seasons change, with sweeping woodlands turning every colour of the rainbow and outdoor beer gardens 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, that’s what. 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, and 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 beer halls peppered throughout the city, each with their own brews to try and different menus (although admittedly heavy on the mashed potato and pork in most). 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. 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.
Fall colours in Bratislava, Slovakia
Bit of a left-field choice this one. But 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 have to share them with. At the end of October, when we visited, it was mostly locals we met and enjoyed these spaces with – and I think it made us warm to the city all the more. Think cosy coffee shops with cafe tables outside and colourful blankets to wrap yourself in whilst you enjoy a hot chocolate or two.
Walk up to the castle for displays of autumn leaves to look down on – 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.
Bratislava is less than an hour away from Vienna, so for bonus points try to combine 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?!)