Ochre coloured houses along the riverside in Girona, Spain | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Why you should choose a small city for your next weekend break

If you’re short on time, nothing beats exploring a small city. A few days is long enough to really get to know, and get under the skin of, a place – something that’s much harder in a some of Europe’s bigger urban centres. Here’s why I think you should choose a small city for your next weekend break, plus my suggestions for some of Europe’s best.

I love a weekend getaway.

Take a pinch of time that usually passes by too quickly, and shake things up. Head off somewhere new, and in just a few short days you can feel like you’ve had a proper break – and had the chance to explore.

But to really make the most of a short time away, I’ve got a trick that makes a huge difference.

Choose a smaller city.

There’s a couple of great reasons why;

  • You can get a really good feel for a small city in a few days. Tackle a major capital, and you’ll feel like you’ve only just scratched the surface. Give yourself a fighting chance to fall in love with your destination.
  • Small cities tend to be easy to travel around. Spending time on trains and buses eats into time that could be spent having fun, so pick somewhere you can navigate on foot.
  • Pick somewhere smaller, and you’re less likely to be contending with a crowd. You can spend a little more time living like a local (and pay local prices).

 

Great cities pack a punch whatever their size. Bigger isn’t always better.

‘So where should I go next?’ I hear you cry. Here’s my favourite small cities in Europe that I think are perfect for a weekend away.

Tallinn, Estonia

When you think of northern European destinations, Tallinn probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Whilst Scandinavian giants like Copenhagen and Stockholm have blossomed in popularity in the past few years, the Estonian capital has managed to remain relatively under the radar.

But after just a few hours, you’ll be wondering why on earth Tallinn hasn’t hit the limelight. Packed with fairytale architecture and Scandi charms, it’s an irresistably likeable place – and one that comes with a far friendlier price tag than it’s bigger neighbours.

Tallinn’s full of fantastic juxtaposition. You can hop from medieval castle walls to contemporary Nordic restaurants, historic guild houses to hipster cafes, all in a matter of minutes. There’s rambling cobbled streets and ancient walls to be discovered in the old town, beautifully traditional wooden Baltic townhouses and street markets to be found in Kalamaja, and chic bars and coffee shops to curl up in the redeveloped Rotermanni district. And that’s all without mentioning the huge parks and waterfront promenades that contribute to Tallinn feeling very green and open.

For something a bit unexpected, step a little way beyond the wonderfully-named Balti Jaam market (just outside the old town) and you’ll find Telleskivi. This Soviet-era warehouse district is a joyous splash of colour on a cold day. It calls itself a creative district, but I’ll let you decide. A cluster of stylish Scandi shops, craft beer bars, contemporary eateries – like the fabulous F-Hoone – and street art murals, it’s a bohemian yet sophisticated contrast to medieval Tallinn.

Getting to Tallinn

Tallinn airport is the cherry on the cake of this small city. Compact, comfortable and surprisingly stylish, it’s an efficient and not at all unpleasant airport to travel to. Immediately outside the front doors you’ll find a new tram stop, where for €2 a frequent service will whisk you into the centre of the city in just over 15 minutes.

Read more: A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital

Girona, Spain

Just half an hour north of Barcelona is the small Spanish city of Girona, a cornucopia of Catalan charm – but minus the crowds. Unlike it’s near neighbour, it manages to remain a little off the beaten path, which only adds to its delights.

Sandwiched between the Costa Brava, snow-tipped Pyrenees and bright lights of the Catalunya capital, Girona is a city brimming with centuries of history. You won’t struggle to find fabulous architecture or authentic tapas in this university town. Explore the fantastically well-preserved Arab baths, picturesque cobbled streets of the Jewish quarter and stretches of Roman wall that make up the patchwork heritage of this city.

Then there’s the jewel-coloured townhouses that line the Onyar river. Discovering characterful streets, churches and squares of the old town will keep you entertained for hours, revealing secret passageways and hidden views at ever turn. But if the cosmopolitan charms of Barcelona get too tempting, never fear. It’s just over half an hour away by commuter train – and a day trip is an easy and approachable way to enjoy the Spanish giant.

Girona is blessed with a wonderfully green periphery of fields and woods that stretch away from the city streets in every direction, until they meet the mountains or the sea. Make time to explore on foot or cycle, following the Vies Verdes greenways that extend out from the city centre into the verdant countryside.

Getting to Girona

Flying to Girona is easier than you might think. The city’s airport is often labelled Barcelona (Girona) by many budget airlines, and offered up as an alternative to the pricer alternative on the edge of the big smoke. But keep an eye out for the GRO airport code and skip the transfer to Barcelona on arrival – you’ll find you’re just over fifteen minutes from the centre of Girona by bus.

Carcassonne, France

If French culture and cuisine sounds like a recipe for success, then Carcassonne might be the alternative weekend destination you’ve never heard of.

Situated in the south-west of France, it’s a part of the world you might normally think of as a summer destination. You’re less than an hour from the Med after all. But trust me, it also makes a great location for a short break.

This charming city is everything that Paris isn’t. Easy to navigate, laid back and delightfully authentic. In the French capital, the biggest challenge is dodging tourist-trap restaurants – but in Carcassonne you’ll struggle to avoid the bounties of this lush agricultural landscape. It’s a city brimming with fresh, local produce and regional wines.

You might recognise the fairytale turrets of the walled medieval city, but there’s much more to see. Less well-known are the cobbled alleyways, covered markets and traditional cafes of the old town below, that date largely from the 18th and 19th century. They’re packed with the authentic flavour of the Languedoc: charming, characterful and bustling with locals.

If you want to get a feel for the rest of this region, you only need to follow the languous Canal du Midi that sweeps through town. Stroll along the shaded waterside and you’ll soon find yourself deep in vineyards and just a couple of kilometers from unspoilt winemaking villages. Alternatively, explore the paths that meander alongside the banks of the river Aude for glimpses of the nearby Pyrenees on a clear day.

Getting to Carcassonne

Ryanair is your partner in crime for getting to Carcassonne. On arrival, the airport is a short bus ride or taxi from the city centre. And once you’re in town, it’s easy to explore on foot. The regional rail station sits alongside the canal, offering swift connections to other towns in the south-west – ideal for onward connections or a day out.

Read more: A beginner’s guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

Bruges, Belgium

For a city with medieval proportions, Bruges certainly packs a punch. If fantastic Flemish architecture, charming ancient windmills, meandering canals and as many waffles as you eat appeals – then this Belgian gem might be for you.

Now, it’s important to say that Bruges does draw a crowd. It’s a people-pleaser and rightly so. But I wanted to include it in this guide is because it’s so easy to escape the masses. Step a few streets beyond the main square and you’ll have the place to yourself.

The beautifully unspoilt streets of this Belgium beauty are a big attraction here. As are the canals that encircle and intersect the town. Look out too for the little parks that line the canals in places, and the ancient windmills and churches that pop up unexpectedly throughout the city. Bruges isn’t big, but it’s so densely packed with interesting things to see and do you’ll be happy exploring here for days.

For a different perspective, scout out the footpaths that run alongside the outer ring of canals. These canals mark the boundary between the old and new town, and the banks are peppered with interesting parks, monuments and windmills (some of which are open the public).

And lastly, I couldn’t mention Belgium without mentioning food and drink. Flemish food is hearty, and entirely delicious on a cooler day. Think homemade fries, beer-braised beef and sweet waffles thick with whipped cream. That’s just for starters. It’s brewing that the Belgians are best at, and there are plenty of places to enjoy it here – from contemporary bars to traditional brasseries specialising in some of Belgium’s rarest brews. Even if it’s not your usual tipple, I’d really recommend getting in the spirit of things and trying some local Belgian-style beers.

Getting to Bruges

Bruges is an hour by train from Brussels. The Belgian capital is easy to fly to, but also has excellent high-speed rail links to many major European cities. For a seamless journey, you can book direct rail tickets to Bruges from many major European cities (including Paris and London) with Eurostar. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the journey.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

The Slovenian capital is my latest discovery, and to my surprise somewhere I’m already wishing I could head back to.

Ljubljana breaks a lot of rules – in a good way. For starters, it’s a pocket-sized capital. It’s also very green, extensively pedestrianised, wonderfully laid-back and ridiculously affordable. A glass of wine in a smart bar will set you back no more than €1,50, even in peak season.

The thing is, the Slovenian capital doesn’t feel like a capital at all. Although there’s an awful lot to see and do, it feels like a small town. That said, there’s more than a slight hint of Viennese glamour. Both Vienna and Ljubljana are home to many Art Deco beauties by the architect Josef Plecnik, whose work shaped the two cities in the early twentieth century. But there’s also an enticing Mediterranean influence. Sitting south of the Alps and only a stone’s throw from the coast, there’s an inviting cafe culture where bars and restaurants exuberantly spill onto the cobbled streets close to the river. It’s a city that begs you to unwind and enjoy.

But there’s also more than meets the eye. A town has existed on this stretch of the Ljubljanica river for more than 2,000 years. History fans will enjoy exploring Ljubljana’s Roman past, hidden in plain sight amongst the streets of the city. Fantastically well-preserved remains of Roman villas, expanses of Roman walls – start your journey at the city history museum and you can happily spend half a day exploring an unexpected side to the Slovene capital’s past.

Getting to Ljubljana

It’s easy to find flights into Ljubljana internation airport, and from here it’s a case of hopping on a bus that’ll take you straight to the city centre.

Read more: Not just another city guide to Ljubljana, Slovenia

Have I tempted you with ideas for your next weekend escape? I hope so.

And I hope that I’ve concinced you that you don’t necessarily need to go big or go home. Small cities are cosy and inviting, and often easier on the wallet than their larger neighbours. Try somewhere petite, perfectly-formed and packed with things to do – you might just be surprised.

Let me know if you’ve any great recommendations. I’d love to hear of more towns you’d rate as unexpectedly good short break destinations.

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Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
12 Comments
  • Kylee
    Posted at 08:06h, 10 November Reply

    I love this post! I am totally 100% a “small city” gal as well. Plus I’m in Tallinn for the first time so seeing that at the top of your list made me smile!

    • Alice
      Posted at 08:28h, 10 November Reply

      Thank you Kylee! And I hope you’re having a wonderful time in Tallinn, it’s such an interesting and fun city. We had snowfall during our stay this time last year and it was just magical.

  • Anisa
    Posted at 08:10h, 10 November Reply

    I agree I love smaller cities. Some of the ones I have loved recently are York, Cambridge, and Oxford in England, Colmar in France, and Riga in Latvia

    • Alice
      Posted at 08:29h, 10 November Reply

      Oooo, thank you for the great ideas! Love Cambridge, so we’re hoping to make it Oxford soon. And Riga looks great, very much on my travel wish list.

  • Kiara Gallop
    Posted at 08:38h, 10 November Reply

    Love this post! I’ve either been to these cities (Girona and Ljubljana) or they’re on my list. Totally agree that small cities can present a much better experience. They’re also great if you’re travelling solo as it feels tons safer when you’re wandering around a small city at night 🙂

    • Alice
      Posted at 13:13h, 10 November Reply

      Thank you Kiara! I’m glad there are other travellers out there who love smaller cities – and I think you make a great point about safety. Happy travels – I hope you make to some more cities on this list!

  • Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays
    Posted at 10:52h, 10 November Reply

    Great list I would add Norwich and Antwerp

    • Alice
      Posted at 13:14h, 10 November Reply

      Yes, absolutely! Antwerp is somewhere I’m really keen to visit, it looks great.

  • Becky
    Posted at 13:45h, 10 November Reply

    I have Estonia and Bruges on my list for next year. I’d like to visit some of the other cities nearby too, any recommendations for cities to visit on a day trip?

    • Alice
      Posted at 16:09h, 10 November Reply

      Both are fantastic for day tripping elsewhere. If you’re in Bruges, I’d recommend Ghent. It’s only 40 minutes or so away by car – although I believe it’s also easy by train. It has many similarities to Bruges only it’s a little bigger with more of a business district. We found great places to eat here, and found it a little cheaper as it’s a university town with many student-friendly venues. From Tallinn, it’s surprisingly easy to hop across the Baltic sea to Helsinki for a day. Although it sounds crazy, take the car ferry as a passenger rather than the speedcat – the crossings are more reliable out of season and you can make the most of your time with a coffee on the boat, which you can’t do on the smaller service. Hope you have a wonderful time!

  • Katie
    Posted at 18:16h, 10 November Reply

    OMG I’m so glad Girona is on the list! I actually flew into Barcelona, did a day trip to Montserrat and that night left for Girona. I still haven’t seen Barcelona. I learned that small cities are much more enjoyable due to lower amounts of tourism. And they pack just as much, if not more, charm! Thanks for putting this together!

    • Alice
      Posted at 14:13h, 11 November Reply

      Thanks Katie! It’s a really cute city isn’t it? Barcelona’s great, but Girona is a real breathe of fresh air. I feel like I almost see and do more in a small city because it’s not as overwhelming as somewhere like Barcelona.

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