When a break with beaches and bars just won’t cut it, you want to know more about some of the most cultured of our European counterparts. I’ve taken a look at European cities big and small where history combines with all sorts of things – World War II memorials, space-age architecture, abandoned airfield parks, sky-high dining, and even the Holy Grail. Read on to choose your next spot for a cultural holiday.
I couldn’t write a cultural guide to Europe and miss off the joint winner of the European Capital of Culture 2018, Valletta. The award will bring a schedule of cultural events to this already storied walled city, built around a grand 16th century fortress. The whole of the Maltese capital has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the high concentration of historic sites. Wandering around the palaces, cathedrals, fortifications, museums and archaeological sites of this beautiful and tiny city is a beguiling pastime.
At noon, be sure to head to The Upper Barrakka Gardens, which were built in the 17th century as a private garden for the Knights of Malta, to hear the cannons being fired. As the administrative centre of the Maltese islands, Valletta is also home to the Parliament Building, which sits in contrast to the predominantly very old buildings in the city. Designed by modern architect Renzo Piano, it’s elevated on stilts and has gained admirers for its sleek good looks, using Valletta’s iconic pale stone.
Known as a hotbed of vegan food and electronic music, you can party all night in Berlin, eat your way through the morning and if you have enough energy leftover, explore the city’s many interesting sights. The Brandenburg Gate is a grand, 18th-century symbol of German reunification that’s worth a look, or head to the top of one of Berlin’s other iconic buildings, the TV Tower (Fernsehturm), for 360-degree views across the city.
If Germany’s World War II history intrigues you, learn more at the Jewish Museum, Memorial to Murdered Jews and Topography of Terror. You can also head to the Berlin Wall Memorial to see the remaining piece of the wall, which is now the longest open-air gallery in the world. Wander the 1.3 kilometres to view modern art and read up on the history of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin also has many green spaces, including Botanical Gardens with 22,000 different species and 15 greenhouses. And Templehofer Feld is a huge abandoned airfield in the middle of the city that people use as a place to picnic, barbecue, skate, cycle and relax, with fireworks often going off on the weekends.
In Athens, much attention is given to the old buildings such as The Parthenon – built way back in the 5th century BC as a temple to the goddess Athena – and The Greek Parliament, built as the royal family residence in the 1800s. As well as the iconic Acropolis, you should also check out its utterly modern neighbouring museum, which tells of the archaeological wonders of the area.
Stepping away from history, Athens has much more in store, including over 100 open-air cinemas playing classics and modern films. Close to the Greek Parliament is a stunning 24-hectare public park known as the Royal Garden, but whose official name is the National Garden. A great place to get some shade or wander the vegetation dotted with statues, there’s also a small zoo, a cafe and duck ponds.
To experience nights with a difference, start with an al fresco dinner at Dinner in the Sky revolving restaurant. You’ll eat your five courses 50 metres in the air, looking out over Athens, the sea and mountains, and the Acropolis, lit-up at night. Then, why not head to one of the best bars in the world? The Clumsies was voted number six in the World’s 50 best bars of 2017 for its warm welcome, clever cocktails and range of spaces to dance and chill out.
Valencia is many things – the third largest city in Spain, the home of paella and one of the oldest cites in the country, as it was founded by the Romans in 138 BC. With its history comes beautiful buildings covering numerous periods, and with its scale and importance comes modern amenities and architecture.
The Gothic Catedral de Santa Maria de Valencia is said to house the Holy Grail, and the Palacio del Marqués de dos Aguas is a beautifully rococo home to National Museum of Ceramics. But switch it up with some ultra-modern forms over at the City of Arts and Sciences entertainment complex, designed by famed Santiago Calatrava. Built in the bed of the rerouted River Turia the park contains the Palau de les Arts opera house, a science museum and Europe’s biggest aquarium, as well as Turia Gardens, where you can cycle all the way from the park to the beach.
If you’re jetting off on a cultural getaway soon, check out my top tips for easy holiday planning to make sure everything’s in place before you go.