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Hot new city breaks! 

We all love the familiar but if you’re longing for an urban getaway without the crowds, it's time to drop the capitals and visit Europe’s lesser-known cities instead.

Capital cities totally hog the limelight when it comes to European weekend getaways, so most second, third and fourth cities stay happily under the radar. 

Sure we j’adore Paris, but we’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. Ok we didn’t really buy a T-shirt, we bought a handbag, but you can’t deny now feels the right time to mix it up a bit and city break somewhere less in-your-face and touristy and, dare we say it, more authentic. Marseille? Verona? Seville? Thessaloniki? We’re coming for you! 

MARSEILLE, FRANCE

What? Where?

Often overlooked and definitely underrated, France’s second city has something Paris can’t offer you; 26 miles of Cote d’Azur coastline including a harbour, sandy beaches and rocky coves. The weather’s another big allure, 300 days of sunshine a year including mild winters *packs over-sized sunglasses*. 

Cultural highlights

Split into quartiers, it’s a sprawling city but at its heart is the Vieux Port (old port), where fishermen still unload their catch each morning. Sightseeing’s got to include the magnificent Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, which sits on top of the city’s highest point. It’s a one-mile hike uphill to reach but worth it for the amazing 360˚ degree views. Can’t face the hike? Try Heetch, France’s Uber equivalent.

Eat & drink

Outdoor dining dominates here, even in winter. Apéro hour, like happy hour, is a time to unwind at sunset with a glass of rosé or local anise-flavoured spirit Pastis, best enjoyed at La Caravelle which dates back to the 30s and has a small terrace overlooking Vieux Port where you can pick on tapas while you sip. For the freshest seafood overlooking the ocean, book at table at Le Grand Bar des Goudes on the outskirts of Marseilles, it’s speciality is bourride (fish stew with aioli oil), but the sea bass and squid in garlic, parsley and olive oil are tasty too. You might be in France, but pizza’s a big deal here thanks to Neapolitan immigrants settling in the city last century – the classic comes with anchovies, try it at L’Eau a la Bouche. Oh pick up a chichis frégis, fried dough with sugar (a bit like a churro) from one of the many kiosks dotted around town – sinful yet also fabulous .

Stay

Perched on the seafront on the prized Corniche between the Old Port and Prado beach, nHow is such a fun, cool place to stay – expect sardine-shaped cushions and jellyfish lamps, an indoor-outdoor Sky-Bar, hip spa carved into the cliff-face and a massive outdoor pool overlooking the bay. Warning: you will not want to leave.  

Muddy insider tip

It’s not hard to find a socially distanced spot for a peaceful sunbathe – our tip is Anse de Maldormé, a pebble beach where you can go for a dip too. Oh and pack trainers – Marseille’s hilly!

How to get there

Easyjet flies to Marseilles from £45 return, or hop on Eurostar in the morning and be on France’s south west coast by 3pm.

VERONA, ITALY

What? Where?

Mouth-watering pasta, beautiful piazzas, posh shoe shops, ancient ruins – Verona has all the Italian city break essentials plus a whole load of extra pizazz. One of northern Italy’s most attractive cities, not far from Lake Garda, it’s easily explored on foot and relentlessly photogenic.

Cultural highlights

Start with a tour of the landmark arena – Verona’s amphitheatre built in the first century AD is where the famous operas are performed – then head to Casa di Giulietta in Via Capello, aka house of Juliet, heroine of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Some people are a bit sniffy about it (it’s not proven, it’s too crowded, blah) but come on, it’s Juliet’s balcony! It’s actually a lovely house to wander around even without the connection, but the queues can be super long, so our tip is to go first thing (8.30am). Btw there’s a bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard and it’s said you’ll be lucky in love if you rub its right breast (no, we’re not making this up to make you look silly).

Next up, head to the Capuchin Monastery of San Francesco al Corso, believed to be where the final events of the tragic play were set and just a beautiful place to wander around gazing at 16th-century frescos. Book worms will want to visit Biblioteca Capitolare, one of the world’s oldest libraries lined with priceless books and manuscripts. And if you want to see Verona from a totally different angle, go for a two-hour guided rafting trip on the Adiger River which carves through the heart of the city. Extreme adventure on a city break? Yes please!

Eat & drink

Dinner at Osteria Al Duca involves tucking into regional dishes like pappardelle with duck sauce served in the rustic surroundings of what was allegedly the Montague’s family palazzo in Romeo and Juliet. Be sure to try a glass of durello, the local answer to Prosecco, preferably at sunset on the garden terrace of Re Teodorico restaurant which lies in front of San Pietro Castle, so technically you’re sightseeing too.  

Stay

Escalus Luxury Suites lie on the Vicolo Are Marchetti in the heart of the city, about 30 meters from the ancient arena. While its facade might be old school grandeur, inside it’s all sophisticated furniture with an apartment vibe. Our glamour deluxe had a separate living room with tiny kitchen and sofa bed, ideal if you’re travelling with friends or family. A highlight was flinging open the tall windows and stepping onto a tiny balcony to see what glamorous Italians in the street below were wearing to the opera. Best people-watching ever. 

Muddy insider tip

Hunt out Giardino Giusti, tranquil hillside gardens planted in the 1400s and once frequented by Mozart. Stroll around and wait for musical inspiration to strike – might take a while, so pack a picnic and enjoy the views while you’re there. 

How to get there

Eeasyjet.com flies to Verona from London Gatwick from £59 return. 

THESSALONIKI, Greece

What? Where?

Thessaloniki might pop up as an option when you’re looking at flights to Greece, but other than that it’s a bit of a mystery, right? The country’s second city lies in the north edging the Agean Sea and is an unexpectedly brilliant place for a long weekend, taking just three hours flight to reach, warm for most of the year and with the added bonus of being a bit off the tourist track. Sure, it’s not as grand as Athens, but its mix of modern architecture and street art juxtaposed with ancient Ottoman monuments, Byzantine buildings and Roman ruins make it one of Greece’s best kept secrets in our opinion. 

Cultural highlights 

THESSALONIKI, GREECE – JANUARY 7, 2015

Climb Trigoniou Tower, set in the ancient walls, for sensational city and sea selfies. The White Tower down on the waterfront is another major landmark, you can climb steps to the top of this too then pop into the museum to get a better understanding of the area’s fascinating history. Ladadika, an old part of town where narrow streets lead to pretty squares lined with restaurants and bars, is a great place to simply wander.

Eat & drink

Everyone, locals and tourists, love Prytanio, a family-run, hillside restaurant that’s totally authentic and down-to-earth yet serves the city’s best moussaka, greek salads and sardines. Sempriko’s reputation for amazing food, think steaks in truffle oil and perfectly cooked risotto, is well deserved and its location, just inside the city’s western Byzantine Walls, only adds to the attraction.

Stay

Another bonus about holidaying in Thessaloniki is that hotel rates are far lower than you’d find in a capital city. Colours Urban Hotel (from £79pn) boasts it offers ‘luxury at a budget’ and to be fair it delivers. Apartments in a rainbow of shades come with loads of space, sofa and a polish that you’d expect in way more expensive hotels. It’s also bang in the centre of town close to Aristotelous Square, has a Massage.Me spa and lovely garden bar, a good spot to try some Greek wine or maybe brunch (or ask for a breakfast bag to be delivered to your room). 

Muddy insider tip

At sunset, stroll along the New Paralia (new waterfront) boardwalk, which links 12 parks where locals head to bike, listen to buskers, picnic and chat.

How to get there 

Ryanair flies from London to Thessaloniki from £52 return.

SEVEILLE, SPAIN

What? Where?

With more culture than you can shake a castanet at, Andalusia’s largest city has got it going on. Its great climate – steamy-hot summers and mild winters – means it’s great place to visit year-round to get your fix of fabulous food, buzzing bars and extraordinary Gothic, Moorish and Renaissance architecture.

Cultural highlights

You can’t miss the world’s largest gothic cathedral, which dominates the centre of the city and was built on a mosque – you can still see the original minaret today. Spend a few hours seeing the world-famous art collection, tomb of Christopher Columbus, gorgeous gardens and patio de los Naranjos, filled with 66 oranges trees and a central fountain. Seville’s Royal Palace, Alcazar, is another city highlight and if it seems familiar it might be because it was a filming location for Game of Thrones.

Eat & drink

Casa Vizcaino’s known for its vermouth and vibrant local crowd – everyone from students to business people and local artists spill out onto the pavement at dusk balancing their Andalusian olives and drinks. For tapas, it has to be El Rinconcillo, which has been serving up tasty bites like cod chunks in batter for 350 years.

Stay

A swim in the rooftop pool at Hotel One Shot Palacio Conde Torre (from £55pn) is a great way to refresh after a day’s sightseeing. Situated in the old town, this converted 18th century palace is spotlessly clean and even the most basic economy rooms have luxuriously soft linen, desks, rain showers and wood floors. Total bargain. 

Muddy Insider Tip

Not everything worth seeing is hundreds of years old! We love Metropol Parasol (locals call it las setas, the mushrooms!), a modern landmark that looks a bit like it landed from space; interconnected wooden structures on four levels, with an aquarium below, street stalls at ground level and viewing platforms and cafes on top. 

How to get there

British Airways flies to Seville from £80 return.

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