5 of the best winter city breaks
Taking a city break in winter has advantages over a peak season jaunt. Queues are shorter, museums less crowded, you can bag a table in the best restaurants – and the locals will be pleased to see you.
Mediterranean glamour in Nice
With its face to the Med, protected on three sides by hills and mountains, Nice leads a sheltered life. That’s why it used to be the darling winter retreat for the British aristocracy.
It’s the fifth-largest city in France, but is still almost provincial at heart. The old quarter is a warren of ochre and terracotta buildings, mostly 17th and 18th century with Baroque flourishes. Cours Saleya is the hub. Go in the morning when the fruit, veg and flower market is in full swing, and again from lunchtime onwards when most of the stalls vanish and restaurants take over, spreading their tables under the traders’ awnings.
Pissaladière, a Nice speciality
Enjoying lunch alfresco in January, while the rest of France shivers, is by no means out of the question. Try the fishy
Les Dents de la Mer
(2, rue St François de Paule; +33 4 9380 9916), the one with the oyster shucker at work outside, or the atmospheric, nicotine-shaded
(5 Cours Saleya; +33 4 9380 8240), which serves treats such as pissaladière (onion tart with olives and anchovies) and De Bellet rosé.
(2 place Rossetti; +33 4 9380 7252) is the place for ice cream, with more than 70 flavours to think about, from basil and tomato to Grand Marnier. For more serious dining, try the menu dégustation at
(37, promenade des Anglais; +33 4 9316 6400), inside the white-and-pink-domed Negresco hotel, or the Palais de la Mediteranée’s
(13 Promenade des Anglais; +33 4 9214 7700).
A long walk under the palms on the Promenade des Anglais (pictured, above), browsing the elegant boutiques around Place Masséna and visiting the modern art collections (France’s most impressive outside Paris) are all on the essential highlights list. If you’re in town at New Year there’ll be music and fireworks, best seen from the beach, while for February’s Mardi Gras, Nice becomes the Rio of Europe, with a procession of floats and flower-throwing, followed by fireworks and the burning of the carnival king.
: Three nights’ B&B at the four-star
Hôtel La Perouse,
including flights from London and transfers, cost from £459pp with
(020 7593 2283).
Café society in Vienna
Winter in Vienna can be bitterly cold yet invitingly cosy. There are scores of historic cafés where the experience is about as far removed from a large, frothy Starbucks as you can get. Favourites include
(Herrengasse 14; +43 1 5333 76426), an old literary/politico hangout, and the 18th-century
(Kohlmarkt 14; +43 1 5351 7170), a dark-panelled, gilded and chandeliered grotto of gateaux. For more hearty food, combined with a warm-as-toast atmosphere and traditional dishes straight from Vienna’s imperial heyday, choose one of the many snug beisl (pubs), such as
(Reindorfgasse 17; +43 1 893 2407) or
(Fleischmarkt 11; +43 1 963 1030).
Grab a creamy coffee in cosy Café Demel
Looking for a more gastronomic experience? Consider
Meinl am Graben
(Graben 19; +43 1 532 3334;) located on an upper floor of Vienna’s top food shop. For a giant of a wiener schnitzel head for
(Wollzeile 5; +43 1 512 6177) or, for the equally famous tafelspitz (boiled beef with rösti potatoes and spinach),
(Wollzeile 38; +43 1 512 1577) is the place. If you’re in town on New Year’s Eve, consider a ticket to an Imperial Ball, which you can book through Regent Holidays (see below) – but beware the price; the most lavish cost in excess of £600pp.
: Three nights’ B&B at the five-star
, with flights and transfers, cost from £740pp with
(0845 277 3317).
Party till dawn in Madrid
Compared with Paris, Rome and Amsterdam, and even its arch rival, Barcelona, Madrid has few must-see sights, icons or works of architecture. Its weather can also be seriously cold in winter. But – and these are big buts – there are three very good reasons for taking an off-season break to the Spanish capital. One, though chilly, Madrid can be beautifully blue-skied in winter. Two, it’s a great time of year to go to the pictures – the art collections of the Prado, Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums are among the best in the world (and best enjoyed in crowd-free bliss). And, three, the nightlife is excellent.
Madrid never sleeps but eats, drinks and dances until dawn. Make a slow, nibbling start to your evenings with tapas in a classic bar such as
(Calle de las Huertas 18; +34 91 429 9356),
(Plaza de Jesús 4; +34 91 429 2243) or
La Taberna de Antonio Sánchez
(Calle de Mesón des Paredes 13; +34 91 539 7826). Then go – late – to
(Cava Baja 35; +34 91 365 3252), where the King of Spain, President Clinton and Penélope Cruz (at different times) have all tucked into its acclaimed suckling pig, cooked in a coal-fired oven. Or try
(De La Bola 5; +34 91 547 6930), which has been serving traditional dishes such as cocido (a rich stew cooked in earthenware pots) since the 19th century. For top food served by opera-singing waiters, go to
(Covarrubias 25; +34 91 448 3810).
Chocolate con churros, a perfect New Year snack
If you’re in town on New Year’s Eve, save room for a dozen grapes, traditionally eaten in time to the midnight chimes, followed by a mug of chocolate con churros (thick, sweet hot chocolate with a fried pastry).
: Three nights’ B&B in a three-star hotel, including flights, cost from £229pp with
Get romantic in Venice
From now until Easter, Venice is spared the usual heaving mass of tourists that clogs the narrow arteries and lurks in six-deep homage to the watery city’s works of art.
It is a city restored to the Venetians, a time when you can also relish what the locals call its sugo (sauce), as well as avoiding the heat, humidity and high prices of summer. If you’re lucky, a mist may drift in from the lagoon like a phantom, shrouding the canals in an opaque, spooky silence.
Don’t expect an over-abundance of gastronomic treats in Venice but there are some worthy places if you know where to look. For an early lunch, go to the tiny
Trattoria Alla Rivetta da Lino
(Sestiere Castello 4625; +39 041 528 7302), behind the Bridge of Sighs, then take to the water. Buy a 24-hour pass and hop on vaporetto (water bus) number 1 along the Grand Canal. It’s the most glamorous high street in the world, lined with fancy-fronted medieval palaces including Tron, the 15th-century home of one Filippo Tron, who gained immortality as the man so fat he eventually burst – so watch out for those big piles of pasta.
Gondolas on one of Venice’s many canals
For dinner, you might want to try the romantic
Osteria alle Testiere
(Calle del Mondo Novo 30122; +39 041 522 7220) or, tucked down an uninviting alley just two minutes from the Rialto Bridge,
(Calle della Madonna San Polo 594; +39 041 521 0167), where the speciality is fish and the prices are reasonable. For Sunday lunch, hop on a vaporetto to the cathedral island of Torcello and the
(Piazza Santa Fosca 29; +39 041 730150; closed January). Sip a coffee to the sound of a palm-court band at
(+39 041 520 5641) or
(+39 041 522 2105) on Piazza San Marco, dubbed by Napoleon “the finest drawing room in Europe” – although the bill will seem like a doge’s ransom. Our top tip for dinner in Venice, though, is the
(+39 041 528 5281), again near the Rialto, where you can dine on the lightest gnocchi, followed by perfectly cooked fish, with a tart to round off the meal. It’s not fine dining but it’s memorable.
The Venice carnival takes place over a spectacular 10-day period each February but such is the festival’s popularity that, to be sure of a hotel room, you ought to start planning this year if you want to go next.
: Three nights’ B&B at the four-star deluxe
Hotel Londra Palace
, including flights and water taxi transfers, with tickets to the Doge’s Palace, cost from £644pp with
(020 7593 2283).
Feel the magic in Marrakech
With luck, the weather will be perfect – warm and sunny during the day, revealing the snow-capped Atlas mountains stretched like a frieze across the horizon. Marrakech is one of the most intriguing cities in the world. The main square, Djemaa el Fna, with its acrobats, storytellers, snake charmers and musicians, looks like a backdrop for a medieval fantasy, with the nearby souk an equally enthralling experience. Take an extra suitcase as you’re bound to shop.
Smoke-wreathed food stalls in Djemaa el Fna
Tagine and couscous, plus pastilla (pigeon pie), tend to dominate the culinary experience but many places, such as the exotic
(79 Derb Sidi Ahmed Soussi; +212 (0)524 382929), add romantic Arabian extravagance to the experience. Arguably the best dining in town is to be had at
(22 Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien; +212 (0)524 444052), a restored riad where the feast is enormous (there’s no menu), and
(55 Souk Hal Fassi; +212 (0)524 378190), another converted riad down a dark alleyway with French-Moroccan dishes and a rooftop bar. Stay at
La Maison Arabe
(1 Derb Assehbé Bab Doukkala; +212 (0)524 387010), a pair of Arabian Nights-style riads, with a legendary restaurant – visited by Churchill among others – and a dada (traditional Moroccan housekeeper) offering cookery courses. It has 26 rooms, a heated pool and a spa with two hammams (Turkish baths) to warm your cockles should the nights be a little chilly.
: Three nights’ B&B at
La Maison Arabe
, including flights from London and transfers, cost from £625pp with
The Best of Morocco
(0845 026 4585).