Europe’s best city breaks with beaches


Europe’s best city breaks with beaches

From pebbly Nice to powdery Palermo, the Continent is rich with beach-blessed cities

Leon Beckenham

BY Leon Beckenham27 April 2024

Traipsing around a sweltering metropolis is hardly the most hankered-after of holiday experiences. Unless, of course, the city in question boasts the addition of a scenic shoreline, where you can combine your urban explorations with a rejuvenating dip-and-flop by the sea. Here’s our pick of the best city breaks with beaches in Europe.


Rooftop swimming pool overlooking the terracotta roof tiles of Lisbon. Bright blue skies and gleaming sunshine beams down on to the green sun loungers and parasols.

Not so long ago Portugal’s capital was barely a blip of a destination on most travellers’ radars. Its status since, however, has been catapulted from long-overlooked day-trip curiosity into one of Europe’s hippest of hotspots. Today it seems everyone’s clamouring to sing the praises of the Continent’s westernmost capital, and it’s easy to see why.

From its seven cinematic hills to cobble-street-traversing trams, buzzing nightlife neighbourhoods to quaint old coffee houses, the place boasts a cornucopia of city-break-friendly features. And that’s before even extolling its sandier bits.

Although you can’t quite flip-flop out of the centre and onto a stretch of golden coast, you’re a quick cab-hop from the nearest beach Praia do Dafundo. This is the first of a series of laid-back beaches that dot the coast and lead to one of Lisbon’s finest, Carcavelos Beach – also a top spot for swoony sunsets. A mere 20 minutes away by road is another string of breezy-but-beautiful beaches that start at Praia de São João and look out over miles of wild Atlantic Ocean.

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When its cobbled arteries aren’t clogged with throngs of day-trippers disgorged from recently docked cruise ships, Dubrovnik’s frozen-in-time Old Town has to be one of the most enchanting places in Europe. And wedged between rugged coastal sierra and sparkling Adriatic, its geographical setting only adds to its shamelessly romantic charm.

With its photogenic movie-star looks, its status as the most filmed location in Croatia comes as no surprise either. But Dubrovnik’s appeal extends to more than just an Insta-friendly city break – beyond all the baroque is plenty of beach beauty too.

Barely a sweat-breaking stroll from Old Town is Banje Beach, with its mixture of white pebbles and (rare for Croatia) even a patch or two of sand. You even still have views of the old city walls and pretty Lokrum island opposite. Skirt a little further along the coast and you hit the secluded cove of Sveti Jakov, a cliff-enclosed beauty on the edge of town.

But if you’d rather somewhere with a little more zhuzh, head to the aptly named Copacabana Beach. It might not be as big as its Brazilian namesake, but an oh-so-chic beach club will soon have you humming that song as you sip caipirinhas sprawled on a circular sun lounger.

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Aerial view of Vergine Maria Beach, the azure blue sea meets sun striken white sands. The white walled, terracotta roof tiled town is in the shadow of the mountains.

The island of Sicily conjures images of citrus-scented landscape, sleepy medieval towns, and scenery whose serene bucolic beauty has been praised by poets through the ages. Stroll around its capital Palermo, however, and you discover a dizzying metropolis of sprawling streets, churning traffic and a wonderfully jumbled collection of architecture ranging from gilded opulence to graffiti-spattered.

It’s a pulsating millennia-old city whose richly layered history can be witnessed around every corner, where crumbling stucco and the smell of sweet pastries follow you around a labyrinth of shady lanes and abruptly peaceful plazas. And when you’re done with your urban wandering, it’s got beaches too.

If you don’t want to drift too far from the city, Vergine Maria Beach is a perfectly pleasant swathe of public beach, popular with locals and loomed over by craggy Monte Pellegrino.

Easy to reach by public transport and the area’s most cinematic sweep of powder-fine sand is Mondello, a long golden bay with painted-plank beach huts, canary-yellow parasols and gently sloping shallows. And if you don’t mind it rocky, neighbouring Addaura Beach is a stretch of sand-free coast where you can leap right in to that impossibly cerulean sea Sicily is known for.

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Hotel restaurant and terrace at sunset. It's a warm summers evening and the floor to ceiling windows and doors are wide open. The bay and the mountains are in the distance with the watercolour sunset painting the sky. You can just see a hint of the town in the distance.

Torn between which of these French Riviera rivals to choose? Then don’t; include the pair. Both occupy an enviable stretch of the Côte d’Azur, with playground-for-the-prosperous profiles and a rather lovely collection of Belle Epoque architecture.

Nice is the much larger and laid-back of the two, with an old-school glitz that evokes the era when the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Coco Chanel would drop into town. Cannes’ glamour is a little more du jour, thanks largely to the film festival that attracts the annual A-lister assemblage.

As far as their respective beaches, sorry Nice, but the miles of soft golden sand that line Cannes’ coast are some of France’s finest. Its main city beach runs along La Croisette, sections of which have been claimed by the bigger hotels.

Along from the ritzy yacht marina, the beaches start again in a seemingly endless strip of powdery plage. That said, if you prefer the smooth clunk of sea-polished pebbles, the Nice coast is a scratchy-sand-free treat.

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Porto from the waterside, the terracotta roofs glowing in the sunset

Porto has so many superb stretches of sand, it’s easy to see it as an Atlantic beach resort with a city attached – and what a city. Rising up from the banks of the Douro River, terracotta-roofed neighbourhoods are woven with cobbled lanes and dotted with Baroque churches and Neoclassical buildings, funded by the city’s once-booming commerce.

The riverside barrio of Ribeira is a wonderful place to unwind with a glass of the eponymous fortified wine overlooked by azulejo-clad buildings and Porto’s iconic Luís I Bridge.

But back to the beaches. Running alongside Porto’s main oceanfront road is a series of sandy bits starting with Carneiro and ending at the vast Praia de Matosinhos. Hop over the marina and the beaches start again and lead to Piscina das Marés, a pair of tidal swimming pools. All along this scenic sweep of Atlantic coast you’ll find yellow sand, spectacular sunsets and excellent surf conditions for much of the year.

There’s even that city-beach rarity, a lovely white-sand beach that’s rarely crowded and where clothing is very much optional at Praia Cabedelo do Douro.

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Rooftop swimming poor with the sun bouncing off the clear water. Sun loungers have pride of place next to the swimming pool. The infinity rooftop pool looks out over the trees and the ocean and palm trees are in the distance. Bright blue skies overhead.

With its soaring sandstone cathedral, palm-studded boulevards and sunny Mediterranean disposition, the Mallorcan capital has always had enough appeal to pull visitors from their poolside lounger for the day.

Today, savvy travellers know Palma as a visit-worthy destination in its own right, with a slew of sexy design-forward hotels, top-notch dining scene and plenty of after-dark swagger. What’s more, you don’t have to hit the beach resorts for some sand-and-sea action.

The city’s main golden stretch is the beach of Can Pere Antoni, almost a kilometre of sandy shoreline flanked by a pair of beach clubs and an easy stroll or cycle along the coastal promenade. Push a little further east and you hit laid-back, buzzy Portixol, with its pretty shingle-sand bay and cluster of sea-view restaurants.

The sand starts again at neighbouring Molinar and extends unbroken to family-friendly Playa Ciudad Jardín. For that beach resort feeling a mere five-minute cab-hop away, Cala Major comes complete with on-the-sand chiringuitos and beachfront eateries dishing out cold cañas and summery tunes.

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Culture and coastal lazing crash into each other like waves hitting sand in Barcelona. Maybe you’ve come to admire Gaudí’s fairy-tale masterpieces (Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, Park Güell…) or the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, to watch Flamenco dancers strut their stuff to castanet clicks, watch Barca play, see the dedicated Picasso and Miró museums, or dig into millennia of history.

But, once you’ve rambled up and down La Rambla, succumbed to the moody antique charms of Barri Gòtic, ticked off El Born’s sights and revelled in the freewheeling bars of El Raval, you might just want to spend a day flopped on soft sands, and – as luck would have it – Barcelona’s edged in powdery gold (around three miles of it to be precise).

Your entry-level playa is super central Barceloneta, which isn’t exactly undiscovered, but serves for a few mojitos worth of your time. To the east, Mar Bella is action-packed with areas for skateboarding, basketball, ping-pong and volleyball and there’s a kids’ play area, but parents should note that this is clothing-optional in parts. For quieter stretches, head a little beyond the city to Sitges or Little Beach House Barcelona where you can sunbathe restfully by the Bay of Garraf.

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