The European city break: engaging, enlightening and, sometimes, ever-so-slightly exhausting. But with this quintet of captivating cities you can take your foot off the sightseeing gas by combining cultural kicks with beach-based down time – from San Sebastián to the shores of Greece and beyond.
San Sebastián’s constellation of star-studded restaurants is outranked only by Kyoto. But perhaps less well-known is this Basque city’s pulling power when it comes to beaches: namely, the shell-shaped La Concha, but also surfer-summoning Zurriola and volleyball-hit Ondarreta, flanked by the lush green hump of Monte Igueldo – which you can summit via funicular for bird’s-eye views of the coast. A great way to combine coast with cutting-edge cuisine is Akalarre – with three Michelin’s to its name, plus glass-walled rooms and vertiginous clifftop terraces that survey the Bay of Biscay. Tire of fine-dining and you won’t be disappointed. Post-beach-bites include Gerald’s Bar, run by a Melbournite who became so besotted with this Basque beauty he decided to open an outpost of his Aussie original here, and the restaurant within Arima hotel for its commitment to earthy, organic ingredients sourced from surrounding farms.
The behemoth of beachside city breaks lays on sand in spades – with three miles of the white stuff spanning the Catalan capital’s front shore. Nearest are Platja de Sant Miquel and Sant Sebastià, biggest and best-known is La Barceloneta, while Platja de la Nova Icària has calm waters and coastline views back across to the city. You could easily spend days dipping your toe in different stretches, which is why Barcelona makes the perfect extended city stay. But you’ll also want to make time for the Gaudían architecture and gastronomic high notes, covering the full gamut from the ex-El Bulli chefs manning the kitchen at Michelin-starred Disfrutar to the contemporary, forward-thinking tapas at Bicnic in Eixample. For a sandside spot that doesn’t rely purely on the virtue of its location, seek out Red Fish on Moll de la Marina.
Sure, in Greece’s capital you’ll want to tick off the Acropolis – or simply admire it from the restaurant, rooms and roof terrace of AthensWas. But once you’ve swirled through the city-centre crowds and mused at this craggy landmark of Western Civilisation, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a beach in reach. Stretching along the Saronic Gulf is an area known as the Athens Riviera – which reaches from Glyfada to Cape Sounion and congregates most vividly around the limpid waters of the Vouliagmeni peninsula. Here, you can spend a morning at Lake Vouliagmeni, with its arched limestone cliffs and underground hot springs, then hire a boat from Kavouri beach to explore tiny inlets and islands, before collapsing for sunset cocktails and dinner at all-day beach club Krabo on Zoska Bay, where dishes of shrimp, octopus and more are fished fresh from the Aegean each day.
Palma’s prowess as a stand-alone city break is growing with a heady mix of Moorish architecture converging at La Seu cathedral, a tangled old town studded with tapas bars and a deep-blue bay that gives way to innumerable beaches. But you don’t have to travel far to find sand: skirt east along the water’s edge to tick off sandy calas and the fishing village of El Molinar, with its whitewashed buildings that shelter shoreline seafood restaurants. Within a 20-minute drive, there’s also Illetas and Cala Pi to plumb for their pristine plunge-inducing waters. Also worth checking out are chiringuitos – the Balearic answer to beach bars – the nearest of which you’ll find at Roxy Beach Club Portals. For an even smarter addition, stay and play at the Sea Club of Cap Rocat hotel, whose commitment to comida informal sees the menu focus of grilled meat and fish with chilled wine and crisp Mediterranean views (March to October).
Views of the Gulf of Naples and the brooding, black hulk of Vesuvius dominate the Campanian capital. There aren’t beaches in the city, but never has the sea felt so present than when walking along the pedestrianised waterfront close to Castel dell’Ovo, scoping out Capri on the horizon. To reach actual sand, you’ll need to head to the affluent Posillipo suburb – local outfit Bike Tour Napoli runs cycling and kayaking tours. After which, you’ll have worked up an appetite to taste-test the city’s most celebrated export – pizza – with margherita and marinara (historically the only two toppings, both created in Naples) on the menu at in-the-know parlour 50 Kalo, in the smart Chiaia neighbourhood. Where to stay? Romeo Hotel for its sea-surveying rooftop pool and Vesuvius views.
For more out-of-the-blue escapes, explore our coastal hotels across Europe.