Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and what could be more romantic than whisking your beloved away on a European city break?
Naturally, the allure of couple-centric front runners – Paris, Florence and Prague – dominate the search bar for loving long weekends filled with tables for two, rose-strewn duvets and flutes of champagne amid intimate itineraries.
With these can come steep price tags, swarms of sightseers and impossible restaurant reservations – all things that are sure to kill the mood.
This year, forget the hearts and flowers heavyweights vying for the crown of the city of love – opt instead for an under-the-radar alternative for better value, fewer tourists and just as much opportunity to hold hands and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes...
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Swap Dubrovnik for Pula
With a prime spot on the Mediterranean, promenades of sophisticated seafood spots and distinctive medieval architecture, the cobbles of Dubrovnik are undoubtedly a haven for lovers and the proclaimed “Pearl of the Adriatic” welcomes hoards of visitors to its sun-kissed walls year-round.
An escape to frequently neglected Pula in northern Croatia offers an amphitheatre of Roman ruins to wander, a ragged coastline for bathing and authentic tavernas to taste pours from the Istria wine region without the perpetual hustle of southern hotspot Dubrovnik. Savour sailings watching the dolphins dance, Mediterranean meals beginning with pršut ham and local olive oil, and lively nights in buzzing bars post sunset in Istria’s historic main city.
Where to stay
Relax mere metres from the Adriatic, float hand in hand in a heated outdoor pool or stretch out during a couples massage at the stylish Boutique Hotel Valsabbion just 10 minutes from the heart of Pula.
Trade Venice for Annecy
Annecy in south-east France is known as the Venice of the Alps – and for good reason. This medieval canal city has several waterways running through the centre, fed by the neighbouring Lake Annecy, set to a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks.
It also features a charming old town with cobbled streets and pastel houses; the Château d’Annecy, which looks like it fell straight out of a storybook, looms large, and is now home to a museum. The city rivals Venice for picturesque beauty and has the additional boon of the glorious lake, which visitors can explore on pleasure boats or on foot, following the trails around the water’s edge.
Where to stay
Located on the banks of the Vassé Canal, the contemporary Le Splendid Hotel faces Lake Annecy with old-town gift shopping, the fairy tale Palais de l’Île museum and idyllic boat tours at your fingertips.
Switch Florence for Ferrara
Florence may be the cradle of the Renaissance, but the reasons tourists flock there – world-class art, architecture, food and drink – can be found elsewhere in Italy. The oft overlooked city of Ferrara, sat between Venice and Bologna, is a serious Renaissance art destination, plus a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its proximity to better-known cities makes it a relatively quiet option, with less competition to see the signature Castello Estense, a giant castle complete with moat in the city centre, and various palazzos boasting fine frescoes and examples of Renaissance art.
Food-wise, there are plenty of trattorias serving up traditional Ferrara dishes, such as cappellacci di zucca (pasta filled with pumpkin, parmigiano cheese and nutmeg) and pasticcio di maccheroni (a sweet-crust pie with a macaroni, béchamel, dried mushroom and truffle filling).
Where to stay
With wooden beams, rich red accents and antique furnishings there’s a warm ambience to the Princess Art Hotel that encapsulates an era bygone. Think cosying up by the fire, unwinding on the garden patio and making the short stroll to Este Castle.
Change Bruges for Strasbourg
Bruge’s pretty market squares, cobbled streets and soaring church spires mimic a medieval fairy tale. The drawback? These attractions also attract huge numbers of tourists. Find a quieter yet equally charming base in Strasbourg – the underappreciated Alsace gem on the French-German border that combines the best of both.
Half-timbered, colourful old buildings lining winding streets give their own take on fairy-tale style, while cosy winstubs (traditional Alsatian taverns) welcome travellers for food and drink. Get a cultural fix at the 18th-century Palais Rohan, dubbed a “Versailles in miniature”, or go more modern with a visit to Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, which features works by Kandinsky and Picasso.
Where to stay
The grand 16th century Hôtel & Spa Le Bouclier D’or has preserved its historic splendour amongst the waterside timbers of “Petite France”. Le Bouclier d’Or even hosts a steamy hammam, moody wine bar and impressive views of Strasbourg Cathedral.
Substitute Prague with Äeský Krumlov
Plentiful beer, architecture that roams from Gothic to baroque to art nouveau and a maze of pretty, cobbled streets – Prague has all you need for a romantic break. And, apparently, for a less-than-romantic stag do.
Escape the morph-suit-clad crowds this Valentine’s Day by travelling to Äeský Krumlov, a pint-sized Prague in Czechia’s south. With it’s own Unesco status, plenty of Renaissance architecture to admire and a fairy tale castle perched above the Vltava River, this small scale town blends the highlights of the capital with peaceful and responsible tourism.
Where to stay
For riverside accommodation in Äeský Krumlov, Garni Hotel Castle Bridge sits on the Vltava River with views that stretch to its iconic stronghold. Picture hearty breakfast platters on the banks and spacious double rooms just a stone’s throw from the main square.
Replace Paris with Bordeaux
Hailed as one of the world’s most romantic cities, Paris attracts more than its fair share of lovebirds. But those looking for good food and wine and a chance to brush up their langage de l’amour should look further south for all the romance with less of the cliché.
Bordeaux offers a compact city centre, pedestrianised boulevards and restored neoclassical architecture at every turn. Swap the Eiffel Tower for the Miroir-d’eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool, take advantage of the city’s illustrious wine heritage in the Cité du Vin museum, and forget Notre Dame – Bordeaux’s Cathedral of Saint Andrew is a Gothic masterpiece in its own right.
Where to stay
A dream for couples, luxury is king at Villas Foch in downtown Bordeaux. Here, a world-class spa meets romantic Juliet balconies, indulgent pâtisserie and swirls of red in the dimly lit bar.
Read more of on the best romantic hotels in Europe