Where European travel is concerned, it’s often wise to look beyond peak season. Many of the continent’s key cities become tourist-choked in summer and draw hordes of market shoppers at Christmas, so the intervening period can be a hugely rewarding time to come calling. Crowds are fewer, prices are often more affordable and, in many cases, the weather is still balmy. Here are seven of Europe’s best urban destinations for autumn visitors.
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Italy’s Renaissance wonder is renowned for its art, its architecture – and its crowds. Arrive at the height of summer and you’ll find queues so long they bear an unwelcome resemblance to the endless procession of the Wise Men depicted on the wall of the Capella dei Magi. By the time September shifts into October, however, your chances of being able to enjoy the city’s great treasures without enduring interminable waits are significantly heightened.
Of course, Florence is popular for a reason. When you’ve had your fill of the spectacular museums and churches, you can browse the designer stores on Via de’ Tornabuoni, tuck into one the city’s specialty Florentine steaks or even head out of town to the wine-rich Tuscan countryside where, at this time of year, the region starts holding its harvest festivals.
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There’s never a bad time to visit Berlin, a city that sits comfortably with its reputation as one of Europe’s coolest and most creative capitals. The advantages of coming in autumn are many, with one of the most obvious being the spectacle of the city’s 440,000 trees filling the skyline with ochres, reds and russets. Try taking a park walk through the Tiergarten or, less centrally, the Grunewald.
Events-wise, upcoming dates to be aware of include the International Literature Festival (7-17 September 2016), Berlin Art Week (13-18 September 2016) and the Berlin Marathon (25 September 2016). The following month, meanwhile, sees the famous Festival of Lights (7-16 October 2016), during which many of the city’s major buildings and monuments are illuminated by bespoke projections.
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The Icelandic football team’s heroic showing at Euro 2016 gave yet one more good reason to love Europe’s most outlying nation, where the volcanic landscapes (and volcanic nightlife) have long drawn discerning travellers. Reykjavik, the country’s laid-back capital city, tends to be thrumming with visitors over the summer months. It’s a period when the sun barely sets on the island – the novelty of which appeals to many – but it also sees hotel rates at their highest.
By coming here in autumn instead, however, you’ll find accommodation costs are far more appealing while the weather is still conducive to enjoying the nature, wildlife and thermal baths that many come for. And by late September, the nights are drawing in sufficiently to give you a good chance of spotting the Northern Lights.
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When Post Office research named Lisbon as western Europe’s cheapest city break destination earlier this year, it threw further attention onto Portugal’s hugely likeable capital city. Spread over seven hills and overlooking the broad waters of the Tagus, it’s somewhere that rewards slow exploration; a city of late-night fado, cobbled lanes and rumbling trams.
One of the main perks of coming here over the autumn months is the mild climate. The city’s southerly location means that daily temperatures above 20˚C are still common, and the mercury rarely dips below 15˚C even in October. It’s a popular city year round (even in autumn, you’re unlikely to find the iconic Tram 28 anything but crowded) but you’ll certainly find smaller queues at the key sights – and even the Pastéis de Belém bakery, where you’d be a fool not to sample the deservingly hyped egg tarts.
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The Czech capital is another of Europe’s showpiece attractions that can feel smothered with visitors in peak season, but by mid-September there’s definitely a more relaxed feel to the city. And in addition to the main historic sights – which seem all the more stunning without the presence of endless tour groups – there are other good reasons to visit, not least the Prague Autumn International Music Festival, which runs this year from September 12 to October 1.
Another date to remember is September 28, when an annual national holiday is held in honour of St Wenceslas, the country’s patron saint (and the “Good King” of the Christmas carol). It’s a fine time to investigate the wine on offer at St Wenceslas Vineyard, based on the slopes of Prague Castle and notable for being the oldest vineyard in Bohemia.
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Brussels may have hogged the headlines recently, but in tourism terms it’s Bruges that remains Belgium’s go-to city break destination. A perfectly preserved maze of ancient laneways and medieval squares, it is unquestionably one of Europe’s most beautiful spots. It’s also one of its busiest, so it’s wise to time your visit well. In autumn, the air is crisp and the days are still reasonably long – although you’ll still have ample excuse to call into a café for a hot chocolate.
There’s far more to Belgian cuisine than chocolate, of course, and if you’re in town this year between September 24 and 26 you can make the most of the KookEet Festival, when many of the city’s leading chefs will be offering cut-price dishes. When the leaves start to turn, meanwhile, Bruges achieves the near-impossible by becoming yet more picturesque.
Palma de Mallorca
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The Balearic Islands have always been a banker when it comes to post-summer sunshine, and with average September temperatures always the right side of 20˚C, it’s hardly surprising. Mallorca has plenty going for it, with its rolling mountains and long beaches, but it’s far more than just a fly-and-flop isle, and handsome capital city Palma is well worth a visit in its own right.
Perched on the Med and dominated by a vast Gothic cathedral, it’s a fine place to wander with no fixed agenda – the labyrinth of winding lanes conceals some great markets, cafes, churches and restaurants. And by coming here between the height of summer and the rush of October half-term, you’ll benefit from having more space to yourself.