Travel Gourmet’s Top 5 City Breaks
I’ve been writing this food and travel blog for nearly six years so it’s not surprising that I often get asked where I most like to travel to, and which are my favourite restaurants (usually referring to hometown London). Most of my travelling is city breaks: 3 or 4 nights in the heart of a city where I explore local sights and where I can find wonderful food. I never want to travel to a place where I can’t find great food! I blame it all on my parents who took me to posh restaurants and Italian delis in Soho before I could walk properly; for whom a ‘treat’ always involved food. This love of food, from cooking myself to editing cookery books years ago; searching for great places to buy food; eating in wonderful restaurants or having coffee and pastries in fabulous cafés, has never left me. If I find great food in a great city, then all the better.
I like going back to cities I particularly love – Amsterdam, Venice and Turin. Each time I find something new; each time I try to do something new, something I haven’t done before, whether it’s eating in a new restaurant or seeing a sight I haven’t visited before. But I also love that comforting feeling of familiarity; knowing the place well enough to know where you definitely want to head back to, not having to rely on a map all the time. In between these ‘favourite’ visits, I also want to search out some new. I love arriving in a new city that’s a big open adventure for exploration.
There are meals that stand out: years and years ago in Venice at Corto Sconto with my daughter; a restaurant (then) with no menu, only Rita, the owner, who told us what there was to eat. We went back a few times in following years but sadly the last time it had changed a lot, Rita had gone, and I haven’t been back since. I remember a glorious evening of food in Madrid’s covered market, Mercado San Miguel: a huge glass-covered market, lit up at night, where you push your way between crowds of happy eaters and drinkers to a different stall for each tapas or glass of wine or sherry, for each has their own specialities. I remember the taste of true Napoli pizza at Pizzeria Matteo in Naples; the glorious Risotto Torcello at Locanda Cipriani in Venice. And I remember one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had at Osteria Francescana in Modena in 2014, just days after it had been voted 3rd best restaurant in the world (last year it was 1st!).
Favourite cities though, while I want to find good food, aren’t necessarily about where the best restaurants are. A city is more than its food – even Bologna and Turin! I’m looking for some culture; I’m looking for attractive architecture; I’m looking for friendly people who make me feel welcome in their city. I like a city that’s compact enough to explore mainly on foot when I’m there for just a short break; I don’t want to have to keep jumping on buses or the metro. Good food stretches to a perfect slice of apple pie with coffee mid morning in Amsterdam; a bowl of thick homemade soup with dark rye bread in a Dutch bar at lunchtime; a plate of delicious tapas in Spain; a glass of prosecco and plate of cicchetti overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice. It’s knowing where to buy amazing chocolate spread (no, not Nutella!) in Turin. So, here are my favourite of the cities I’ve visited since starting the blog – and I plan to go back to every one of them sometime!
I have a long history with Amsterdam, from staying in a youth hostel there with a school friend in my late teens; to semi living there for a couple of years when I was married and my kids were young; to regular visits over the last 4 years. It’s a city I never tire of and the only one, apart from London, I can truly imagine living in. It combines a laid-back, relaxed ambience with a thriving cultural, intellectual, sophisticated life. It has a beauty, perhaps even prettiness, that is like no other. To walk its canals in the heart of the old city is a timeless delight; the tall 17th century houses that line the main canals of Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizergracht still speaking of the Dutch Golden Age.
Food isn’t always good in the Netherlands, it has to be said, but fantastic food can be found in Amsterdam, from traditional fish dishes, Indonesian food and modern European. It isn’t a place I go to for the food, but it is a place where I always find good food and have a few favourite restaurants, like De Reiger. For more see What to Eat and Where in Amsterdam and The Traveller in Amsterdam.
I’ve been to Turin twice in the last six months. I never go to cities twice in one year! But I fell in love with Turin, a little unexpectedly, when I first visited it last September and one weekend just wasn’t enough time to explore and enjoy it. But how could you not love a city with 18km of beautiful arcades?
A city that is full of beautiful historic cafés and is the home of chocolate?
And serves aperitivo at lunchtime as well as evening?
I wanted to go there because as the capital of Piemonte, one of the great food and wine regions of Italy, I knew I would eat and drink well. But it turned out to be so much more than a foodie destination. I also love the hotel I found, Grand Hotel Sitea, which is located in the heart of the city and a short walk to pretty much anywhere you want to go. For more, see A Weekend in Turin and Turin: Historic Cafes, Chocolate & Aperitivo.
Venice is another city with which I have a long history, featuring in various stages of my life, and a place with memories of lovely holidays with my son and daughter but somewhere I’m also totally happy on my own. It gained a particularly special place in my travelling heart when I discovered Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo in 2006, a hotel I’ve returned to a number of times, last in 2015, where I always receive a warm welcome from owners Walter and Sandro.
People are often surprised I love Venice so much. Isn’t it terribly expensive! Isn’t it smelly! Isn’t it too crowded! It can be all these things, but it’s also beautiful and if you know it well you can avoid the crowds and find quieter and less expensive places to eat. I partly love it because it combines city with water. One moment you’re in a busy, vibrant city but a few minutes later, just a vaporetto ride away, you can walk along the Lido’s beaches and breathe in sea air. You can go to a concert of The Four Seasons in Vivaldi’s church; you can take a boat trip to Murano and see where beautiful (if also some tacky touristy) glass is made. You can visit the tranquil island of Torcello. And of course there is the food: gorgeous little cicchetti snacks by the Grand Canal early evening with a glass of prosecco (which comes from Veneto) or perhaps eat a seafood risotto (the Veneto is the birthplace of risotto).
Like many people, I thought about going to Bilbao purely to see the famous Guggenheim Museum; San Sebastián had been recommended to me as a destination because of its foodie credentials. I went with my good friend Annie and we decided to have one night in Bilbao and two in San Sebastián. It turned out that Bilbao had much more to offer than the Guggenheim, which is magnificent to see (though its actual art collection is less impressive), but the old part of the city is so attractive with lots to do and great places to eat that we could easily have spent longer than 24 hours there.
San Sebastián was great too. It lived up to its foodie recommendation and we ate tapas – known there as pinxtos – that were amazing. The sophistication, complexity and creativity of these tiny helpings of food were beyond any tapas I’d experienced before. It was such fun too, moving from bar to bar as the locals do, ordering a drink and a couple of pinxtos, then moving on to the next bar and ordering more.
And there’s the beach to enjoy as well, making it a wonderful destination for a city break with seaside benefits. This dual destination is easily done in a short break – a bus from Bilbao takes you to San Sebastián in about an hour; a bus from there will take you directly to Bilbao airport, again in about an hour. For more see 24 Hours in Bilbao and 48 Hours in San Sebastián.
Nice has that – for me – perfect combination of city and sea. It has a glorious long beach – made famous in paintings by Raoul Dufy – and the pretty old town is full of fabulous restaurants, bars and cafés. Once, until 1860, it was part of Italy and thus combines some of the best French food with some of the best Italian food. Indeed you’ll often hear Italian spoken as you wander through markets and there are plenty of Italian restaurants as well as French.
Nice has a strong art history, not only Dufy, but you’ll find Matisse’s home to visit here and Musee Marc Chagall.
The city became popular with the English in the late 18th century as a destination for its health benefits and mild winters and even gave their name to the 4km main promenade by the sea – Promenade des Anglais. For more see Five Nights in Nice – Eat, Drink, Do.
I hope you might be inspired to visit some of my favourite cities if you don’t know them already.