2020 travel: Ideas for weekends away in Europe

Granada's Alhambra set on the hill with trees and bushes below

By Emma Marshall

I was fortunate enough to visit some amazing places in Europe during 2019.  All of them had a diverse range of interesting things to see and do, and were perfect weekends away.  So, if you’re looking for ideas for weekends away in Europe in 2020, read about some of destinations that stood out for me.

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A short break in Gibraltar

A monkey sat on a rock in front of the Rock of Gibraltar.  You can see the sea in the background

I started the year with a short break in Gibraltar in January.  

This UK territory offers some fascinating things to do (click here for examples of things to do and tours you can take). The sunny climes were also the perfect antidote to the winter weather back in the UK.  The days were warm and the clear skies meant great views over to Spain and Morocco.

The size of Gibraltar – it’s only 2.6 square miles – means that you can a see a lot in just a couple of days.  Most of these will centre on the Rock of Gibraltar.  

This is hardly surprising since at almost 1,400 foot, it’s impossible to go anywhere without staring up and seeing it towering over you. 

Go to the summit of the rock

I took the cable car to the summit.  This enabled me to capture some breathtaking pictures of the views out across the Straits of Gibraltar.  

The Rock of Gibraltar and a view point overlooking it

Meet the monkeys

You also get to meet the resident barbary macaque monkeys, the only wild troop to be found in Europe.  

Three Gibraltan monkeys on a railing overlooking the land and sea

The monkeys wander around wherever they want.  However, they can be found in certain places, for example the aptly named Apes’ Den.  

Be amazed by St. Michael’s cave

I then walked back down the Rock to the town which was a really pleasant downhill stroll.  I stopped off en route at St. Michael’s cave, one of the highlights of my trip. 

Inside St Michael's cave.  You can see stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave.  They are lit up in green with a small part that is blue
Inside St.Michael's cave.  You can see huge stalacmites here.  They are lit up in purple.

You must go inside to see the huge stalactites and stalagmites which are lit up in bright colours.

Learn about the history

Gibraltar has a fascinating and unique history. For example, you can visit the Great Siege Tunnels that were created from the late 1800s. 

Tunnels were bored into the rock in an attempt to hoist a gun on the outside of the rock face and as part of the defence of Gibraltar from France and Spain. 

A tunnel inside the Great Siege Tunnels

There are also the World War 2 Tunnels that were excavated to provide space for military equipment during the conflict and as a secure site to protect troops.

Gibraltar has other things to do and see as well, including other museums, a small botanical garden and nearby beaches.  

Read my post for more details on these and for 5 must do things on a short break in Gibraltar. 

For tours that you can take in Gibraltar, click here.

You can fly to Gibraltar from various airports in the UK, including London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Flights also go from Tangier and Casablanca in Morocco.  You can walk into the main centre from the airport.  

2 days in Verona

The second of my weekends away in Europe in 2019 was to Verona in northern Italy in February.  It didn’t match Gibraltar for weather (it rained a lot!), but this didn’t detract from the fact that this historical and world famous city is absolutely gorgeous.

Famous for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Verona has a plethora of sights and things to do. However, it is small enough to walk around and see most, if not all, of them.  

My post sets out a two-day itinerary that you can do on foot.

Piazza Bra in Verona.  You can see the colourful buildings with their awnings.  The ground is wet from rain.

Start at the Arena

Your 2 days in Verona should start with a visit to the Roman Arena which sits majestically in the centre of Piazza Bra. Built in the 1st Century AD, it predates the Coliseum in Rome.

Verona's Arena.  The ground in front is wet from rain.

Even now it hosts massive concerts for up to 15,000 people.  It is worth the 10 euros to explore.  

You can then visit the small castle – Castelvecchio – by the river, before moving on to the Piazza del Erbe.  This is a perfect spot to stop for coffee and lunch.  

Climb the Torre dei Lamberti

You’ll also find the Torre dei Lamberti here, a Romanesque style tower dating back to 1172. It is 84 metres high and has 368 steps to the top.

The Torre dei Lamberti.  You can see the tower here with its clock on the front and smaller viewpoint at the top

Visit the Casa di Giuletta

On day 2 of your break in Verona, I’d advise getting up early and going straight to Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s Balcony).  Despite Juliet being a fictional character in Romeo and Juliet, this is the place where she is said to have lived. 

You can gaze up at the famous balcony and look at the bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard.  For 6 euros, you can visit the small museum inside the house (the bed used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of the play is on display).

The bronze statue of Juliet at Casa di Giulietta.  She is wearing a dress and is stood on a pedestal.

Walk to the Ponte Pietra

From here, you can then walk to the city’s Duomo, a stunning catholic cathedral.  Nearby is the Ponte Pietra, the oldest bridge in Verona.  This was one of my favourite places in the city.  

The Ponte Pietra bridge in Verona.  This has arches and there are buildings and a tower in the background

Climb to the castle and look out over the city

From the bridge, you can look across the river to the opposite bank, with its tall cypresses, and the castle, Castel San Pietro, perched on the summit. And if you cross the bridge, you can see the Teatro Romano (Roman Theatre) and climb up the hill to the castle.  

The Castel San Pietro.  This is a modestly designed building.

This is a quite modest castle, but the views from here over the city and river are incredible.  

Click here for my itinerary for 2 days in Verona.  

You can fly to Verona from various European destinations, including London, Frankfurt, Palermo in Sicily and Tirana in Albania. There are also flights between other mainland Italian cities.

To get to the city from the airport, you need to take a bus which drops you at the main train station. You can then walk into town (although depending on where your hotel is, it might be quite a long walk) or take a taxi. 

A short trip to the Netherlands: Visiting Keukenhof

Flowers  at Keukenhof.  These are white with yellow and pink stripes

In March, we took a trip to the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. This is around a 30-minute trip from Amsterdam.

Covering more than 30 acres, and with an estimated 7 million bulbs that will bloom,  it’s known as the ‘Garden as Europe’.

Although it is a garden, walking through Keukenhof is a bit like visiting a flower festival. It has a great atmosphere.  

On the day we visited there were fairground type organs pumping out music in various spots, a folk group singing and dancing, and a brass band marching through the grounds.  

There is also a playground and small petting zoo that children will undoubtedly love and a canal that you can take boat trips on. For views across the area, you can also climb a windmill.

The windmill at Keukenhof.  This is besides the canal and you can see people halfway up on a platform overlooking the gardens

But the gardens here are the real spectacle.  They really are beautiful. 

For the most part, the gardens are neat, tidy and ordered.  The bulbs, which were bursting into bloom when we went, have mainly been planted in beds and designed along carefully considered patterns. The upkeep of these must be phenomenal. 

These are of all shapes, sizes and colours – long narrow strips, wide sweeping displays, circles of flowers linking to yet more circles, and long swathes that follow the small river that runs through the garden.  

Flowers beds at Keukenhof.  This is a circle - white flowers with a pink centre.  You can see the trees and river
Flower beds in stripes.  There are yellow, red and white stripes.

There are colours galore: reds, yellows, pinks, purples, oranges and whites, along with whole patches of beautifully striped flowers. It really is a burst of springtime from every angle.

I’d definitely recommend visiting Keukenhof and I’d love to go back some day.  

Keukenhof 2020 season

Keukenhof 2020 opens on 26th March and runs until 10th May.

The theme for 2020 will be “A World of Colours”.  Read my post for more information on visiting Keukenhof.  

For tours that will take you to the gardens (sometimes combining this with other things to see in the Netherlands), click here.

The neat flower beds.  There are criss criss beds - purple, yellow, pink and blue.  You can see the trees and the river to the left

You can catch flights to Amsterdam from all over Europe. Flights from other continents also arrive here (e.g. from Bangkok, Seoul, Tel Aviv).

From the Amsterdam, it is around 30 minutes to the gardens.  You might also want to combine a visit with staying overnight in others Dutch cities – e.g. The Hague, Delft or Haarlem which are also nearby.  

We day tripped from Leiden where we had stayed overnight.  It was then a 25-minute journey on a dedicated local bus that had been put on to take you to the gardens.  This ran from the bus station outside the train station directly to the entrance of Keukenhof.

Visiting the Alhambra on a weekend in Granada

Of all the weekends away in Europe I could have chosen, visiting the Alhambra was always at the top of my list.  And I finally got to go in 2019.

The oldest part of the Alhambra - a fort structure.  You can see cypress trees outside it
Part of the Alhambra.  You can see a small structure with a couple of towers surrounded by trees

Part palace, part castle and part a stately home with gardens, it did not disappoint. A UNESCO world heritage site, it covers an area of 35 acres and is set in dramatic surroundings on the main hill overlooking Granada in southern Spain.  

Looking out from the Alhambra over the city.  You can see the small houses and trees in the distance

If you plan on visiting the Alhambra, there are a few things you need to consider. My post outlines 7 top tips to help you do this.

Top tip: book tickets in advance

These tips include booking your Alhambra tickets a long time in advance.  When I was researching my trip, tickets were sold out for the next two months. So don’t leave this until the last minute as you will end up very disappointed (click here to book advance tickets).

Top tip: consider booking a tour

You may also want to consider booking a tour when visiting the Alhambra. This is what we did. Although it was more expensive to do it this way, the additional cost to have a well informed guide with us was definitely worth the price. 

There are so many different parts to the Alhambra, and so much to learn about the history behind each one, that having someone to guide you through all of this really adds to the experience.  You can get ideas for some of the guided tours you can take here.

Top tip: Don’t miss the Nasrid Palaces

My top tip would be make sure you don’t miss going to the Nasrid Palaces.  There are several sections of the Alhambra that you can visit for free.  However, the Nasrid Palaces is not one of these.  But they really do have that wow factor and are not to be missed.  

Part of the Nasrid Palaces.  You can see the outside of a court with a canal leading up to it and neat hedges alongside

It sounds a cliche, but you will be blown away by both the interior and exterior designs.

The intricate designs inside the Nasrid Palaces.  You can see an ornate white arch with windows and a green Moorish design below

Top tip: view the Alhambra from the Mirador de San Nicholas

Finally, if you enjoyed visiting the Alhambra, don’t miss seeing its full glory from the Mirador de San Nicolas viewpoint.  This is at the top of the adjacent hill in the Albaicin district of Granada.  

From this unrivalled vantage point, you are afforded the most picturesque and uninterrupted views of the Alhambra as it sits majestically across the valley. It’s from here that you really appreciate just how vast the entire complex is and what a feat it must have been to construct it.  

The Alhambra set high on the hill with trees and bushes below.

Granada itself is a charming city with plenty to do besides visiting the Alhambra.   A weekend in this Moorish city is definitely one to put on your list.

You can fly to Granada from several places in Europe, including London, Milan, Naples, Paris, Berlin, Manchester and Nantes. To reach the city from the airport, you can catch a bus. This takes around 45 minutes and costs 2.90 euros.

Tavira: a long weekend in Portugal’s Algarve region

We decided that we would take a long weekend to the south of Portugal over the summer.  Portugal is a favourite of ours and we fancied a bit of summer sun.  

However, we also decided we wanted to go to somewhere a bit quieter. Somewhere away from the some of the busier resorts in the coastal region.

So we settled on Tavira in the eastern Algarve. This is around 38 kilometres from Faro and 25 kilometres from the Spanish border.

Chill out in Tavira

This was a more chilled out break for us where we didn’t need to sightsee at the same pace as some of our city breaks.  

We took advantage of the warm weather and the town’s array of modestly priced restaurants where you can eat fresh fish al fresco.  We also visited the beach on the Ilha de Tavira, a short 20 minute ferry ride away from the town centre.

The beach at the Ilha de Tavira.  You can see white sand with a boardwalk in front and sun beds and coverings

Wander through the pretty town centre

Back in central Tavira, you can wander through its pretty streets with their colourful buildings, and see the Roman Bridge (Ponte Romana de Tavira).

The colourful buildings in Tavira old town

Tavern's Roman Bridge.  This is white and stone with arches

Surprisingly, this is not in fact Roman, but was probably named for its location on a Roman road that passed through the town. It’s the perfect spot to be at sunset, with the light going down over the river Galao.

See Tavira from up high

There’s also the Camera Obscura which describes itself as “an experience beyond imagination!”. Based in the old water tower, it uses a mirror and two lenses to allow you look down on the town in real time.

Tavira's Camera Obscura in the old water tower

And through the use of a pulley, the guide is able to shift the angle of the cameras to take you on a 360-degree tour through all of Tavira’s different districts.  It’s fascinating to visually explore the town from this vantage point.

Wildlife spot on the Ria Formosa

Wildlife lovers can also cruise along the Ria Formosa, a natural wetlands park.  This stretches some 60km along the Portuguese coast, and is an extensive network of wetlands, salt marshes and canals.

It’s perfect for anyone who has an interest in nature or conservation (click here for tours you can book along the Ria Formosa).

Use Tavira as a base and day trip elsewhere

Tavira’s location also means you can day trip to other places in the region: Faro, the region’s capital, Seville in southern Spain, and some of the more rural areas of southern Portugal.  Click here for ideas of things you can do outside of Tavira.

Click here to read my full post on our long weekend in Tavira.

You can fly into Faro airport cities such as London, Dublin, Belfast, Lisbon, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. 

There are then two main ways to get to Tavira from the airport: by bus from outside the terminal, or by train from Faro train station.

There is no train link from the airport to Faro city centre, so you’ll need to either catch a bus or a taxi to the station.  See my post for more detailed information. 

One Day in Cluj-Napoca

In October, I visited Cluj-Napoca, a Romanian city regarded as the historical capital of Transylvania.  

I’ll be honest, I chose Cluj because I found a really good deal on a flight from London.  There are other places on my list to explore in Transylvania, which are more of a priority for a visit.  So it was a real surprise when I realised just how lovely Cluj is.

Cluj old town

As I said in my post – which outlines things to do in a day here – the old town wasn’t the most memorable of old towns that I have ever visited.  It’s quite small, with just a few cobbled streets with bars and restaurants lining them. 

Cluj old town.  You can see a pretty restaurants along one side with tables outside and flowers from the windows

Parcul Central

But it is pretty and it leads you to the Parcul Central. This is a gorgeous park with a boating lake, casino and a fabulous eatery.  You can sit outside here and watch the colourful pedaloes floating around on the lake.  

Parcel Central in Cluj.  You can see the restaurant at one end of a lake with pedaloes in front.

This would be an ideal place to spend time on the long summer nights when it stays light until late.

The botanical garden

There’s also the wonderful botanical garden, the Alexandru Borza Cluj-Napoca University Botanic Garden.  This is a sprawling garden, which covers 35 acres, and houses more than 10,000 different types of plants.

There are a variety of different parts to visit – including an ornamental area, a Japanese garden, and a section dedicated to plants from different continents.

I particularly liked one spot where the trees framed a pretty tower that you can climb up and look out over the garden from.

The tower in the botanic garden in Cluj.  This is framed with autumnal trees

The garden also contains a large greenhouse with tropical plants.  Make sure you don’t miss the Palm House if you want to see the absolutely gigantic water lilies in the glasshouse.  I’ve never seen anything like these.

Gigantic lilies in the Palm House in Cluj botanic garden

Piata Avram Iancu square

You should also visit the Piata Avram Iancu square. Here you’ll find the striking Cluj Assumption cathedral, with a World War 2 memorial in front.

A picture of the Assumption cathedral in Cluj.  It has a large dome at the top and smaller ones below.  There is a war memorial in front.

At the back of the square, is the National Theatre and Opera House of Cluj. Built in the early 20th century, it is a beautiful building in a pastel color.

The Opera House.  This is very attractive and is a yellow/orange pastel colour

You can also eat some tasty local cuisine – at really reasonable prices – in Cluj. There are some restaurants scattered around the main square, Piata Unirii.  

Make sure you try the Transylvanian Vargabeles Cake here which is utterly delicious!

A picture of a portion of Vargebeles cake.  This is a square song type cake with cream on the top and a fruit compote drizzled over and around it

For tours in Cluj and nearby, click here.

You can fly to Cluj from various European cities, including London, Milan, Paris, Dublin, Munich, and Warsaw. There are regular internal flights within Romania to Bucharest.

From the airport, there are buses (number 5 and number 8) that run from outside the terminal to the city centre. You will also find a taxi rank outside the arrivals terminal.

Other ideas for weekend away in Europe

I also wrote about other weekends away in Europe last year. You may therefore be interested in my thoughts on an afternoon Sound of Music coach tour in Salzburg.

I also experienced a fabulous spa in Zurich, complete with amazing views of the city from its rooftop pool. Click here for more information.

Last year, I travelled from Zurich to Vaduz in Liechtenstein to explore one of Europe’s smallest capitals, and visited San Marino, a quirky capital in northern Italy (and the world’s 5th smallest).

For more ideas for weekends away in Europe, see my website and sign up to receive new posts.

Happy travelling in 2020!

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