By Emma Marshall
I wrote a few months ago about places to visit in Autumn 2020. Now that travel restrictions are easing in many places, I thought I would provide a round-up of suggestions for short trips to Europe in 2021.
This post sets out 9 places to visit in 9 months’ time: places to consider for a short break in the spring of next year.
These are all places I have myself experienced and that I can personally vouch are worth the effort to visit.
They cover Portugal’s second city, as well as a trip to the amazing Azorean island of Sao Miguel. I’ve included an Italian city break as well as a visit to one of the Italian Lakes.
There’s also the relatively lesser visited capital of Albania and a fantastic panoramic train trip. And of course, I’ve added in Zurich – one of my favourite cities!
I hope you find this collation useful. Enjoy planning your Europe trips 2021 – and happy travelling.
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9 ideas for Europe trips 2021
1. Sao Miguel island in the Azores
The Azores, an archipelago of nine Portuguese islands anchored in the eastern Atlantic, may not seem like an obvious destination for a spring getaway.
But São Miguel, its largest island, is only a few hours’ flight from Western Europe. So a short break is not only feasible, but also highly recommended.
We spent 3 days here and loved it. My full post sets out a 3 day itinerary.
Visitors arrive in the capital Ponta Delgada. This is an attractive colonial city that is worth exploring on foot. Click here for information on a walking tour of the city.
Notable for its distinctive Portuguese black and white architecture, highlights include the Portas de Cidade (three arches that once served as the city gates), the city hall and the church of São Sebastião with its beautiful bell tower.
Just outside the city, you’ll find the Arruda Acores Pineapple Plantation. This is allegedly the only place in the world where the tropical fruit is grown in greenhouses.
The Azores is one of the best places to go dolphin and whale watching. Depending on the time of year, you should definitely book a trip from the harbour.
If you are looking for something distinctly Azorean to eat and drink, one of Ponta Delgada’s best eateries is Louvre de Michaelense. This is a beautiful café set out as an old fashioned apothecary, just off the main square.
As well as light lunches, teas and coffees, you can sample the islands’ fabulous traditional liquors and choose from a large selection of cakes. Make sure you order the yummy freshly made pineapple cake!
If you visit Sao Miguel and have time, you should also try to explore beyond the capital. It’s best discovered with a hire car, although there are plenty of organised tours that you that book.
There are so many stunning sights to put on your itinerary, as set out in my full post on our trip here.
In the west, we would definitely recommend visiting Caldeira das Setes Cicades, a seven mile round volcanic crater housing two lakes: one green and the other blue.
Nearby is the small and town Sete Cidades with it picturesque church.
This tour takes you out to the west of the island for the the day and includes lunch.
To the east, make sure you visit Lagoa do Fogo, another stunning volcanic lake, and Fabrica de Cha Gorreana (a tea plantation).
You can then move on Vale das Furnas and its hot sulphur springs. Visit the Poca da Dona Beja for a relaxing dip in the hot springs and spa.
2. Portugal’s Porto
I’ve added a second Portuguese destination onto my round up of ideas for Europe trips 2021 because I love this place so much.
Porto is a wonderful place to visit. Most famous for its port-wine lodges showcasing world famous brands like Cockburn’s, Taylor’s and Sandemans, Portugal’s second city is a perfect getaway all year round.
If trying out this famous Portuguese tipple is something you’d like to do, see my post that sets out ways in which you can do this.
You can also book tours that will give you the opportunity to do this. This tour can be pre-booked and includes both port, cheese and chocolate tasting. Or there is this tour which includes 5 port tastings.
However, you may just fancy sitting out by the River Douro basking in sunshine and marvelling at the city’s iconic suspension bridge. If so, then May is a good time to jet off to this captivating city.
The weather should be dry and warm enough to wander round Porto’s historic centre. You can also catch a rickety vintage tram to Foz do Douro on the Atlantic Coast and walk for miles along scenic coastal paths.
Porto is steeped in history. Start your break with a visit to the cathedral and its cloister.
This is part of a huge complex that stands at the top of the Ribeira area overlooking the bridge and river.
The impressive Episcopal Palace, with its spectacular staircase complete with stunning wall paintings and glass dome, is only a few minutes’ walk away. This definitely should be added to your itinerary.
Then head to Vila Nova de Gaia to sample some port or to book a tour around one of the lodges. The views of Porto are spectacular from the waterfront.
When you need a snack, Porto has some delightful cafés (Café Guarany and Majestic Cafe spring to mind) to visit. And if you fancy snacking on piping hot, freshly baked custard tarts (pastel de nata), pop into Manteigaria bakery.
You are only a few minutes’ walk here from Torre dos Clérigos and can burn off the indulgence by climbing the tower for sweeping views of the city.
If you fancy some fresh, sea air, hop on the number 1 vintage tram which trundles along a scenic route besides the River Douro to Foz do Douro.
You can stop off on the way in the Massarelos area and wander around Porto’s botanical garden (Jardins do Palacio de Cristal). Porto is a great city for mixing sightseeing with relaxation.
I’ve also recently posted about some of the top things to do in Porto on a short break.
For more ideas of things to do on a visit to Porto, the following guidebooks may be of use:
3. Switzerland’s Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, is an absolute must. It’s one of my favourite destinations and having been half a dozen times, I can vouch that May is a great time of year to visit.
I’ve enjoyed exploring this fascinating city every time I’ve visited. There is a lot to do and see in Zurich (for read about some of the more unusual things, check out this guidebook).
You should spend time pottering around Zurich’s charming old town. It has some charming streets and squares and the magnificent Grossmunster and Fraumunster churches.
This 2 hour walking tour is ideal to give you an overview of the main sights here.
A springtime trip will allow you to make the most of everything Zurich has to offer.
This is when you can start to take boat trips up the Limmat River which runs through the city centre and also explore around Lake Zurich.
Boats operate up and down the river from April to October and stop at various points. My top tip is to take a boat trip on Lake Zurich and hop off at the Zurichhorn stop.
Here you’ll find a large park to wander around. Don’t miss the delightful Chinese Park. Although it’s small, it’s a great spot to shelter from the heat.
You can then walk back to the city centre along the lakeshore, stopping to buy an ice cream along the way.
With the warmer spring weather, you will also be able to bathe. There are lots of opportunities to swim in the lake, including several lidos.
The Frauenbad lido is housed in a beautiful 19th century building near where the river meets the lake, close to the Fraumunster church. This is a women’s only lido, but on three nights a week men can visit its “barefoot bar”.
Although we’ve yet to try this lido out, we’ve cooled off our feet in the river nearby. There are steps that lead down to the water where you can sit and admire the sights.
There can’t be many city centres where you can bathe outdoors in such relaxing surroundings.
4. Verona, Italy
Tourists flocking to Verona in northern Italy are likely to be drawn in part because of its setting for the Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet.
Although Juliet was a fictional character, the popular tourist attraction Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s house) is thought to be the inspiration for the scene where Juliet stands on the balcony and meets Romeo in secret. Today you’ll find a fascinating museum inside to add to the attraction.
However, Verona has so much more to offer than being a setting for this tragic love story. Rich in history, with a wealth of sights, the city centre is easy to navigate and walk around.
May is an excellent time of year to explore. You won’t be in the height of the tourist season, so you shouldn’t have to contend with large crowds.
Besides Juliet’s house, make sure you visit the Roman Arena at Piazza Bra. This architectural landmark is older than the Coliseum in Rome.
It’s definitely worth going inside, even if it is just to experience its wonderful acoustics. There’s an opera festival here every August and September.
Piazza dell Erbe is an excellent spot for grabbing a bite to eat while you wander around. This is where you’ll also find Torre dei Lamberti, an 84 metre tower dating back to 1172.
You can take an elevator to the top for fabulous views over Verona or, if you are fit enough, why not climb the tower’s 368 steps? Nearby you’ll find Piazza dei Signori, home to a statute of Dante.
The Duomo is one of Verona’s architectural highlights. Make sure you go inside as the cathedral’s interior is absolutely stunning.
A short stroll from the Duomo, you’ll come across Ponte Pietra. This is Verona’s oldest bridge.
One of the trip’s most memorable activities was climbing up to Castel San Pietro. The views over the city on a clear day from the summit are incredible.
This is a great way to see all of the sights you will have visited during your weekend break.
Verona is a really walkable city and ideal for a weekend.
My full post on Verona sets out a 2 day itinerary that you might find helpful when planning your Europe trips 2021.
You can also book onto a hop on/ hop off bus if you want to take the weight off your feet.
5. Italy’s Lake Como and Varenna
Varenna is just one of many picturesque towns lining the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. It is around an hour from Milan so it makes for an easy day trip or weekend away (click here for an example of a day trip you can book).
Once you’ve arrived, you’ll be spoilt for stunning scenery.
The early spring time is an opportune time to enjoy what the Italian Lakes have to offer. It’s less crowded than in the summer peak period and although the evenings can get a bit chilly, you should experience warm and sunny days that are perfect for sightseeing.
Varenna’s main focal point is a small circular bay where there are tiny boutique shops to browse in and cafés and restaurants to sit in and soak up the stunning sights.
Small boats are moored along the waterfront. Here you can people watch as locals and visitors dangle their feet into the cool and pristine water.
The lake is overlooked by beautiful rustic houses and large cypress trees that stand like sentries in the terraces above the water.
At sunset, it’s really magical. There are plenty of vantage points where you can sit back with a glass of wine and watch the sun sink slowly behind the mountains.
Varenna is an ideal getaway to relax and recharge your batteries. But, if you do want to get out and about, there is a good selection of local sights.
This includes a stroll around Villa Monastero. This is a former nunnery surrounded by beautiful gardens complete with panoramic views across the lake. You can also walk up to the small castle, Castello di Vezio, perched on the hill overlooking Varenna.
If you fancy getting out on to the water, there is a ferry service connecting four towns in the centre of Lake Como.
We hopped over the water to the glamorous and rather glitzy Bellagio, just 15 minutes away. Once out on the water, the views in every direction are to die for.
You can also book trips that will take you out onto the lake – for example, this Venetian boat trip on the lake.
Or if you’re a bit more adventurous, you could hire a boat or swim in the lake. We didn’t but lots of people were splashing about in the water when we were there. We found that Varenna is a perfect tonic to the hustle and bustle of city life.
See my full post for more information. And the following guidebooks will help you plan your trip to Lake Como:
6. The Bernina Express panoramic train
For anyone who loves riding trains through spectacular mountain scenery, the Bernina Express is just the sort of trip to blow the cobwebs away.
The 122 km train journey takes you through some of Switzerland’s most jaw-dropping scenery. The train’s glass roof and large windows allow you to capture the dazzling array of contrasting landscapes on your camera.
We picked up the Bernina Express in Tirano in northern Italy at the foot of the Alps (if you’re interested in a roundtrip between Tirano and St.Moritz, click here).
The information booklet on the train noted that the Bernina Express is a moving UNESCO World Heritage Site with 55 tunnels and almost 200 bridges and viaducts dotted along its route.
Climbing up into the Alps, the train initially winds through lush green meadows and occasionally skirts around large glacial lakes, the mountain peaks reflecting in the icy water.
Before you know it, the train reaches the high altitudes of the Bernina Pass, over 7,500 feet high. The terrain flattens and the landscape is barren with icy tundra and aquamarine lakes.
The dramatic shift in scenery throughout the four-hour journey makes the train ride even more pleasurable.
The real highlight is when the Bernina Express snakes around steep mountain passes, disappears into one of the tunnels and suddenly emerges atop a viaduct. There are breath-taking views all around you of snow-capped mountains, forests and lakes.
Two of the most memorable sections are the Landwasser Viaduct with its 328 arches, and the Wiesner Viaduct which stretches over 650 feet in length.
The way down is just as dramatic as the ascent as the Bernina Express zig zags down the steep slopes.
When the Bernina Express finally pulled into Chur – Switzerland’s oldest city – we wanted to rewind and relive the entire experience again. It’s a journey that you won’t forget for a long time!
For more ideas for Bernina Express train trips, GetYourGuide offers a selection. These include a trip that combines a cruise on Lake Como, a visit St Moritz and a trip on the train.
And to read up on other European train journeys see the Insight Guides’ Great Railway Journeys of Europe.
7. The Cote D’Azur in France
The French Riveria (known in French as the Cote D’Azur) has so much to offer the visitor, particularly for a short spring break.
Nice is an excellent gateway into the coastal region. There are regular flights and the airport is very close to the city centre.
It’s also only a short walk from arrivals to the railway station where you can travel along the coast with ease. You can go west to Saint-Tropez and Cannes, to name a few, and east to Nice, Monaco and the Italian border.
We would recommend spending at least a night in Nice. That won’t give you enough time to properly do this elegant city justice. But it’s ample time to wander around the medieval streets in the old town.
Make sure you visit the market located in the Cours Saleya where you will find plenty of top eateries.
Also wander along the beach and see the wonderful Negresco hotel.
If you have time, head towards to Parc De La Colline Du Château (Castle Hill). This offers superb, panoramic views over Nice.
For day trips from Nice, you are really spoilt for choice. The delightfully picturesque Villefranche-sur-Mer is literally minutes away from Nice by train to the east. You can also catch the boat from Nice.
Framed by its idyllic harbour, this lovely seaside village offers a stark contrast to the independent micro state Monaco.
Monaco is a 20-minute train ride further along the coast. Again, you can catch the boat here from Nice.
Famous for its Monte Carlo Casino and yachts, this glitzy playground for the rich is a fascinating place and definitely worth visiting (this pocket guidebook covers both Nice and Monaco).
Also highly recommended is Menton, the last large French town before the Italian border and home to an annual lemon festival. Served by regular trains, it’s only 35 minutes from Nice.
Antibes, to the west of Nice, can also be reached by train in half an hour.
Perfect for a short break, visitors can wander around the old town’s sea walls, potter through narrow cobbled streets and dine out in a pretty square with it’s small bandstand.
8. Albania’s Tirana
Thanks to its political isolation for nearly half a century, Albania has, understandably, rarely figured as a destination on the tourist trail.
However, Tirana, the country’s capital, is a fascinating blend of influences. It’s definitely worth visiting before it becomes overly commercialised.
It is also well located in the country so perfect for day trips to sites of historic importance such as Berat and Kruja. This tour offers a full day trip to Berat. This tour combines sightseeing in Tirana and Kruja.
The months of April or May are an ideal time for a city break. We visited in May and found the weather was really warm but not so sweltering that it hampered sightseeing.
You can pack a surprising amount in on a short break to Tirana. Start in Skanderbeg Square.
This is a vast open space that offers a fascinating snapshot of Albania’s history as it reflects the diversity of influences that have shaped the country’s past and present.
On one corner is the 18th century Et’Hem Bey Mosque and the 19th century Clock Tower. These were constructed under the 500-year Ottoman rule.
Nearby is a towering monument of the national hero, Skanderbeg, revered for his command of the resistance movement against the Ottomans in the 15th century.
Across the square are the National Bank, the town hall and Dajti hotel building. These are the work of architects who exerted influence under the Italian fascist occupation in the years leading up to and including World War 2.
Finally, there are the communist-era buildings – the Opera House and National Historical Museum. These offer a stark reminder of the totalitarian regime that gripped Albania in the post war years.
You’ll get a fascinating insight by walking around Tirana’s centre (this trip offers a 3 hour walking tour of the main sights).
You’ll come across old disused bunkers and crumbling communist buildings. In stark contrast, don’t miss Dictator Enver Hoxher’s villa with its plush interior and grounds.
There’s also the Tanners’ Bridge, a small relic from the Ottoman period. This can be found at end of a street lined with restaurants and outdoor terraces.
If you are looking for some good eateries, also check out the modern market and surrounding area which offers some fine dining at ridiculously cheap prices.
Top it off with a sunset drink in the rooftop Sky bar, a revolving bar with unbeatable views of the city and nearby Dajti Mountain.
9. Austria’s Salzburg
Fans of The Sound of Music will be in musical heaven when they take a tour around Salzburg and the surrounding countryside.
The regal beauty of this elegant Austrian city will also pull the heart strings of those who adore the music of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born here in 1756.
As visitors will soon discover, Salzburg has a magical, fairytale feel about it.
We visited the “city of Mozart” in May last year. We enjoyed a long weekend with clear blue skies and warm sunshine and would therefore recommend visiting in the spring.
When you visit, you can’t miss the Hohensalzburg fortress towering over the old town on the Mönchsbergrock and dominating the skyline. With the Alps rising behind the fortress in the distance, you will soon fall in love with Salzburg and its grand, stately buildings.
The old town is a good place to start sightseeing. Here you’ll find Salzburg’s magnificent cathedral, the Residenzplatz (the district’s largest square) with its baroque fountain and St Peter’s Abbey, Austria’s oldest active monastery.
The old town is also home to Kapitelplatz, notable for its gigantic chessboard, and Mozartplatz. In the latter, you’ll find a statue of the famous composer.
Make sure you stroll along Salzburg’s famous pedestrianised shopping street, Getreidegasse. This is where you can search for souvenirs, as well as visit Mozart’s birthplace.
You can also book Salzburg’s hop on/ hop off bus to take you around.
These include Schloss Leopoldskron (the Von Trapp villa), Hellbrun Palace, and the picturesque lakeshore town Mondsee with its cathedral. See my full post for more details.
Perhaps best of all is the Mirabell Palace and gardens in Salzburg’s new town.
Walk around the gardens and you’ll be awarded with stunning views of Hohensalzburg fortress.
The Salzburg wine festival took place when we were there. The stalls were set up just outside the palace gates, so we were able to purchase some locally grown wines and relax in the gardens with glass in hand.
To top off a visit to this wonderful city, try some of the great food here.
Austria is famous for its coffee and cakes and one place you must visit is the Café Confiserie Sacher in the Sacher hotel (this is a sister outlet to the famous Vienna café).
In good weather, you can sit out at the riverside terrace. However, we chose to indulge in a slice of the famous Sacher (chocolate) cake in the luxurious surroundings of the café’s interior.
I hope this post has given you some inspiration for Europe trips 2021.
Check out my website for more ideas – and we wish you the best of luck with your future travels x
Europe trips 2021: Pin it!
Europe trips 2021- where to go in 9 months’ time
Europe trips 2021: 9 places to go in 9 months’ time – written by Emma Marshall and Nick Warburton