European city breaks: Just the city to visit for...

... shopping, museums, spas. Turn your favourite pastime into the theme for a perfect short break. Harriet O'Brien offers very good reasons to visit some of Europe's top destinations


1. Shopping in Paris

What's special: Shopping. In the city that gave the world couture the only problem is where to start. Faubourg Saint-Honoré or avenue Montaigne for luxury labels? Rues Keller or Charonne for new designers? Or do you head for boulevard Hausmann wherePrintemps and Galeries Lafayette offer huge perfumeries and the last word in lingerie. You could take a four-hour tour with Chic Shopping Paris (00 33 614 56 23 11; chicshoppingparis.com) from €125 (£89) each.

Why go now: Paris in the spring: what more to say?

How do I get there: Eurostar (08705 186186; eurostar.com) offers returns from Waterloo to Gare du Nord from £59.

Where to stay: Hotel de Sers (00 33 1 53 23 75 75; hoteldesers.com) is in a prime location at 41 avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie, near the Champs-Elysées. A makeover has given a bold look to the 52 bedrooms of the former residence of the Marquis de Sers. Doubles from €450 (£321) room only.

2. Opera in Milan

What's special: Opera. La Scala theatre reopened in 2004 after closing for renovations to improve acoustics. Italy's style capital has resumed its status as Europe's most glam music venue.

Why go now: Tickets are still available for spring shows (00 39 02 7200 3744; teatroallascala.org). During March, Janacek's Katia Kabanova and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor are on. April features Puccini's Tosca. Tickets from €24 (£17).

How to get there: The options include Ryanair (0906-270 5656; ryanair.com) from Luton to Milan Bergamo; easyJet (0905-821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick to Milan Malpensa; and British Airways (0870-850 9850; ba.com) from Heathrow, Manchester and Birmingham to Milan Malpensa.

Where to stay: Town House 12 (00 39 02 8907 8511; townhouse.it) is a chic 18-bedroom boutique hotel. Its most striking feature is a very cool bar, literally: everything is made of ice. Doubles from €230 (£157) including breakfast. For greater style head to Bulgari Milano (00 39 02 805 8051; bulgarihotels.com), the first (and suitably fabulous) hotel venture of the famous fashion and luxury goods house. Doubles from around €590 (£421) per night.

3. Open spaces in Krakow

What's special: Greenery. With more than 40 public parks, Krakow is one of Europe's most impressively verdant cities. There is also the wonderful Planty, a zone of 30 or so gardens encircling the Old Town.

Why go now: To see the spring flowers in bloom.

How do I get there: Regent Holidays (0870-499 0911; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a three-night trip from £385 per person, including return flights from Gatwick on British Airways and b&b.

Where to stay: The above package includes accommodation at the boutique Hotel Copernicus, which offers a rooftop terrace with great views and pool in the medieval cellars.

4. Spa in Budapest

What's special: Thermal spas. Apart from the majesty of the Hapsburg Empire and Hungary's imperial past, the twin cities of Buda and Pest boast 130 mineral and medicinal water springs. Take in the Chain Bridge across the Danube, the Roman ruins of Aquincum and the cobbled Castle District.

Why go now: For a healthy warm-up after winter.

How to get there: Erna Low Body & Soul (020-7594 0290; ernalow.co.uk) offers three nights from £485 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Luton, half-board accommodation and six half-hour spa treatments

Where to stay: The package is for a long weekend at the Danubius Grand Hotel on Margaret Island, a haven of calm. The hotel was built in 1873 and retains an air of old-world splendour. There is a state-of-the-art spa fed by thermal waters from springs. Treatments range from medicinal-water bathing to hydromassage and mud therapy.

5. Modern art in Nice

What's special: Modern art. This belle époque resort is home to two of Europe's most charming art galleries. Musée Matisse (00 33 4 93 81 08 08; musee-matisse-nice.org) at 164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez, the house where the artist lived, contains much of his work. Open daily except Tuesdays, 10am-6pm, admission €4 (£3). Musée Message Biblique Marc Chagall (00 33 4 93538720; musee-chagall.fr) also houses a large collection. It re-opens on 2 April, daily, 10am-5pm, admission €6.50 (£5).

Why go now: For sunshine and largely empty galleries.

How to get there: Options include British Airways from Heathrow; easyJet from Gatwick, Stansted, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle and Belfast; Jet2 (0871-226 1737; jet2.com) from Leeds and Manchester; and bmibaby (0871- 224 0224; bmibaby.com) from Heathrow, Birmingham and East Midlands.

Where to stay: Sleek Hotel Windsor (00 33 4 93 88 59 35; hotelwindsornice. com), on 11 rue Dalpozzo, is a cheap boutique. Doubles from €80 (£57).

6. Music in Salzburg

What's special: Music. This glorious city of Baroque houses, castles and palaces was the birthplace of Mozart in 1756. It usually is a magnet for music lovers, but this year is special ...

Why go now: To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth a host of concerts is taking place there between now and November. These include a Mozart Spring Festival on 27-30 April and 25-28 May. Tickets and full details available on panoramatours.com.

How to get there: Lakes & Mountains Holidays (01243-792 442; lakes-mountains.co.uk) is offering three-night trips from £453 per person, based on two sharing. The cost includes flights from Heathrow or Gatwick via Munich, b&b, a tour and a Mozart evening, with music from the Amadeus Consorta restaurant and concert venue.

Where to stay: The package is for three or four nights at the Wolf-Dietrich, close to the centre.

7. Architecture in Barcelona

What's special: Architecture. From the Gothic Old Town to the dramatic new constructions around the port area, this is a city of immense visual richness. Its most distinctive buildings are those of Modernista architect Antoni Gaudi, who died in 1926. See his work at the unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral, at the Parc Guell and at his apartment building La Casa Mila, which has now opened as a museum.

Why go now: In a couple of months Barcelona starts to get very hot and very crowded, which is not the best time to visit.

How to get there: It is well served with flights, with easyJet flying from Gatwick, Luton and Stansted. Iberia and British Airways fly from Heathrow and Gatwick.

Where to stay: Casa Camper Barcelona (00 34 93 342 62 80; casacamper.com) is one of the quirkiest new additions to this glamorous city. An offshoot of the funky Camper shoe store, the hotel is set in a 19th-century building which is conveniently near the heart of the city and offers 25 comfortable rooms - along with a distinctly wacky atmosphere. Doubles start from €200 (£142.86) per night.

8. Religion in Vilnius

What's special: Churches. The Baroque Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with its churches, among them late 15th-century St Anne, glorious white-stucco Sts Peter and Paul and St Casimir.

Why go now: It's best as the weather warms up.

How to get there: AirBaltic (0870 607 27727; airbaltic.com) and British Airways fly from Gatwick.

Where to stay: Stikliai Hotel (00 370 5 264 9595; stikliaihotel.lt) at 7 Gaono street dates from the 15th century. Today it offers 44 sumptuous bedrooms. Doubles from €220 (£157).

The best Art in Russia: Do a little Tsar gazing

You could absorb days, if not weeks, at the Hermitage Museum, in the Winter Palace of the Tsars. And there's the Russian Museum with 32,000 works of art; the Museum of Musical Instruments, its second floor packed with spinets and harpsichords; and Kunstkamera, Peter the Great's anatomical museum. How to get there: A three-night trip at Hotel Astoria is offered by Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; seasonsinstyle.co.uk) from £600 per person.

The best Basque tapas: Tuck into pintxos

San Sebastian is a gourmet paradise, its restaurants boasting a galaxy of Michelin stars. For the highest of haute cuisine try Arzak at avenida Alcade Jose Elosegui (00 34 943 278 465; arzak.es). For a more informal taste, wander through Parte Vieja, which is lined with bars and restaurants serving pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. Stay at Maria Cristina (00 34 94 343 7600; starwoodhotels.com) at Calle Oquendo 1, a wedding-cake of a hotel.

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