What's the attraction?
Fine art, dramatic architecture, sophisticated shopping and energising nightlife: if that doesn't sound like your immediate surroundings, then you probably need a Continental city break. Thanks to excellent air and rail links to Europe, you can pack a vast amount into a short trip. And if you have yet to book a summer holiday, a city break could be the answer: many of the locals clear off to the beach, leaving the place calmer for you. All prices here were researched at 6pm yesterday and are per person based on two travelling, from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 August, unless otherwise stated.
You can fly to dozens of cities within a couple of hours from your nearest major airport. But time is precious on a short break. A European airport with fast and frequent links to the city centre helps maximise enjoyment and minimise stress; conversely a slow, distant and awkward connection subtracts enjoyment. None of these recommendations is more than 20 minutes by public transport from the airport – which rules out otherwise alluring cities such as Budapest and Madrid.
Way to go
These days, anyone with broadband is likely to regard themselves as a travel agent, with easy access to plane or train tickets and hotel beds. You can happily put your own trip together, but bear in mind the downside of booking transport and a hotel separately. If the flight or train to your destination is cancelled by a strike, the hotelier has no obligation to give you a refund for the room you couldn't reach. In contrast, if you book a package – such as those suggested here – the tour operator is responsible for delivering your whole trip as booked, and must refund you if the airline fails to get you there.
All the cities here have been covered in the Independent Traveller's 48 Hours city-guide feature: you can download the text and the accompanying map for an instant free guide: www.independent.co.uk/48hours.
A word of warning: avoid Mondays. In many cities across Europe, it seems to be the internationally agreed day of rest for museum staff. As a result, any sights that are open are disproportionately busy, and less enjoyable. So if you are thinking of adding an extra day to your weekend, make it Friday, not Monday.
Access all areas
Amsterdam has air links from across the UK, plus easy access from Schiphol airport by train to Centraal Station in 16 minutes. You could reach the city centre within two hours of stepping aboard a plane in the UK, ready to experience a capital city designed for humanity. The joy of wandering beside the 17th-century canal network is only a start; the Van Gogh Museum provides the strongest artistic focus, at least until the long-overdue Rijksmuseum refurbishment is complete, while intriguing shops and cafés compete for your custom.
Reaching Amsterdam is easy; staying there can prove tricky, unless you book in advance, because of a chronic shortage of beds: many cheaper deals are for hotels well outside the city. Expedia (020-3027 8682; www.expedia.co.uk) has a deal from Manchester of £209 per person including easyJet flights and two nights (without breakfast) in the sophisticated Lloyd Hotel. It's east of the city centre, but a great venue in an interesting area.
Old airports are usually the best, as Milan Linate demonstrates: it's small and a quick ride away from the centre on bus 73 (buy your ticket in advance from the tobacconist at the airport). In no time you'll see the elegant bulk of the Duomo loom. The cathedral itself is well worth exploring, as is the adjacent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Milan's artistic highlight is the Pinacoteca di Brera, containing masterpieces by Caravaggio and Rembrandt, while Via della Spiga boasts Europe's highest designer concentration.
The problem with old airports is reaching them; the only Linate links from the UK are on Alitalia and BA from Heathrow, and from Gatwick on easyJet. BA Holidays (0870 243 4224; www.ba.com) is selling the third weekend in August, including flights from Heathrow to Linate and a stay at the four-star Grand Visconti Palace, with breakfast, for a flat £368 –about one-third less than the price in September.
Regent Holidays (0845 277 3317; www.regentholidays.com) has long offered the most exotic European city breaks, from Kaliningrad to Tirana. This autumn, the most appealing is Tallinn – currently the joint European capital of culture. The city blends a medieval hilltop town and a grand 19th-century city with a right old Soviet muddle from the days when Estonia was the smallest republic in the USSR.
Prices fall from 1 October, when Regent offers a three-night stay at the handsome old Hotel Telegraaf, including Estonian Air from Gatwick (flights from Stansted, Liverpool and Manchester are also available) and breakfast for £494. The airport is only two miles from the centre.
Your mountain experience begins even before you land at Innsbruck's airport, with an exciting "Category C" touch-down in a narrow valley. You could easily walk into town from the airport, working up an appetite for predictably hearty Tyrolean fare to be enjoyed in one of many atmospheric old inns.
The Austrian city, at an Alpine crossroads, is steeped in Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It is not, however, so rich in air links from the UK; in summer only easyJet flies there, on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. So either fix up a two-centre trip that combines Innsbruck with Munich, Salzburg or Verona (all of which have multiple flights from the UK, and easy train links from Innsbruck) or wait until winter when frequent ski flights begin.
At the family-run Hotel Zach (00 43 512 589 667; www.hotel-zach.at), a two-night stay in a double room costs from €220 in the last weekend of August, including breakfast; good deals for single rooms are also available.
Relax by rail
In under 90 minutes by train from central London, you could reach Birmingham, Eastbourne... or Lille, the capital of French Flanders, put on the map by Eurostar (08432 186 186; www.eurostar.com). The Channel Tunnel rail company has a deal including the train from St Pancras on 19 August and two nights at the Sejours & Affaires apart-hotel (on the north-east edge of the city centre) for £196, with breakfast. This will set you up for wandering through the intricate streets of Vieux Lille, enjoying the best art collection in provincial France at the Palais des Beaux-Arts museum and finding some urban wilderness at the Parc de Loisirs de la Citadelle.
Outright winner for easiest plane-to-city centre link in Europe is Bremen – in the poor traveller's executive-jet experience, you step from plane to tram in a hop and a skip, and find yourself in the middle of this handsome Hanseatic municipality about 10 minutes later. Here, you can explore a German city whose architecture ranges from a huddle of medieval houses via majestic brick Gothic in the shape of the Rathaus (Town Hall) to an entire Art Nouveau street created by the man who first decaffeinated coffee.
The Kunsthalle (Fine Arts Museum) re-opens on 20 August, and on 13 August Bremen will be featured in 48 Hours in the Independent Traveller.
With the main airline from the UK being Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), this is another DIY destination; fly from Stansted or Edinburgh, and consider staying at the three-star Hotel Lictsinn (00 49 421 368 070; www.hotel-lichtsinn.de), an agreeable throwback to the Seventies with doubles for €110 including breakfast.
What Google will tell you...
The name of Amsterdam's airport, Schiphol, "is derived from a former fortification named Fort Schiphol, which was part of the Stelling van Amsterdam defence works. Before 1852, the Haarlemmermeer polder in which the airport lies was a large lake, in the shallow waters of which sudden violent storms could claim many ships. In English, Schiphol translates to 'Ship Grave', a reference to the number of ships lost in the area" – Wikipedia
What Google won't tell you... until now
The deadline for check-in for standard-class passengers on Eurostar is 30 minutes, but staff are flexible and will usually allow you through as little as 15 minutes before departure.
Who said that?
"The story goes that I first had the idea for The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck"
"Day after day Boris and I went up and down Paris, drifting at two miles an hour through the crowds, bored and hungry, and finding nothing. One day, I remember, we crossed the Seine eleven times"
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Chapter 6
"When I go to Rome, I fast on Saturday, but in Milan I do not"
St Ambrose, a 4th-century Christian martyr whose body is still on display in the church of San Ambrogio in Milan