Europe's hottest urban destinations await, says Cathy Packe. So why not see the sights before the summer hordes descend?

Malaga, Spain

Often dismissed as nothing but a seaside resort, there is plenty to explore here, including squares around the cathedral and the ruins of a hilltop castle. The latest attraction is the Picasso Museum, whose permanent collection contains paintings owned by the Picasso family.

easyJet (0871 750 0100; from Bristol, East Midlands, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted, from £90.98 return

Nice, France

The city on the French Riviera, has plenty to offer. Soak up the atmosphere in the old quarter, visit the museums devoted to Matisse and Chagall, or stroll along the Promenade des Anglais.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; from £68; Air France (0845 359 1000; from £122.40 from Heathrow

Ghent, Belgium

A good city-break destination needs plenty of attractions, fine restaurants and not too many other tourists. Ghent fits all these criteria, with seven major museums, top-class art on display in the cathedral, and a restaurant for almost every day of the year, as well as plenty of bars for late-night drinking.

Eurostar (0870 264 9899; from £59

Palermo, Sicily

Sicily's capital is more accessible now that there are direct flights from the UK, but go before the weather gets too hot for sightseeing. Enjoy the palazzos and pizza in the city itself, then make the short trip up the mountain to see the mosaics in nearby Monreale.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from about £60 from Stansted

Newcastle-Gateshead, England

These twin cities are relatively new to the tourist beat, but there is so much happening here that it is hard to keep up. The attractions on offer combine old and new: a rapidly developing waterfront area with modern architecture, elegant shops and galleries, works of art on the streets, and bars and restaurants opening everywhere.

GNER (0845 722 5225;

Zagreb, Croatia

When visitors to Croatia head straight for the coast, they miss the charms of the capital, a compact Hapsburg city whose upper and lower districts are connected by funicular railway. Zagreb combines a lively café culture in the middle-European style with great mountain scenery a cable-car ride from the suburbs.

Croatian Airlines (020-78563 0022; from £172 from Heathrow

Trieste, Italy

The charm of this attractive coastal city is that it straddles several worlds. Once the frontier between Western Europe and countries behind the Iron Curtain, it is also a fascinating mixture of Italian and Central European in its food and language. Old Trieste is on the hilltop, but there's plenty to explore below.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from £60 from Stansted

Carcassonne, France

This medieval walled city is a perfect place to stay, since most visitors drop in to see the castle and leave before dusk. It's a great location to soak up the atmosphere, wander through the cobbled streets and marvel at the illuminations at night.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from £40 from Stansted

Chester, England

Small English towns don't come much better than this one. It's not just a place to come for Roman history either, although there's plenty of that. Go to the Roodee, the oldest racecourse in the country, for a day watching the horses, or walk through the Groves, along the River Dee.

Arriva Trains Wales (0870 900 0773; connect to Chester from Crewe

Berlin, Germany

The German capital is changing at such a pace that there is always something new to see. This year Berlin is celebrating the Year of Museums, and with 170 to choose from there is something for everyone.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; from £119.50 from Heathrow; Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; from £71 from Stansted