Top eight transformed cities

You fancy a short break to somewhere new. Broaden your horizons and visit a transformed city. Robert Nurden selects this year's must-sees


1. Bratislava

Long cast under the spell of totalitarianism, Bratislava, the charming capital of Slovakia, has rediscovered its Mittel Europa style and culture of late. The city is undergoing a huge restoration project, but the best sight is the most bizarre café in the world: a rotating UFO structure 250ft above the Danube suspended on stilts thrusting up from Novy Most bridge.

Where to stay: The Hotel Marrol's (00 421 2 577 84600; hotelmarrols.sk) a lovely boutique hotel.

How to get there: Sky Europe (0905 7222 747; skyeurope.com) flies from Stansted and Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. EasyJet (0905 821 0905. easyjet.com) flies from Luton.

2. Bilbao

Bilbao is the ultimate regeneration success story, and it's still going strong along the banks of the Nervion. The airport, a whale-like structure by Santiago Calatrava, is a fitting introduction to this once dirty industrial giant, now cultural capital of the Basque country. He also designed the Zubizuri bridge, in the shadow of Frank Gehry's stunning Guggenheim Museum. Take the lift up Puente Colgante, and walk across the world's oldest transporter bridge, built in 1893. And ride Norman Foster's metro.

Where to stay: The Hesperia Bilbao (00 34 93 505 1740; hesperia.com) is the city's newest hotel.

How to get there: EasyJet flies from Stansted. Iberia (0870 609 0500; ibera.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9 850; ba.com) fly from Heathrow.

3. Patras

The little-known Greek port of Patras is the unusual choice for this year's European City of Culture. It secured the prize with a scheme to use its status as a vital maritime link between the east and west as the springboard for celebrations around the theme of cultural links. The city's neo-classical buildings have been restored and the Roman Odeon has also been reconstructed for use as an open-air theatre and concert hall. An archaeological museum will open later this year.

Where to stay: The Primarolia Art Hotel (00 30 2610 624 900; arthotel.gr) is a modish 14-room hotel.

How to get there: Flights are into Athens. EasyJet flies from Luton and Gatwick, Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460: olympic-airways.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick and BA flies from Heathrow. For rail connections to Patras contact Rail Europe (0870 830 20 08; raileurope.co.uk).

4. Johannesburg

Until recently, Johannesburg was the murder capital of the world. Now, the authorities claim that crime rates have plummeted. The new Jo'burg is best seen in regenerated Newtown. Smart, nouveau riche folk sip lattes in trendy cafés, while Museum Africa and Market Theatre are overrun with visitors. For a serious insight into the past visit the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum. Even Soweto will get a four-star hotel later this year.

Where to stay: The Melrose Arch Hotel (00 27 11 214 6666; africanpridehotels.com) is a new contemporary hotel.

How to get there: BA, Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; virgin-atlantic. com) and South African Airways (0870 747 1111: flysaa.com) fly from Heathrow.

5. Beirut

In post-civil war Beirut you can once again lead the life of a Sybarite. Mosques and churches have been restored and The National Museum of Beirut, on the Green Line that once separated Christian from Muslim factions, has been returned to its 1930s glory. Trendy areas include Rue Monot, Downtown, Gemmayzeh and Achrafiye.

Where to stay: The Monroe Beirut (00 961 137 1122; monroebeirut.com) is a very stylish choice.

How to get there: BA (as above) flies from Heathrow.

6. Shanghai

Shanghai offers the ultimate then-and-now view. Go to the Bund on the riverfront, where colonial buildings face the brave new world of Pudong, a reclaimed swamp on which stand bold structures such as the Jinmao Tower - the third tallest in the world. On the Bund, you'll also find the latest hang-outs. Try the lifestyle complex Three on the Bund, where you can pick up Armani gear, have a facial in the Evian spa and enjoy gourmet dining.

Where to stay: The Grand Hyatt (00 86 21 5049 1234; hyatt.com) is the highest hotel in the world.

How to get there: BA, Virgin Atlantic and China Eastern Airlines (0870 760 7197; chinaeastern. co.uk) fly from Heathrow.

7. Moscow

Everything seems larger than life in Moscow, Russia's born-again capital: Red Square, the Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, the GUM Department Store, the Seven Sisters (those Stalin-Gothic skyscrapers). Soviet Puritanism kept the raunchiness in check, but now it's back with a vengeance. The people's appetite for vodka, food, and partying is gigantic. If your last visit to the city was some time ago, prepare for a culture shock.

Where to stay: The Ararat Park Hyatt (00 7 495 783 1234; parkhyatt.com) is one of Moscow's newest hotels with a sleek contemporary interior.

How to get there: BA and Aeroflot (0207-491 1764; aeroflot.com) fly from Heathrow.

8. Belfast

Ever since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Belfast has set about repairing itself with gusto and optimism. Most of the regeneration has taken place around the river Lagan, the centrepiece of which is the Waterfront Hall, which hosts theatre, concerts and exhibitions. Millions, too, have been pumped into the bars, clubs, restaurants and leisure facilities in the quayside Odyssey development. In the centre, make for the fashionable Cathedral Quarter, which this month hosts an arts festival (27 April-7 May).

Where to stay: The Malmaison Belfast (02890 220 200; malmaison-belfast.com) is the latest boutique hotel housed in an historic warehouse in the centre of the city.

How to get there: Flybe (0871 700 0123; flybe.com),

EasyJet and BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.com) fly from several locations across the UK.

Additional research by Gareth Bourne and Aoife O'Riordain

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