A setting of sand, sea and skyscrapers offers an enticing combination of fast-paced urban life and laid-back coastal bliss, says Simon Calder

Sun, sea, sand and city life: those are the components that make up a perfect holiday. Unlike standard seaside resorts, cities never close down in winter. Air and rail links are reliable year-round. And in summer, they tend to be cheaper to reach than pure leisure destinations: an August hop on easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick to the beach city of Porto in northern Portugal is on sale for under £80 return, compared with £100-plus for a trip flying the same distance to the Balearics and back.

Cities with beaches also have a wider range of places to eat, drink and sleep, with entertainment bonuses ranging from top-flight football to premier-league opera, making them great getaways for a traveller in search of more than sun, sand and sea. Usually the city comes first, and later "discovers" its beach – as happened in Barcelona – but there are variations, notably Dubai. On the Gulf, you discover what happens when sand and sea collide with immense wealth and ambition. Of the many beaches, the traditional Russian Beach is the friendliest.

You need not leave the UK to find a city beach. Yet, considering we reside on an island nation, Britain has a thin collection of possibilities. The average beach bum would not get out of bed for the shingle of Brighton beach, though the Sussex resort is the closest Britain gets to a breezy, bohemian beach resort (01273 290 337; visitbrighton.com). While fine, golden sand is not an option, you will find an eclectic collection of shops, cafés and pubs in the celebrated Lanes of the old fishing village – and can explore the Royal Pavilion, the pleasure palace that brought the promise of the exotic to England.

For a proper, sandy beach with a UK city as a backdrop, you have to go a long way north or west from Sussex. Honourable mentions to Whitley Bay, a stop on the Tyne and Wear Metro (28 minutes from Newcastle station), and to Portobello Beach – a suburb of Edinburgh. For the finest times and places to find a British city beach, though, start at Aberdeen soon after dawn with a full Scottish breakfast at the Inversnecky Cafe (01224 596 531; inversnecky.co.uk; £4.95). The location is equally impressive in winter, when wild weather roars in to north-east Scotland, as in summer when it enjoys more sunlight than any other UK city beach. It's then a 10-hour rail trip to Wales' second city, Swansea, which has five impressive miles of broad, sandy beach curving around from the Maritime Quarter to Mumbles. The shore was the route for the world's first passenger railway – hauled by horses, dating from 1807. Just inland, you can find Wales's oldest and newest museums, in the shape of the Swansea Museum (complete with Egyptian mummy) and the National Waterfront Museum, celebrating the heritage of a city that was once the powerhouse of the British Empire.

The sun never sets on city beaches worldwide. Start discovering them a ferry ride away at The Hague – just north of Hook of Holland, where the Stena Line ferry (08447 70 70 70; stenaline.co.uk) arrives from Harwich, which has a quick tram link to its own beach suburb in the unpronounceable shape of Scheveningen – attracting 10 million visitors a year.

Venture further, by train to the far end of the Trans-Siberian Railway or by air to South America, and you discover that vibrant city culture combined with sandy shores is a winning formula around the world.

Asia

The largest continent does not exactly excel in terms of city beaches. As befits the home of Bollywood, Mumbai is the indisputed star, with Chowpatty Beach at sunset a dazzle of fast (but good) food stalls, balloon vendors and half the population sharing the sand with you – and a heady mix of perfumes. Colombo, south in Sri Lanka, can offer a similar experience, though most of it is concentrated on the seaside lawns of the Galle Face Green. Combine the two beach cities on Jet Airways ( jetairways.com) from Heathrow via its hub in Mumbai to Colombo, on sale for about £450 return.

For Asia's other two candidates, go to extremes. Singapore, at the tip of peninsular South-east Asia, is blessed with plenty of sand; half an hour after landing, splash in the sea and splash out on fish at the East Coast Seafood complex. Then aim for Siloso Beach, on the south side of Singapore's playground isle, Sentosa. The best-located property is the Rasa Sentosa Resort (00 65 6275 0100; shangri-la.com), which reopened this week after a refit. Doubles from S$485 (£240). Beach treats include the MegaZip wire ride from high up in the rainforest to an offshore isle.

The other extreme is the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. For most of the 20th century, Vladivostok was off limits because of its military sensitivity. Take the prime train in the Russian network, the Rossiya, the length of the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow. After 5,773 miles you will need to freshen up, and the way to do that is to plunge into the Pacific from a beach that is just a few minutes' walk from the station.

The Russia Experience (0845 521 2910; trans-siberian.co.uk) is one of several companies that can get you there; Aeroflot, TransAero and Vladivostok Air compete to fly you back to Moscow – a nine-hour trip.

Europe and the Med

The richest city, culturally speaking, in Europe? Arguably Venice. For the finest views, take vaporetto number 1 the length of the Grand Canal. After savouring city life from the water, stay on the boat for a few more minutes to reach Venice's own stretch of beach, the Lido. Or take boat LN to the hotels, restaurants and sand sculptures of Lido di Jesolo (easy to reach direct from Marco Polo airport). I paid £156 return from Gatwick on BA, and €205 (£173) for a family room with breakfast at the four-star Hotel Victoria Prestige at Via Padova 79 (00 39 0421 371100; victoriaprestige.com).

While the Croatian city of Split has a small, sandy beach attached in the shape of Bacvice, it is chiefly of interest from a spectator's perspective – the local game of picigin is played by hundreds at a time, hurling a small rubber ball around while splashing in the shallows.

For a more spectacular choice of beaches, go to Israel's commercial capital, Tel Aviv, at the far end of the Mediterranean. Ben Gurion airport is easy to reach by plane from Heathrow on British Airways, from Luton on easyJet, and from either on El Al; in addition Jet2 flies from Manchester. Sample Israel's best bars and restaurants in Tel Aviv, then wander to the adjacent Old Testament port of Jaffa.

Staying east, Gdansk is known as location for the Lenin Shipyards and birthplace of Poland's democracy movement, Solidarity. Prime territory for a city-beach break? Yes. Fast, frequent and cheap trains connect Gdansk's imposing main station with the handsome resort of Sopot, just beyond the shipyards. Wizz Air and Ryanair compete from various UK airports.

Some prefer the Med to the Baltic. Nice-Côte d'Azur airport is the west end of the Promenade des Anglais, stretching across to the Old Town. Peek at the lavish 19th-century interior of the Negresco ( hotel-negresco-nice.com).

Equally blessed with good air links is Barcelona. The Catalan capital once seemed to ignore the silver strand that runs north from the port. Fifteen months ago it was crowned by the W Hotel – a dramatic structure that is Barcelona's answer to Dubai's Burj Al Arab.

Valencia has a lifeline to the sea: a modest tram that rattles down to its stretch of the "Orange Blossom Coast". Stay at the Hotel Neptuno (00 34 96 356 7777; hotelneptunovalencia.com; doubles from €130). Visit MUVIM, the Valencian Museum of Enlightenment and Modernity (00 34 96 3883730; muvim.es; to 8pm daily except Monday; free).

More enlightenment can be found along the coast at Malaga. Unlike its Andalucian neighbours, Seville, Granada and Cordoba, it has a creditable city beach. For a short break, it is perfectly placed with more flights from the UK than any other Spanish destination. Las Palmas, the only big city in the Canaries, is equally well blessed.

Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; brittanyferries.co.uk) can take you from either Portsmouth or Plymouth to Santander, with a string of excellent beaches. Further along the coast, ciudad meets costa in San Sebastian in the shape of La Concha ("the shell", reflecting its exquisite shape. Stay at the mid-19th-century Hotel de Londres y Inglaterra, perched magnificently on the seafront (00 34 943 440 770; www.hlondres.com).

Portugal's northern city of Porto has a tram from the riverfront in the city centre to the seaside suburb of Foz do Douro and the wild beauty of an Atlantic beach beyond. Stay in town at the Rivoli Cinema Hostel (00 351 220 174 634; rivolicinemahostel.com), where you can lounge around in the manner of a Hollywood extra; €19 a bed, including breakfast.

Africa

The easy way to Africa: fly to Gibraltar, hop on the bus via Algeciras to Tarifa, and hop on the ferry to the raucous port city of Tangier. Stay at the Movenpick on the beach (00 212 539 329 300; moevenpick.com) for five-star chic, but to share the atmosphere of 20th-century Tangier make it the fabulous Hotel Continental (00 212 539 93 10 24), which tempted Jack Kerouac off the road and made a good impression on Degas. The breakfast room has inspiring tilework and views over the harbour.

Mombasa is the classic East African beach city, with fascinating heritage and fine, white beaches. Somak (020-8423 3000; somak.com) has just added Afrochic to its programme of tailor-made holidays – an all-inclusive beachside boutique hotel, part of the Elewana marque.

Durban, South Africa's city on the beach, is vibrant, beautiful and sometimes tricky (the Foreign Office warns "Be vigilant at all times in Durban's city centre and beachfront area"). Fly Air France via Paris and Johannesburg for £600, or £100 more for Emirates.

US

The main gateway to the US, New York, has a creditable beach at the end of a tangle of Subway lines at Coney Island – not an island at all, but a spit of land which dangles from the borough of Brooklyn into the Atlantic

B-trains, D-trains and N-trains rattle along to the seashore, to a beach suburb with street names such as Surf Avenue and Neptune Boulevard. The attractions are simple and alliterative, such as Hell Hole and Wonder Wheel (the latter on the National Register of Historic Places). Walk south to Brighton Beach, a sunny offshoot of Moscow, where the best blinis (soft pancakes wrapped around mushrooms and cream) this side of the Baltic are served in the cafés.

JFK airport is the gateway of choice, with Kuwait Airways offering good fares: £294 return through Opodo.co.uk. I stayed at the Harbor Motor Inn, a mile around the bay at 1730 Shore Parkway (001 718 964 9200; harbormotorinn.net), where a large room costs about $120 (£80).

The joys of Miami Beach have been much discussed in these pages this month ( http://ind.pn/gb1EK9); they can be easily combined with New York, with a multi-city itinerary booked through ba.com for as little as £419 in February; you fly BA transatlantic, and American Airlines between JFK and Miami.

For not much more cash you can extend it to the city that was described as "New York lying down", but I would call "a great sequence of beaches with some suburbs attached". However you describe Los Angeles, it is the perennial city-beach destination. The sun fails to shine on only 22 days a year on average. Activities range from biking on the boardwalk to pumping iron. Most alluring – not least because it is the end of Route 66, and also easily accessible from both LAX airport and downtown – is Santa Monica. I stayed at the Santa Monica Youth Hostel, two blocks from the sea (001 310 393 9913; hilosangeles.org), but if you demand to be even closer to the ocean the historic (for California) 1924 Hotel Carmel (001 800 445 8695; hotelcarmel.com) is only one block away.

To get even closer to the Pacific action, head a couple of hours south to the city with possibly the finest climate in the world: San Diego. Here, you can actually sleep above the waves at the Crystal Pier Hotel on Ocean Boulevard north-west of downtown (001 800 748 5894; crystalpier.com).

From here you can easily plug into the city's reliable bus network and head out to the exquisite Hotel del Coronado, location for some of the shenanigans in Some Like it Hot.

Australia

Agreed, Sydney's Bondi Beach is a brilliant place to strut your Speedos each morning, and perhaps join one of the "boot camps" that aim to get city-dwellers fit before a day at the office; but better to head west to the two other state capitals with beaches attached.

As you will see as you fly into Adelaide airport, South Australia's capital comprises a cheerful sprawl whose westerly progress is halted by the Southern Ocean. From the airport, turn right for the city centre or left for the beach, best experienced at Glenelg, a palindromic resort that was the first settlement in South Australia.

Perth is even better placed. Purists may argue that the Western Australian capital is stranded on the Swan River, miles from the sand, the ease of access to magnificent Pacific beaches makes it world class – Cottesloe is the choice.

South America

Rio, with its glamorous triplet beaches of Copacabana, Leblon and Ipanema, is the southern-hemisphere star. Even the international airport is named after a notable beach boy, Antonio Carlos Jobim, composer of The Girl From Ipanema. TAM (020-8897 0005; tam.com.br) competes with British Airways from Heathrow; Air France, Iberia and TAP Portugal fly from the UK via their European hubs.

Down by the ocean, check out the framed signatures on the wall at Hotel Fasano (00 55 21 3202 4000; fasano.com.br) and you'll soon realise you're in good company. This glossy Ipanema address is where Duran Duran stay when in town.

Montevideo is tougher to reach, with no direct flights from the UK, but well worth the effort; the city beaches that spread east along the River Plate estuary towards the Atlantic are rarely crowded and always beautiful. You can combine it with Rio on a TAM deal for around £750 return.

Cartagena, the Caribbean gem of Colombia, is tougher to reach, but perhaps most rewarding of all. The old town gives Habana Vieja a run for its money, and the beaches are far more accessible than those in the Cuban capital. You can even get a speedboat out to one of the desert islands lying temptingly offshore. Iberia's best price from London via Madrid and Bogota is £630 return.

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