Traveller's guide: Winter city breaks

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Don't leave it until spring – now's the time to take advantage of crowd-free museums and cheaper hotel rates. There's even the chance of some sunshine

A city break in winter? Surely that's a trip for spring or autumn. While it's true that those gentler seasons often show cities at their best, don't discount the benefits of wrapping up warm to make the most of the quieter streets, museums, restaurants and bars, not to mention taking advantage of out-of-season discounts in hotels.

"Europe's cities give visitors an especially warm welcome in winter," says Ted Wake, joint managing director of Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com). "Prices are appealing and it's easier to make your way to your favourite museum or restaurant while the crowds have elected to head to more populous warm-weather destinations or remained huddled at home until spring."

So where do those of us prepared to brave the chilly weather like to visit at this time of year? Abta, the travel association (abta.com), says Bruges, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Rome and Prague come into their own at this time of year, particularly because of their Christmas markets, alongside established favourites such as Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dublin.

Further afield, North America is the big draw for British city-breakers. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) names New York, Boston and Miami among its customers' top eight urban destinations (as well as Cape Town, San Francisco, Shanghai, Tokyo and Sydney), while Toronto is also a hot spot for fliers on British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com).

But city breaks don't have to be expensive. If the destination, rather than the accommodation, is the focus of your trip, you'll find comfortable basic lodgings in many of Britain's cities, from London to Durham, at the country-wide network of urban Youth Hostels (0800 019 1700; yha.org.uk), with prices starting at £11 per person. Serviced apartments, such as Citadines (0800 376 3898; citadines.com), can provide a flexible, good-value alternative, especially for families. Currently, apartments are available at its property on the Ramblas in Barcelona from €68 until 27 December.

But value is, of course, a matter of opinion: easyJet Holidays (0843 104 1000; holidays.easyjet.com) says seven out of 10 city-break bookings made through its site are for five-star properties, a rise of 23 per cent year on year. Its customers' favourite cities include Prague, Amsterdam, Rome, Berlin, Barcelona and Marrakech.

"Despite financial pressures at home … if customers are able to escape real life and pamper themselves in a luxury hotel for a few days – but still get value for money – then they are prepared to do that," says easyJet Holidays' general manager Mandy Round. Her company is offering two nights' B&B at the five-star InterContinental in Budapest for £117 per person, with flights from Luton departing 28 January.

You don't have to pack your scarf and gloves for every winter city break – you could always head to the sun. With destinations such as Cape Town and Miami making it on to Virgin Atlantic's list of top locations, we're obviously prepared to go far afield. But you can enjoy balmier temperatures nearer to home, in the southern Mediterranean, south of Spain and Portugal, and, indeed, North Africa. However, double check destinations that you assume may be warm – Istanbul, for example, endures a temperature of about 6C at this time of year.

So where to go to book a city break this winter? There are numerous tour operators and websites offering such trips, many of which feature in the suggestions listed here. Also, try lastminute.com and travelocity.co.ukor, for a DIY option, search for hotel deals on trivago.co.uk, mrandmrssmith.com, furtherafield.com and i-escape.com.

However, beware of putting flights and hotels together yourself: if either part of the deal fails, you'll be left unprotected. A package operator such as Kirker, Cresta (0844 800 7019; cresta.holidays.co.uk) and Cities Direct (01242 536900; citiesdirect.co.uk) will offer consumer protection in the event of cancellations, delays or failures.

Marketing bodies including Abta, the Association of Independent Tour Operators (aito.co.uk), the Association of Travel Organisers to Italy (loveitaly.co.uk) and the Association of British Travel Organisers to France (abtof.org.uk) also provide useful lists of members that offer city breaks.

Turn up the heat

Flee the British winter for Marrakech (visitmorocco.com), where fruit sellers jostle with snake charmers in the vast Djemaa el Fna market, above. Go for 27 January and see 5,000 athletes in the Marrakech Marathon (marathon-marrakech.com). Wexas Travel (020-7838 5892; wexas.com) has four nights from £399pp for that weekend, based on two sharing, with return BA flights from Gatwick, transfers and riad B&B. Or you could beat the crowds to Valletta (visitmalta.com), Malta, which has just been named a European Capital of Culture for 2018. Five nights with Malta Direct (0845 365 3410; maltadirect.com) cost from £389pp including easyJet flights from Gatwick, transfers and B&B at the Phoenicia Malta.

Slope off

Divide your time between the street and the piste in a city close to the slopes. Stay in Innsbruck (austria.info), left, and when you've had enough of sights such as the Hofburg and Hofkirche Habsburg palaces, take the Hungerburg Funicular from the city centre for some skiing at Nordkette. Ski Weekends (023-8020 6971; skiweekends.com) has four nights' half board at the Hotel Maximillian from £395pp, based on two sharing, including return flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck.

Oslo (visitnorway.co.uk) also offers a balance of city and ski. Take a turn around the Norwegian capital to see sights including the masterpieces in the Munch Museum and the ancient craft at the Viking Ship Museum. Then head for Tryvann ski area (oslovinterpark.no), 20 minutes from the city centre. To get to the snow, just hop on the T-bane (00 47 815 00 176; ruter.no) to Holmenkollen. Expedia (020-3564 3904; expedia.co.uk) offers four nights at the Thon Hotel Gyldenlove from £275pp, including return flights from Gatwick on Norwegian and breakfast.

Bang for your buck

Get more for your money on a shopping trip to the US's east coast. Keep it cheap in New York – where hotel rates are traditional high – by staying at nyma (0808 178 6363; thenewyorkmanhattanhotel.co.uk), above, in the heart of Midtown. Doubles from $153 (£96), B&B. Or consider Boston where the sales tax is lower, and clothes and shoes costing less than $175 are tax exempt. BA (0844 493 0758; ba.com) has three nights' room only at the Royal Sonesta Hotel for £559pp, with flights from Heathrow in Jan.

Keep it chilled

Get your skates on and celebrate the 400th anniversary of the canals of Amsterdam next year. The Dylan (00 31 20 530 2010; dylanamsterdam.com) has a Winter Skating Package, with skate hire on the canals, above, and the city's ice rink; two nights' B&B from €398pp, based on two sharing.

Round up three atmospheric northern cities in one trip on the Baltic Capitals Cruise with The Mighty Fine Company (0845 072 0090; mightyfinecompany.com), which calls at Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn offering a great mix of sightseeing, shopping and dining. Five nights cost from £533pp, with three nights' half board on the ship, a night's B&B in Stockholm and Helsinki, and return flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Stockholm.

City eat

Discover local delicacies such as rotten shark and ram's testicles, and dine on a gourmet liquorice dishes at the Wondercool Festival (wondercoolcopenhagen.com) in February in Copenhagen (visitcopenhagen.com). There's a month of events and gala dinners, and concurrent events in architecture, art, design, fashion, music. Opodo (0871 277 0090; opodo.co.uk) has three nights at the Hotel Danmark from £146pp, including easyJet flights from Stansted.

Add flavour to a London trip (visitlondon.com) with the new Chocolate and Cigar masterclass at Ten Manchester Street (020-7317 5900; tenmanchesterstreethotel.com) in Marylebone. It has teamed up with chocolatier Rococo to offer tasting and pairing with cognac and cigars for £40 (also cocktail masterclasses from £69). Two nights for two in a double room, half board, is £235.

Arts attack

Derry/Londonderry becomes the inaugural UK City of Culture (cityofculture2013.com) when the clocks strike midnight on New Year's Day. The year-long celebration promises a packed agenda of events and coincides neatly with the 400th anniversary of the building of the city walls. Everglades Hotel (028-9042 1066;  hastingshotels.com) is offering a two-night B&B break from £67.50pp. You can fly to City of Derry with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Stansted.

Or head for the treasures of Florence and Rome (italia.it). Gorge on masterpieces, from Michelangelo's David in Florence to Rome's Coliseum, on a twin-city break with Western & Oriental (020-7666 1234; westernoriental.com) from £1,099 per adult, including return flights from Gatwick into Pisa and out of Rome, transfers, trains, some meals and two nights' B&B at both the Hotel Savoy, Florence, and Hotel de Russie, Rome.

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