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The best city break destinations for 2023

The Independent’s travel experts shares their top picks for an urban city break in 2023

Thursday 26 January 2023 12:12 GMT
Valletta, Malta’s handsome port capital
Valletta, Malta’s handsome port capital (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

City breaks have it all when it comes to the time-poor traveller, allowing you to tick off sightseeing, culture, history and foodie experiences in just a few days.

Urban explorers don’t have to go far to find inspiration; there are plenty of top-tier UK cities to explore, as well as under-the-radar European spots to discover. But there are also a whole host of destinations further afield for those after a longer trip.

Here’s our pick of places to add to your 2023 travel wishlist for a superior city fix.

Best city break destinations for 2023

Cafe culture in Valencia, Spain (Getty Images)

Valencia, Spain

I would add this unassuming yet extraordinary Spanish coastal city to every list going if I could. It offers an exquisite balance of beachside location, outrageously good cuisine – this is the birthplace of paella, after all – and range of cultural institutions to get stuck into. Down the coast from tourist magnet Barcelona, Spain’s third city is a winning combination of buzzy without being overwhelmed, with great-value prices to match. Here, you can stroll the Jardin del Turia, the former riverbed turned 9km-long park that’s now the beating green heart of the city, before discovering the handsome walled old town and ducking into the Mercado Central for a snack. Don’t miss a trip to the City of Arts and Sciences, an extensive complex where you’ll find Europe’s biggest aquarium; a digital 3D cinema; the highly interactive Science Museum; the Palau de les Arts, which hosts musical performances year-round; and the Umbracle, a 17,000sqm open-access garden. In 2023, Valencia further celebrates its foodie credentials by hosting the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards; in 2024 it’s been crowned the European Green Capital thanks to its myriad sustainability initiatives. Helen Coffey

Helsinki, Finland

Finland’s having a moment on the travel radar in general, from its ice swimming tradition tapping into the Wim Hof Method to cosy cabins and cosy-minimalist Nordic interiors dominating our design moodboards. Plus its capital, Helsinki, is just far and foreign enough to feel super exotic (three hours’ flight) but close enough to feel familiar as a stylish European city break. The sharply designed waterfront Kulttuurisauna is top of my list, but I’d also head to the Ateneum Art Museum, which opens in spring after a year closed for renovations, and dine on sophisticated Nordic plates at trendy Palace, Savoy or Michelin-starred Grön. The place to bag a suite will be the Grand Hansa Hotel, opening in spring 2023 in the city’s iconic, domed Seurahuone Building with interiors inspired by Finnish folklore and mythology. Lucy Thackray

Shirvan Shakir’s Palace, Baku (Getty Images)

Baku, Azerbaijan

The old Soviet Union meets Dubai on the shores of the Caspian Sea. This Bolshevism-to-bling city – the lowest-lying capital in the world, 100 feet below ocean level – is a deeply intriguing location, combining a fascinating Old City and dramatic new architecture. Baku is exactly the same latitude as Madrid, but further east than Baghdad. The oldest Shia mosque, Bibi Heybet, survived at its clifftop location south of the city centre from the 13th century to the 20th – when it was demolished to make room for a new highway winding south from the city. A replacement was completed in 1998. You are free to wander in and around the mosque; afterwards, take in the superb view of the Caspian shore from the mirador. Thanks to Azerbaijan’s oil wealth, there are plenty of shiny new upscale hotels. But the ideal location is within the walls of the Old City – besides characterful lodgings, you will also find some tranquillity from the always-buzzing traffic outside. The pick is the Shah Palace, a boutique hotel arranged around a peaceful courtyard. Simon Calder

Liverpool, UK

There’s never been a more exciting time to pay a visit to northwest England’s maritime, musical mecca. The city was already steeped in melodic heritage – it was named “City of Pop” in 2001 by the Guinness Book of Records thanks to the number of hits to come out of Liverpudlian bands – and its status is about to get another boost in the form of Eurovision, when Liverpool plays host to the bombastic song contest in 2023. Although tickets for the main event may be hard to come by (and accommodation costs for the competition dates, 9-13 May, have soared to exorbitant levels), there’s plenty more to enjoy if you’re looking for a harmonious weekend away. The mark left by the city’s most famous musical export, The Beatles, is still tangible, with various tours following in the band’s footsteps, plus the legendary Cavern Club where they played is still going strong. You can also pay a visit to the British Music Experience, an attraction that uses costumes, instruments, performance and memorabilia to tell the story of the country’s musical heritage, or book to see the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. HC

Read more: Best hotels in Liverpool

Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey (Getty Images)

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul has always drawn tourists with its incredibly beautiful architecture and ancient, east-meets-west heritage. But it makes my list for being a rising star on the foodie scene: this autumn, the first ever Michelin guide to the city was launched, with 53 restaurants featured and five earning at least one star. Sure, it’s always served mezze style dishes, but dining spots like TURK Fatih Tutak (two Michelin stars) have built buzz with their high-end takes on trad foods such as pide flatbreads, manti dumplings and dolma (stuffed vine leaves). As well as chowing down all over town, I’ll be saving my pennies for a room – or at the very least, a cocktail – at the new Peninsula Hotel, which opens in February with a glam pool right on the banks of the Bosphorus, and steaming and scrubbing at the Cinili Hammam, a restored 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse being revived and reopened in September 2023. LT

Read more: Best hotels in Istanbul

Valletta, Malta

Seeking warmth, beauty and enlightenment all wrapped into a city less than three hours from the UK? The solution is Valletta, a spectacularly three-dimensional walled city. It was the first European capital to be laid out on a grid pattern, which the Knights of St John prescribed in the 16th century – believing that having straight streets would make their fortress city easier to defend. Yet Valletta’s year in the sun as European Capital of Culture in 2018 triggered a renaissance – notably in the shape of Muza, the new National Museum of Art in Malta. After a varied subsequent career as courthouse and post office, the ancient Auberge d’Italie (built to house Italian-speaking knights) has finally been transformed into a ravishingly beautiful collection of galleries where light, shade and history converge. Then take a seat on the terrace of the Star Cafe, order a Maltese ftira (ring-shaped bread filled with tasty savouries) and a Cisk beer to wonder at a ravishing city built in cream and honey. SC

Read more: Best hotels in Malta

Liberty Square in Timișoara (Getty Images)

Timisoara, Romania

There’s every chance you haven’t heard of Timisoara, Romania’s historic third city in the west of the country. But that’s about to change for 2023, as it is crowned one of three European Capitals of Culture. The title means the city will be running a full programme of cultural events under the banner “Shine your light! Light up your city!”, which the city describes as “an invitation to embark with us on a journey through light and dark spaces, a long and often laborious process of change and personal development towards a collective sensitivity.” Art exhibitions, book and vintage fairs, installations and classical music performances are all on the cultural agenda; see for more information. Outside its artsy offering, Timisoara has a wealth of baroque buildings and handsome Secessionist architecture lining historic squares to discover – plus, in spring and summer, some big-hitting musical festivals, including Timişoara Muzicală Festival (classical concerts and opera), JazzTM (jazz) and the Plai (world music). HC

Miami, USA

This Floridian city has long been popular, but it’s fully earning its place among the US’ top, must-see culture, dining, nightlife and entertainment capitals. Aside from winter sunshine and iconic Art Deco hotels, there’s plenty going on in 2023: the first hotel to open in the cool Wynwood art and design district, Arlo Wynwood, flung open its doors last month; and cult restaurants Catch (originally in LA) and Rao’s (originally in New York City) will open in 2023. Meanwhile, “intriguing” doesn’t quite cover the sound of Our Ocean, Our Future, a digital immersive supper club that teachers diners about ocean conservation with “ocean-positive” cuisine and cocktails. And, as if all that wasn’t spicy enough, the US’ second ever Museum of Sex opens in the city next spring, following an initial outpost in New York. LT

Read more: Best hotels in Miami

Cadiz in Andalusia is the oldest city in western Europe (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Cadiz, Spain

The oldest city in western Europe welcomes far fewer visitors than it rightly deserves, presumably because it is one of those rare Spanish locations without an airport on the doorstep. But Cadiz richly rewards going one step beyond Seville or Jerez (the nearest arrival points). What first attracted the Phoenicians to Cadiz around 3,000 years ago was its location: a fist-shaped slab of rock at the end of an arm of land that connects it to the coast of south-west Spain. Everything of interest is located within the historic core, which is separated from the rest of Andalucia by stout city walls. The Central Market occupies the same site as the original Roman trading hub. Like almost every restaurant in Cadiz, it offers seafood of astonishing abundance and quality. For evidence of the city’s antiquity, visit the Museo de Cadiz; pride of place goes to a pair of Phoenician marble sarcophagi from the 5th century BC (he male was found in the city in 1887, and the female in 1980). Look out also for an impressive statue of the local hero, the emperor Trajan – the head was sculpted in Rome, the toga’d torso in Cadiz. SC

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