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The crown jewel of Flanders, Bruges is one of Europe’s best-preserved Medieval cities. At the still-lively market square, you’ll see landmarks including Bruges’ famous 12th-century bell tower. Other Bruges landmarks include its stunning Basilica of the Holy Blood, while the city’s museums and galleries showcase historical riches and the city’s long association with Belgium’s master painters. Of course, you’re also in the world’s best country for beer, so do make the most of it. The De Halve Maan brewery welcomes visitors, and it’s fun to see its beer pipeline beneath the city. If you prefer a hot chocolate – sometimes served as chocolate on a stick, to melt into hot milk – beautiful cafés abound. Of course, friends won’t forgive you unless you also shop for gifts at the world-class chocolatiers, such as the long-established Mary. For some unique views, it’s also worth hopping on to one of the canal-boat tours.
In the country that gave the world cosiness as a lifestyle – the not-quite-translatable word, ’hygge’ – Copenhagen is the place to wrap up in style. The palaces and castles, including Christiansborg, are set in stunning grounds and offer a dose of romance, while a perfectionist coffee culture means that the cafés are excellent citywide. Try a caffeine hit and pastry in trendy Vesterbro, just for the people-watching. Museums and galleries range from bright temples to contemporary art to repositories of design treasures, and that celebrated Danish sense of style also makes this a seriously tempting shopping city. The famously innovative New Nordic restaurants also mean that lunch here could be the best of your life. Or simply take some fresh air in the many gorgeous city parks or on scenic Østerbro waterfront. Whatever you do, for a local's perspective on one of the world’s best cycle cities, do it by hire bike if you can.
This major port city is surprisingly peaceful, criss-crossed by canals and dotted with green public parks. At the Alster Lakes, you can hire a rowboat, or sit and plan your day over a cuppa at a lakeside café. The tempting shopping street of Jungfernstieg is nearby, for starters. The Beatles famously honed their live act in Hamburg, and Fab Four fans might want to visit their dedicated artwork at Beatles-Platz in St Pauli, the neighbourhood famous for its punky football team and Reeperbahn bars. For something more genteel, there’s live music at the city’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall, a new architectural icon, which hosts daytime concerts. The big draw, though, is its viewing platform, open daily. Taking in the city vista, you can’t miss Planten un Blomen, the luscious botanical park in the centre. It’s a delight to stroll in its autumnal colours, as is Stadtpark, with its Art Deco planetarium. Speicherstadt houses museums and a model railway, all set on the magnificent Elbe river.
The Finnish capital always ranks highly on ‘quality of life’ lists, and as a visitor it’s not hard to see why or to enjoy the locals’ perks. Parks and greenery account for a whopping 40% of this chic harbour city, which has a highly agreeable culture of everyone luxuriating in elegant public pools and saunas all year round. Get a feel for Helsinki at the busy market square of Kauppatori, with its varied food stalls and heated café tents. Helsinki Cathedral, the Central Library and Olympic Stadium are among the photogenic landmarks you can zip between on a hire bike, while the idyllic Open-Air Museum of Seurasaari is a walk through the city’s past. You’ll find saunas throughout Helsinki; among the most high-spec is Löyly, which also has a destination restaurant. Don’t miss the iconic Allas Sea Pool, either – it’s open all year and includes heated pools to enjoy whatever the outside temperature.
The Estonian capital offers a winning blend of Gothic fairy-tale architecture, sandy seaside and modern urban culture and conveniences. Bike hire is easy and citywide and much of Tallinn is nicely walkable, too. To tick off some key sights easily, step through the 14th-century Viru Gate, and you enter Talinn’s enchanting Old Town and centre. This is where you’ll find the town’s main square and landmarks including the Town Hall and the domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Notable museums include the modern art collection of Kumu, built into a limestone slope in Kadriorg (the gift shop’s good, too). Long after summer fades, the appeal of Talinn’s beach remains. Pirita beach is the biggest and best-known, combining golden sand and city skyline views. At some point, make time to warm up with a hot drink in one of the hipster coffee shops that have sprung up in repurposed wooden fishermen’s huts in Kalamaja.
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