Two hours from Nottingham
I have pretty much built my whole life around my want, no need, to get away and see somewhere every couple of months. Of course, 2020 for me, as for all of us, was a difficult year. I’m really looking forward to getting out and travelling again soon.
Although, as an optimist, I know things will get back to the way we want them; I don’t think that’ll happen immediately. They’ll be a slow process of people finding their feet again, and there may be a period where you would prefer to visit a closer destination.
I’m based in Nottingham, in England, which is a small city about 120 miles north of London. I’m very fortunate in that I’ve got friends all over the world, and one of the things that’s taught me is how lucky we are in Europe with our travel options. There are so many places we can visit in a flight time of less than two hours. Some of these places are even accessible on the train or bus too (I’ll do a separate post about this soon.)
I was talking to a friend in Perth, Australia, about this just a couple of weeks ago. He emigrated there from the UK about five years ago. To be fair, he has wall to wall sunshine and beaches, so I’m not feeling sorry for him. But he says he really misses just being able to visit another country in a couple of hours.
That got me thinking, Europe’s full of great cities, and so many of them are accessible in travel times of less than two hours. In this article we’ll look at some options you’ll probably have considered, and those you may not.
For the romantics: Paris
I haven’t been to Paris for a long time and am currently feeling the want to return. It’s so accessible from the UK with trains, buses and flights. The Eurostar actually takes you to Gare de Nord so you’re right in the city centre with no need to get the metro. It’s great for a weekend away, or even longer.
Sacre Coeur and Montmartre
This, I think, is my favourite place in Paris. The Sacre Coeur is a basilica built on the highest point in the city. From the steps of the cathedral, you get the best view of the city. With most of Paris’s buildings only a few stories high, you can see almost all the major tourist attractions in one go! There is a bus up the hill, but if you’re able, I’d recommend the walk – Paris, like many cities, is best explored on foot.
Make sure you explore the area of Montmartre too. Step away from the main tourist square (unless you want to pay for someone to paint your picture), and duck into one of the tiny restaurants or cafés. This is a beautiful, historic part of the city with interesting photo opportunities and alternative sights just waiting to be discovered.
You’ll also find the Moulin Rouge here, and several great jazz and live music bars.
Whilst I don’t rush to museums when I’m travelling – I must prefer to see the city outside – the Louvre is definitely worth a visit. But be aware that it’s massive. If you’re in Paris a few days, then I would recommend visiting more than once. You can’t see and appreciate the whole thing in one day – try to prove me wrong if you like!
You may not know this, but students and EU residents under 26 get into all national museums and monuments in Paris. That’s an incredible offer. Check the small print and do your own research because there are several other discounts available too.
From the Louvre, it’s just a short walk to the Arc de Tiromphe and Champs Elysees too.
Meandering lazily through the city, the river is the best way to see the city. There are countless tour operators who offer cruises. From budget trips that’ll just cost you a few euros to floating restaurants with live music. You decide what suits you and your budget. It is a great way to watch the city slide by.
For the history: Rome
A trip to Rome is all about lapping up the lifestyle. Stroll lazily around the picturesque streets, watch the hours drift by in street-side cafes, and then feel the tempo rise after dark.
This is my favourite neighbourhood in Rome. It’s a picturesque warren of medieval streets and vibrant plazas. It’s colourful and exciting. You’ll find everything from Michelin stars to grungy bars on these cobbled streets. There are quirky little boutiques too, and the centre of the city is just a few minutes’ walk across the river.
Book your tickets in advance.
Rome has so many tourist attractions and so many tourists, that you really do need to choose carefully. I love wandering around and just seeing where I end up. And that’s great if you’re looking around the backstreets – there’s still a lot to stumble across, from beautiful churches, sculptures and cafes. But if you want to visit the Vatican, the Colosseum or the Forum, you really should book in advance. The length of the queues for these attractions can be as amazing as the attraction themselves. You’re in Rome to drink wine in the sunshine, not stand in line.
A day in Pompeii
I didn’t get to do this whilst I was in Rome, but I will next time for sure. The ancient and world-famous ruins of Pompeii are just a day trip from Rome. You can have the transfers arranged for you with plenty of time to explore the archaeological wonder of the ancient city. You’ll get a street-level glimpse into the lives of the ancient Romans by wandering through the city that time forgot.
For the beach: Barcelona
There are few cities in Europe, maybe even the world, where you could go for a mountain hike in the morning, see a cathedral over lunch and then lie on a white-sandy beach and watch the sun go down. In Barcelona, that’s a typical tourist day.
Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell
Both parts of Antoni Gaudi’s playful impact on the city, Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell are worth a visit. In about thirty minutes you can walk from one to the other, although there are multiple transport options too.
Formally known as the Basílica de la Sagrada Família, the Sagrada Familia is famous because it’s still – nearly 150 years after being started – not finished. You can understand why when you see it. Each surface and spire is intricately carved and modelled. Make sure you buy a ticket if you plan on going inside, no one wants to queue in the midday sun.
Park Güell is a public park on a hill just behind the city. The climb is steep, but the view when you get there is great. Most of the park, including some excellent views, is accessible without a ticket, despite what tour operators will tell you. If you want to sit on Gaudi’s famous serpentine bench though, then you’ll need to get one.
La Ramblas and the Gothic Quarter
La Ramblas is the tourist heart of Barcelona. Over a kilometre long, the wide, tree-lined street is home to many alfresco restaurants, street performers and kiosks. La Ramblas is vibrant and exciting, especially after dark.
If you find the chaos of La Ramblas all a bit too much, or want something a little less expensive, head into the twisting lanes of the Gothic Quarter. In this medieval area, you’ll discover trendy bars, intimate restaurants and vibrant night clubs. Prepare to get lost in the labyrinth though!
Tibidabo Mountain, at 512 metres, is the highest peak of the Collserola Mountain Range and it’s just a few miles from the city centre. With a short hop on the metro, you can climb the mountain in a couple of hours. It is steep and not for the fainthearted.
Sitting proudly at the top of the Mountain, you’ll find the Cathedral del Sagrat Cor (Cathedral of the Sacred Heart). Entrance is free, but for a couple of euros, you can climb to the top – if you’ve not climbed enough already – to get an even better view of the city.
Bizarrely, the top of Tibidabo Mountain is also home to an amusement park. That’s right, there’s a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster 500 metres above the city. Opened in 1901, it's one of the oldest theme parks in Europe. Thankfully, many of the rides have since been replaced.
For something a little different: Riga
I visited Riga for three weeks while house-sitting last year. It was a fantastic city to visit, but because of restrictions it wasn’t its usual vibrant self. I didn’t mind as I was there to work on my latest novel.
With stately towers, art nouveau masterpieces and medieval old town, Riga can seem reserved on the outside but in normal times (so I was told) it does come alive after dark. Latvia has incredible countryside too, so get out of the city if you can.
Day trip to Sigulda
Less than an hour from Riga, Sigulda is the perfect antidote to the bustle of the city. You can get one of Latvia’s old trains there for two euros each way. What you’ll find is a magical place where ancient castles compete for attention against sublime natural views. For good reason, Sigulda has been the muse of Latvia’s painters and poets for the last five centuries. See it without the hassle on this day trip from Riga.
Riga canal boat sightseeing tour
This is something I would have liked to do – but I’ll do it next time! You get to see the most popular sights of Riga’s historic centre on this canal cruise. Escape the city’s crowds aboard an eco-friendly canal boat as you explore both the Riga City Canal and the Daugava River. You’ll glide beneath the historic bridges and gaze up at the Latvian National Opera, Riga Central Market, and the UNESCO World Heritage monuments.