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Sands and the city: Europe’s top urban beaches

Beware decision fatigue: dithering between an action-packed city break and a restorative flop on the beach can take its toll on holiday planning. Thankfully, Europe is blessed with fabulous cities offering prime perches by the water. Travel writer Madévi Dailly offers her pick of the most seductive 


(Getty Images; Agnes Mellon)


For hideaway creeks and cracking pizza

Brash and exuberant as it comes, Marseille is a French city best discovered on foot. Start with a stroll around the ancient port, where old-school stalls still peddle fresh urchins and the catch of the day, then climb up to the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica for sweeping views over the bay. Marseille makes a fine base for exploring the Calanques, a striking landscape of limestone cliffs and postcard-pretty creeks best approached by boat. Catch one near the Mucem – a filigreed museum celebrating Mediterranean culture – or jump instead into the azure waters from the rocks of fishermen’s hangout the Vallon des Auffes. Nearby Chez Fonfon makes the best bouillabaisse around. Back in the old town, head to rue d’Aubagne for a shopping spree: North African baskets and ceramics from Jiji La Palme d’Or, picnic supplies from Epicerie l’Idéal, or magazine-worthy homeware (fine linens, artisanal soap) from glam hardware shop Maison Empereur. Don’t miss the pizza at Chez Sauveur: the anchovy and tomato number is worth the trip alone.

Take off to Marseille



For cultural sights and late nights

Barcelona’s party-loving reputation is well deserved: nights out in this boisterous city kick off around midnight and happily last until the small hours. Mercifully for the unaccustomed, there’s no shortage of stellar tapas bars to keep you fuelled throughout the day – and plenty of cultural sights for the slower-paced, too, from the Picasso Museum to the soaring spires of La Sagrada Família. Start your day right at El Quim in Mercado de La Boqueria, where chipirones (baby squid) are heaped generously on to a perfectly fried egg. There are miles of golden sands to explore, from the crowds and bustle of Barceloneta Beach to the picturesque seaside village of Caldetes, an hour’s train ride from the city centre. Stay clear from the touts peddling watery mojitos and head instead to a chiringuito, a beach shack plonked right on the sand dishing out everything from gourmet sandwiches (at La Guingueta) to squid-ink paella (try Xiringuito Escribà).

Take off to Barcelona

(Adobe Stock)


For saunas and Scandi cool

A bracing dip in the North Sea may not be the first thing that springs to mind when planning a seaside break, but Sweden’s hip and vibrant second city has much to recommend it. Scandi chic is alive and well in the historic and attractive streets, where you could happily flit for a day or three between Michelin-starred restaurants, cutting-edge galleries and indie coffee shops. Each of Gothenburg’s charming neighbourhoods has a distinct vibe, from wood-clad, bohemian Haga to trendy Magasinsgatan. Come the balmier summer days, the area’s unspoilt archipelago beckons – and is easily reached by public transport. Popular Saltholmen has ladders descending straight into the sea. Farther south, on the island of Stora Amundön, coastal meadows, hiking routes and a snorkel trail make for a romantic escape. Gothenburg is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year with the creation of Jubileumsparken, a new leisure park featuring a man-made beach, floating pool and steampunk sauna towering over the waters – the perfect excuse for a cobweb-clearing dip.

Take off to Gothenburg


For history and island-hopping

Curled up over less than a square kilometre, Malta’s cliff-perched capital is as tiny as they come. But there’s plenty in its history-laden, gloriously photogenic streets for a memorable city break. Drop your bags at The Phoenicia, just across from the imposing Renzo Piano-designed city gate, then make a beeline for the romantic arches of Upper Barrakka Gardens and their jaw-dropping views over the Grand Harbour. Night-time is atmospheric, with tables spilling out on to the cobbled streets from restaurants and louche speakeasies. On a sun-drenched day (and there are plenty of those in Malta), a quick ferry ride will take you to Sliema across the bay, where beach clubs and a rocky shore make for a fuss-free splash in the sea. More leisurely day trips to Malta’s sister islands of Gozo and Comino reap even greater rewards: the still, shallow waters of the Blue Lagoon, say, or the otherworldly red sands of Ramla Beach.

Take off to Valletta

(Adobe Stock)


For pastries and palaces

Packed with on-trend eateries, bijou boutiques and tempting pastelarias, Portugal’s capital isn’t strictly speaking a coastal city, sprawling instead along the banks of the river Tagus. But there’s more than a whiff of salty sea air in the breeze, a sign that the golden sands and crashing waves of the Atlantic are never very far away. If you’re visiting Pena Palace in nearby Sintra in the summer, catch the electric tram to Praia das Maçãs, a wide stretch of beach popular with families. A day trip to the royal resort of Cascais, with its grand villas, elegant promenade and compact Praia da Rainha beach, can offer welcome respite from trudges up Lisbon’s lively but rather steep hills. Check in at stylish Farol Design Hotel for a night or two. Further up the coast, Praia do Guincho’s spirited winds are ideal for surfers and other adrenaline-seekers. Before heading back into town, a pit stop in Belém for a taste of Antiga Confeitaria’s legendary custard tarts is practically mandatory.

Take off to Lisbon