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So you’ve seen the Colosseum, spent half the day queuing to get into the Sagrada Família, and spent three hours standing through a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Globe… because you just have to. But how often do you get home needing a holiday from your holiday? With that in mind, here’s a few ways to actually chill out while holidaying in six of Europe’s busiest cities.
Parisians have been down with the art of chilling for centuries. Synonymous with Parisian life – flâneur is one who idles and wanders around town. The whole city is impeccably equipped for the traditional pastime of “having a sit” – whether it be the abundance of chairs in parks or the sidewalk-cafés with rows of seats, perfectly poised for people-watching.
Finding a good cup of coffee in Paris is a rarity. Fortunately there’s a coffee revolution happening, and quality cafés are popping up everywhere. Try Boot Café for an excellent cup, or if you can’t get a seat (it’s pretty teeny) pop around the corner to Fragments, which is also happily situated a stone’s throw from the Place des Vosges park – a sterling example of Parisian symmetry.
But Paris isn’t known for its coffee. It’s known for outrageously delicious pastries. Grab a place by the sidewalk at Au Petit Versailles du Marais, proud winner of the Second Best Traditional Baguette in Paris last year (that’s a big deal). You could kill hours here sampling the incredible range of pastries (pro tip: try the roulé chocolat et pistache). Make sure you look up at the exquisite glass-painted ceiling.
Given Parisians mostly live in apartments sans gardens, the city is brimming with beautiful parks to chill out in. The most famous are the Tuileries and the Luxembourg Gardens. So. Much. Symmetry. They are littered with green metal chairs, because walking on the grass is forbidden. They’re so chilled out they literally sit and watch grass grow.
But for something unique and to feel the grass beneath your toes (sacre bleu!), head to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Transformed from an old quarry, its most notable feature is the central temple atop steep cliffs surrounded by lake. Take a perch up the top for sensational views out towards Sacre Cœur. And if you really must tick something off your bucket list, it’s not far from the Pere Lachaise cemetery if you want to visit a bunch of famous dead people.
Or just do the clichéd thing and grab a bottle of wine from a local bottle-o (cave in French), a baguette and some cheese, and take up residence by the side of the river. Nothing beats it. Pro tip: splurge on a €6 bottle – it’s worth it. What you can get for €10 will blow your mind.
Pro tip: Before you go to Rome you should really watch Oscar-winning film The Great Beauty so you can retrace lead character Jep’s steps across Rome with Arvo Pärt’s moody soundtrack in your head.
There’s an enormous amount to see in Rome – from Ancient Roman treasures like the Pantheon (an architectural marvel and my favourite), the Colosseum and the Forum, to the sprawling Vatican. It’s packed like a sardine tin with tourists, especially in the summertime, but you really should tick off the basics before heading into chill-out territory. I mean, when in Rome… (I’ll see myself out).
Aside from the must-sees, there’s definitely hidden gems in Rome that aren’t flooded with selfie-sticks. For something really special and relatively tourist-free head up Janiculum Hill to the spectacular Fontana dell’Acqua Paola, where you’ll also be treated to stunning views of the city. From here you can also meander up to Piazzale Garibaldi for some more panoramic views – don’t miss the ones up the back over Vatican City. I can’t think of anywhere in Rome I’d rather park myself at sunset – along with a bottle of pinot grigio, some quality Italian parmesan and prosciutto. Seriously: la dolce vita.
Another beautiful way to unwind and escape the madness in Italy’s capital is a stroll along the Tiber River – which runs through Rome below street level. Whether it’s sunrise or sunset, it never seems to be very busy. Sure, it could do with more regular maintenance and garbage removal, but it’s also wonderfully grungy and full of neat ruins like this one:
OK let’s not beat around the bush: London isn’t the easiest city to chill in. London is busy. Especially if you’re contending with peak-hour traffic in the tubes. So let’s assume you’ve visited the Tower of London, spent more than you can afford in the food halls of Fortnum and Mason and fed multiple squirrels in Hyde Park (much to the disgust of passing Londoners).
Escape central London to the increasingly-hipster Hackney Wick area. It’s the perfect way to see a different side of London, and you can even hire a bike and go for a leisurely ride by the canal. There’s also loads of awesome street art, small galleries and – most importantly – damn good food and drinks. For breakfast and good coffee try The Counter – a canal-side café where they even roast their own beans (coffee snobs rejoice!). For boutique beer and awesome pizza there’s Crate Bar & Pizzeria – their hand-rolled pizzas are made to order and they brew their own beer (also scenically located by the canal).
There’s peace and quiet to be found in central London if you know where to go. For something indoors and cultural head to the Wallace Collection – a national museum in a gorgeous old London town house. Aside from the fact that it’s brimming with Rubens, Velasquez’s and a really cool armoury room, you can also enjoy a positively delightful afternoon tea. So charmingly British. Best yet – admission is free! (Donations recommended.)
While you’re in the heart of London, meander through Soho (there’s good coffee at Monmouth or Flat White) and if you have time ride the ferry along the Thames for postcard views of London. It’s pretty darn lovely.
The siesta isn’t the only way take five in Spain’s bustling Barcelona. Let’s face it – there’s only so much Gaudi architecture you can chase around town when what you really want to do is eat good food and relax on the beach.
Poble Sec is the perfect part of Barcelona to avoid tourists and café hop at any time of the day. Café Cometa is open all day for all your needs – they serve up a good brekkie or lunch, and in the evening it transforms into a chilled bar with worthy wine. Around the corner is Restaurante La Xalada serving seriously amazing food and wines at remarkably reasonable prices. There’s hidden gems all over Poble Sec and you’re far less likely to stumble into a tourist trap.
But the best way to truly chill out in Barcelona is to lie on the beach and do bugger all. Personally, I didn’t really dig the beach in Barcelona itself. The nearby food options seemed average and overpriced. On a hot tip from a local I did a day trip to Sitges Beach, which is about 30 minutes away by train. Now that’s a beach I can get behind.
Sitges itself is outrageously charming, and with loads of great food. But nothing beats kicking back on the beach and waiting for a guy with an esky to swing by and sell you a cheap can of Spanish beer. The train itself takes a scenic route along the coastline – which at sunset outdid itself completely, when sound-tracked by an elderly Spanish busker on guitar serenading us with her gravelly vocals. Bliss.
Though Berlin wears the scars of recent history on its sleeve, it’s not trapped in the past – but rather brimming with new cultural hubs and hotspots for an evening drink. It would be remiss not to spend time revisiting Germany’s incredible museums and war memorials, but if you want to take a break from the harrowing history side of things there’s plenty of other things to do. Brain. Needs. Break.
Definitely make your way to Berlin Tempelhof Airport. Yes. Airport. It ceased functioning in 2008 and has been claimed as a public space. How often can you enjoy a picnic or a bike ride on a aeroplane runway, while marvelling at masses of nearby flying kites? You simply must.
Take in the sunset at Mauerpark. Head in a little early to wander the markets (though the closer to closing time you are, the cheaper you’ll get your vintage purse and currywurst). Buy a takeaway beer for cheap at a local store and then head over to the main hill to watch sunset amongst the free-spirited Berliners.
Venice’s reputation for majestic streets made of water and labyrinth-like alleys is completely founded. It’s magnificent. The best bit is that although it’s indeed flooded with both water and masses of tourists, it doesn’t take long to escape them. Sure you can check out the St Mark’s Square and the Doges Palace, but what you really want to do is glide along the canals and take in the floating magic that is Venice. For the love of God, don’t do the gondola thing. Don’t even bother with the water taxis. Get yourself a boat bus pass that will cover your stay and just bus about town (try to get an outdoor seat – wind in your hair and all that jazz).
For a bit of culture go for a browse in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (imagining the lavish parties she would’ve hosted in the incredible canal-front mansion is reason enough), or there’s always something unusual at the Fortuny Museum. Then just wander the charmingly narrow streets, and find somewhere to park yourself for an afternoon Aperol Spritzer (they are everywhere) and some seriously good pizza. Insider local knowledge led me to Il Muro – there’s three around town and they are reliably fresh and wonderful. Top it off with some gelati (because you must) – I’d recommend Gelatoteca SuSo for some mind-blowing deliciousness.
For something extra special take a boat out to Torcello. Most people head to Murano for its famous glass, but Torcello is an absolute treasure. Sparse and relatively untouched, it gives us a hint of what medieval Venice would’ve been like. The fresco in the cathedral is breathtaking (no photos), and when we went we had the whole place to ourselves. We had lunch at Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo – not on the cheap side but one of the best meals we had in Italy. At the end of the day, stop off on the Burano island (the ferry makes a stop there anyway) and have a wander around the gorgeously colourful town.
And if you’ve played your cards right, your ferry should saunter back into Venice around sunset to see something outrageously attractive like this:
(Lead image: Gregory Erdstein. All photos copyright Alice Foulcher and Gregory Erdstein.)
Travel doesn’t always have to be a whirlwind ride. If you prefer to take your time & delve deep into the European culture, than Contiki‘s got you sorted with their Easy pace & In-Depth Explorer travel styles. Love sleeping in and spending more time in each destination? You’ll be living like a local in no time with Contiki. Find out more here.