September is usually a sweet spot for European city breaks. With children back at school and the traditional summer holiday period drawing to a close, crowds diminish and prices and temperatures usually follow suit.
Unfortunately, a different picture is emerging this year, as industry experts reveal that US tourists are still flocking to the Continent eager to spend their Covid credit notes and make up for travel time lost to the pandemic, pushing up prices as a result.
“Demand for Europe from the US continues to be robust,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tourism Association (ETOA). “September departures from the US are more or less sold out. In the UK, we’re seeing price rises in the region of 15 per cent and there remains considerable restrictions on space.”
Hospitality data intelligence firm OTA Insight notes a sharp rise in hotel rates this September compared to last year, notably in Italian destinations where half of the top 10 biggest increases have been recorded.
So, what can you do if you want a throng-free shoulder-season break that won’t break the bank? The answer is to get creative. Look beyond the most popular cities and there are still affordable, less busy, holidays to be had.
Swap Paris for… Dijon
Just an hour-and-a-half’s train ride from Paris, the city of Dijon wraps around a Unesco World Heritage-listed centre where the sights closely mirror those of the French capital. There’s a medieval church of Notre Dame, a grand 19th-century opera house, and a clutch of art and history museums including the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, where more than 1,500 artworks are displayed across 50 rooms.
Parisian similarities aside, Dijon is worth a visit in its own right. Not least for the Cite Internationale de la Gastronomie et du Vin (The International City of Gastronomy and Wine), which opened in 2022, featuring 1,750 square metres of exhibition, dining, drinking and shopping space dedicated to showcasing France’s foodie heritage.
Dijon is also the springboard to the Bourgogne (Burgundy) wine region, where vineyards welcome visitors for tours and tastings of some of the world’s best pinot noirs and chardonnays.
OTA Insight data suggests that hotel rates in Paris are 17 per cent higher than they were last September, with rooms averaging £340 a night. In Dijon, meanwhile, a night’s stay at the new Mama Shelter hotel, which opened in July close to Dijon Cathedral, starts at £84 (€99). en.destinationdijon.com
Swap Rome for… Bergamo
According to OTA Insight, hotel rates in Rome next month are up a staggering 47 per cent compared to last September, averaging £487 per night.
If you can’t get a room in the Eternal City, the administrative capital of Italy, why not try the cultural capital instead? Located in the north of the country, Bergamo is the official Italian Capital of Culture for 2023 alongside neighbouring Bresica. Highlights of a visit to this hilltop city include walking the Unesco-listed Venetian city walls, gazing at Botticelli and Raphael paintings in the Accademia Carrara gallery, and counting the 100 chimes that the Great Bell of the Civic Tower makes every night at 10pm.
Bergamo is also coddled by countryside and active visitors can tackle a leg of the 80-mile Way of the Sisters walking trail that opened in April 2023, lacing through national parks and vineyards.
At the time of writing, direct return weekend flights (Friday to Monday) from London Stansted to Milan Bergamo were available for just £52 with Ryanair in September.
One night at the Hotel Excelsior San Marco at the foot of the Old Town starts at £102 (€120) in the second week of September. A stay at Albergo Il Sole in the heart of the Old Town costs from £115 (€135). visitbergamo.net
Swap Venice for… Piran, Slovenia
Just across the border from Italy on the south-west tip of Slovenia, Piran is considered to be Slovenia’s best-preserved Medieval Venetian port. The town gets busy at the height of summer, but crowds trickle away after the school holidays, giving visitors space to explore the Old Town (where the Bell Tower was built to resemble that of the St Mark’s Campanile in Venice), the harbour, with its entourage of fresh seafood eateries, and the city wall walkways, which serve up widescreen views of the red-roofed city and the Adriatic Sea.
To extend a stay in Piran, visitors can add a couple of days in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana with its hilltop castle and riverside restaurants or head into the vineyard-blanketed hills of Brda, an area known as the Slovenian Tuscany. Both are 90 minutes’ drive from Piran.
Room rates in Venice are currently amongst the most expensive in Europe, averaging an eye-watering £643 a night, according to OTA Insight. Over in Piran, however, a central studio apartment starts at £77 a night and a one-night stay for two at Hiša Marica in the Medieval hilltop village of Šmartno in Brda costs from £120 including a breakfast that’s rich with local produce. portoroz.si/en
Swap Istanbul for… Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
There’s a “tale of two cities” feel to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Symbolically “fused” together by a visible marker in the pavement called The Meeting of Cultures Line, one side of the city is defined by Austro-Hungarian architecture while the other half is distinctly Ottoman.
On this side, the minaret of the Gazi Husrev-beg mosque spears into the sky, souk-style shops sell lanterns and leather goods, and cafes serve baklava and treacle-thick Turkish coffees in traditional copper pots.
Beyond the city centre, visitors can take the cable car to the top of Trebevic mountain and walk back down along the bobsleigh track that was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Another sobering but essential sight is the Tunnel of Hope Museum, 12 kilometres from the city centre, where visitors can see the tunnel where locals smuggled food, water and humanitarian aid into the city throughout the suffocating Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. In Istanbul, room rates are up 15 per cent year on year, based on data from OTA Insight. However, in Sarajevo, double rooms in guesthouses such as the charming Kod Keme, right near the old bazaar area, start from less than £40 a night. visitsarajevo.ba
Swap Amsterdam for… Hamburg
Hamburg, in northern Germany, could vie for Amsterdam’s title as “Venice of the North”. Not only is it located on the Elbe River, but it’s ribboned with canals and streams and there are two lakes within its limits, Inner and Outer Alster.
This profusion of waterways means the city is home to more than 2,500 bridges – more than Amsterdam, London and Venice combined.
There’s an A to Z of sights in Germany’s second city. It has two Unesco World Heritage sites – the warehouse district of Speicherstadt with its striking Neo-Gothic red brick buildings, and the Kontorhaus area, which has been recognised for its eye-catching Brick Expressionism structures.
The sight-seeing list continues with everything from the grand Rathaus (city hall) to the sail-shaped Elbphilharmonie concert hall, where you can take guided tours. As with its Dutch cousin, Hamburg has a red-eye-inducing nightlife scene centered on the infamous Reeperbahn. The Beatles famously visited here in the 1960s and its bars and clubs have barely slept since.
Direct September weekend flights from London Stansted to Hamburg are currently available for just £69 with Ryanair. While hotel rates in Amsterdam are up 12 per cent on last September, averaging £254 per night, you can find a design-focused double at one of Hamburg’s 25Hours Hotels for £144, while double rooms just outside the city centre – with easy metro access – can be found from £85 a night, at the weekend. hamburg.com
Swap Vienna for… Bratislava
A long to-do list awaits tourists in the capital of Slovakia. Visitors can amble around the Old Town and duck into Saint Martin’s Cathedral, where 11 kings and eight queens were crowned, walk up to the hilltop Bratislava Castle for bird’s eye views of the city and The Danube, and make a wish by rubbing the helmet of the Man at Work Statue.
Foodies should pop to the Konditorei Kormuth, a Sistine Chapel of coffee and cake, that serves multi-layered gateaux beneath brightly frescoed ceilings. Wine lovers, meanwhile, can venture into the Little Carpathian wine region for a vineyard tour or visit Old Town’s Grand Cru wine bar where owner Martin Pagi is an expert in Slovakian wines.
Hotel rooms in Vienna are up by almost a third next month, costing an average of £215 per night. However, a night at the NH Bratislava Gate One, with its seventh-floor swimming pool and panoramic wellness area, a short bus ride from the Old Town, costs from £71 a night (€83). visitbratislava.com
Swap Athens for… Tunis
It’s not easy to replace Athens with another destination. However, Tunis, on the north-east coast of Tunisia, gives the Greek capital a run for its money. A 20-minute drive from the centre are the ruins of Carthage, which was once one of the most affluent and strategically important cities of the ancient world.
Protected by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, the remains of the city include an acropolis, an ancient burial ground, a debated site of sacrifice, an amphitheatre, baths and homes.
Add in a trip to the nearby coastal town of Sidi Bou Saïd which, with its white-domed buildings and blue-shuttered windows, looks like Santorini’s twin sister. Both Tunisair and Nouvelair offer direct flights to Tunis from London Gatwick from £204 return in September.
Hotel rooms are reportedly 29 per cent more expensive in the Greek capital, but prices for a four-star riad-style hotel start at just £50 a night in Tunis. However, with the cost of living reportedly more than 50 per cent less in Tunisia than the UK, you might find you have a little more room in your budget. If that’s the case, rooms at the plush beachside The Residence Tunis, with spa, golf course and six restaurants, start at £187 a night. discovertunisia.com