Europe in a hurry: itineraries for time-poor travellers

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Short on time when travelling in Europe? Even a few days can give you a taste of Europe’s contrasting flavours, if you choose your destination wisely. These pairs of cities are perfect for time-poor, culture-hungry travellers.

London and Paris

Royal London, sultry Paris. British quirkiness, French sophistication. These capital cities vie for supremacy in fashion, art and nightlife  - but each secretly admires the other. If they were people, they’d be that couple arguing loudly at the bar but kissing passionately by the end of the night.

No one can doubt the splendour of Paris’ Louvre and Orsay museums, but wallet-watchers should gallery-hop in London (where the British Museum, Tate galleries and more are free). Paris has the edgier outdoor attractions, with the Promenade Plantée (an elevated garden walkway) and the urban beauty of the Canal St-Martin.

Hurl a baguette anywhere in Paris and you’ll hit a shadowy brasserie where diners linger over vin rouge and confit duck. But London, despite the rumours, is also great for food - try Borough Market for eccentric goodies (parsnip and salted caramel cake, anyone?).

Hop the border: Eurostar takes you between central London and the heart of Paris by train in 2 hours 15 minutes. Book ahead and you could snag a budget-friendly GB£69 return ticket (www.eurostar.com).

Vienna and Bratislava

One is famous for Mozart, imperial palaces and chocolate cake. The other, well, isn’t all that famous. But a whistlestop tour of Austrian capital Vienna and Bratislava in Slovakia, linked by the mighty Danube river, is the perfect way to experience everything from Habsburg dynasty splendour to sci-fi restaurants in just a few days.

Vienna’s classic drawcards are art, music and luxurious café culture. Pound the corridors of the achingly trendy Museumsquartier for a day - it’s also a great place to people-watch students and dreamers draped elegantly around the outdoor seating. Follow the footsteps of free-spirited Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth in the Schloss Schönbrunn, and reward yourself with a slice of Sachertorte (chocolate cake so dark and dense it defies physics).

Bratislava grabs your attention in a different way: colourful house-fronts and copper-domed spires stand alongside brutal Communist-era buildings. Doughy, meat-laden cuisine is the norm, but the finest dining experience is at the remarkable UFO restaurant (shaped just as it sounds - see www.u-f-o.sk). Despite being in a capital city, it's an easy journey to some unspoilt countryside - try a day-trip to the 9th-century Devin Castle (a simple bus ride from Novy Most in the Old Town).

Hop the border: the two cities are 90 minutes apart by coach (try www.slovaklines.sk) or an hour by train, but the best way to travel is on the Danube itself (check out www.twincityliner.com).

Helsinki and Tallinn

These cities share a love of nightlife, so mayhem is assured whichever side of the Baltic sea you’re on. But the similarity ends there: Tallinn in Estonia has fairytale spires and gilded rooftops, while Finland’s Helsinki is all harbourside chic and clusters of islands.

Tallinn’s romantic Alexander Nevsky cathedral crowns the Old Town with icing sugar domes and Toompea Castle looms over the city. But most travellers aren’t in Estonia for the sights (or the KGB history) - they’re here for the beer. Tallinn is a notorious stag party destination but it’s also easy to avoid roaring tourist hordes; plenty of cafes in the Old Town don’t admit large groups of men.

In Helsinki, a round of drinks may be double the price but the city’s beer terraces on long summer evenings are well worth a few extra euro. Suomenlinna fortress should top your list of must-sees, and do check out the iconic green-capped church, which adorns many a postcard from Finland.

Hop the border: regular ferries link the cities, and Finns eager for cheap Estonian vodka are known to make day-trips. A journey in winter is chilly but memorable: watch from the deck as your boat chugs through boulders of ice as big as cars. Book on laevapiletid.ee.

Want more?

If these three pairs aren’t your match made in heaven, here’s some more itinerary inspiration:

  • Dresden and Prague: a two-hour train ride connects the spiky architecture and stag party haven of Prague with the war-torn history and remarkable Frauenkirche in Dresden.
  • Brussels and Amsterdam: fuel up on mayo-slathered frites and waffles in Belgium; then party all night in The Netherlands’ decadent capital.
  • Zürich and Vaduz: a must for country-collectors, the tiny principality of Liechtenstein is easy to get to from buzzing Swiss city Zürich.

Make it happen

Dozens of cultures in one continent, and excellent train and bus connections - cross-country adventures are a breeze in Europe. But do take a look at our guide to the Schengen Zone, to keep the border guards smiling.

Anita Isalska is a writer and editor based in Lonely Planet's London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.