It’s not hard to be beautiful sitting on the shores of Lake Geneva, surrounded by deep blue water and majestic mountains, but Evian-les-Bains has a few surprises up its sleeve beyond just looking good. Located in France but staring at Switzerland, Evian has a historic heritage, with fine architecture lining the lakeside streets. The striking, modern Palais Lumiere also draws visitors and hosts an ongoing programme of cultural events. But as you’ve already guessed, it’s the water that brings people here, and though the town has many top-end spas to blow the budget on, there’s also a reasonably priced public spa, Les Thermes Evian, which is a lovely place to spend a day relaxing.
Vilamoura is the heart of the Algarve, but increasingly the resort is reinventing itself to offer something different. This part of Portugal has always been known for natural beauty and sun and sand holidays, but increasingly the area is catering for foodies, golfers and spa lovers. It’s a place to unwind, as a couple or as a family. The marvellously preserved medieval quarters and lively bars and restaurants of Faro are nearby, and the Algarve’s trademark beaches can be easily visited. The closest ones to Vilamoura offer some of Europe’s best windsurfing conditions. Just the other side of Faro is Olhao, a must-see for seafood fans and packed to the gills with atmospheric restaurants serving freshly-caught ocean treats.
Toledo is known as La Ciudad Imperial (Imperial City) for a reason; this is Iberia’s Rome with mosques, synagogues, churches and museums galore, plus the added high of a lofty setting, perched on a rocky ridge above Río Tajo. Like the Middle East grafted onto Spain, Toledo’s labyrinth of narrow streets, plazas and inner patios is reminiscent of the medinas (towns) of Damascus, Cairo or Morocco’s Fès. Yet from Toledo’s heart rises the Gothic grandeur of the cathedral and the grim composure of the Alcázar. The artistic legacy bequeathed by the city’s cosmopolitan former inhabitants is reflected in this intriguing mosaic of architecture, as well as in its cultural values. Staying the night is essential to see the best of Toledo dusk, when the city returns to the locals and the streets take on an atmospheric, other-worldly air.
Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands
Ask someone who knows the Netherlands well to name their favourite place, and Den Haag will more often than not be the answer. Officially known as 's-Gravenhage ('the Count’s Hedge'), Den Haag is the Dutch seat of government and home to the royal family. Den Haag today is a stately, regal place filled with palatial embassies and mansions, green boulevards and parks, prestigious art galleries, a mouthwatering culinary scene, a clutch of tasty museums, and some throbbing nightlife. Plus it’s attached to the seaside suburb of Scheveningen, worth a visit for its lively kitsch and long stretch of beach. This is the Netherland’s up-and-coming weekend destination.
There are few city silhouettes more striking than Dresden’s. The classic view from the Elbe’s northern bank takes in a playful phalanx of delicate spires, soaring towers and dominant domes belonging to palaces, churches and stately buildings. The Saxon capital was called the 'Florence of the north' in the 18th century but was decimated during World War II. The city, however, is a survivor and there is no more potent symbol of its people’s determination than the resurrected Frauenkirche. Take a few days and allow yourself to be caught up in this visual and cultural feast. We promise that Dresden’s world-class museums will mesmerise you, its riverside beer gardens relax you and its light-hearted, almost Mediterranean, disposition, charm you.
Dubrovnik may not be a secret, but its charms take on a different, mellow quality once the summer crowds head for home. Lord Byron was not overstating the matter when he proclaimed Dubrovnik 'the pearl of the Adriatic'. Dubrovnik is clearly special. A magnificent curtain of walls surrounds marble streets and baroque buildings that exude a pearly light in the Adriatic sun. The main pedestrian thoroughfare, Placa, is a melange of cafes and shops with outstanding monuments at either end. Churches, monasteries and museums ornamented with finely carved stone recall an eventful history and a vibrant artistic tradition. Beyond the city is a heavenly landscape of beaches, wooded peninsulas and a sea strewn with lush islands.
Antwerp has a roll call of drawing cards making it one of Europe’s hottest places to be. Appreciated by mode moguls, club queens, art lovers and diamond dealers, Belgium’s capital of cool and the country’s second-biggest city once again revels in fame and fortune. Here you’ll find a beautiful and intimate old city, an astonishing number of world-acclaimed fashion designers and a fast-changing, exciting pace of life. The whole city is something of an architectural museum, from the medieval riverside fortress to modern waterfront creations. The city is a weekend break not yet appreciated by many, but Antwerp’s depths of attractions rivals more famous names.
Lecce can make you giddy – the town is built of stone that glints gold and cream in the sunlight, a local material that starts off malleable yet soon hardens, making it perfect for building and sculpting. The churches are laden with barmy baroque architecture: asparagus column tops, decorative dodos and cavorting gremlins. Swooning 18th-century traveller Thomas Ashe thought it 'the most beautiful city in Italy', but the less-impressed Marchese Grimaldi said the façade of Santa Croce made him think a lunatic was having a nightmare. Either way, it’s a lively, graceful university town, packed with upmarket boutiques, antique shops and furniture restorers. Convenient for both the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, it’s a great base for exploring the Penisola Salentina.
Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates
Often overlooked in the tourist brochures, Ras Al Khaimah (usually known as simply ‘RAK’) is somewhat of an undervalued destination for visitors to the UAE. With its proximity to the hazy Hajar Mountains, the UAE’s northernmost and most fertile emirate is often seen as the gateway to Oman’s spectacularly beautiful Musandam Peninsula, however it has a few surprises of its own. The views of the mountains are spectacular and come as quite a surprise after the endless sands and dreary drive to get here. The nearby beaches are as pristine and development-free as you’ll find in the UAE, and a few days here is the perfect way to see a different, quieter side of the UAE, while sampling some world-class watersports.
Located just 90 miles from New York City, Philadelphia has long lived in Gotham’s overwhelming shadow. It existed as a sort of historic stage set, great for school trips to the Liberty Bell followed by lunches of Philly cheese steaks, but not much else worth travelling for, right? Wrong. Philly is certifiably hip, packed full of young creatives and suffused with a sense of pride for what the city is and also what it isn’t – and it isn’t the Big Apple. Experience the Philadelphia renaissance by strolling through a series of spiffed-up neighbourhoods, exploring glorious Fairmount Park, catching a play or symphony or a night of live music or clubbing. Oh – and, while you’re at it, get a major dose of history, too. You’ll also be able to make like Sly Stallone in Rocky by running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go on, you know you want to.