In the modern age of low cost flights and workaholic hours, more and more people are getting their travel fix through weekend escapes. Flying out on Friday and coming back on Sunday means that you'll only get one full day at the destination of your choice, which isn't enough to truly experience the city and country at its best. However, some of my most memorable travel experiences have been through flying visits, whether in the form of a 9 hour stop over or a weekend escape. Here are my top 5 mini-breaks from the past couple of years.
This was literally a flying visit to the Ukrainian capital, since I had 9 hours to kill in Kiev airport on a stopover from Tbilisi (Tbilisi-Kiev-Rome-Madrid). I landed at 9 a.m. and I was determined not to spend the entire day imprisoned in Boryspil airport. After pleading my case to the airport staff for my release, I received a satisfying stamp in my passport and was free to go.
Even a few hours in Kiev's centre was worth all the hassle. It's a city that combines elegance with the exotic, where its brightly coloured buildings and the golden churches livened up the sour grey skies. The elegant boulevards are characteristic of central and eastern Europe, bringing back nostalgic feelings of my childhood in Budapest.
The few hours I spent in Kiev was just a teaser introducing me to the city's sites and character and left me hungry to consume more. Fortunately, my brisk walk took me past the principal sites like the gold-domed churches of St. Sophia and St. Michael's Monastery, taking me back to Maidan Square and along Khreschatyk Street. I swept the streets as a manic tourist, but I found time to sit down some very cheap and quality Ukrainian food before continuing my long journey home.
This one is perhaps a bit of a cheat. I grew up in Budapest, so I know the city very well. Last year, Ryanair opened a new route between Madrid and the Hungarian capital with tickets costing 20€ return. This was an offer too good to miss, even if it was with Ryanair, so we impulsively booked flights that would arrive in Budapest Friday night and left Sunday morning. This meant that we only had one day to explore the city. A couple of my friends in our group had been before, but the others had not. This inspired me to draw up a concrete itinerary to guide them through the city's most important sites. The apartment we rented (if you're going to Budapest in a large group, I'd recommend renting an apartment over a hotel - it's much cheaper and far more fun) was right in the centre, making it easy to get around on foot.
Budapest is a fairly small city, as capital cities go, and you can explore most of it on foot. An unmissable Budapest experience is a visit to one of the classic, historic cafés. My personal favourite is the New York Café on the Körút, but the of the proximity of the Café Gerbeaud to our apartment and our planned itinerary meant we started our day there.
We strolled along the Danube banks and ambled across to the Chain Bridge over to Buda Castle. Instead of contending with the steep hill we opted for the funicular, which is a fun and easy way to get to the top, not to mention the wonderful views you're treated to on your ascent. Castle Hill has so much for the discerning tourist, with walks around the palace grounds and the Fisherman's Bastion. Here you can enjoy incredible riverside views through the cloisters and down to the Parliament.
Our route descended back down across the river and onto Andrássy Avenue, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This scenic walk took us past the Opera house all the way up to Heroes Square, just in time for sundown. The intensive walking tour ended with a night time stroll through City Park and the atmospheric Vajdahunyad Castle.
From Madrid this is the perfect weekend getaway. You can find tickets for as low as 30€ with Ryanair and the flight is under an hour. Portugal's second city is definitely worth a visit, whether you're a fan of decaying grandeur or you just love Port wine. Oporto is the ideal size for a mini-city break. You can spend one day sightseeing, and if you have another day to spare, you can go Port tasting in the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, or even cram both in the same day if you get up really early.
I went with the misconception that Portugal was going to be like Spain. It's not just in the language and cultures that differ, Oporto is architecturally unique when you pair it against other Spanish cities, even the nearby Santiago de Compostela. The buildings are beautiful, yet half of them are abandoned. Churches with blue and white tiles dot every other street, tucked between small and colourful townhouses and grand neoclassical structures. Top places to visit are the Majestic Café, the Lello & Irmão Bookshop (one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, and apparently inspired J.K. Rowling's Diagonal Alley in the Harry Potter books) and of course, the Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.
While I was living in Tbilisi in neighbouring Georgia, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to hop on a marshrutka, a Soviet era minibus, and travel to the capital of Armenia. Yerevan is a city full of surprises and one that surpassed all expectations. Many said that it was a "dump" and a depressing city filled with Soviet era buildings, yet my personal impressions were the complete opposite. I found Yerevan to be a cosmopolitan city with a vibrant night life and some of the friendliest people I've met. Yerevan makes a unique city break, especially since it's the ideal base to visit the surrounding Armenian countryside with regular and cheap tours on offer to Geghard, Garni, Lake Sevan and Khor Virap.
While most of my long weekend in Armenia was spent exploring the historic sites outside of the city, I felt I got a taste a sample of Yerevan as well. The city is very tourist friendly, and unlike Tbilisi, it's easy to cross the roads without fear of getting run over. The streets are marked in both Latin script as well as Armenian and it's easy to navigate.
The Cascade is the place to be at sundown. This modern arts centre merges art with architecture, with stunning views at the top over Yerevan and Mount Ararat.
The square next to the Opera house is surrounded with outdoor pavilions and bustling bars tempting you in for a taste of Armenian brandy or elegant cocktails. At 11 p.m. head over to Republic Square to take in the "singing fountains," a light and fountain show that is both spectacular and wonderfully tacky.
Writing about Venice in this list feels like a cop-out or a cliché. I mean, how many times has Venice come up in a list like this? Saying that, Venice has been one of my favourite mini-breaks, and since it's my blog I'll post what I like.
I was apprehensive about travelling to Venice, scared that the city wouldn't meet my expectations. The city of Venice has appeared in countless movies, artworks and books leaving it with some pretty big shoes to fill. Luckily for Venice, it has the big feet to match. Venice didn't only live up to its image, it swept me away on a gondola with Casanova.
I took my mini-break at the end of March, just after Carnivale, when the flights and hotels were a bargain. The weather was ideal, not too hot nor cold, and the city wasn't crowded at all.
No trip to Venice is complete without visiting the usual suspects, like San Marco, Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, but my personal highlights were the cemetery on Isola San Michele, the towering spiral staircase of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo and drinking Aperol cocktails with local Venetians in Campo di Santa Margherita.
Have you ever had a short stop over some place interesting? What's your favourite city break?
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.