The very nature of a weekend city break means time is of the essence. You only have a limited amount of time to explore your destination. Whether you’re flying into your chosen city for 2 nights, 3 nights, 4 nights or more, you’ll need to make the most of every minute. And having taken a fair few city breaks in my time, I’ve sussed out a few tips that help me to hit the ground running. So, if you’re keen to really get a feel for your destination with only a few days to spare, read on for 10 ways to make the most of a city break.
13 Ways to Make the Most of a City Break
1. Book central accommodation
If you only have a few days to explore, your accommodation will need to be as central as possible. Although it goes without saying, I sometimes feel myself being lured by cheap hotels and apartments on the outskirts of the city. When I’m on a budget, price matters, but if it’s going to take me an hour to get into the city each day, I’m willing to part with a little extra cash to maximise my time. If you do decide to stay outside the centre, make sure you’re close to public transport links.
2. Bookmark restaurants, cafes and attractions on Google Maps
One of my favourite things to do prior to leaving on a city break is to trawl through travel blogs and check out suggestions for places to eat and attractions to see. Quite often, while on the ground, I don’t have time to refer back to those blog posts, so undoubtedly I usually end up missing some of the recommendations made by locals or fellow bloggers.
That’s why I make sure to bookmark these places in my Google Maps. So, wherever I am in the city, I can refer to my bookmarked places and check out one of the recommended restaurants, attractions or cafes nearby. This way, I don’t waste time wandering around looking for a half decent place to eat.
To bookmark a place in Google Maps, simply type the name of the place into the search bar and click on the listing to bring up the details. Then click on the ‘save’ button and select one of the icons to show on the map. I use different icons for different places. For example, I use the yellow star for cafes, bars and restaurants, I use a green flag for tourist attractions and a blue pointer for gluten-free/vegan restaurants if I’m travelling with someone who has dietary restrictions as I did with my mum in Paris.
And while we’re on the topic of Google Maps, make sure you download the city map for use offline for those awkward ‘no signal’ moments.
3. Book tickets for events and attractions in advance
When time is short, you definitely don’t want to be standing in queues. Whether you opt for a city pass or simply book your tickets for attractions in advance, you’ll be glad you did when you get to walk straight to the front of the queue. Most cities offer some kind of pass that allows you to jump the queue, gain entry into certain attractions, and sometimes even travel on public transport for free.
Some of the best websites for city passes are:
CityPASS has a whole range of passes for American cities.
Tiqets for attractions and tours in cities all around the world
4. Purchase a public transport pass
Most cities offer some kind of public transport pass, such as London’s Oyster Card, New York City’s MetroCard and Sydney’s Opal Card. Rather than fumbling around in your bag for loose change, simply top up your card, or buy a pass that is valid for a period of time, and tap on and off whenever you board transport or enter a station. It’s much easier than searching for an ATM when you realise you’re all out of cash.
Quite often these passes actually give a hefty discount when you pay with your transport card rather than cash, so not only will it save you time, it’ll save you money too. For example, London’s Oyster Card gives a daily price cap depending on which zone you’re travelling in to make sure you don’t spend over a certain amount!
5. Plan your itinerary well
While on holiday, I don’t like to do too much planning. When I’m at home, my days are planned within an inch of themselves. So, for me, holidays are a break from routine, a chance to be spontaneous and free. Planning an itinerary while travelling seems counter-intuitive but with limited time and lots to see, I know it’s important to make the most of a city break.
Rather than planning each minute of each day, however, I suss out which attractions I most want to see, where they are located and how long I’ll need. I start to build up a rough idea of what I can reasonably achieve in a day and form a rough, flexible plan in my mind as to what I want to do.
Note that I said ‘flexible’. That means if I stumble across an awesome view, a cool coffee shop or a market I didn’t know about, I’ll let myself wander from my ‘plan’ and just go with the flow.
More than anything though, I try and stick to one area of the city each day. In terms of saving time, this makes total sense, because it prevents me from spending all my time travelling from one end of the city to the other. So, focus your efforts on attractions in one area, especially ones you can walk between, and you’ll be able to easily make the most of a city break.
6. Take a bus or walking tour
Want to kill two birds with one stone? Why not take a bus or walking tour? City bus tours and walking tours are usually led by locals who know the city like the back of their hand, so not only will you get to see more of the city than you usually would, but you’ll also learn about your destinations through a local’s eyes.
Most cities offer free walking tours (although a voluntary donation for the tour guide is recommended), but you can also take more in-depth specialised walking tours or bus tours for a fee.
Check out these websites for the best city walking tours:
Free Tours offers free tours with local guides in over 120 countries worldwide
New Europe Tours – don’t be fooled by the name. New Europe also offers free tours in New York, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
GPSmyCity – if the idea of a group walking tour doesn’t appeal, check out these self-guided walking tours instead
Big Bus Tours are the largest operator of open-top sightseeing tours in the world
Evans Evans Tours offer tours to the UK’s most iconic locations
7. Stay with a local
I’m yet to try it, but couch surfing is all the rage. I tend to use Airbnb a lot while travelling, although the media storm around Airbnb causing rental prices to boom and pushing locals out of most cities means it’s not always the most ethical choice.
I’m dead keen to try couch surfing as staying with locals sounds like the perfect way to get acquainted with a city and discover spots only locals know about.
8. Travel with hand luggage only
I haven’t travelled with a suitcase for over 4 years. Before that though, every time I went on holiday, I’d take a huge suitcase and pack as much of my wardrobe as possible, just in case! But when I started travelling more often, I realised how expensive it was to check in a suitcase with budget airlines and I decided to travel with hand luggage only from then on. I even survived without a suitcase on my month-long trip to Australia. It’s surprising how little you need to survive.
The benefits of travelling with just a cabin bag are endless. As well as saving time when you land, you avoid having to wrestle with your suitcase through bustling streets and on public transport. And what’s more, it saves money too. That is unless you’re travelling with Ryanair from 1st November 2018 onwards. Ryanair passengers will now have to pay a fee to travel with cabin baggage, which I think is an absolute joke, hence the reason why I’m boycotting Ryanair from this point forward.
9. Rent a city bike
Many cities now have bicycles that you can rent for a day while in the city to help you really make the most of a city break. I’ve not tried it yet but I imagine it’s a sure fire way to see as much of the city as possible in a short period of time. Not only does it cut down on time you would’ve spent walking, but it also saves the hassle of navigating public transport. While cycling in a city may seem scary, many cities are now encouraging this green, eco-friendly mode of transport and are adapting their cities to make them as bike-friendly as possible.
Check out this post for a guide on cycle hire schemes around the UK.
10. Get up and out early
This is one that I have real trouble following myself, as holidays are all about lazy mornings, waking up naturally and not living by my alarm. But I know that if I really want to make the most of a city break, lazing around at my accommodation is not a good use of my time.
Nevertheless, I am still working on getting up and out early enough to catch a sunrise and enjoy the streets all to myself. I really like the idea of it, but when reality strikes, my bed is always much more appealing! Must do better!
11. Travel out of season
Shorter queues and fewer people mean more time spent exploring. I much prefer travelling in Europe during the shoulder seasons of May/June and September as opposed to the peak summer months when cities are packed and the heat is sweltering. It’s simply personal preference and the fact that I can be flexible is always a big help.
If you have kids and are tied to school holidays then it’s more difficult to put this tip into practice but, if possible, travelling out of season not only means more space and time to enjoy your destination, but it also means cheaper flights and more choice when it comes to accommodation.
12. Try the local street food
I’m a huge foodie and eating incredible food is all part of the experience for me. That being said though, quite often the street food in certain cities is an experience in itself. While I love hunting out cool cafes and hip restaurants, if I’m really pushed for time, grabbing a bite to eat on the go can save precious minutes. I’m thinking crepes in Paris, waffles in Bruges, bratwurst in Germany and fish and chips in England, to name just a few.
Another great way to experience the food scene of any city is to check out the local markets. They are usually tourist attractions in themselves and you can eat some great food on the go – two birds, one stone.
13. Learn a few words in the local language
Finally, it never hurts to learn a few words in the local language. Simply saying hello, goodbye, thanks and excuse me in someone’s own language can really mean the difference when it comes to asking for help and getting the directions or assistance you need.