As the last of the summer heat fades away, Europe’s cities are ripe for low-key getaways. Golden hues sweep across the continent, milder temperatures set in, and real life resumes after the hectic high season. For travellers, it’s a time to experience destinations alongside locals, with cheaper prices, shorter queues at attractions, and plenty of tables at the best restaurants – all of which are great things in our book. Keep reading to discover our pick of European cities perfect for a city break this autumn.
Madrid is one of the hottest capital cities in Europe during the summer, so with the coming of September, the cooler temperatures in the evenings are a welcome relief. September still sees warm sunny days, while alluring hues of gold, yellow, and orange unfold across the city’s extensive parks and gardens. As the throngs of summer visitors leave and Madrileños return to work, it presents a fantastic opportunity to visit Spain’s energetic and beautiful capital city.
Stroll through the city
With fewer crowds, autumn is a great time to experience the best of Madrid. A stroll through the city turns up graceful basilicas, mansions, and elegant architecture, but equally as rewarding are the main tourist haunts. Plaza Mayor, the city’s central square, is a good jumping-off point from which you can walk to attractions like the Royal Palace, the Puerta del Sol, and Gran Via. Don’t forget the Golden Triangle of Art, either, which is made up of the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums and represents one of Europe’s greatest collections of art.
Explore the parks
But there’s one attraction that stands out above the rest in autumn: Retiro Park. This is one of Europe’s most enticing green spaces, filled with grand boulevards, fascinating fountains, exhibition spaces, handsome gazebos, and statues of Spain’s national heroes. In autumn, the golden hue of the foliage is gorgeous and entices locals into the park with the promise of quiet relief from the buzzing city.
Wander around with a bag of roasted chestnuts, or linger on a café terrace with coffee and churros, and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.
Enjoy the food
After a long day of exploring, it’s high time to tune into Madrid’s world-class drinking and dining scene. The best bars in Madrid are found in the hipster haven of Malasaña, while Madrid’s best tapas bars are in La Latina and Letras. From historic, hole-in-the-wall tapas joints to elegant temples dedicated to cocktail mixology, Madrid is considered one of the nightlife capitals of Europe. Wherever you go, remember your jacket – those warm autumn days turn chilly in the evening.
Get to know the history
After your fill of the city, some of the best day trips from Madrid are, of course, equally as relaxed. By far the most popular is a visit to the historic city of Toledo, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace. The cobbled old town is a mix of mosques, Gothic churches, and synagogues, and the old-world romance of it all is only enhanced by the autumn colours and bouts of cleansing rains.
No other season suits Milan quite like autumn. With the brisk days and golden light draped across the city, the beauty of Italy’s northern capital shines through. A slow-paced southern Italian city this is not; instead, Milan is Italy’s capital of finance, design, and creativity. Visiting in the autumn is to see the city in its natural state: elegant restaurants overflowing with locals eating hearty meals, trams trundling along streets underneath canopies of gold, and moody days contrasting wonderfully with Milan’s mix of shiny modern architecture and historic buildings. In short, autumn is by far the best time to visit Milan.
Enjoy the art
Like everywhere else in Europe, autumn means that the city’s main sights are enticingly quiet. You’ll still need to reserve a ticket in advance to see Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, located inside the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Grazie, but other Milanese sites are uncrowded.
One of the best things to do in Milan in autumn is visit the grand Milan Cathedral, known locally as Il Duomo. Its façade of Gothic spires rises into the sky, glowing a soft pink in the golden light of autumn.
Do some shopping
Next door is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a soaring, neoclassical shopping arcade that’s home to Milanese fashion outlets such as Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. Of course, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is not the only shopping destination in Milan. This is, after all, one of Europe’s fashion capitals.
For example, the high-end shopping district of Quadrilateral d’Oro is well worth a visit. In autumn, it’s the epicentre of the popular Fall Fashion Week, which takes over the city for a week every September. Models, designers, and aspiring fashionistas from around Europe descend on the city for the event, making for some splendid people-watching while you shop. Afterwards, it’s the turn of cinema celebrities, with the Milano Film Festival taking place each year in late September.
Taste the food
And with those brisk autumn days, Milanese cuisine is at its most tempting. Blending the rich traditions of central Europe with fresh Mediterranean ingredients from the coast, Milan’s food is known to be hearty and filling. Start with the aperitivo hour, when Aperol Spritz and Negronis flow freely accompanied by plates of plump olives, prosciutto, and cheeses.
Afterwards, local specials at Milanese restaurants include fragrant saffron risotto, melt-in-your-mouth ossobuco, breaded veal, and minestrone – all fantastic choices for those chillier evenings.
Thessaloniki, also known as Greece’s second city, is another fantastic European city for an autumn getaway. Like the rest of the Mediterranean region, the weather in Thessaloniki in autumn remains delightfully warm, with cooler evenings that are as welcome as the sunny days. It’s a fantastic time to enjoy the sites, sounds, and smells of this alluring Greek city.
Learn about the history
But if you’re wondering what Thessaloniki is known for, then you’re not the only one. Long overshadowed by the capital, Athens, to the south, Greece’s second-largest city remains a bit of a hidden treasure. First, history buffs will love exploring here, thanks to the city once being the second city of the Byzantine Empire, answering only to Constantinople.
You can also jump back even further in history, with a few artefacts from ancient Rome surviving into modern times. There are the extensive ruins of a palace and the grand Arch of Galerius, dedicated to the Roman Emperor of the same name. But it’s at the Rotunda of Galerius where you can get a real sense of this city. The church has changed throughout the years according to the different civilizations that have called Thessaloniki home over the centuries. The city dates all the way back to the 4th century BCE – quite impressive.
Thessaloniki’s most iconic sight, however, is more recent: the 15th-century White Tower. Used as a prison and place to carry out executions by the Ottomans, it’s a dark but intriguing piece of Thessaloniki history.
Stroll through the city
After a visit, stroll north along the city’s main waterfront at sunset and you’ll be treated to a lovely intersection of the city’s population. Locals emerge to watch street performers and musicians, while restaurateurs hawk their cozy Greek taverns. Rosy-gold autumn sunsets form a backdrop to it all, casting a golden light across the city and see. Make sure to stop by Aristotelous Square, a central meeting point filled with bars and restaurants that are very inviting after a long day of exploring the city’s history.
Feast on local dishes
Luckily, good restaurants are easy to come by in Thessaloniki. Feast on local dishes such as lamb infused with fragrant herbs, fresh fish plucked from the Mediterranean, and plenty of creamy dips and mouth-watering starters. Then, there’s the street food: flaky Greek pies filled with everything from spinach and cheese to sweet cream, large breaded pretzels, and, of course, the ever-famous gyros.
Hold your breath
All this means that a Thessaloniki holiday in autumn is a seriously tempting prospect. And if that’s not enough for you, Thessaloniki is a great starting point for a trip to legendary Meteora. There you’ll find several breathtaking monasteries perched some 400 metres above the surrounding area, including perhaps the most impressive monastery in the world.
Nice, the capital of the French Riviera, is another tempting autumn destination. As in other Mediterranean cities, the season here is characterized by its lingering warm weather, a more leisurely pace, and fewer crowds. There are tables available at restaurants, space along the boulevard for casual strolls, and plenty of free sunbeds on the beaches for a day spent on the sand. Talk about Mediterranean bliss.
Experience the local culture
But autumn in Nice offers another opportunity to really experience the local culture. And what a culture it is! With the city heavily influenced by nearby Italy, Nice is where French sophistication meets Mediterranean zest. The locals are part of the charm, and in autumn they’re out to enjoy their wonderful city. It all culminates at the popular Festin dou Pouort, when for one night the port area turns into a giant festival with concerts, street performers, and delicious food.
Another area of interest in Nice is, of course, the charming historic centre. The cobbled streets are lined with inviting restaurants, bustling bars, and cafés. Come back at night and those same streets are filled with lively cocktail bars, the setting sun casting a warm light on the picturesque neighbourhood with its quaint squares and apartment buildings.
It’s the famous light in Nice that captured the hearts of countless artists, and there’s no better time to enjoy it than autumn. The golden hues of the sun radiate across the sea, sky, and mountains, illuminating this slice of heaven in the Mediterranean. After immersing yourself in the old town, find some space again with a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, with the sea on one side and handsome mansions on the other. Another great spot to soak up the views and fall in love with this slice of heaven in the French Riviera is in the Colline du Château park, with breathtaking views over the red-tiled roofs of the city.
Do some shopping
With fewer people bustling around in the city, autumn is also a great time to do a spot of shopping in Nice. The Rue Paradis is home to posh and upscale brands, while the Avenue Jean Médécin is the place to go for something more affordable. When it’s time to dine, Nice is as cosmopolitan as they come. You can enjoy any type of food here, from classic Mediterranean and French fusion to high-end haute cuisine. Underpinning each meal are the excellent local wines that are grown in the hills behind the city. In fact, joining a winery and tasting tour is another great way to appreciate the balmy Mediterranean climate in the autumn.