6 of the best romantic city break alternatives for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and what could be more romantic than whisking your beloved away on a European city break?

Naturally, the allure of couple-centric front runners – Paris, Florence and Prague – dominate the search bar for loving long weekends filled with tables for two, rose-strewn duvets and flutes of champagne amid intimate itineraries.

With these can come steep price tags, swarms of sightseers and impossible restaurant reservations – all things that are sure to kill the mood.

This year, forget the hearts and flowers heavyweights vying for the crown of the city of love – opt instead for an under-the-radar alternative for better value, fewer tourists and just as much opportunity to hold hands and stare lovingly into each other’s eyes…

Here’s how to cheat the canals of Venice in a love affair with Annecy and trade fairy-tale Bruges for the charms of Strasbourg this 14 February.

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With a prime spot on the Mediterranean, promenades of sophisticated seafood spots and distinctive medieval architecture, the cobbles of Dubrovnik are undoubtedly a haven for lovers and the proclaimed “Pearl of the Adriatic” welcomes hoards of visitors to its sun-kissed walls year-round.

An escape to frequently neglected Pula in northern Croatia offers an amphitheatre of Roman ruins to wander, a ragged coastline for bathing and authentic tavernas to taste pours from the Istria wine region without the perpetual hustle of southern hotspot Dubrovnik. Savour sailings watching the dolphins dance, Mediterranean meals beginning with pršut ham and local olive oil, and lively nights in buzzing bars post sunset in Istria’s historic main city.

Relax mere metres from the Adriatic, float hand in hand in a heated outdoor pool or stretch out during a couples massage at the stylish Boutique Hotel Valsabbion just 10 minutes from the heart of Pula.

Annecy in south-east France is known as the Venice of the Alps – and for good reason. This medieval canal city has several waterways running through the centre, fed by the neighbouring Lake Annecy, set to a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks.

It also features a charming old town with cobbled streets and pastel houses; the Château d’Annecy, which looks like it fell straight out of a storybook, looms large, and is now home to a museum. The city rivals Venice for picturesque beauty and has the additional boon of the glorious lake, which visitors can explore on pleasure boats or on foot, following the trails around the water’s edge.

Located on the banks of the Vassé Canal, the contemporary Le Splendid Hotel faces Lake Annecy with old-town gift shopping, the fairy tale Palais de l’Île museum and idyllic boat tours at your fingertips. 

Florence may be the cradle of the Renaissance, but the reasons tourists flock there – world-class art, architecture, food and drink – can be found elsewhere in Italy. The oft overlooked city of Ferrara, sat between Venice and Bologna, is a serious Renaissance art destination, plus a Unesco World Heritage Site. Its proximity to better-known cities makes it a relatively quiet option, with less competition to see the signature Castello Estense, a giant castle complete with moat in the city centre, and various palazzos boasting fine frescoes and examples of Renaissance art.

Food-wise, there are plenty of trattorias serving up traditional Ferrara dishes, such as cappellacci di zucca (pasta filled with pumpkin, parmigiano cheese and nutmeg) and pasticcio di maccheroni (a sweet-crust pie with a macaroni, béchamel, dried mushroom and truffle filling).

With wooden beams, rich red accents and antique furnishings there’s a warm ambience to the Princess Art Hotel that encapsulates an era bygone. Think cosying up by the fire, unwinding on the garden patio and making the short stroll to Este Castle.

Medieval Venice-esque canals weave Annecy’s waterways

Bruge’s pretty market squares, cobbled streets and soaring church spires mimic a medieval fairy tale. The drawback? These attractions also attract huge numbers of tourists. Find a quieter yet equally charming base in Strasbourg – the underappreciated Alsace gem on the French-German border that combines the best of both.

Half-timbered, colourful old buildings lining winding streets give their own take on fairy-tale style, while cosy winstubs (traditional Alsatian taverns) welcome travellers for food and drink. Get a cultural fix at the 18th-century Palais Rohan, dubbed a “Versailles in miniature”, or go more modern with a visit to Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, which features works by Kandinsky and Picasso.

The grand 16th century Hôtel & Spa Le Bouclier D’or has preserved its historic splendour amongst the waterside timbers of “Petite France”. Le Bouclier d’Or even hosts a steamy hammam, moody wine bar and impressive views of Strasbourg Cathedral.

Plentiful beer, architecture that roams from Gothic to baroque to art nouveau and a maze of pretty, cobbled streets – Prague has all you need for a romantic break. And, apparently, for a less-than-romantic stag do.

Pula’s has a historic pedigree to rival the walled cobbles of Dubrovnik

Ferrara is a romantic Renaissance heavyweight

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