Seven cities that are perfect to visit now

Expect average highs of 18C in Seville in February – Getty

There’s nothing like a city break to get us out of the big winter crisis – but why wait until spring? European cities don’t sleep during the winter months; they bask in a tourist-free normality, with museums without lines, dinners that don’t require reservations and the chance to experience some of the world’s most renowned tourist attractions without being immersed in the hustle and bustle of cruise ships.

Many also bathe in the warm sun in February and early March (March 20 is the first day of spring this year). It’s true that there may be a higher chance of rain, but even humid days can be romantic if you’re in the right place. One of my favorite recent travel memories is sitting under the canopy of a restaurant in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, eating pizza and drinking Moretti as the rain reflected on the sidewalks, watching delivery drivers running back and forth and market vendors sitting in their stalls.

Best of all, hotel prices at this time of year are about half of what they would be in April. Here are seven places where you can start the city trip season early.

Seville, Spain

Flamenco dancing in SevilleFlamenco dancing in Seville

Flamenco dancing in Seville – Shutterstock

With average highs of 18 degrees in February and five to six hours of sunshine a day, you’ll need T-shirts and sunscreen to discover Seville’s extraordinary Moorish heritage. The big names – the Giralda, the Cathedral and the Real Alcázar – will be less crowded and it’s much easier to secure a spot in some of the city’s best-loved tapas bars.

Try El Rincocillo (Calle Gerona 40), the city’s oldest, or La Brunilda (Calle Galera 5; 00 34 954 22 04 81) – although reservations, even in February, are still a good idea. Even in the middle of winter there are regular flamenco performances, for which tickets are usually available; the Casa de la Memoria cultural centre, which dates back to the 15th century, hosts nightly performances – some of the best in the city.

Vueling flies to Seville from £62 return, departing from Gatwick. Stay at the Hospes las Casa del Dey de Baeza, which offers doubles from £130 (00 34 914 363 478;

Lisbon, Portugal

Expect fewer queues for Tram 28 in Lisbon in FebruaryExpect fewer queues for Tram 28 in Lisbon in February

Expect fewer queues for Tram 28 in Lisbon in February – Getty

A ride on Tram 28 – the city’s most beloved trolleybus, which dates back to the 1930s and visits all of Lisbon’s charming neighborhoods – can be stressful in high season: long lines, people queuing, tempers rising in the heat . In winter there is rarely a queue at any stop; disembark at Alfama for lunch at O ​​Cartaxeiro before heading to the Castelo de São Jorge for spectacular views of the city. Dive into the public-free Calouste Gulbenkian Gallery to see the three R’s – Rembrandt, Rubens and Renoir – and shop for bargains at the Feria de Ladra, the city’s 800-year-old market (Tues-Sat).

Ryanair flies return to Lisbon from £34, departing from London Stansted. Stay at the Emerald House, which offers double rooms from £114 (00 351 21 150 6110;

Rome, Italy

Testaccio is home to Rome's best food marketTestaccio is home to Rome's best food market

Testaccio is home to the best food market in Rome – Alamy Stock Photo

Rome is already teeming with visitors in April, but in February and early March it’s still possible to see the big attractions – the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon – with far fewer people around. Book tickets to the Vatican Museums late in the day (most people think going early is the best time, which means it’s always at its busiest) and pop into the Doria Pamphilj Museum for a glimpse of life in Rome at its best most ostentatious. Foodies should visit the Testaccio district, home to the city’s best-loved food market, with more than 100 stalls and street food vendors.

Wizzair flies return to Rome from £68, departing from Gatwick. Stay at the newly opened CitizenM, which is offering 30 percent off room rates until March 31, meaning double rooms start from £95 for room only (00 39 06 8587 1180;

Athens, Greece

The Greek Carnival Apokries takes place in Athens at the end of FebruaryThe Greek Carnival Apokries takes place in Athens at the end of February

The Greek Carnival Apokries takes place in Athens at the end of February – Getty

Bring your party shoes if you go to Athens in late February or early March; Apokries, the Greek equivalent of Carnival, explodes the capital with three weeks of parties, restaurants and bars hosting special events, with the Plaka district at the center of the evening celebrations. If the weather is good, take a walk or take a taxi to Lycabettus Hill for lunch or dinner in Orizontes, where you will have spectacular views over the Acropolis. When it’s cold, the Acropolis Museum immerses its visitors in the artifacts, sculpture and culture of ancient Greece – without the summer crowds. Avid skiers can even spend a day on the slopes; Parnassos ski center is approximately 2.5 hours’ drive away.

Easyjet flies to Athens from four UK airports from £80 return. Stay at Gatsby, which offers double rooms from £182, including breakfast (00 30 21 0321 6001;

Nice, France

Winter is a good time to take a stroll on the Promenade des AnglaisWinter is a good time to take a stroll on the Promenade des Anglais

Winter is a good time to take a walk on the Promenade des Anglais – Alamy Stock Photo

Last year, in early March, I managed to get sunburned during lunch on the Cours de Saleya in Nice; every table in the outdoor restaurant was occupied and the entire city was happily enjoying the sun. Nice has undergone a serious facelift in recent years; the Promenade des Anglais offers dreamy, sun-drenched strolls, while the old town is fantastic for an afternoon wandering among cheese shops and perfumers – don’t miss Tresors Publics (11 Rue de Pont Vieux) for traditional gifts, or Nicolas Alziari (14 rue Saint Francois de Paule ) – home to the city’s best olive oil since 1932. Head to the Seen by Olivier rooftop bar for a rose lunch in one of the city’s most beautiful Belle Époque buildings, now home to the Anantara hotel.

Easyjet flies from £46 return to Nice, departing from seven UK airports. Stay at Anantara Plaza Nice, which offers double deals from £162 (00 33 4 93 16 75 75;

Madrid, Spain

The El Retiro Park in MadridThe El Retiro Park in Madrid

Madrid’s El Retiro Park – Getty

Sitting by the lake in El Retiro Park – the vast, elegant green heart of Madrid – with hot chocolate and a saxophonist nearby is one of my favorite moments from a recent visit in December. Blue skies in February are also possible; on cooler days, dip into the city’s extraordinary food markets – skip the touristy Mercado de San Miguel and instead enjoy empanadas and a cana (a small 200ml beer) at Mercado san Fernando in the district Lavapies, or Mercado de la Paz in green Salamanca. There may still be queues for the Prado, but in December I walked straight into the Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the most extraordinary private collections in the world, while the Sorolla Museum – the original home and studio of artist Joaquín Sorolla – is one of the most beautiful places in the city.

British Airways flies return to Madrid from £94, departing from Heathrow or Gatwick. Stay on the Ocean Drive, which offers doubles from £120 (00 34 910 88 28 04;

Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, IstanbulHagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul – Getty

Exploring Istanbul is so much easier in winter: the roads are less congested, the ferries are less busy and everything feels a little less hectic. Explore the city’s newest museums – Istanbul Modern and Hagia Sophia Historical Museum – and discover the rich history of hammams at the 500-year-old Çinili Hamam, recently reopened after 13 years of restoration. To combine culture with culinary adventures, head to Çiya in Kadikoy (the Asian side of the city) for a spectacular meze, made from traditional Anatolian recipes; Kiyi in Tarabya, one of the city’s best seafood restaurants for 60 years; or join the hip crowd at the Michelin-starred Arkestra, with pre-dinner cocktails upstairs in the chic Listening Room bar.

British Airways flies return to Istanbul from £128, departing from Heathrow. Stay at the Stay Bosphorus, which offers double deals from £177 (00 90 212 970 7830;

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