Discover three of the best seaside cities for a bargain Mediterranean beach break, with affordable luxe hotels, top-notch seafood and award-winning wine.
Escape to a European city by the sea and experience the best of both worlds. After busy days spent exploring the urban centre, the beach will be a welcome spot to unwind...
Best for... an affordable five-star foodie break on the Adriatic
With its plush hotels, perfectly preserved medieval walls and sparkling, yacht-filled bay, Dubrovnik is Croatia’s glitziest city. But forget the costs associated with similarly glam European cities: Dubrovnik is also five-star value for money. The city regularly tops polls for affordable holidays, and was one of the cheaper ones surveyed in Post Office Money’s City Costs Barometer recently.
And it continues to boom in popularity, to the extent that the mayor intends to introduce limits on the number of visitors flocking from cruise ships to the Unesco-listed town. Travel in early summer or autumn to avoid the worst of the crowds and best appreciate Dubrovnik’s Roman, Byzantine and Venetian heritage and good-value food that draws from the same broad historic influences.
Start the day with some shopping. Just south of central Stradun boulevard, explore the web of streets flanked by family-run grocery stores and visit the Old Town’s open-air market. This is where to stock up on such picnic fare as pungent olives and oil from the island of Brac, big wheels of local bread, vines of unevenly-shaped, flavour-packed tomatoes, and sharp, salty sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. Bring an empty water bottle to fill up with locally made wine – it costs pennies and will make an indulgent complement to your picnic booty.
Next, hit the beach. Hop on one of the regular harbour ferries and ride for 15 minutes (or hire a sea kayak) to Lokrum island. Swim just as the sun gets punishing, and (if you don’t have a picnic in hand), have a seafood feast at Lacroma. A shellfish platter for two costs £22.50, best paired with a local graševina white wine (around £3 per glass). Or, closer to the Old Town, kick back under the olive trees at Villa Ruza, a waterfront restaurant set in a 1930s mansion that serves artfully presented cocktails and Dalmatian seafood dishes, with veggies drawn from neighbouring kitchen gardens. Two courses from £20.
To learn all about Croatian wine – which includes some of the world’s oldest varieties – the Pelješac Peninsula’s vineyards and agritourism restaurants are about an hour away. In the Old Town, Dvino offers tastings from introductory flights to more expert sessions focusing on a specific Croatian grape (from £6.50).
For a light evening bite, Pink Shrimp, Villa Ruza’s casual street-food offshoot, serves shrimp-focused tapas (£3.50). The tempura prawn on shredded courgette is the standout. Or try shellfish maki and freshly farmed oysters from the local Mali Ston beds at Bota Oyster & Sushi Bar, set on a terrace near the cathedral (dishes from £5). For a more involved evening meal, Azur serves a Med-Asian menu including Adriatic fish laksa and delicate meatballs in coconut broth (mains from £8).
How to do it
The recently renovated Hotel Excelsior, set in a villa dating back to 1913, is a worthwhile indulgence, notable for its hilltop location, sublime indoor-outdoor dining and drinking spots with sea and Old Town views, private beach, and spa with Turkish-Roman baths. Doubles from £120, including breakfast.
Best for... a classy, seafood-focused break on the Costa del Sol
Since the opening of the Picasso and Pompidou galleries and an arty reworking of the industrial port, this undersung Spanish city is no longer just a gateway to the Costa. Its elegant 19th-century buildings and palm-fringed boulevards once again look uninterrupted onto the waterfront, where a boardwalk now links Malaga’s shiny new marina with a string of bays stretching 21km to the south. Tourist numbers have boomed, but the city remains seductively Spanish and local cuisine, some of which has new international flair, remains affordable. Spain can spell trouble for veggies but brunch at Recyclo Bike Café has plant-focused options (from £2.60), with locally grown avocado, sunny juices and a fun, eco-hipster scene.
Mercado Central de Atarazanas (Calle Atarazanas, 10) still has a soaring 14th-century façade from its previous incarnation as a Moorish shipyard, plus fresh fish stalls, tapas stands, and seasonal fruit. Take home summer’s sweet brevas figs, and small, succulent pears, perfect with a local cabra malagueña goat’s cheese.
If you don’t lunch here, have a pre-prandial sherry or dark, herby vermouth with a plate of sweet pink shrimp at nearby Bar Antigua de la Guardia. Malaga’s oldest sherry venue serves glasses straight from vast barrels behind the well-worn bar on which your tab gets chalked up.
After lunch, take a cab or rent a city bike, and follow the boardwalk east to the former fishing town of Pedregalejo. The chiringuitos (beach bars and restaurants) that define coastal Malaga are less pricey just out of town.
Order berenjenas con miel (fried aubergine with dark honey), boquerones en vinagre (anchovies in vinegar, often with parsley and garlic), octopus salad and espetos sardines (the ubiquitous dish which means that Malagueños are known as ‘sardine eaters’ across Spain), cooked on barbeques housed in old beachfront fishing boats. At El Caleño (Paseo Marítimo el Pedregal, 49), two courses and a glass of barbadillo white wine cost around £18.
Not staying on the beach? Beat the heat in Malaga’s cultural caverns (the city has over 30 museums), or explore the shady, citrus-tree-scented Alcazaba Moorish gardens, terraced between the cliff-top Gibralfaro castle and Teatro Romano amphitheatre. Get views of this ancient cityscape and a sundowner at one of Malaga’s rooftop bars.
Next to the marina, neighbouring Soho’s Cruzcampo brewery’s flashy new La Fábrica is a sign of this graffiti-decked area’s increasing cool. A pint of IPA costs (a comparatively pricey) £3.50. Dinner at Lola y Ludwig successfully combines Andalusian and Irish (dishes £7-12). Try Eboka for an extensive local wine list (£2.50 per glass) and modern Iberian dishes, like langoustine salad with spinach and egg (£10.50).
How to do it
Malaga’s hotels haven’t yet multiplied to match the tourist boom. Beyond Airbnbs, a unique five-star is Gran Hotel Miramar in the beachy east of the town. This sparkling white, recently revamped 1920s royal villa is home to knockout sea-view restaurant Príncipe de Asturias, a lovely pool, a rooftop terrace with maxi coastal vistas, and an opulent Moorish-tinged lobby that’s begging for an Agatha Christie movie shoot. Great-value standard rooms start from £157, which includes a generous Mediterranean breakfast.
Best for... traditional eats and a modern port setting
An ancient port town, Genoa was for centuries the hub of trade between the New World and Italy’s wealthy northern courts. A sometime backwater for tourism, the industrial port has been spruced up over the past decade, while the city’s vast, imposing bank buildings have been revamped to become museums, its palazzi transformed into boutique hotels and the once dark, deserted carrugi (alleys) no longer a no-go.
Headed up by Roberto Panizza, founder of the Pesto World Championships, Il Genovese began in 1912 as a hole-in-the-wall for farinata (local unleavened chickpea flour bread). The wood oven’s still there, but today it’s a casual restaurant packed with locals enjoying traditional Ligurian dishes (around £9).
Start with a fritto misto of chickpea sticks, herby dough balls, fried creamy béchamel with pieces of vegetables, tripe, courgette flowers, and gattafin pasta filled with cheese and herbs. The artichokes and courgette flower work particularly well, fried in extra virgin olive oil – salty, crisp and delicious. Follow with veal ravioli, made with chickpea flour, the classic gnocchi di patate made with Il Genovese’s award-winning pesto, or the standout polpette genovesi di Cabannina e fonduta di Cabannina (meatballs in a creamy cheese sauce).
Opposite, the buzzing Mercato Orientale covered market has fresh local fish, veggies, meat, pulses and spices piled high for local consumption, and is well worth a visit for the atmosphere and photos alone. Graze on Genoa’s street food (fried fish, farinata, fried courgettes and torte – open, thin-crust vegetable pies made to recipes that predate the Romans) from backstreet sciamadde and friggitorie take-out shops, most of which have been around for centuries. You’ll find plenty concentrated along Sottoripa, the medieval covered lane opposite the Old Port.
For a more refined seafood feast, try Soho, a restaurant and fancy ‘fish works’ decorated in sleek black, white and chrome, where you can sit and sample the best of the day’s catch (£10.50-16).
Take the train 30 minutes south to reach some of Liguria’s blockbuster beaches. Camogli and neighbouring Rapallo come with rainbow displays of painted former-fisherman’s villas, neat stretches of sand, and epic, green-blue bays overhung with forest-clad cliffs. Sunbathe and enjoy a glass of sweet, golden local sciacchetrà wine before heading back into town.
For an afternoon excursion in town, tour the 19th-century home of Romeo Viganotti chocolatiers, where you can see signature sweets being made, such as boeri (chocolate-covered cherries), scorzetta (chocolate-covered orange peel), and croccantini (hazelnut nougats covered in dark chocolate), and buy selections to take home (pre-booked tours from £9).
How to do it
Part of Genoa’s new wave of stylish-but-affordable boutique hotels in converted private mansions, Palazzo Grillo – and sister hotel Le Nuvole – are tucked away in the tangle of medieval alleys near the Strada Nuova museum district. Rooms with friezes, frescos and ancient beams cost from £110, including a gourmet homemade breakfast best taken on the sunny roof terrace.
Rebecca Hughes and Sarah Barrell
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All recommendations have been reviewed and approved as of July 2018 and will be checked and updated annually. If you think there is any incorrect or out-of-date information in this guide, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.