The days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and you’re dying for a holiday. Summer is right around the corner and while the idea of travel in 2021 might still be a far-flung fairytale for some, let’s not give up hopes of jet setting on city beach breaks across Europe or further afield.
While getting a tan is an essential part of the summer experience, doing nothing but lounging in the sun with the occasional dip in the sea can get boring after a day or two. (Unless you’ve got great company, an amazing book to read, or you’re just happy to sit and roast like a Christmas turkey under the sun.) No, what you want from a holiday is the perfect blend of pristine beaches and incredible attractions in the city.
Here are our top city beach breaks that you won’t want to miss out on.
City beach breaks in the US
Surrounded by some of the most remarkable environments in the US, San Fran has more to offer than just beaches. You’re close to redwood forests, famous vineyards (Nappa and Sonoma), and Yosemite. But, let’s explore what makes it so ideal as a city beach break.
Top cultural activities in San Francisco
California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences is an absolute treasure for anyone who’s got an interest in the natural world. With one ticket you’ll have access to the world’s only aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum all under one living roof.
There’s a Philippine Coral Reef, an earthquake simulator, some 40,000 animals and this mysterious living roof we mentioned. And that’s only a fraction of everything on offer. Walk through a rainforest environment that’s home to an albino alligator, anacondas, and an assortment of other animals, learn a thing or two about prehistoric beasts who roamed the earth, and see birds swoop by without the inhibitions of a cage. After that, head to the cherry on top of an already amazing experience – the living roof. It’s a 2.5-acre space on top of the building with rolling hills that add a touch of surrealism.
The collection of over 47,000 works speaks for itself and displays names such as Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, and Andy Warhol. You can also expect to see sculpture, installations, design, and more of the media arts during your visit. If your idea of a good time away from the beach is roaming one of the world’s most prestigious galleries, then San Fran is for you.
An icon of Americana, a visit to The Rock is a must if you’re visiting San Francisco. While you might have seen plenty of Hollywood homages, it won’t do justice to the isolated prison island that kept some of the most notorious criminals behind bars, including Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
Hop on a ferry and ride the waves towards a piece of the city’s history. There’s a number of tickets that include entry and an audio guide to Alcatraz, so find the one that’s right for you here.
Golden Gate Bridge
Make sure to get acquainted with the city’s icon. It’s a sight you have to see while in San Francisco: the timeless Golden Gate Bridge. The best way to enjoy the world’s most photographed bridge is with a bike ride across its length, and maybe a pit stop in Sausalito. A bay cruise is also a great option.
Best beaches in San Francisco
With so much going on in the city, you might be wondering if you’ll even have time for the beach! But there’s a reason San Fran makes our list as city and beach holiday. There’s a few beaches to choose from in the city, but if you want to combine the best of city and beach, then take your pick from these two:
Enjoy an iconic view of the ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge and the California coastline all in one place. You’ll find it pictured above, and it’s easily walkable if you’re in the Richmond District of the city. It’s a view you’ll want to see yourself if you’re in San Fran.
Located in the North Beach area, Crissy Field is close to some San Fran landmarks like the Palace of Fine Arts and the Walt Disney Family Museum. You’ll still get amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge from here too.
Montara State Beach
It’s a little further out, but definitely worth the drive (or Uber). In fact, locals love it so much they want to keep it secret. Rugged coastline, soft sand, and the incredible colours of the Pacific. If you’re serious about your city beach break, head straight here.
If you want an even more in-depth guide to the City by the Bay, check out our itinerary for San Francisco.
Just a stone’s throw from Cuba, Miami is home to white sandy beaches, crystalline seawater, and palm trees aplenty. If you want a city beach break that’s overflowing with character, then Miami could be for you.
Top cultural activities in Miami
Swim at Miami’s only private beach at Jungle Island
Visit Jungle Island to get up close to wildlife like white lions, Hamadryas baboons, and red kangaroos. On top of that, you’ll also have the chance to swim at Miami’s only private beach: Parrot Cove.
Get floral at Flamingo Gardens
Flamingo Gardens is many things: botanical gardens, wildlife sanctuary, aviary, and museum. A visit will get you up close with more than 85 native animal species and some 3,000 species of native and exotic plants. If you want to embrace Miami’s tropical side, make sure to stop by.
Everglades National Park
For those wanting to experience nature free and untamed, there’s the ultimate way to see Floridian wildlife: by taking an airboat ride right into the heart of the Everglades!
Nothing hammers home the fact you visited Florida quite like an airboat ride in the Everglades. See the American alligator, water snakes, wading birds, and countless other species on this day trip out of Miami.
Best beaches in Miami
Crandon Park Beach
Palm trees and long stretches of white sand beach. It’s just south of Downtown Miami, but it’s worth a visit, you’ll be glad you took the drive and escaped the hustle and bustle of Miami Beach. That’s the joy of a city beach break, the options to explore are almost endless.
A little further north than Miami, Hollywood beach has an authentic old Hollywood feel. You’re also in the perfect spot to enjoy one of the best burgers in America at le Tub.
City beach breaks in Europe
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Málaga makes the list of top city beach breaks in Europe. With so much on offer, it’s the perfect getaway for anyone who’s already seen Barcelona and wants to discover a new part of the country.
Top cultural activities in Málaga
The Moors left their mark in Málaga, so you’ll also get the visual delight of medieval architecture alongside the Spanish sun.
See amazing architecture
The best way to see a combination of old Spanish grandeur and Moorish masterpieces is with a joint visit to the Alcazaba & Málaga Cathedral.
Admire awesome art
Málaga’s ‘mile of art’ is home to a couple of institutions that have chosen to go international and share their collection of some of the best art in the world. You’ll find both the State Russian Museum and the Centre Pompidou here in Málaga.
The Collection of the Russian Museum gives you a great overview of Russian art, from Kandinsky to Malevich – while the Centre Pompidou Málaga has varying exhibitions with world-class artworks from the likes of Van Gogh, Magritte, and Picasso.
Peruse plenty of Picasso
Málaga is the birthplace of the 20th century’s most famous artist, Pablo Picasso. So make sure to pick up tickets to his namesake museum. If you really want to take a deep dive into the artist’s life, you can also visit his birthplace.
Beaches in Málaga
While Málaga is a hub of culture – especially for art lovers – there’s no denying that when you’re this far south, and oh-so-close to the Mediterranean, you’re going to want to hit the beach.
Not far from the city, you’ll find Playa Malagueta. If you’re looking for a way to beat the heat and take a quick dip, then head here. It’s definitely not Málaga’s biggest beach, but its proximity to a bounty of bars and restaurants is enough to compensate for a lack of long sandy stretches (although an 800-metre promenade is still far from bad).
La Caleta, Málaga
Mountainous terrain to admire, soft sand, and the Mediterranean Sea. You’ll feel the best of a city and beach holiday here, and what better way is there to wind down from a day of exploring the city than with sea foam lapping at your ankles and the warm feel of sand on your feet?
If that sounds too relaxed, then don’t worry – there’s an assortment of watersports you can entertain yourself with, including jet-skiing! If that sounds too extreme, bars and cafés are also close by.
Tapas, sangria, and architecture the likes of which you’ve never seen before – if you’re in the market for a city break, then Barcelona is what you want. Here’s a rapid-fire list of the essentials.
Gaudí Essentials in Barcelona
There’s few other architects who have put their mark on a city like Gaudí. Sure, Frank Gehry did his thing for other cities, Jørn Utzon did his part for Sydney, but Gaudí… Gaudí is a reason to visit Barcelona in and of itself.
It was meant to be finished in 2026 – 100 years after the death of its architect, Antoni Gaudí – but global pandemics always find a way to delay. Almost otherworldly, the Sagrada Familia is already Barcelona’s most impressive sight, so while you’ll technically be visiting a construction site on the outside, you’ll still be impressed by the spectacle of the building.
If you can’t get enough of Gaudí, then fear not. There’s plenty more of his visionary work to see in the city.
With a rooftop arched like a dragon’s back, tiled walls that look like scales, and skeletal windows, Casa Battló is one of the most unique buildings you’ll likely ever see, and once you see the exterior you’ll understand its local name – Casa dels ossos (House of Bones).
This one’s so good, it deserves its own blog post. Almost gingerbread-like in some of its constructions, this is a Gaudí wonderland. If you want to be enchanted in Barcelona, go here.
Also known as La Pedrera (which means “the quarry”), this piece of Gaudí architecture, with a sandcastle-like rooftop, is filled with architectural treasures. Want to know more? Check out our insider’s guide to Casa Milà.
Top cultural activities in Barcelona
There’s more than just Gaudi in Barcelona though! Check out this list of what to see in Barcelona if you’re not a Gaudi fan. If you’re looking for a few especially interesting options, check these out:
Museum of Illusions
It’s not the typical kind of location you’d visit while holidaying abroad, but if you’re a Barcelona veteran looking for something fun and new to do then the Museum of Illusions could be what you’re looking for (although, you shouldn’t believe what you see).
IDEAL Centre d’Arts Digitals Tickets
The exhibitions at IDEAL are always changing, but their immersive gallery projections of the works of famous artists are always impressive. You can expect to see famous artworks thrown onto the walls and floor of the venue, giving you a whole new perspective on some of art’s greatest works.
Dalí Theatre-Museum Tickets
As surreal in life as he was on the canvas, Salvador Dalí’s theatre-museum makes sure that his artistic legacy continues. Inside the Dalí Theatre-Museum, you’ll find the largest collection of Dalí-related art objects and an inspirational homage to the artist himself. There’s also the chance to pay your respects at Dalí’s tomb.
Best beaches in Barcelona
If you’re staying within the reaches of the city, then Barcelona’s east coast is essentially one long stretch of beach. The most widely known spot is Barceloneta, but it’s also the most tourist-packed. The further north you walk from Barceloneta, the less people you’ll find. (Warning, at some point you’ll cross into nudist territory, so just keep on heading north until free willy is no longer in your line of sight).
If you’re willing to travel a little further outside of Barcelona for more spectacular beaches, then journey up to the Costa Brava. While you’re there, don’t miss the incredible sights at Marimurtra Botanical Garden.
Red-tiled roofs, pastel-coloured buildings, and hills so steep you’ll be left wondering how the city’s old-fashioned trams even make it to the top!
Lisbon is packed with character and it’s also got its fair share of beautiful beaches too.
Top cultural activities in Lisbon
Ride the city’s yellow trams
If there’s one number to remember while in Lisbon, it’s 28. Tram 28 will bring you to some of the most famous sights in the city.
If you want to book a tram tour ahead of time, check out the Historic Hills Tram Tour and hop on and off whenever you want.
Take a cruise on the Tagus
The River Tagus is a huge part of Lisbon’s charm and the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge is very reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. Chartering a yacht for an hour or two on the water is a highlight of any trip to Lisbon; you’ll get to see the best of the city’s coastal architecture, pass beneath the bridge, drink a few beers, see Lisbon’s Sanctuary of Christ the King statue, and maybe even steer the boat if you’ve got an especially cool captain.
Oceanário de Lisboa
The Oceanário de Lisboa is packed to the gills with marine life! Ranking as one of the world’s best aquariums, you’ll find over 500 species inside with habitats that recreate tropical Indian reefs, and the Atlantic, Antarctic, and Pacific Oceans.
There’s a five-million-litre main tank inside that gives the impression of an endless ocean and which is deep enough to show the distinct strata where the life aquatic choose to float; you can observe creatures that thrive on the surface all the way to bottom feeders that call the seafloor home. There’s even a rare sunfish to be seen.
Castles and palaces abound in Sintra. The grandeur of the Castle of the Moors and the colours of Pena Palace are like Lisbon taken to the nth degree, and they’re sure to leave an impression on you.
You can take a guided tour of some Sintra hotspots from Lisbon and tick off a few items from your city beach break bucket list at once!
Best beaches in Lisbon
Head west of the city and follow the coast to some truly spectacular beaches. Be warned though, the water’s chilly at just 18°C, so if you’re planning on swimming for longer than a few minutes you’d best bring your wetsuit.
Quick and easy by public transport
If you haven’t got a car, then catch a train from Lisbon’s Cais do Sodré station towards Cascais and pay a visit to Carcavelos Beach (Praia de Carcavelos). You’ll get to enjoy the sand beneath your feet without any worries about the whip of wind coming off the Atlantic Ocean.
Rugged and secluded by car
If you want something off the beaten track that will require a fair bit of effort to reach, then you want the Praia da Ursa. It’s around 44 kilometres from the city and there’s a one-kilometre downhill hike to get there after you’ve parked, but look at the picture… I mean, come on!
Australian city beach breaks
If the balance of city and beach has felt more balanced in the favour of city, it’s time to tip the scales. While Sydney is a city with a lot of character (and once you’ve visited you’ll never want to drink a coffee outside of Australia again), where it truly shines is its beaches.
Top cultural activities in Sydney
Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park
You’re down under, are you really going to miss your chance to see kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, quokkas and koalas?! Featherdale Sydney Wildlife Park is your chance to live the Australian dream and hold a koala. Maybe it’s not the Australian dream, but it’s certainly proof that you were in Australia. Or that you’re good at photoshop… just like Jimmy Carter.
Sydney Bridge Climb
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and what better way to enjoy it than strapping on safety equipment and turning yourself into a bundle of nerves as you ascend 134 metres above the city?
Not only are you getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you’re also going to enjoy the best view of the Sydney Opera House possible. From up here you’ll be able to admire Sydney’s cityscape, the harbour, and some of the surrounding suburbs.
Best beaches in Sydney
If you’re in Sydney, it’s a no-brainer that you’ll be going to Bondi – so let’s not waste time writing a paragraph about its long stretch of white sand and local surfers. It’s a good beach and there’s plenty of bars, restaurants and cafes nearby, whether you need a flat white or a schooner of pale ale – but let’s dive into some lesser-known locations for your city beach break.
Bondi to Coogee Beach Walk
“But you just said…” I know, I know. But you’re walking away from Bondi! And during this route towards Coogee you’ll pass by some Sydneysider favourites like Clovelly, Tamarama, and Bronte. The walk itself will give you a glimpse at how the upper crust live; you’ll be passing by beachside properties with unbeatable views and the sound of crashing waves playing on an endless loop.
Each beach has its own unique offering: Tamarama has huge waves in a tiny bay, Bronte has the classic Aussie beach feel without the mass of tourists you’ll find at Bondi, and Clovelly’s great if you want to tan beside the ocean.
Manly Beach, Shelly, Freshwater, and Curl Curl
Hop on the ferry from Circular Quay and cruise toward Manly. Again, it’s a very popular local hotspot, but just like Bondi it’s got not-so-distant cousins that won’t take you long to reach.
Head north and you’ll find solace in the seclusion of Freshwater and Curl Curl, whereas a shorter coastal walk south will bring you to Shelly. If you want to snorkel, Shelly’s for you. Whatever direction you decide to head in (or even if you go no further than Manly), you can’t go wrong.
This one requires a bit more walking, but if you really want to feel impressed by Australia’s rugged nature you’ll be glad you made the trek. It’s around a 30-minute walk from the Manly ferry wharf, but there’s plenty of hills to traverse along the way, so it might be better to hop in an Uber.
After a brief walk through nature, and the chance of spotting a few little lizards, you’ll arrive at Collins Beach. It’s small, but with this level of isolation, you’ll never want to go back to a busy beach again.