8 great alternative for a romantic Valentine's escape

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

If the idea of red roses and schmaltzy songs leaves you cold when it comes to Valentine's Day, you might want to plan a break with a little edge.

The enchanting Belvedere Palace, Vienna
The enchanting Belvedere Palace, Vienna © Ecstk22 - Adobe Stock Image

Destinations like Paris, the Maldives and Bali top the holiday romance charts time and again, but stray slightly off-piste and you'll find less obvious choices, from time-lost cities to desert dunes and castaway desert islands without the crowds. Here are eight of our heart-racing faves for Valentine's Day (or just because). What's not to love?

Go in for The Kiss in Vienna, Austria

Paris might hog the limelight when it comes to loved-up city breaks, but Vienna* delivers an equal hit of romance. This river-woven city is where Strauss taught the world to waltz with the Blue Danube and where Habsburg royals swanned around some of Europe's grandest gardens and palaces for centuries.

Crowds are thinner in February than in summer, and the still-chilly weather gives you an excuse to snuggle up in coffee houses like old-school Café Sperl and vaulted Café Central, where Freud and poet Peter Altenberg once hung out.

Wrap up warm for a hand-in-hand stroll along tree-lined avenues in the Prater, where the Riesenrad Ferris wheel gently turns, or lose yourself in one of the city's vast and magnificent palaces: the Hofburg, Schloss Schönbrunn or baroque Schloss Belvedere, where you'll be spellbound by the golden wonder of Klimt's paintings, among them The Kiss.

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Bliss out on the Andaman Islands, India

Bora Bora and the Seychelles have got 'castaway tropical island' written all over them. But you'll find similar sugar-white sands, shockingly turquoise seas, mangroves, rainforests and coral reefs in the far less-visited Andaman Islands*, roughly midway between the south coasts of India and Thailand.

Platinum shores of Radhanagar Beach, Havelok Island
Platinum shores of Radhanagar Beach, Havelok Island © Juergen Wallstabe - Adobe Stock Image

Barefoot paradise? You bet. The islands are the fantasy Valentine's escape; kick back in a cabana with the beat of the sea on repeat, whack on a snorkel or diving mask to swim with dolphins, rays, turtles and shoals of kaleidoscopic fish, and watch hypnotic sunsets.

The dream is Havelock Island, a speedy catamaran ride from the capital, Port Blair.

Climate in Port Blair

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Find romance in Coimbra, Portugal

Everyone raves about Lisbon and Porto, but Portugal's fourth city, Coimbra*, midway between the two, gets short shrift. But if it's romance you're after, this moody beauty of a city wins. The country's medieval capital for more than a century spills photogenically down a hillside to the banks of the Mondego River.

The echoing lanes of the Moorish centre are a joy to explore by day and even more atmospheric when lantern-lit by night.

The dinky city's cultural showstoppers are the World Heritage University of Coimbra, founded in 1290 and harbouring the lavishly frescoed baroque Biblioteca Joanina library, and the fortified Romanesque Sé Velha cathedral, a vision in dark granite.

By night, fado (folk music) fills the bars with guitar strumming and melancholic songs of love. Head to cosy Diligência to hear some of the best.

Climate in Coimbra

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Ride a camel across the Sahara in Morocco

Camel trains and caravanserais, searing heat and flaming sunsets, Bedouin camps set up under twinkling night skies; the romance of the Sahara Desert* lives in your imagination long before you ever set a foot in its rippled sands.

Trail the dunes of the Sahara in Morocco
Trail the dunes of the Sahara in Morocco © Doreenkroeber - Dreamstime.com

While reaching remote parts of the desert is a serious off-road undertaking, you can get a taste of what's out there in Morocco.

From Marrakech, Fez or Casablanca, you can cross the High Atlas for a multi-night trip to the rusty sands of the Merzouga Desert, where you'll find the full desert shebang of camel safaris, sandboarding, kasbah visits and stays are Berber camps under the stars.

Climate in Marrakech

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Hike in Saxon Switzerland, Germany

Pardon, where? You are not alone if you've never heard of Saxon Switzerland*, nudging the German-Czech border and just over half an hour's drive south of baroque beauty Dresden but you're missing a trick.

Chuck on boots to hit the trail and immerse yourself in the unreal beauty of the national park's landscapes: mist-enshrouded sandstone pinnacles and spires, canyons, caves and waterfall-splashed cliffs, all dramatically eroded by wind and weather over millennia.

Sights like the jagged rocks of Bastei and hilltop medieval Festung Königstein, the biggest fortress in Germany, are bound to send you into raptures, just as they did the great Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, whose 250th anniversary is celebrated in 2024.

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Pop bubbles in Budapest

The Hungarian capital, Budapest*, is an instant heart-stealer, with its grand skyline of palaces and domes rising above a bend in the Danube River.

While it doesn't often top charts of Europe's most romantic cities, it gets our vote with its art nouveau architecture, Royal Palace topping off the grand castle district, and walks along the riverfront promenade from Pest to Buda.

Dip into the Szechenyi Baths, Budapest
Dip into the Szechenyi Baths, Budapest © Neirfy - Adobe Stock Image

Abandon modesty and bring your bathing togs for a Valentine's Day dip in one of Budapest's palatial bathhouses, fed by mineral springs. Favourites include the regal art nouveau St Gellért Baths and the Széchenyi Baths, with a vast thermal outdoor pool. By night, you can party in one of Budapest's plant-filled, graffiti-daubed ruin bars.

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A Highland fling, Scotland

Even on a dreich February day, the Scottish Highlands can be wildly romantic, whether you're stomping across windswept moors, eating just-caught seafood overlooking a mist-laced loch, or cosying up for the night in a castle with all the four-poster bed and roaring fire trappings.

And when the sun does pop out in Scotland*, you'll find you have the country's ravishing mountains and coastline all to yourself at this time of year.

For pine forests, reindeer, glens, munros, the promise of snow and some of Britain's starriest night skies, make for the Cairngorms. Or if you fancy straying further north, the remote Outer Hebrides are the dream, with white-sand beaches fizzing into the bluest seas and croft cottages with romance written all over them.

Climate in Aviemore

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Dive into the snow in Lapland, Finland

Most people think Christmas and Santa when they hear Lapland*, but it's actually a cracking place to visit for Valentine's, all wrapped up in the snowy wilderness of the Arctic.

Venture even slightly north of Rovaniemi and you'll find frozen fells, forests and tundra, best explored on foot (by snowshoe or cross-country ski), by reindeer-driven sleigh, snowmobile or dogsled.

Sleep beneath the Aurora Borealis in Lapland
Sleep beneath the Aurora Borealis in Lapland © Helivideo - Adobe Stock Image

And when you return to your little log cabin, rosy-cheeked and numb with cold, you can warm up in the sauna or snuggle by the fire with a cup of glögi (mulled wine). With any luck, the Northern Lights will come out to play.

Good bases include the relaxed ski resorts of Levi and Ylläs, Saariselkä on the doorstep of Urho Kekkonen National Park, lakefront Inari and, in the far north, Utsjoki and Nuorgam, where you can tune into reindeer-herding Sámi culture.

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Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker is a Wales-based travel writer and author. Kerry specialises in Wales, Central and Southern Europe. She regularly writes for The Telegraph and National Geographic Traveller among others. She's also authored/co-authored over 20 travel guides. Kerry's a qualified translator, avid photographer and lover of mountains and remote destinations.

Posted on Friday 9th February 2024 in: Africa Asia Europe Romantic

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