From the Scilly Isles’ white sands to leafy riverside walks in Slovenia, travel journalist Joanna Booth suggests the best short-haul escapes for sun and culture
With peak holiday season over, the summer’s hordes have retreated and travel prices are cheaper – it’s officially the best time to book a last-minute break. Here are nine top destinations to explore, minus the crowds…
1. Best for… white sand and seclusion
Where: The Scilly Isles
Why: The azure seas and powder-white beaches might feel like the tropics, but the Scillies are just 35 miles off the Cornish coast. Walk, horse ride, snorkel among seals and basking sharks or simply chill on the vast shoreline.
Highlight: September brings the Taste of Scilly food festival, so you can gorge on local food and tipples, too.
Journey time: The ferry (often trailed by dolphins) takes 2 hours 45 minutes from Penzance, from £45 one-way. Flights from Exeter take 1 hour and cost from £145.
2. Best for… souks and sunshine
Why: From the colourful Jemaa el Fna square to the spice-scented souks, this city on the Sahara’s edge is a sensory treat. Autumn temperatures are warm enough for sunbathing, and if it gets too hot just head for the hills – the Atlas Mountains are just a couple of hours away.
Highlight: For peace and quiet, opt to stay in a local riad, or try an exfoliation treatment at a traditional hammam.
Journey time: Flights from London take 3 hours 20 minutes and cost from £92 with British Airways.
3. Best for… castles and café culture
Why: Slovenia’s capital is an undiscovered beauty. The fairy-tale castle on a hill (don’t sweat the steps, there’s a funicular) overlooks an old town with baroque architecture and riverside cafés.
Highlight: September here is still ice cream weather, and the gelato is as good as Italy’s. Load up a cone and stroll in leafy Tivoli Park.
Journey time: Flights from London take 2 hours 15 minutes.
4. Best for… hidden coves and je ne sais quoi
Why: This beautifully rugged island is a popular one with French visitors. With nearly 200 beaches, there are plenty of secluded stretches of sand and coves in which to hide away.
Highlight: The food is top-notch; try the seafood and the sanglier – the island’s signature wild boar.
Journey time: Flights from London to Bastia take 2 hours 15 minutes.
5. Best for… museums and coffee stops
Why: Leave the Costas to the crowds and wander through this old Spanish port. Start at the castle overlooking the city – Romans, Moors and the Civil War all left their mark, and the views are unparalleled.
Highlight: Head to the waterfront and choose which of the city’s top museums to visit over an asiático coffee, made with condensed milk, cinnamon and the local citrus liqueur Licor 43.
Journey time: Flights from London to Murcia take 2 hours 40 minutes and cost from £95 with British Airways. Cartagena is a 20-minute taxi ride away.
6. Best for… delicious long lunches
Why: The heel of Italy is now easier to reach, with a new British Airways flight to Brindisi. Producing 80% of Europe’s pasta and more wine than Germany, Puglia’s food is out of this world, and there are countless places to stop for lunch among its vineyards, olive groves and pretty beaches.
Highlight: Head for the hills and wend your way around the hilltop città bianche (white towns).
Journey time: Flights from London to Brindisi take 2 hours 55 minutes and cost from £113 with British Airways.
7. Best for… nature adventures and sea life
Where: The Azores
Why: All that’s missing is a voiceover from David Attenborough. Nature wows on these Portuguese group islands, with vivid-blue crater lakes, forested volcanic slopes and tumbling waterfalls.
Highlight: It’s one of the best places in the world to spot whales and dolphins, and early autumn is perfect for hiking, biking and canoeing. Bliss.
Journey time: Flights from London to São Miguel take 4 hours.
8. Best for… old and new culture
Why: This Provençal port is an up-and-coming destination with its vibrant, yacht-filled Vieux Port (visit at 8.30am to see the fisherman unload their catch). Le Panier is an atmospheric part of town that’s all narrow lanes, artisan shops and patisseries.
Highlight: Don’t miss the hip-hop exhibition at the Musée d’Art Contemporain and electro festival MMX Experience, both happening in September.
Journey time: A direct train from London takes 6 hours 30 minutes and costs from £49 with Eurostar.
9. Best for… seaside adventures
Why: Head to the wild west of Wales to find Britain’s only coastal national park. September is when the beaches are full of seal pups, and the leaves are beginning to turn. Walk part of the rugged Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, kayak among caves and sea stacks (amazing vertical rock formations).
Highlight: Have a go at coasteering – a combination of rock climbing and ocean swimming – in the place the sport was born.
Journey time: St David’s is 2 hours 20 minutes from Cardiff and 5 hours from London by car.
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