With an extravagant gothic skyline and centuries of history, it is no wonder that the city of Cologne – or Köln to the Germans – is hailed as one of Europe's urban jewels. First settled by locals over 2000 years ago, the arrival of the Romans soon afterwards brought about rapid expansion and modernisation. Today, this city beside the River Rhine has been transformed it into a nucleus of trade and culture, and the list of must-sees are seemingly endless. Cologne Cathedral is the largest gothic church in Europe and Germany's most visited landmark. Alongside remnants of the ancient Roman walls, you'll find a huge collection of modern masterpieces by pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein at the revered Ludwig Museum. Cologne's traditional German magnetisms include romantic boat rides up the river Rhine, a gorgeous harbour-side Chocolate Museum located near the old town and of course scores of Christmas markets that pop up over the Advent season.

Dortmund’s gritty history is built on steel, coal and beer – a combination that has transformed the characterful streets for centuries. While the steel and coal commerce may have declined long ago, its industrial remnants can be seen throughout the city. The beautiful Zollern Colliery made its name as a coal mining centre in 1898, and now hosts fascinating exhibitions about life in the 1900s. While Dortmund was one of the most heavily damaged cities during World War II, it has rebuilt itself as a tech hub – and its educational institutions and technology centres exude an opportunist, cosmopolitan demeanor. Of course, the city’s famous football club make it the obvious home for the German Football Museum, which houses a 3D cinema, treasure chamber, World Cup winners coach and mini pitch – perfect for both kids and adults alike! After a long day’s exploring, head to the Brewery Museum to learn about Dortmund’s history as the nation’s number one beer capital, or relax in one of the green, open spaces that cover over half the city.

To the uninitiated, Le Mans is perhaps best known for its legendary 24-hour motoring event. But venture away from the race and you’ll find a ‘City of Art and History’ that’s sure to capture your heart. Like something from a fairy tale, Le Mans is mounted upon a hill, while the Gallo-Roman wall that encompasses its old town is said to be the finest example of this type of structure in France. Officially named the Cité Plantagenêt, this historic quarter is essentially a maze of largely unspoilt medieval architecture. A walk around its vicinity offers up charming cobbled lanes that are punctuated by stone stairways and surrounded by half-timbered houses, where the Cathedral Saint Julien dominates the skyline.

Though Gouda is world renowned for the delectable cheese of the same name, this Dutch city isn’t just for food fans. After postcard perfect holiday snaps? This city has beauty in abundance. With majestic gothic architecture, cobbled streets and picturesque courtyards acting as the idyllic backdrop for your holiday. If you’re lucky enough to visit between June and September, the Gouda Cheese Market on Thursday mornings is a historical phenomenon which sees local farmers gather in front of the Goudse Waag (weighing house) and Stadhuis (city hall) to sell their produce – an event that’s occurred for hundreds of years. Aside from gastronomical wonders (sweet stroopwafels also hail from here), the city has plenty of parks and wildlife reserves that are perfect for a moment of tranquillity – including Goudse Hout, on the outskirts of the city, and Van Bergen IJzendoornpark in the city centre.

After many of Troyes’ houses were completely destroyed in the great fire of 1524, the richer inhabitants rebuilt theirs to the same specifications – this time in expensive fire-proof materials. As such, the old town stands much the same as it did almost 500 years ago and, along with the 11 striking churches that crowd the centre, the area is a beautiful stop for any lover of historic architecture. But as well as being a fine example of the past, the cobbled streets of Troyes have also seen some notable modern innovations. Having been assigned to the Troyes army in 1927, Pierre Lévy set to work in the area’s famous knitwear factories, married the daughter of the owner, and together they created the iconic Lacoste brand. The Musée d’Art Moderne, housed in a former bishop’s palace, was formed from the couple’s art collection and includes works by Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso.

It’s hard to imagine today, but this beautiful walled city on the western border of Northern Ireland has a turbulent story behind it. Derry’s role in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the Irish War of Independence and the Troubles is marked across the city in the form of street murals, ancient fortifications and the iconic Peace Bridge which stretches over the River Foyle – connecting the two divided sides. The Tower Museum is the ideal spot for learning about the area’s history, complete with a bird’s eye view of where it all took place. Step even further back into time just seven miles northwest of Derry, where you’ll find the hilltop fort Grianan of Aileach – one of Gaelic Ireland’s royal sites. Explore the city’s burgeoning live music scene by taking a stroll around the centre of town, which is awash with lively riverside pubs and bars.

Previously the famed thinking spot for saints and scholars since the years of Saint Patrick, the city of Armagh has since faced its fair share of turbulent times. Today, the area’s rich history and stunning natural landscapes draws everyone from ecclesiastical wanderers to outdoor enthusiasts. The Armagh County Museum is a good place to start to hear centuries of stories, while the Armagh Robinson Library also holds a cherished first edition of Gulliver’s Travels annotated by Jonathan Swift. From there, you may like to head to the ornate St Patrick’s Cathedral, or families will love exploring the universe at the city’s interactive planetarium. End your trip with a voyage out to the tranquil Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles, perfect for fishing and water sports, as well as walking and cycling routes suitable for the whole family.

English author Michael Morpurgo poignantly described the Belgian settlement of Ypres as “a sad town, but an enormously positive one”. Located in Flanders, Ypres will forever be fettered to its tragic past. It is known first and foremost for being the site of three colossal battles during the First World War, the biggest of which was the Battle of Passchendaele, which took place in 1917 and claimed the lives of 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers. Thousands of people visit Ypres each year to pay their respects to the fallen at monuments such as Menin Gate and Tyne Cot Cemetery. Learn about the area during the Great War years with a visit to the displays and bunkers of the In Flanders Fields Museum, arguably the world’s most comprehensive exhibition on the First World War. But while remembering the past, the inhabitants of Ypres prefer to think of their town as a homage to peace. The whole area has been lovingly pieced back together since the war years, and the medieval core of Ypres features the restored Ypres Lakenhalle, one of the most remarkable buildings in Belgium.

Known for holding some of the world’s finest produce, Normandy, in Northern France, is a gastronomical wonder. The region’s delicacies and restaurants owe a lot to its expansive coastline and idyllic countryside surroundings, with menus often based around local, seasonal ingredients. The area is also home to the monumental D-Day landings, which today are brought to life on the region’s beaches by expert guides. If you’re planning a self-drive holiday, the 80-mile Alabaster Coast is a true spectacle, with enormous white chalk cliffs that span from the scenic town of Etretat to the coastal village of Dieppe.

Situated in northern France just a few miles from the Belgian border, Dunkirk is renowned for its beaches, which provided the setting for one of the most miraculous escapes in military history. The Battle of Dunkirk saw the evacuation of 330,000 Allied troops against Nazi Germany across Dunkirk’s 15-mile shoreline during World War II. Today, the immaculate beaches are lined with beautiful Belle Époque buildings, cosy cafes and tiny bars, but you’ll find the events of 1940 remembered in many important sites. The Dunkirk 1940 Museum and the nearby Dunkirk Memorial are both good places to learn more about the evacuation. Nowadays, the city has a working harbour, making it the ideal place for boat trips around the citadel or relaxing walks by the sea. Dunkirk is a 40-minute drive from the port of Calais.

With its prime position at the heart of the Alsatian wine route in north-east France, it’s no wonder that Colmar is a favourite destination among connoisseurs. In fact, this pine-clad place is considered the capital of the celebrated wine region, noted for its exceptional dry white vintages made possible by the mountainous surrounds of the Vosges, and playing annual host to local winemakers at the famous Foire aux vins d'Alsace (Alsatian wine fair). But wine is not all that’s to be had in Colmar. The beautiful alley-woven old town looks as though it has been plucked from the pages of a medieval fairy story. The picture-perfect half-timbered houses are traditionally painted in pastel colours, providing a unique contrast to the dark cobblestone lanes and dimly lit bridge-lined canals. Besides its quaint appearance, Colmar’s fascinating past is well preserved in a number of magnificent churches and curious museums. Established in 1849 in a former 13th-century convent, the Unterlinden Museum is home to many spectacular artworks and biblical masterpieces.

Situated on the westernmost edge of continental Europe, Brittany is easily one of the most intriguing regions of France. Its strong Celtic heritage has given birth to Breton culture, making it feel far removed from archetypal French destinations like Paris. Centuries ago, a wave of people from south-west England settled here after escaping the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons - consequently, the traditional language of the Breton people is related closely to Welsh and Cornish. Brittany hosts an abundance of medieval towns and mysterious forests, with plenty of museums telling the area’s story from the prehistoric times - but history isn’t the only thing you’ll find here. The region’s wild coastline boasts some of the most beautiful untamed beaches in France, and its fresh lobster, oysters and scallops are among the best in the world - perfect served up with a glass of the locals’ favourite drink: cider. World-famous locations such as the walled port city of Saint-Malo, regal Dinard and the tiny town of Dinan are essential stops when visiting this captivating area.

Maastricht is a cultural melting pot of lots of different influences – something that comes from being one of Holland’s oldest cities. As you wander across beautiful cobbled streets and along its picturesque canal, you’ll see historical relics that nods to its rich past – from the Roman ruins of the Derlon Museum Cellar to the almighty Basilica tower. The city is divided into different districts, each adding its own unique twist to the city. Head to the charming Wyck for cosy cafes and historical architecture, or the up-and-coming Sphinxkwartier (Sphinx quarter) for an alternative hang-out which is a favourite among young creatives. The city centre itself is a hive of activity, with two shopping centres, a thriving market scene and the iconic Saint Servatius Bridge – said to be the oldest in the country.

Just 20km west of bustling Amsterdam lies the city of Haarlem, a hidden gem of old Dutch charm that’s a favourite with the locals. The city that leant its name to its vibrant Manhattan sister has a whole history of stories that has shaped each cobbled street, with tales of beer brewing, tulip trading and great fires producing the city’s striking architecture. As well as providing quintessential Dutch experiences such as browsing markets in the Grote Markt or taking in the views from the Molen de Adriaan windmill, Haarlem is also home to many unique ones. Visit the oldest museum in the Netherlands, attend a beer tasting in former church-turned-microbrewery De Jopenkerk, or wander through the boutique shopping district – affectionately nicknamed De Gouden Straatjes (The Golden Streets), Haarlem has regularly been voted the best shopping destination in the Netherlands.

The beautifully diverse Groningen is a unique fusion of stories dating back thousands of years and a thriving modern cultural scene. The city, one of the largest in the north of the Netherlands, continues to transform every day - thanks in part to its large student population. Over the last few hundred years, Groningen has grown from one of the most important trading centres of the medieval period to a must-see destination for innovative venues, art and music. Explore the collections of the iconic Groninger museum, climb the Martinitoren tower which stood tall through the flattening of the city in World War II, or take a cycle through the colourful streets of the car-free city centre.

Take a proper break in the relaxing city of Breda, where each street takes you to another picture-perfect scene. Walking past serene lakes, colourful buildings and fairy-tale castles, you’ll never believe the historic tales of invasion, revolt and Charles II’s exile that have come to shape the city. As well as the intricate man-made structures which have stood for many hundreds of years, including the tower of the Grote Kerk that can be seen almost anywhere in Breda, the area also boasts incredible natural beauty. Head just a few kilometres south of the city and you’ll find Mastbos, one of the oldest pine forests in the country, which is just perfect for easy hikes with the whole family.

The perfect mix of heritage and modern styles, the sparkling 'City of Diamonds' certainly makes an impression. You'll remember the city's extravagant Grote Markt and the towering Cathedral of Our Lady long after your visit, while Antwerp Zoo is a beautiful stop the whole family will love. Hire a bicycle and explore the city's striking architecture before stopping for freshly-brewed coffee and a spot of window shopping in Antwerp's majestic Diamond Quarter.

Affectionately named the ‘Ville Rose’ for its blush-hued buildings, Toulouse is the lively capital of France’s Occitanie region. A dreamy patchwork of pretty shopfronts, centuries-old structures and raucous jazz bars, there’s something for everyone in this French city. In spring, the Jardin Japonais (Japanese Garden) comes alive with pink cherry blossom, while you’ll find the crystal blue waters of the River Garonne perfect for water sports in the summer. Still, there are plenty of things to do in Toulouse all year round, from burning the midnight oil in the city’s cellar bars to sipping vin chaud at the annual Christmas market. If you have more time to explore the surrounding area, you could hike the mountainous terrain of the Pyrenées to the south, see the famous pilgrimage site of Lourdes to the west, or head east for the delights of the Côte d’Azur.

Perched proudly on its mound in the heart of the Hainaut province, the Belgian city of Mons is the perfect location for an enriching city break. This characterful place is compact but beautiful, and what it lacks in size it makes up for with its unique ethereal charm. The city pulses around its ancient Grand-Place, a large cobblestone square lined with gorgeous terraces, shops, cafes and restaurants. The sumptuous Gothic town hall, or Hôtel de Ville, is a big draw for architecture fans, who stop by to marvel at the intricate details on the façade. Curiously, it is custom to pat the head of a bronze monkey - of disputed origin - that resides in front of the building. Doing so is said to bring good fortune. The Hôtel de Ville is topped with a stunning 17th century UNESCO-listed Baroque belfry, which you can climb for panoramic views of the Mons skyline. As well as sightseeing, visitors can explore a handful of modern museums, an abandoned castle and catch a live concert at L'Alhambra music venue. Visit after Easter and partake in the festivities of the Ducasse de Mons, a peculiar but unmissable religious festival where locals recreate the combat between Saint George and the Dragon.

You can venture far and wide, but you’ll have trouble finding a place so steeped in natural wonder as County Antrim. It’s not just one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland, but quite possibly on Earth. From Ballycastle to Portrush, the isolated and rugged landscape of the Antrim coastline is widely regarded as an amazingly scenic drive. The Giant's Causeway, a 60 million-year-old rock formation consisting of 40,000 basalt columns, is a geological phenomenon and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Steeped in magic and mystery, the iconic Dark Hedges of County Antrim is an old avenue of beech trees that line the Bregagh Road near the village of Armoy have been used as a filming location in HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones.

The beautiful County Fermanagh is Northern Ireland’s equivalent of England’s Lake District, with a third of its area covered by water. As home to the Annals of Ulster, considered the most significant documents of old Celtic tribes, as well as many an ancient ruin, this county is one of the most important historical areas in Northern Ireland. Be swept away by the natural beauty and stories at Lough Erne, where the White Island figures are believed to have stood since the ninth century. Go exploring with a boat ride through the Marble Arch Caves, or head to the friendly market town of Enniskillen, which sits on an island surrounded by the River Erne – the perfect meeting point of rural surroundings and high street buzz.

With miles of sandy beaches as far as the eye can see, Flanders is the perfect place for a European escape. Head to the east of this region and you’ll arrive at some of Belgium's largest and most frequented cities. Ghent is a popular choice for its collection of early Flemish art, while Antwerp attracts many families with its world-class zoo. History buffs should head south-west to the city of Ypres, where many of the key battles in World War 1 were fought, while the principal city of this part of Flanders, Bruges, is awash with fun things to do – from taking a canal tour around the city’s walkways to tasting sweet treats at the Chocolate Museum. Although technically a region in its own right, Flanders also surrounds Brussels, making a trip to the Belgian capital an easy feat.

Ireland's county of Waterford shares its name with the country's oldest city, a Viking settlement steeped in history. Whether it's the awe-inspiring Mahon Falls, or the pristine Tramore Beach, much of the area's scenery remains untouched since its inception. So as you wander around this idyllic coastal setting, you'll stumble across fascinating relics, rugged landscapes and unspoiled beauty right at your feet.

Once upon a time the commercial nucleus of Europe, Lille has transformed from industrial metropolis to thriving culture hub in recent years. Situated in the north of France just over an hour's drive from Calais, highlights include a handsome Old Town and a myriad of top-rated art museums. The glorious Grand Place and the ancient basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille are grand examples of Flemish architecture.

With majestic buildings steeped in centuries of history, five-and-a-half miles of golden beaches and a host of museums and nightlife options, Ostend is a hub of art, culture and adventure. Beautiful murals cover walls throughout the city, and the intricate Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is a stunning feat of neo gothic architecture. Be sure to relax in the lush greenery of Maria Hendrikapark, which holds tranquil walking routes, as well as its own miniature island.

The picturesque city of Dinant is found in the heart of Belgium's spectacular Walloon region, just an hour's drive southeast of Brussels. As well as playing a huge part in the evolution of jazz (saxophone inventor Adolphe Sax hails from this city), the local area is widely celebrated as an outdoor paradise, with great hiking, kayaking and caving activities widely available. With its lush green valleys and fairytale castles, a trip here offers a real escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

A traditional streetscape that's remained relatively untouched since the 18th century, Lisburn sits just southwest of Belfast, nestled along the river Lagan. Now a hub of speciality coffee shops, home bakeries and traditional pubs, this city's car-free centre was once bustling with a large scale production line, turning out pristine fabrics for the finest European courts. Between whiling away your afternoon in the city's parks and castle grounds, head to the Irish Linen Centre to learn all about this idyllic setting's place in history.

The perfect balance of metropolitan life and culture, Düsseldorf is a city of innovators and artists . Enjoy the bohemian art and architecture of the Old Town before heading to the tree-lined streets of Königsallee for an afternoon of shopping. Take a wander down the stunning riverside Rhine Embankment Promenade, which leads to some of the finest bars in the city, or explore the historic gardens of Schloss Benrath, home to the candy pink Baroque Palace. Whatever your interests, Düsseldorf is a little gem just waiting to be discovered.

Under Louis XIV's reign, Nantes was both France's most important port, and one of the largest in all of Europe. Although it still retains strong ties with Brittany, the capital of the Pays de la Loire region is best known these days for its vibrant art scene. Inspired by Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, the utterly unique Machines of the Isle of Nantes project is a dream world for creatives. People come from across the globe to marvel at the magnificent paintings in The Musée des Beaux-Arts and the gorgeous Gothic cathedral.

The timeless allure of Bruges is found in its medieval buildings, flowing canals and cobbled streets full of horse-drawn carriages. Scour the many fine chocolateries for that perfect praline, explore the vast array of Trappist beers in the many alfresco bars before delving into the city's history in its fascinating museums.

Brussels, the vibrant capital of Belgium, is a historic city which boasts dazzling architectural splendour at its core in the Grand Place, as well as top-notch attractions and eateries at every turn. Take in stunning views of the city from the Mont des Arts or while away some peaceful hours in the beautiful greenery of Parc du Cinquantenaire.

Ghent is a treasure trove of pretty canalways and cycle-friendly streets, art from the Flemish masters and fine local cuisine. At the heart of the city's stunning medieval core is the imposing Gravensteen castle, built in the 12th century and magnificently restored.

Set on a verdant, green island surrounded by five rivers, Dordrecht's beautiful surrounding scenery make it the perfect place for walks and cycle rides. With its quaint leaning houses and windmill right at its heart, this city is a wonderful slice of Dutch culture.

The gleaming modern architecture of the Netherlands' second city is reason enough alone to visit, but it's the proliferation of cool bars, chic eating spots and fascinating museums that puts Europe's busiest port on the map.

As one of the Netherlands' oldest cities, Utrecht naturally dazzles visitors with its medieval buildings and the impressive Dom Tower at its core. If you're a history buff, make sure to head the Kasteel De Haar, the largest castle in the country.

Home to the iconic Delft Blue pottery, and birthplace of 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' artist Johannes Vermeer, this canal-lined city is a hidden gem of the Netherlands. Members of the House of Orange are buried in the tall Nieuwe Kerk, while the dramatically leaning Oude Kerk tower has to be seen to be believed.

Known by the Dutch as the City of Light, Eindhoven is renowned as one of the design and technology capitals of the Netherlands. With markets, museums and magnificent architecture as well as a lively nightlife scene, Eindhoven has it all.

Built around a horseshoe-shaped network of picturesque canals, the charming capital of the Netherlands makes for one of the most iconic getaways in Europe. Historic leaning buildings, virbant nightlife and incredible local restaurants await.

Found at the northwesternmost tip of Ireland, the ruggedly beautiful land of County Donegal is a walker's paradise. For those seeking a true adventure, this is the perfect place to start the stunning Wild Atlantic Way, a road that stretches along the untamed west coast of the country.

Set in a picturesque bay full of bobbing yachts, the historic port of Kinsale is the gourmet centre of the southwest. Be sure to discover the 17th Century star-shaped Charles Fort nearby.

The great Irish capital needs little introduction. Experience the warmth of Dublin by frequenting the picturesque pubs of Temple Bar, learn its history in the Kilmainham Gaol and taste its lifeblood at the Guinness Storehouse.

Despite its small size, this city really packs a punch. Wander down the quaint 'Medieval Mile' of historic buildings, explore Kilkenny Castle and drop in for a pint at Kyteler's Inn, one of the oldest pubs in Ireland.

Named Ireland's first ever National City of Culture in 2014, Limerick is a vibrant city full of buzzing cafés, art museums and the spectacular King John's Castle.

A short walk in Arras will see you discover incredible architecture of the Town Hall and the towering Belfry in the Place des Héros. For those seeking a cycling adventure, Arras is a gateway to the Artois countryside and the historic First World War memorial sites like the Canadian National Vimy Monument and the Thiepval Memorial.

A true gem of the Alsace region, this cycle capital boasts a medieval past and a multicultural identity. Wander among the half-timbered houses of Petite France or hit the road to drink in the delights of the Alsace wine route.

Home to the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Amiens Cathedral, this charming city is one of France's best kept secrets. For scenic delights, explore Les Hortillonnages, Amien's famous floating gardens set on islands surrounded by a network of canals.

The Loire Valley is abundant in spectacular castles, exquisite banquet halls and extravagant gardens; no wonder it's called the Garden of France.

The beating heart of France, Paris is the number one spot for fashion in the world; be prepared to shop till you drop like never before.

Cologne, Germany

Dortmund, Germany

Le Mans, France

Gouda, Netherlands

Troyes, France

Londonderry, United Kingdom

Armagh, United Kingdom

Ypres, Belgium

Normandy, France

Dunkirk, United Kingdom

Colmar, France

Saint-Malo, France

Maastricht, Netherlands

Haarlem, Netherlands

Groningen, Netherlands

Breda, Netherlands

Antwerp, Belgium

Toulouse, France

Mons, Belgium

Antrim, United Kingdom

Fermanagh, United Kingdom

Flanders, Belgium

Waterford, Ireland

Lille, France

Ostend, Belgium

Dinant, Belgium

Lisburn, United Kingdom

Dusseldorf, Germany

Nantes, France

Bruges, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

Dordrecht, Netherlands

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Utrecht, Netherlands

Delft, Netherlands

Eindhoven, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Donegal, Ireland

Kinsale, Ireland

Dublin, Ireland

Kilkenny, Ireland

Limerick

Arras, France

Strasbourg, France

Amiens, France

Loire Valley

Paris, France