Cities are no longer just the convenient arrival airport on the way to the beach, but the destination itself. Twenty years ago, Rome might be a week’s holiday saved up for, Paris was for honeymooners or school language trips, and Berlin an exciting dive into the unknown for those with a taste for the demi-monde. The rise of the European city break has changed all that.

From the icy beauty of Reykjavík to the sun-dozing cats of Athens; from the orange blossom-scented squares of Seville to the Modernist curves of Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall, European cities offer a diversity unmatched on the planet. There are ancient architectural splendours, artful food and bountiful art. Seeing ‘the sights’ today, though, may not mean visiting the major monuments and landmarks, but hanging out in the latest hip design district and feeling like a local – if only for a long weekend.

And it’s no longer just capitals we seek out, with smaller cities making an appearance on the tourism map. Aarhus and Ljubljana are now holiday spots. Quite right, too, but who’d have thought it?

As our travel habits have shifted, so the cities themselves have been changing. The rise (and fall) of international club culture, the proliferation of Airbnb apartments and easy online booking – for accommodation, flights and more – have all played their own roles at various times, but it is architecture and design, more than anything else, that continues to shape our experience of these destinations.

architectural detail by lea anouchinsky
Lea Anouchinsky

Remember the Bilbao effect? When Frank Gehry’s monumental Guggenheim museum, enfolded in titanium swirls, opened for visitors in 1997, it instantly put the little-known struggling Basque town on the tourist circuit. City governments across Europe sat up and took notice – spectacular architecture was now seen as the answer to their post-industrial prayers.

Coupled with the feverish taste for construction around the turn of the millennium, this gave travellers a whole new raft of destinations – the crazier the shapes thrown on a city’s skyline the better. Valencia invested big, building Santiago Calatrava’s fantastical City of Arts & Sciences. It was the era of ‘starchitects’ such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, flown around the world to provide a signature building, with the hope that we would follow to see what all the fuss was about.

Whatever the individual merits of these architectural calling cards (and some are already looking a bit dog-eared), Bilbao has changed the way cities think about luring in visitors, with architecture and design now something tourists seek out.

The architectural one-liners are now, thankfully, fewer, but a more sustainable slew of serious investment by arts institutions has continued, offering visitors ever-better gallery experiences.

There’s the Neues Museum in Berlin, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Milan’s Prada Foundation, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid and Tate Modern in London, to name just a handful – the last of these, together with the rejuvenated Borough Market, has helped to transform the entire South Bank district. And the inspiring cultural venues just keep on coming, with the likes of the Amos Rex in Helsinki and the Bauhaus museums in Weimar and Dessau.

Travellers are not only being wooed by Europe’s many historic offerings but, crucially, contemporary design. Rotterdam reinvented itself on the back of the new. Even Rome felt that it couldn’t rest on its laurels, however gilded and patinated, and invested in Zaha Hadid’s Maxxi museum of contemporary art.

At its best, Europe is a melting pot, a place of exciting fusion; blue and yellow azulejos teamed with Danish rosewood furniture; delicate botanical London gin in poison-green crystal glass blown in Murano; French rap and Berlin currywurst.

architectural detail by lea anouchinsky
Lea Anouchinsky

Hoteliers have likewise looked to the contemporary, realising that they need to chuck out the nana chintz if they want to attract design-minded guests – even if only to reinstall it with varying degrees of irony. From maximalism to clean lines, to the starkly minimalist (think British architect John Pawson’s designs), the stylistic category doesn’t matter so much as that a style statement is being made. And, as the design disciplines blur, fashion brands, such as Camper and Armani, have joined in the fun, translating their unique looks into hotels in Barcelona, Berlin and Milan.

The Design Hotels collection was established in 1993 to direct the interiors-savvy towards a place to sleep that wouldn’t give them aesthetic nightmares. The series of Hip Hotels books by Herbert Ypma did likewise. It’s hard to remember now just how unevolved and fusty most accommodation was before our new design age, which has seen home interiors taking lessons from hotels as much as the other way around.

How we shop has seen as much of a transformation as where we sleep, with the emergence of the design store. A rather different offering than the furniture shops of old, this retail revolution was pioneered by the likes of SCP in London’s Shoreditch, Hay in Copenhagen and Designtorget in Stockholm. Their idea of selling curated collections has morphed into the birth of lifestyle concept stores – where you’ll find fashion and music as well as designer chairs and tables. Collette, on the Rue Saint-Honoré, blazed this trail for two decades and, where it innovated, other stores in Paris followed – there’s Merci in an old wallpaper factory in the Haut Marais, for example, where you can buy both coffee and the coffee machine to make it in. Not so much a shop as a tourist destination in itself.

Colette’s successor, Nous, opened in the luxurious first arrondissement, but today we are just as (or more) likely to be seeking out design nuggets in the former fleshpots of Pigalle in Paris or Vesterbro in Copenhagen, where a redundant meat market has taken a hygge turn – silk purses out of sows’ ears. Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, captures this shift with his analysis that diversity and the presence of creative industries results in the kind of neighbourhoods we want to live in and visit, whether Jordaan in Amsterdam or Södermalm in Stockholm.

Authenticity is king, however, and we rightly raise an eyebrow when an area is designated this district or that quarter by a town hall marketing department. We instinctively feel the difference between something organic and home grown, such as Ljubljana’s design scene, and something forced and cynically Instagrammable.

Success can mean excess, though, and there is rightfully angst about climate change and gentrification, about the risk of places being loved to death. It is not, however, design and architecture aficionados visiting the Venice Biennale or the Fortuny fabric factory that are sinking European cities, but mass tourism. So if Barcelona is busy, seek out Girona or Tarragona, a fast train ride away. Responsible travel doesn’t mean stasis. We need to be even more adventurous, get ahead of the cultural curve, and spread the design love more evenly.