Steve vs Sarah, but to which city do their hearts belong? Illustration for The Club by Miles Donovan

THE DEBATE CLUB • February 2021

Where is the most romantic city break on earth?

After the initial break-ups and shakeups, there’s evidence to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a bumper crop of marriage proposals, with quarantine proving to many couples they’re ready to take the leap. But when travel opens up again, where to celebrate? With Valentine’s Day still in the air, we ask two writers to pen an ode to the ultimate romantic city break  

It’ll always be Paris

Says who: Sarah Jappy, travel writer and author of The World’s Sexiest Bedrooms 

“PAR-IS

Name two syllables more redolent of romance, more imbued with the breathy seduction of Serge ’n’ Jane, the promise of sherbet-y Champagne, of sun-dappled picnics, candle-lit bistros, illicit liaisons, hushed galleries and star-spangled walks by the Seine – and I’ll eat my beret.

I’m not alone, either. Hollywood has been copping off with the City of Love for decades. Think doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face; think Gene and Leslie twirling giddily beneath streetlamps in An American In Paris, with Gene declaring: “Paris is like love or art or faith. It can’t be explained, only felt.” Then there’s Breathless, Before Sunset, Moulin Rouge, Amélie, The Devil Wears Prada – the list goes on.


Want your romance less Hollywood, more highbrow? Swoon at Haussmann’s charming, creamy courtyards, boulevards and parks, evidence of his triumphant revamp of the city (critics booted him out for extravagance, boo!); the dizzying outpouring of art; the beatnik-wooing Left Bank. There’s even a Wall of Love: le mur des je taime...

Everyone has their own Paris. Mine, like an emotional millefeuille, is layered, starting with teenage art trips spent ogling Rodin’s hefty male nudes, clumsily attempting to capture their epic alpha-maleness on paper. It even spans the corporate: organising a press trip for journalists at the top of the Eiffel Tower (the vertiginous elevators, thrilling).

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Mostly, it stars the romantic: nights at
Le Roch Hotel & Spa, which I visited while writing The World’s Sexiest Bedrooms. Le Roch has a subterranean spa and hammam, and a liquorice-dark restaurant. We skipped from bistros to bed, watching The Triplets of Belleville with sushi takeaway lovingly presented by hotel staff on covetable wabi-sabi plates. It was a Paris of late-summer strolls in the emerald Jardins Tuileries with matcha ice cream; of markets, Marais and Montmartre rambles, rummaging in parfumeries and riffling through lingerie boutiques, breakfasting in bed on marzipan croissants…

Whatever 2021 has in store for us, I’ll remember Humphrey Bogart’s immortal line in Casablanca: “Well always have Paris.”

Paris? Have some creativity

Says who: Steve Slack, museum consultant and author of Interpreting Heritage

Forgive me, but as I wander the banks of the Seine, dodging street hawkers and dog mess, I find it difficult to summon up thoughts of romance. Paris is beautiful, but also full of clichés, especially when it comes to the L word.

Why, then, are we giving Paris all our attention, when such cities as Vienna, a capital high on grand, Germanic romance and sumptuous strudels, and Lisbon – alight with the dreamy mystery of a faded empire – occupy the same continent?

Better still, escape Europe entirely. Because if it’s an alternative city break you’re after, no destination will conjure the goods quite like Istanbul.

Romance was right here, in the thrill of this path-less-trodden adventure

Istanbul, you see, is the embodiment of an ideal relationship – two continents brought together, either side of the Bosphorus strait, into a stoic bond. Standing on one side of the water, looking from Europe to Asia, the view of the world suddenly seems full of possibility and potential. For me, romance was right here, in the thrill of this path-less-trodden adventure, not in some overpriced set menu in a Parisian bistro. Oh, and it’s hot.

Historically Istanbul has long been a hub for travellers. A city of continual departures and arrivals is sure be the perfect setting for chance encounters and fleeting romances. But once you’ve got the object of your affection in tow, where to first? Start with a wander to The Museum of Innocence in the Beyoğlu district. It’s also the name of a novel by Nobel prize-winning Orhan Pamuk about a real heartbreaker of a relationship. Pamuk wrote the book (melancholy, yes, but also deeply romantic) at the same time as conceiving the actual museum, with each chapter themed around an object on display. As a visitor, standing among the narrator’s mementos, it’s hard not to feel the pangs of it all.

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And, while Paris couldn’t be more stereotypical, Istanbul is a blank canvas on which to wander, to wonder, to debate, to bond. Plus, there’s truly no better way to toast your sweetheart than with a shot of rakı – aniseed-flavoured firewater, Turkey’s traditional drink of passion and celebration. Forget the starched linen and the crisp Champagne, with all its romantic rules. Instead, breathe in the aromatic romance of rosewater and leather, of saffron and sea spray.

Back at the river, this is where my partner and I board an early evening ferry and set sail for Istanbul’s Asian shore. We might be jostling among the dusk commuters but, as the sun sets over the water, we realise that we’re in limbo, flanked by two continents and, for just a few twilight moments, the two of us are at the centre of the world.

This article has been tagged Opinion, Destination