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Three European City Breaks for Autumn
A European weekend city break can be the perfect way to rejuvenate your photography. Matt Parry recommends three destinations.
Canon EOS 60D & Canon EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM @ 40mm. 1/125 seconds @ f/7.1, ISO 100.
As we head into autumn, now is a great time to start thinking about a European city break. The temperature is perfect for exploring, the light can be incredible and the optimum shooting times around sunrise and sunset fall at much more sociable hours.
Below I share a few of my favourite autumn destinations with tips on how to make the most of them. All are very accessible, with relatively cheap flights available from a number of UK airports.
Like most of Europe’s major cities, Amsterdam is worth a visit anytime of the year. However, autumn is a particularly good time to go especially if you plan to venture into my favourite area of the Southern Canal rings. This is a predominantly residential area, a short distance from the centre. As such it offers a quieter Amsterdam experience away from the busier, tourist hot spots.
It is here that impressive town houses flank wide, tree-lined canals dotted with bridges and house boats. As the green leaves turn various hues of yellow and orange, you get a real sense of peace that feels far removed from the hustle and bustle of the likes of Dam Square, Rembrandtplein and the Red Light District.
The real highlights of the area are the intersections where the 3 main ring canals cross Reguliersgracht and Leidsegracht canals. Linked by a series of bridges they offer a variety of shooting options both day and night.
Autumn in the Southern Canal Rings.
Canon EOS 60D & Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM @ 15mm. 1/160 seconds @ f/10, ISO 100
Should the weather take a turn for the worse, head to the impressive Rijksmuseum – one of a number of nearby museums. In addition to impressive architecture and exhibitions (including works from Van Gogh and Rembrandt) the museum also offers some great people-watching potential. Note that you have to check your bags in at the museum, so pick your lens carefully. I typically opt for the flexibility of a wide-angle lens such as a 16-35mm.
Rembrandt’s The Night Watch on display in the Rijksmuseum.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III & Canon EF 16-35mm f/4.0L IS USM @ 24mm. 1/30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 2500
Head to the museums in the morning as the queues are much longer in the middle of the day and early afternoon. The open park area at the back of the Rijksmuseum houses the iconic and photogenic ‘I Amsterdam’ lettering, which is rarely seen without a tourist climbing on it or posing for a selfie in front of it.
The museum also has a road that runs through the middle of it for cyclists. Not only can this area provide respite from rain, but it is a great place to experiment with different types of shots before or after your museum visit.
A cyclist rides through the Rijksmuseum. A great place to shoot and avoid the rain.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III & Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM @ 39mm. 1/30 seconds @ f/14, ISO 2000
When the sun goes down Amsterdam still has plenty to offer photographically as it is a great place for blue-hour long-exposure photography. Despite some misconceptions about the city, it is a safe and friendly environment for photographers. Obviously you should exercise caution when wielding expensive camera equipment in any city and be conscious of what you are photographing – particularly if you are heading into the famous Red Light District – however in areas like the Southern Canal rings or near the impressive Centraal Train station there are some great spots for long exposures.
Budapest straddles the Danube River and is a great city to wander on a crisp autumn day. While both sides of the city have plenty to offer they are geographically different – the Buda side being hilly with impressive buildings, old town charm and fantastic views.
The Pest side by contrast is flatter, commercial and has more remnants of the former Eastern Bloc. It houses the impressively grandiose Parliament building as well other notable sights such as St Stephen’s Basilica and Heroes’ Square.
Both sides are linked by a number of bridges spread along the length of the city. The most impressive and photogenic of these is Széchenyi Chain Bridge, especially when it’s lit at night, which links Gresham Palace on Pest to the Funicular that heads up Castle Hill on the Buda side.
It was in Budapest back in 2010 that I first got hooked on long exposure cityscapes shots. Many of the city’s iconic buildings and bridges are lit up after sunset and, thanks to its relative compactness, it makes it one of the best cities for shooting long into the blue hour and twilight (so don’t forget your tripod).
There are great options for long exposures on both sides of the river. On Buda there are fantastic views from the top of the Funicular looking down towards the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Gresham Palace and the Basilica. Further into the Castle District you can find Fisherman’s Bastion which looks over the Parliament building. The Pest side is equally impressive with the bridges helping to frame the nicely illuminated Buda Castle which dominates the Buda skyline.
During the day there is plenty to shoot. If you like to get up early why not take a stroll along the banks of the Danube? Head along the Buda side to gaze over at the impressive Parliament building reflected in the river. Coming back along the Pest side you will find the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ memorial. This is a series of cast iron shoes that represent those left behind by the Jews as they were killed by militiamen during World War II. Before being shot they were made to take off their shoes and stand at the river bank so their bodies fell into the river.
Not only is this a fascinating and unique memorial, it is situated at one of the most scenic points on the Pest side looking over towards Matthias Church, the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Calvinist Church.
For those that want to venture away from the river banks, there is a good walk up to the Freedom Moment and Citadella on Gellert Hill (Buda side). The views from here are fantastic, and you will find yourself in the middle of a pleasant park with lots of trees to capture those autumn colours.
While there is plenty to see, do and photograph in Budapest, no trip to the city would be complete without a trip to a spa. There are numerous ‘baths’ located around the city all fed by thermal springs. Not only do these offer great photographic potential but should the weather be unkind then you can put the camera away and relax in their warm waters. Indeed don’t despair if the weather is not good, as you have a number of options to keep dry and keep shooting. The interior of St Stephen’s Basilica and the Great Market Hall plus museums such as the House of Terror to name but a few.
Paris is one of those cities that needs very little introduction. Until recently I had only visited as a teenager with no thought or appreciation for the city and how photogenic it can be. Again, like the other cities I’ve mentioned, it is great year-round destination with plenty to shoot rain or shine. Unfortunately for me, on my most recent trip I had nothing but rain.
I’m a big advocate of planning for certain shots you want to get ahead of your trip. This doesn’t preclude the spontaneous opportunities you get from wandering the streets, but rather ensures you have set goals for your city break to give you a focus for certain times of the day such as sunrise or sunset. My ‘target’ shots are normally reserved for long exposures at blue hour when the city’s buildings are lit up. However the rain can make these types of shots particularly difficult.
The image below looking along the River Seine towards the back of Notre Dame Cathedral was taken in a light drizzle. To get the clean star bursts on street lights you need to set a narrow aperture (between f/14-f/20). However at these apertures rain spots will show up in your image, as you can see to the right of the light trail image. Ensure you take a cloth to clean your lens and filters and try to keep the rain off the lens between shots.
Paris offers plenty of long-exposure shooting opportunities thanks to its abundance of stunning, iconic buildings that are lit up at night. In addition to Notre Dame, there are plenty of great angles to capture at the Louvre Museum as well as light trails at the many intersections of the Arc de Triomphe roundabout or looking towards it along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. However the most iconic of all Parisian sights is the Eiffel Tower.
Standing proud over Paris, the Eiffel Tower is visible from many parts of the city. From the base of the Tower, a wide-angle lens will come in handy to get some great perspectives such as the one above. However, one of the best views is from the Panoramic Observation Floor on top of the Montparnasse Tower (Tour Montparnasse). The observation floor has high glass windows that thankfully include slots in the glass through which you can take pictures. Head up there in the early evening and you may catch a stunning sunset before the city lights come on.
One of the things you’ll encounter on many European city breaks nowadays are Love Locks. From Riga to Rome, couples engrave their initials onto a padlock, attach it to something (usually a bridge) and then throw away the key. Paris has had something of a love-hate relationship with Love Locks over the years, yet many of their bridges are now covered in them. Whether shooting a quirky padlock, opting for an abstract composition or using them as a foreground element, they make fantastic subjects to shoot.
As I mentioned, my trip to Paris was blighted somewhat by persistent rain. While rain can present challenges, it also creates unique opportunities when it comes to street photography. Tourists with their umbrellas can make for interesting compositions and create foreground interest in an otherwise standard shot of an iconic building or monument. The rain can also create reflective surfaces such as puddles or on certain stones like can be found at the Palais de Chaillot in the Trocadero area.