Capital cities often get the most attention. Tourists flock in droves to see the iconic sites the country is often known for. It takes a traveller with a slightly different agenda to skip them and head to the second city instead.
The world’s second cities can make for a much more authentic and perhaps even more culturally meaningful experience.
Often neglected, these locations can be trendier, calmer, and all-around more pleasant than the bustling capital.
Here are eight second cities that should be first on your list.
1. Krakow, Poland
Long a city of choice for interrailing backpackers, Krakow is filled with unexpected sights and sounds, from a dragon statue breathing actual fire, to a giant, labyrinthine salt mine. Wander the domed chapels of Wawel Cathedral, climb St. Mary’s Basilica for panoramic views across the city, or inspect the sinister concoctions in the Museum of Pharmacy. An architectural playground of turrets and spires, Krakow is something of a fairytale city with a mystical, medieval feel.
But like all classic fairytales, there’s a sting in the tail. Reminders of a painful past lie around every corner – from the remnants of abandoned synagogues to Oskar Schindler’s factory. Krakow can be a base for trips to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial.
2. Gothenburg, Sweden
Gothenburg is overpoweringly trendy. It has a photogenic waterfront and is filled with independent coffee shops. Stockholm may win on world heritage sites (3-0, if you’re interested), but for wandering, socialising and taking time to enjoy the little things, Gothenburg might be best in show.
3. Busan, South Korea
With ancient Japanese temples to the east, sprawling Chinese cities to the west, South Korea is a strangely overlooked stop on the Asian tourist trail. A pity, because for those in the know, Busan is a rare treasure. Mountains on one side, the ocean on the other – metropolitan marvels are balanced with the wonders of the wild. Hilltop fortresses, internationally renowned seafood, and an urban beachfront.
Throw in a burgeoning street art scene, entire neighbourhoods of pastel paintwork, and a surplus of quirky cafes, and this thriving port city is as vibrant as anywhere in East Asia.
4. St. Petersburg, Russia
Turn up the Tchaikovsky and pack some Pushkin, St. Petersburg is a city bathed in the grandest traditions of Russian romance. A historic hotbed of political radicalism and the artistic avant-garde, this former imperial capital boasts the second largest art museum on Earth – the State Hermitage Museum – and in the Mariinsky Theatre, one its finest ballets.
A very European city by Russian standards, the wide boulevards and pastel terraces resemble Prague or Vienna more than the Soviet severity of Moscow. Formerly known as Leningrad, you never quite know what this bubbling cauldron of a city is going to do next.
5. Cork, Ireland
Hit the pub for a pint of locally brewed Beamish stout, and enjoy an approving nod from your barman; grab some grub at KC’s, a chippie so popular staff keep an online queue-cam to help assess waiting times; and round your evening off with a visit to Hi-B Bar, a Cork institution in which, on pain of expulsion, mobile phones are banned.
Rammed with independent coffee houses (are you sensing a pattern here?), Cork is cool and knows it. Natives will tell you at length that their city is in fact the real capital of Ireland, and shouldn’t be on this list at all.
6. Leon, Nicaragua
Capital Managua is a large, abrasive beast of a city, all honking horns and barbed wire fences, while Leon is a backpacker’s paradise with a hostel on every corner.
Crumbling colonial facades encircle large, breezy plazas filled with gently swaying palm fronds, beneath the warmth of the tropical sun. Leon made its name with an ironic combination of gorgeous churches and cheap alcohol, but for tourists today, the city is synonymous with volcano boarding. It’s exactly what it sounds like: climb to the top of a volcano, strap yourself to a plank of wood, and you’re away.
7. Plovdiv, Bulgaria
A relaxed, waking-up-on-a-Sunday-morning vibe, Roman ruins, and scorching summer temperatures – it’s hard to understand why Plovdiv is so neglected. Filled with leafy boulevards and red-tiled roofs, in contrast to brutalist capital Sofia, Plovdiv is the perfect place to while away an afternoon wandering the cobbled streets and relaxing with an ice cream.
8. Porto, Portugal
With capital city Lisbon hogging the historic sights, Porto has instead found its niche as a sensory destination filled with food, wine and colour. The pastel-painted alleyways of historic centre Ribeira; the port lodges that line the riverbank; the ready supply of fresh seafood – Porto is a treat for the eyes and the stomach.
How many of these cities have you visited? Is the capital city often on your travel list or do you skip it? Share your favourite city destination in the comments section below.
– With PA
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