Often overlooked but never underwhelming, these 8 so-called second cities give their bigger, more famous compatriots a run for their money. What second cities lack in size, they make up for with amazing things to do, see, taste, and snap. So if you’re planning a European city break, why not look beyond the well-worn streets of the continent’s capitals and head to these underrated destinations?
1- St. Petersburg, Russia If world-class museums and galleries, magnificent churches, and impressive theaters sound like something you’d enjoy, St. Petersburg is the place for you. Start by exploring the renowned Hermitage Museum. With over 1500 rooms, including a section in the Winter Palace, you could spend a lifetime wandering its opulent hallways. If you manage to pull yourself away from the Hermitage, take a stroll through the city, passing the picture-book Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood as well as crossing several quaint bridges that loop over canals. Just 30 km south of St. Petersburg lies the unmissable Catherine Palace. Once the summer residence of Russian Tsars, the beautiful palace is now a firm favorite of day trippers – and it’s easy to see why.
3- Hamburg, Germany Hamburg will steal your heart in the blink of an eye, especially at night when the lights come on and the harbor twinkles in the darkness. Wake up early on Sunday (or just head straight there from the nightlife hotspot of Reeperbahn) to check out St. Pauli fish market. As well as mingling with local traders, who jockey for the freshest fish at the best prices, you can pick up a tasty treat at the street food stalls that call the market home. No visit to Hamburg is complete without visiting the Elbphilharmonie, perhaps Germany’s (maybe even Europe’s) most striking piece of modern architecture. From the concert hall, you’re just a short walk from the Instagram-worthy canals and warehouses of Speicherstadt, Hamburg’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
4- Cork, Republic of Ireland Cork encapsulates everything that’s great about Ireland: fine food, friendly folks, and fantastic scenery. Sample the best of Ireland’s second city by taking a walk along St. Patrick’s Street, stopping by the English Market to pick up picnic necessities that can be enjoyed in Fitzgerald’s Park. Cork is also perfectly situated to explore the Emerald Isle’s wild coastline: Head west to the Cliffs of Moher or south to visit Mizen Head, Ireland’s southernmost point.
5- Graz, Austria Austria is a great place for food lovers, and Graz is no exception. For cake-hunters like myself, there’s nothing quite like sitting in a cute café with a fresh Kaiserschmarrn in front of you just waiting to be eaten. Burn off such creamy delights by walking up Schlossberg and enjoying marvelous views of the city. Schlossberg’s clocktower dates back to the 13th century and provides amazing photo opportunities. Before you leave, make sure to have a drink on the Murinsel – a futuristic structure that was built on the Mur River to celebrate Graz being named Europe’s capital of culture in 2003.
6- Split, Croatia It’s not every day you can sip a coffee while marveling at 2000-year-old architecture, but that’s exactly what awaits you in Split, Croatia’s charming second city. Head to Diocletian’s Palace and the Cathedral of Saint Domnius to gaze upon two of Split’s most famous ancient architectural beauties. As you stroll along the winding, narrow streets of the old town, you can’t fail to miss the warm sea breeze that calls locals and visitors alike to the sparkling Adriatic Sea. Once you’ve topped up your tan on the nearby beaches, take a day trip the fairytale-like Plitvice Lakes. The waterfalls and lakes on display at the national park will likely be the highlight of your trip.
7- Thessaloniki, Greece Anyone with a fascination with history will want to pay a visit to Greece’s second biggest city. First up, head to the harbor to check out the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s most famous sight. Standing at 34m tall, the one-time prison now houses exhibitions as well providing stunning vistas from its viewing platform. The tower’s main entrance gate, Arch of Galerius, dates back to 298 AD and is well worth snapping during a stroll of the old town. Continue your journey back in time with a day trip to the cliff-hugging monasteries of Meteora.
8- Bergen, Norway Even though it’s deemed one of the wettest cities in Europe, Bergen has so many incredible things to offer that you won’t mind a little rain. This charming Norwegian city stuns with fresh seafood (check out Fish Me at Bergen’s fish market), more museums than you can count, and picturesque fjords waiting to be explored. Catch the funicular up Mt. Floyen to see Bergen from above. There’s nothing quite like watching the sun go down from up there.
Ah, Porto. Underrated. Beautiful. Laid-back. I fell in love with this enchanting port town back in November. Here are 11 reasons why you will too.
1. It’s cheap to get there within Europe
3 hours from Berlin or London may be stretching it on a budget flight, but Ryanair is helping to rescue the city’s economy. Porto’s airport is also central and accessible. As one local told me: “we all have them to thank for our jobs.” Porto is booming. So snatch up some affordable airfare for a long weekend.
Feel the breeze
It rains some 130 days in Porto a year. But now is the perfect time! Porto’s rainy season is mainly during the winter and fall. Its coastal location also protects it from the harshest summer weather. That sounds juuuust right.
Porto viewed from the Gaia side
Porto is colorful. Not as colorful as Lisbon, but that lends itself to more glaring contrast. The buildings are mostly granite, giving them a darker, more Gothic foundation. When Porto became a big shipping town, the sailors found this drab so they painted the small wooden houses on the river in marvelous colors to greet them when they returned. The effect lends itself to little vignettes wherever you turn your head. My favorites were the little shops and kiosks, buried in between buildings, offering little glimpses of workers in uniforms and families out in their Sunday’s best.
4. English Connection
Throughout history, the British have used Porto as, well, a port. Portugal was often the little side story throughout history, making it attractive to orient itself to their (also) rainy neighbors to the north for protection from the French or Spanish. The city is littered with remnants of this relationship, from the phone booths to the letter boxes. People also speak great English for a city with a relatively young tourist culture.
5. Harry Potter
Majestic Cafe, where J.K. Rowling first started writing Harry Potter.
J.K. Rowling first scribbled some notes on a napkin for what would become Harry Potter in a restaurant called the Majestic Cafe. The rest is history. Exploring Porto feels like you are in a magical world, where sticking your head into the right alley will unlock something spectacular. The college students, with their academic garb, gave the inspiration for the Hogwarts uniforms and other locations might be recognizable to the trained Harry Potter fan eye.
6. Dramatic Hills
One of Porto’s sloping, riverside Medieval neighborhoods
It’s a ride. The city is a roller coaster so getting home after some Port wine tasting will be a serious challenge. It’s fascinating to watch everyday life unfold and watch how it has adapted to the geography of the city. It’s hectic, but the normalcy of it all is very entertaining. Cross the street at your own risk!
7. The incredible food
Oh my gosh, prepare your heart. Porto draws inspiration from various places. As a port town with British connections, fried fish (cod) and octopus are staples here. In contrast to Lisbon where, as a local put it, “they eat salads,” the food is filling and hearty. Any foodie will feel right at home and after conquering a mountainous hill just to get dinner, you’ll understand. For the daring, try the Francesinha, (which means little French girl). It’s a three-story “sandwich” monstrosity that will challenge your resolve – and digestive system.
8. Port wine
You’ve heard of this: port wine. A variety of wine, so good, it has its own name. It’s actually grown and produced in the Duoro Valley, some 100 kilometers inland, but the entire country’s product is stored across the river in Gaya, making it the area with the largest concentration of wine in the world. The drink is sweet and locals sip it as a digestive after dinner. Depending on how it is stored or allowed to age, it takes on wildly different characteristics that you can learn about on one of the many available wine-tasting tours. Secret tip: try the new “pink” port, it was just invented 8 years ago.
9. Its growing tourism industry
Colorful vignettes aplenty
Has just started here, meaning: cheap, authentic, rewarding, welcoming experiences are almost impossible to avoid if you just ask or stick your head around. It’s enchanting, as one can continually be blown away by what comes next. The city feels alive and lived in, something lacking in larger European tourist hubs.
10. Its craft roots
A belt maker at Mercado do Bolhão Market
Porto is a mercantile town, so they know how to make things. And thanks to competition, goods are cheap. Leather boots can be found for less than 20 euros, as well as a plethora of colorful, creative household goods, clothes, and so on. The challenge is cramming it all into your Ryanair-sized carryon. Mercado do Bolhão offers cheap, authentic Portuguese goods and is fun to browse in among the locals.
11. Its party life
Cheap, fun, open. The handiwork feel of Porto fills the clubs and bars with rustic old-school charm. The ambiance is classy, subdued, yet rambunctious thanks to the students who pile out into the streets on balmy Summer nights.
12. The wonder
The dusty solitude of Porto
Will stay with you long after you leave. And you may find yourself returning some day for another Francesinha. So that’s why I fibbed a bit, there are 12 reasons. The last is that tingling feeling you’ll get when reminiscing.
Have you ever been to Porto? Thinking of going? Find some great activities to do here on GetYourGuide!