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.
2. Porto, Portugal
Wine and dine until you drop in this gorgeous Portuguese city, which is one of the highlights of any trip to this picture-perfect country. Take the small funicular up Muralha Fernandina, an old city wall, and you’ll be rewarded with unbeatable views of port cellars, tiled houses, and the striking Dom Luís I bridge. Explore the hilly city center, snapping the colorful facades as you go, before sampling a glass or two of the wine that Porto is synonymous with. For the wine lovers among you, a trip to the vineyards of Douro Valley is an absolute must.
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, 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.