Best cities for tourists: The world's best second cities

Sibling rivalry doesn't just happen in families. It exists among cities, too. It happens all over the world: the biggest smoke gets all the attention; its often lower-profile siblings stay hidden in the shadows, regarded as less interesting and less inviting. Think Paris and Marseilles; New York and Chicago; London and Birmingham.

Yet second cities – yes, even Birmingham – can be every bit as fascinating and compelling as their show-stopping siblings. In some cases, they have been competing with and occasionally outshining their siblings for centuries. Krakow may be the second city in Poland, for instance, but it was the royal capital long before Warsaw usurped that role, as its beautifully preserved city centre attests.

The next time you travel, look beyond the star turns, and include some of these cities in your itinerary.

Equally, the inhabitants of Antwerp regard their neighbours in Brussels as newcomers, remembering the days when their city was the undisputed financial capital of Europe. Some second cities take their own path, developing in a radically different way from their bigger siblings.

Montreal's French flair and its historic centre could not be more different from Toronto's New York-style high-rise streetscape, And, as Australians, we don't need to be reminded of Melbourne's scene-stealing ways over Sydney. Some second cities experience a harder time of it. Marseilles, for instance, has endured periods as a poverty-stricken, crime-ridden no-go zone.

But today's Marseille is a hip, multi-cultural city with a visible joie de vivre completely distinct from Paris. So next time you travel, look beyond the star turns, and include some of these cities in your itinerary. You are, as our tribute to the second city shows, in for a pleasant surprise.

PORTO, PORTUGAL

Lisbon has wealth and glamour and power, but Porto has rivers of port, considerate neighbours and that bolshie resilience peculiar to cities forged in the shadow of their better-known counterparts. There's a welcoming, unpretentious, almost provincial quality to this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city.

At lunchtime you'll see a woman sitting on her front steps in Afurada grilling sardines and chatting to her neighbour.

In the evening, an octogenarian dances with a broomstick in the doorway of her shop on Rua des Sao Joao in Porto's historic Ribeira neighbourhood. In the morning the driver hands his passenger a twine-bound gerbera flower as he picks her up for her ride to the airport.

Perhaps this community focus among Portuenses, as residents of Porto are known, stems from the city's status as runner-up to the older and larger Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Perhaps it's just how the historically working-class people living on the Douro River estuary in Portugal's far north have evolved.

Advertisement

The city is beautiful enough as it is: narrow, terracotta-roofed, decoratively-tiled houses spill higgledy-piggledy down the hill towards the river. Narrow streets with names that sometimes define their purpose – the Rua das Flores, for example, is lined with flower-sellers – converge on the waterfront. The river bobs with brightly-painted rabelo boats and is spanned by the majestic, Eiffel-designed Maria Pia Bridge.

But it's this river that in many ways defines this city and its people, for it connects them to the Douro Valley, a few hours inland, where intense summer heat has for centuries produced the sweet port wine for which this region is famous. Over the centuries, barrels of this nectar – tawnies, rubies, whites – have floated downriver from the valley all the way to Porto, where they've been readied for export.

The industry has underpinned Porto's transformation into a leading centre of trade, a city independent of the capital, and one which today boasts its own economy and prestigious international connections. Porto's a contented old dame, sitting on the Douro River in all her rosy, buttery, ochre-tinged glory, doused, it seems, in the very port for which she is famous.

See visitportoandnorth.travel.

More Traveller stories on Portugal

CATHERINE MARSHALL

CHICAGO, UNITED STATES

There are several theories on why Chicago has sometimes been identified as America's "Second City." Perhaps it's because the first Chicago burned down, in 1871, and residents built a second version on the ashes. Perhaps it's because for many years Chicago had the second-largest population in America, following New York (now it's third, following Los Angeles).

Or perhaps it's because Chicago was simply second-rate for many years. In 1952, A. J. Liebling, writing in the New Yorker, called Chicago "a theatre backdrop with a city painted on it", and a pulpy place "plopped down by the lakeside like a piece of waterlogged fruit". Compared to New York it was a provincial backwater in the Midwest –– a "not-quite metropolis".

Liebling's snooty portrait was probably an unfair characterisation in 1952 –– his essay, in three parts, become immediately infamous, and generated a great number of angry letters –– but today it is downright laughable. Walk through Millennium Park and glance up at the most beautiful skyline in the entire country. You can't help but think: Really? This city? Have things really changed that much in the past five decades?

In truth, modern Chicago is a terrific city, easily navigable, spacious, affordable, with miles of shoreline overlooking a lake so vast it may as well be the ocean. No, it's not New York; but why should it try to imitate? Chicago has its own idiosyncratic charm (and the people are nicer).

For example, the arts scene is outstanding. More than 700 public sculptures are scattered around the city, including pieces by Picasso and Chagall, Moore and Miro. Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" resembling a giant steel bean, has become an attraction in its own right. And the Art Institute of Chicago has just about every major piece of American art you could name off the top of your head – Grant Wood's American Gothic, for example, and Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, all accessible without the enervating crowds of the Big Apple.

Throw in some of the world's best theatre (Steppenwolf Theatre Company), improv comedy (The Second City), and Jazz (Green Mill), and you have a cultural incubator as vital as anything on the east or west coast. That's not even getting to the African-American history; the green spaces so numerous even 4000 coyotes have taken up residence; or the beautiful beaches, just a stone's throw from downtown and far surpassing anything in New York, which ruined its shoreline with a wrap-around freeway.

See choosechicago.com.

More Traveller stories on Chicago

LANCE RICHARDSON

ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS

Rotterdammers are wharfies at heart. They live in Europe's largest port and pride themselves on their tough working-class roots. Fans of their football team, Feyenoord, never miss an opportunity to stick it to Amsterdam's Ajax supporters on the day of a "Klassieker" (classic), as their matches are known. But in cutting-edge architecture and cultural events, their city can now claim to outshine genteel Amsterdam, with its cutesy little canals and stuffy old museums.

Amsterdam's population, its Jews in particular, suffered dreadfully in World War II, but its buildings survived largely unscathed. Hitler's bombers forced the Dutch into early surrender by flattening central Rotterdam in May 1940.

It was a tragedy resilient Rotterdam turned into an opportunity. After the war, instead of reconstructing the old buildings in their original style, the city opted to go modern. It's still working at it. All over town iconic buildings compete with other iconic buildings in the quest to become Rotterdam's icon.

Architect Piet Blom's remarkable 1984 Kubus houses, a line of connected cubes standing on their points, are now matched in eye-catching strangeness by the spectacular coloured arch of the foodie paradise Markthal that stands across from them. Rotterdam architect Rem Koolhaas is among the world's finest. He's contributed the modern art museum Kunsthal and de Rotterdam, the mighty "vertical city" building on the harbour overlooking the elegant span of the Erasmus Bridge.

Rotterdam Centraal Station is just 41 minutes by train from Amsterdam's stately 19th-century Centraal railway station. It's brand-new. The interior is a triumph of glass and light, the outside a towering pointed façade. Yep, it sure is iconic. In culture too, Rotterdam punches above its weight. The International Film Festival (late January-February) and the North Sea Jazz Festival (July) are regarded as the premier Dutch events of their type.

Few museums quite match the riches of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. Rotterdam's art establishments don't try to. There's a fine permanent collection of Dutch and European works in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, and in the Kunsthal frequently rotating contemporary exhibitions, sometimes wonderful and sometimes, well just plain weird.

See en.rotterdam.info.

More Traveller stories on Rotterdam.

RICHARD TULLOCH

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND

Birmingham grew to be Britain's second city, after London, on the back of manufacturing and the industrial revolution. This, in turn, drew the attention of the Luftwaffe in World War II, who blitzed the place almost to the ground. The developers of the 1950s and 1960s rebuilt much of it in the tower-block brutalist style so prevalent at the time – a move which encouraged plenty of loathing and very little love.

Certainly, the Bull Ring shopping centre, the epitome o '60s' grey box architecture, did nothing to dispel the idea that Birmingham was no more than an unattractive concrete jungle surrounded by motorways – this was, after all, the site of the original spaghetti junction, that Gordian knot of motorways that met just outside the city.

Today, though, it's thriving and even booming. In a slap in the face to London, the British Office for National Statistics last year revealed that in the 12 months to June 2013 almost 60,000 30-somethings left the capital looking for a better work-life balance – and most those went to Birmingham.

Among the reasons for this much-derided city's resurgence include excellent transport links and housing affordability. Birmingham international airport is just 16 kilometres away and trains to London take 90 minutes from Birmingham New Street station right in the city centre. Plans for a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham will bring that down to an easy 40-minute commute.

On top of this, the city's central location in Britain – and that ring of motorways – means it's within easy driving distance of Bristol, Bath, Oxford and the Peak district national park. Several regeneration projects have given this once-industrial heartland a sexy makeover. The old Victorian manufacturing district of Digbeth is now a thriving hub of shops and small creative businesses, and the derelict canal system is once more alive and kicking, especially around Gas Street Basin.

The city's new-found confidence is evident everywhere, an excitement and a vibe you could cut with a knife. And nowhere is it more apparent than in the Jewellery Quarter, a Georgian-era conservation area full of listed buildings, jewellery businesses, funky shops, restaurants and quirky bars.

Birmingham really has only one downside these days; it's full of Londoners.

See visitbirmingham.com.

More Traveller stories on Birmingham.

KEITH AUSTIN

KRAKOW, POLAND

Although on his birth certificate is written in a firm hand "Warsaw", my father suspects he was born in Krakow. His mother, a woman well attuned to the snobberies of pre-war Polish society, refused to admit that he was born anywhere but the capital. Despite long family connections with Poland's second city, Krakow was Hicksville, and no self-respecting Pole could possibly be born there.

Set on the banks of the broad river Vistula, at the confluence of East-West trading routes, Krakow began as a mercantile city in the Middle Ages. Within the pear-shaped enclave of the Old Town there arose a handsome city of mansions, churches, palaces and squares. Almost unique among Polish cities, most of old Krakow survived the wrecking-ball of Nazi occupation.

Radiating from colossal Rynek Glowny, the old town square, fashionable Grodzka Street runs south to Wawel Hill. For the five centuries before 1596, when Warsaw became the capital, this was the seat of the Polish kings. In Wawel Cathedral, all but four of Poland's 45 kings and most of their queens are buried, along with the nationalist hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko and some of the greats of Polish literature.

Within the cathedral, the palace and the treasury on Wawel Hill is a heavyweight accretion of treasures, including Flanders tapestries, a frieze by Hans Durer, the remarkable Heads Room and the royal sarcophagi. Kazimierz, site of the Krakow ghetto, begins just 300 metres from Wawel Hill. There has been a Jewish community in Krakow since the mid-14th century. By 1939, that community numbered more than 60,000. Apart from a certain bleakness there is nothing that indicates what happened in the Krakow ghetto but all the same, you know. This is a void that speaks.

These streets were the backdrop for Schindler's List, the film version of Thomas Keneally's novel that chronicled the deadly cat and mouse game between the German industrialist Oskar Schindler and the local SS, in which the prize was several hundred Jewish lives. The former Emalia Enamel Factory, "Schindler's Ark", still exists on the south side of the river, now resuscitated as the city's Museum of Contemporary Art and its Historical Museum. A past rescued from the ashes is a precious thing, and Krakow is a lesson in remembering.

See www.krakow.pl.

More Traveller stories on Krakow

MICHAEL GEBICKI

MONTREAL, CANADA

When it comes to movie-making, Toronto is often used as a substitute for New York. The city is large enough and "gritty" enough to make a convincing, low-rent version of the Big Apple. A few hours to the north, Montreal doesn't have to pretend to be anywhere else. Cleaner, smaller and splendidly planned, it's one of North America's best walking cities, with the Mount Royal that gives the city its name, dominating its centre.

This is a town which can be 40C in summer and -40C in winter, but it copes admirably with both. During the long days of summer, people make the most of Montreal's parks (especially Mount Royal) and come the biting winter, they head into a labyrinthine network of heated underground malls. Even if you're not looking for Gallic flare and trendy bars, the traditional architecture is superior to not only Toronto, but any city in Canada – there are 50 national historic sites here, more than anywhere else in the country.

Yes, you'd have to brush up on your French if you wanted to move here (and don't be surprised if one or two of the locals flounce off in the other direction when addressed in English) but the confluence of cultures has almost always added more to Montreal than it has taken away.

Sadly, the major exception came in 1970, the point at which it was surpassed by Toronto as Canada's economic centre. At the heart of it all was the October Crisis, which saw several kidnappings and the murder of politician Pierre Laporte by Quebec nationalists. Montreal gained a reputation for being an unsafe hot-bed of extremism; even hosting the Olympics in 1976 did little to revive the city's fortunes.

Damaging as that period was to Montreal, today it has emerged stronger for the experience. More affordable than Toronto, it's also been listed by UNESCO as a City of Design, and though almost no Torontonians would agree, it's far cooler. That's no doubt in part thanks to its dense concentration of students, the city's four universities giving it a higher percentage than Boston – higher, in fact, than anywhere else in North America.

If none of this convinces you, then know this: Montreal is also home to La Banquise, a restaurant which serves over 30 types of poutine, the French-Canadian speciality of fries, cheese curds and gravy. That alone should see it regarded as first city in Canada, if not the entire world.

See au-keepexploring.canada.travel.

More Traveller stories on Montreal

JOHN GOLDER

ANTWERP, BELGIUM

If you happen to arrive in Antwerp by train, you will get the message loud and clear: this city cedes first place to no one. The palatial station, with its golden dome, its sweeping staircases and its 20 different kinds of marble, welcomes you to a city that has complete confidence in its own status.

As well it should. Brussels may have been the capital of Belgium since 1830, but Antwerp was a global powerhouse three centuries before that. In the 16th and 17th centuries Antwerp, which then belonged to the Spanish empire, was both a global financial centre and a vital port for valuable commodities such as pepper, sugar and textiles. It has been estimated that the Spanish made seven times more money from Antwerp than it did from the silver flowing in from its South American colonies.

With all that money washing around, it is not surprising that Antwerp also became a cultural powerhouse, home to artists of the calibre of Pieter Paul Rubens. That gives today's visitors no end of sights to explore, from the mighty Cathedral of Our Lady to museums such as Museum Mayer van den Bergh.

Don't go thinking Antwerp's glory days are all in the past, however. As a casual glance in the shop windows reveals, this is Belgium's most stylish city. Since the 1980s, the city's celebrated design school has been churning out designers who have built global reputations, from Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten to Martin Margiela.

The city's vibrant design scene isn't confined to high-end boutiques, however. Flanking its beautifully preserved city centre you will find striking modern structures such as the Museum aan de Stroom and the new sail-crested law courts designed by Richard Rogers. Also worth a visit is the Middleheim Museum, a 30-hectare sculpture park featuring works by Moore, Rodin and Hepworth, among others.

Perhaps Antwerp's greatest charm, however, is the way it melds its grand history and its design flair with the laid-back lifestyle that characterises Europe's smaller cities. The city centre is navigable by foot; if you are heading slightly further afield, the city's trams are easy to use. In leafy squares such as Dageraadplaats,you will find laid-back restaurants like Ardent which deliver fine food without fuss. Alternatively, head to the hip Zuid district, where the art nouveau buildings house chic boutiques and cafes, as well as probably the city's finest seafood restaurant, Fiskebar.

See visitantwerpen.be.

More Traveller stories on Belgium

UTE JUNKER

FIVE MORE GREAT SECOND CITIES

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA

Melbourne is the second city in excelsis (and that's a Sydneysider talking). It's the second city that has emerged from the shadows of its now famous laneways to continually show up its bigger brother to the north, most notably in those now ubiquitous though influential urban quality of life indices. Melbourne is even expected to surpass Sydney in population terms some time in the first half of this century, as Australia's biggest city, reclaiming the crown it once held, the charming al fresco cafe tables finally turned. In its effort not to be Sydney, Melbourne even invented its own football code, and for that matter, its own mercurial climate. Remnants of the tedious rivalry between the cities do still exist but most sensible heads are more liable these days to shout, "Vive la difference".

See visitvictoria.com.

ANTHONY DENNIS

BERGEN, NORWAY

Norway doesn't really do metropolises. Its first capital, the northern city of Trondheim, is a quiet place snoozing in the shadow of its massive cathedral. Its current capital, Oslo, has lots of parks and forests, and just 650,000 inhabitants. So it's no surprise that Norway's second city, Bergen, is pretty laid-back. There is still plenty to see and do, however, from the historic Bryggen quarter, with its colourful wooden warehouses, to quirky museums and an impressive schedule of concerts. Add in hills to hike and fjords to explore, as well as fresh seafood to feast on, and you have a destination that definitely merits a couple of days of your time. See visitbergen.com.

UTE JUNKER

MARSEILLES

If there's one certain way to cause a Parisian to choke on his or her escargot, it's to announce that you plan to visit Marseilles on your visit to France. Parisians disparage it in much the same effortless, asinine way Sydneysiders used to dismiss Melbourne before even they had to admit its virtues. But Marseilles, despite its obvious rough edges, is a revelatory breath of fresh Mediterranean air. And, like a good many second cities around the world it benefits from not being the first city, and utterly distinct from it. Go for its dramatic, raffish port setting; go for a taste of its authentic bouillabaise; go for a pastis or two from the balcony overloooking the bay and Notre-de Dame la Garde. Whatever you do, go, and bugger the Parisians.

See marseille-tourisme.com.

ANTHONY DENNIS

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Though others laid claim to the title, Glasgow was rightly called "the second city of the British Empire" during its Victorian pomp. But those days have long gone, even if its population remains bloated. Now, Edinburgh is Scotland's second city in name only – and a fine example of how a second city can eclipse its larger counterpart. This is the home of Scottish government, old and new, and boasts some of the best preserved Georgian architecture anywhere in Europe. On top of that, you've got the Festival, the world's largest arts and culture event – oh and a massive castle.See www.visitbritain.com.

JOHN GOLDER

HANOI, VIETNAM

With a fraction of the population of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in the south, Hanoi may be less dazzling, but it is also more interesting. As the national capital, Hanoi embodies an idea of the country with minimal influence from outsiders. Visiting its museums, for example, is like stepping through a looking glass: Communist propaganda rules defiantly, and the Vietnam War is the "American War of Aggression". Meanwhile, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is as grand and holy-looking as most cathedrals. It is strange and disorientating, but worth the effort. Open your mind, bite your tongue, then enter the labyrinth of streets surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake.

See www.vietnamtourism.com

LANCE RICHARDSON

Comments