It's usually the capital cities that get all the attention, but what about a country's second city? These are twenty of our favourite second cities around the world, starting with Barcelona. For many, Barcelona feels like just as much of a capital as Madrid. It’s the centre of Catalonia, and the region’s full artistic and cultural clout is displayed in this flamboyant, fascinating city. Whether you’re after art (Picasso) architecture (Gaudí) or food (Ferran Adrià) Barcelona has some of the world’s best on offer.
While Antigua has lively nightlife, a brilliant café culture and a cosmopolitan atmosphere, that’s not why people visit. The big draw is the city’s stunning colonial architecture, easily eclipsing the capital, Guatemala City, in terms of sheer visual appeal. It also benefits from a beautiful location, lush mountains rising above the pastel-coloured buildings and causing any budding photographers to reach for their cameras every few minutes.
Unlike almost any other city in Poland, most of Kraków’s stunning architecture survived WWII; wandering through the Old Town you get a glimpse of the enormously rich architectural heritage which was lost elsewhere in the country. The city combines the poignancy of its recent past with a sense of optimism, energy and renewal. Take Kazimierz: in this ancient Jewish district, alongside moving reminders of the Nazi’s attempts to destroy its population, you’ll see endless new cafés and clubs, shops and art galleries.
Finally shaking off some of its Escobar associations more than two decades after his death, visitors to Medellín are rewarded with a thriving, modern city with an alluring mixture of traditional and searingly modern architecture and a lively cultural scene and nightlife. The city maintains its history and traditions (mostly Catholic, as evidenced by the profusion of churches) while forging ahead into new areas like the 20,000 hectare Arví Ecotourism Park.
Mumbai is (deservedly) famous as the heart of Bollywood, and perhaps because of this starry connection the whole city glitters with excitement and opportunity. Of course there are two sides to this – the heat, the crowds and the obvious poverty can deter some travellers. But Mumbai undeniably has an astounding sense of energy in its markets, boutiques and nightlife, and the wealth of art and architecture are great rewards for those visitors who brave the crush of people to see them.
While Brussels has a few fascinating sights, it just doesn’t compare to the Flemish city of Bruges. Often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’, Bruges is criss-crossed with canals, and there are few sights in Europe as postcard perfect the view along the Rozenhoedkaai. The city is crammed full of historic buildings and art museums, and it calls itself the capital of chocolate – what more could you ask for?
While even those who live there may struggle to argue for Canberra being Australia’s best city, Sydney and Melbourne have some vociferous supporters. However, it may be the humble Hobart, Tassie city extraordinaire, which takes the crown. It’s small, well-designed, set in stunning surroundings, and has a rapidly developing art and cultural scene kick started by the arrival of MONA in 2011.
The music, the colourful houses, the poutine: Montréal has to be one of the coolest cities in Canada. From downtown to the Old Town, Montréal strikes a perfect balance between tradition and modernity, European and American, and this sense of duality creates a vibrant and exciting atmosphere in this proudly Québécois city.
Chicago’s style and relaxed atmosphere ensures it stands out even among America’s great cities. As well as big-hitting sights like Millenium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago, the city has a thriving culinary scene (much more than just deep-dish pizza) and too much fascinating history and architecture to fit into one trip. And if you somehow get bored, it’s easy to hit the road – it is the start of Route 66, after all.
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s culinary capital, the place to go for the most innovative street food, cosmopolitan restaurants and sophisticated French cafés. This fixation with food is only one of its attractions, though. While Hanoi is urbane and beautiful, HCMC is teeming with life and noise. It’s not delicate, but it is full of energy and optimism. To wander its myriad streets is to get a glimpse of the engine powering Vietnam’s bright future – just be prepared to get thoroughly but wonderfully lost a few times.
Glasgow was long known for its heavy industry, heavy drinking and heavy accent. But things have changed in the last few decades: the city is proud of its industrial heritage, but also boasts an enormous array of museums and galleries. Glasgow’s drinking dens are now just a small part of its buzzing nightlife, with bars, clubs, theatres and live music venues to suit every taste. And the accent? It’s still impenetrable, but at least you’ll get plenty of practice with Glasgow’s friendly, chatty residents.
Russia’s two main cities have very different atmospheres: Moscow is the fast-paced political centre, St Petersburg the cultural capital with a more ‘European’ feel – a charm that’s hard to resist. St Petersburg has an almost overwhelming literary and cultural heritage, more art and architecture than you could hope to fit into a month-long trip, and famously over the top nightlife. Swing by during the White Nights for a taste of the city’s inimitable energy.
Lisbon is a brilliant city, full of fascinating ancient buildings, a huge art scene and buzzing nightlife. But second city Porto is an unsung hero. Its stunning location on the Rio Douro and diverse range of architectural styles keep visitors coming back. Or maybe it's the beachside, UNESCO-listed Ribeira district, the world-class museums and markets or the unpretentious locals that make this city so memorable. And we haven’t even mentioned the excellent wines.
Fez is beguilingly beautiful. That Fez el Bali, the ancient city at its heart, is home to Morocco’s most important mosque (Kairaouine Mosque) hints at its vital role in the country’s past, but it would be a disservice to think of Fez only as an historic place. It’s the culinary capital of the country, and the calendar is as packed with lively festivals as the streets are with upmarket shops, bustling markets and indulgent hammams.
The name Luang Prabang conjures up images of saffron-robed monks, the golden Wat Xieng Thong, elegant colonial architecture... The thing that makes it really special is that, unlike many other rapidly developing southeast Asian cities, this image still holds true. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status (and strict planning regulations) only a few years after opening to tourism, Luang Prabang has learned to develop in a slower, more sustainable way.
Japan really knows how to do cities. Tokyo is mind-bogglingly huge, Kyoto serene and beautiful, Fukuoka famously liveable… but perhaps the unsung Sendai beats them all. It is a triumph of hard work: most of the city was rebuilt after being flattened in the war, and more recently visitors were amazed at the pace of reconstruction after the 2011 tsunami. This community spirit and resourcefulness is evident in the city’s energetic festivals and endlessly friendly, helpful locals.
Even in Italy, a country filled with fascinating cities saturated with culture, Venice stands out. There’s something about its winding canals and ancient buildings which stirs the imagination, and its history as an independent republic is still evident; while clearly Italian (incredible food, world famous art and all) Venice feels like a world apart, geographically and culturally separate from the mainland. Go there during the famous Masquerade Ball and you may not even be certain you’re still on the planet.
As everyone knows, England is home to an amazingly historic city crammed with astounding architecture and exciting nightlife, and with some cutting-edge restaurant or art installation around every corner – Newcastle-upon-Tyne, of course. As an added bonus, this Northern gem of a city avoids London’s eye-watering prices without any compromise of quality and variety of attractions. And if you’re somehow still not sure, the Geordie charm is bound to win you over in the end.
Beijing is undeniably thrilling, but for high rises and the high life nowhere in China compares to Shanghai. You could take in the Art Centre or History Museum, or wander the beguiling streets of the French Concession, but of course no visit would feel complete without gaping at the complete extravagance of the world famous light show rippling across the skyscrapers of The Bund.
Pretoria is the capital and Cape Town, with its unbeatable location, gets most of the travellers' attention, but there’s still something special about Johannesburg, so don't rule it out. The city’s history is a turbulent one, and even now some areas are not safe for tourists to visit (take reasonable precautions in these areas), but perhaps because of its struggles the city has a palpable sense of energy and movement. Johannesburg is loud, sprawling, diverse, unafraid and definitely somewhere to watch.
Top image: The raising of the bridges on the Chicago River © Mark Baldwin/Shutterstock