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European Second cities

10 non-capital cities that you have to visit 

Capital cities are an obvious pick when choosing a trip away. However, don’t overlook so-called ‘second’ and ‘third’ cities. With their interesting histories, thriving culture and excellent cuisine, these cities have just as much to offer curious travellers. And, as a bonus, they’re sometimes cheaper and less crowded than the capital – even more reason to visit!

  1. Naples, Italy
  2. Valencia, Spain
  3. Porto, Portugal
  4. Bruges, Belgium
  5. Lille, France
  6. Hamburg, Germany
  7. Rotterdam, Netherlands
  8. Gothenburg, Sweden
  9. Glasgow, Scotland
  10. Split, Croatia

1. Naples, Italy

The best way to get a feel for Naples is to wander the beautiful, winding cobbled lanes in the historic centre. For those wanting a taste of Italian history and art, gems in the city include Donnaregina Contemporary Art Museum (Madre Museum) and Naples National Archaeological Museum, which will take you back in time with ancient mosaics, statues and frescoes. If you have time, day trips to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius are a must to really get a feel for the history of the area. Naples is also world-famous for its food, so why not dive straight in with genuine Neapolitan street food – the fried pizza from La Figlia del Presidente on Via Tribunali is a must.

One thing you can't miss: the funicular up to Castel Sant’Elmo which boasts the best views of the city.

2. Valencia, Spain

There’s nowhere better than Valencia to revel in the Spain of the past and the Spain of the future. The gorgeous Old Town retains its original walls and includes spectacular buildings such as the Gothic Silk Exchange. Meanwhile, the City of Arts and Sciences is a futuristic complex that houses, among others, an opera house, a planetarium, a science museum and an aquarium. When it’s time to eat and relax, Valencia has a seemingly endless choice of bars, restaurants and cafes, perfect for enjoying local specialities such as paella.

One thing you can't miss: paella on the seafront terrace at La Pepica, where Hemingway once dined. 

3. Porto, Portugal

Take in the whole city from the Clérigos Tower before returning to street level to explore the cobbled streets of Ribeira. Its quaint alleys and colourful buildings are perfect for Instagram snaps while the famous grilled sardines served in the many eateries in the area are a must-try. Even if you’re not planning a train trip, make time for the São Bento railway station: its exterior is grand but its tiled interior, depicting Portuguese life, is mind-blowing. Although famous for its port, Porto’s wine cellars actually lie beneath the streets of its sister city, Gaia, on the opposite bank of the Douro river. Tours are popular and usually include plenty of sampling opportunities.

One thing you can't miss: a trip on the Douro in a traditional rabelo boat to admire Ribeira from the water. 

4. Bruges, Belgium

Known for its canals, waterside medieval buildings and cobbled streets, it's no surprise that Bruges is often referred to as ‘the Venice of the North’. Its attractions are many and varied: there’s the basilica that’s home to a cloth stained with what’s reputed to be the blood of Christ, a Salvador Dalí art gallery, more than a dozen shops showcasing the traditional lace that continues to be made in the city and, of course, a number of excellent chocolatiers. And no visit to Bruges is complete without seeing the Michaelangelo sculpture at the Church of our Lady in Bruges or climbing up the 13th-century Belfry to enjoy a view over the whole city.

One thing you can't miss: admire the traditional Flemish buildings in the Market Square (Markt).  

5. Lille, France

Only 1 hour and 20 minutes from London on the Eurostar, Lille is as good for a day trip as it is for a longer trip. Begin your break in the Grand Place, in the heart of the city, and take a moment to people-watch and admire the incredible architecture. This is also a great spot to kick off a walking tour of the narrow streets of Old Lille, where hidden gems include the birthplace of Charles De Gaulle and the grand Old Stock Exchange. Elsewhere, the Marché de Wazemmes is a beauty of a market, selling everything from clothes to street food and local produce. If you have kids to entertain, make time for the Parc de la Citadelle, where you’ll find cycle paths, an amusement park and the Vauban Garden.

One thing you can't miss: the Palais des Beaux Arts, both for its stunning art and its Belle Époque-style exterior. 

6. Hamburg, Germany

As the second largest city in Germany after Berlin, the port city of Hamburg has plenty of things to do. Popular tourist attractions include Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest model railway and airport, and the Beatles-Platz with its statues of the band members. You can also enjoy a night out at the Indra Club near the famous Reeperbahn, where the Fab Four once wowed the crowds. Further into the city, the Alster lakes are a quiet place to walk or jog, or enjoy a scenic cruise. Watch out for the lakeside Hotel Kempinski that featured in a dramatic scene from the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

One thing you can't miss: a visit to the Fischmarkt (Fish Market) for everything from tasty food and quirky vintage clothes to people-watching over a cup of coffee. 

7. Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam isn’t known as the Manhattan of the Maas River for nothing. Almost completely reconstructed after World War II, its futuristic skyline shows off its fantastic architecture. Head to the Markthal and marvel at the Arno Coenen artwork that provides the backdrop to the offices, shops, restaurants and market stalls that fill the building. Then, visit the Euromast tower. Its observation platform is the perfect spot to admire the whole city and its port – and, if taking the lift seems too mundane, you can even abseil or zip-line back to the ground. For a fleeting glimpse into the past, visit the medieval Church of St Laurence.

One thing you can't miss: the Maritime Museum, which you'll find near the Markthal. 

8. Gothenburg, Sweden

Friendly and cosmopolitan, Gothenburg makes for a great city break. Orientate yourself with the city-wide view from the hillside fortress, Skansen Kronan. Back in the city, explore Nordic art at the Gothenburg Museum of Art or learn what life at sea was like in the 1700s with a tour of the Götheborg ship. For rest and relaxation, seek out the local craft beer and one of the many excellent seafood restaurants. If you want green spaces, the beautiful Horticultural Society, one of Europe’s best-preserved 19th-century parks, lies close to the city centre. Alternatively, less than an hour away, the Gothenburg archipelago, with its quaint fishing villages and dramatic cliffs, makes a great day trip.

One thing you can't miss: enjoying a giant cinnamon bun at a café in Haga, one of Gothenburg’s oldest neighbourhoods. 

9. Glasgow, Scotland

Glasgow’s excellent road, rail and air links make it an easily accessible choice for a UK city break. However, visit the sandstone Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and you’ll find it hard to believe you’re not abroad. Not only is the building constructed in the Spanish Baroque style but the thousands of exhibits include many continental European artists. If you’re more interested in street art, walk the Glasgow mural trail to see some of the incredible art adoring the city’s buildings. Glasgow is also known for its up-and-coming foodie scene so be sure to sample as much of the city's cuisine as possible – everything from traditional Scottish food to some of the UK's most iconic curry restaurants. For high-end dining, there are also two Michelin-starred restaurants – Cail Bruich and Unalome.

One thing you can't miss: deep-fried Mars bar, of course! Blue Lagoon, just outside of Central Station is the best place to try it.  

10. Split, Croatia

The perfect combination of city break and beach holiday, Croatia's second largest city is a must-visit. Once a Roman Emperor’s home, Diocletian’s Palace is a particular highlight – and Game of Thrones fans might spot one or two filming sites from the TV series. The Old Town surrounds the palace, and its People’s Square is the perfect place to enjoy a drink or meal. If you like seafood or just want to sample some authentic local cuisine, try to grab a table at Villa Spiza. For a relaxing stroll with wonderful views out to sea, try the Riva Promenade or, if you’re feeling more energetic, head up Marjan Hill. For a day by the sea, head to Bačvice Beach or Trstenik Beach.

One thing you can't miss: a day trip to Krka National Park to swim under its waterfalls.  

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