When you look at a map of the world and decide where you want to go, some cities stick out more than others. Whether they’re represented with a star or a bullet point or just typed out in a bold font, capital cities tend to overshadow all the others. They make you think they’re more important or more beautiful, but sometimes it’s the other cities that, though they might not stand out on the map, will stand out more vividly in your memories.
If you’re visiting a new country, there are plenty of reasons to look past its capital and head somewhere a little less known. These are the second cities, the ones that aren’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of visiting a country. Though sometimes smaller, they’re often cheaper than the better-known destinations, and their unique charms may leave their mark on you travels.
Head south from Madrid and you’ll wind up in the region of Andalucia, where the city of Granada is thriving. Here you’ll find the cultural facets of Spanish life and enjoy your fair share of tapas and fiestas, not to mention the opportunity to explore Granada’s Moorish roots. Islamic influence is apparent throughout the city, but especially at La Alhambra, one of the most impressive palaces in Europe.
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(Photo: Treye Rice via flickr/CC Attribution)
If you’re looking to discover England without rushing through the fast-paced streets of London, hop on a train and head west to the city of Bath.
In Bath, you can stroll through the Italian-inspired limestone buildings, explore the ancient Roman hot springs, and even try out the healing thermal baths for yourself. There’s plenty to see and much history to explore in this old city between its Roman roots and Georgian sensibilities. Bath not only offers a calmer alternative to London, but also a distinct and elegant personality worth uncovering on your next trip to England. Bonus: It’s an easy day trip from Bath to Stonehenge.
Just a two-hour train ride from the capital, Kyoto is easy to get to and astoundingly beautiful.
Between the temples, shrines, and the constantly shifting foliage through the seasons, it’s the place to explore the more traditional aspects of Japanese culture and learn about its history.
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From Rome to Venice, Italy’s capitals of culture make big impressions. But there’s more to the Italian urban landscape than the big cities. Take Bologna, a city that will not only enchant you with its dazzling arches and covered walkways, but also with its food. As the original source of some of my favorite Italian staples such as mortadella, tortellini, and Bolognese, it’s no surprise that Bologna offers some of the best food in Italy.
In addition to the good eats and unique beauty of the city, Bologna offers some interesting attractions, like the Western world’s oldest university, the cinema archives, and an antique and vintage shopping scene.
Paris is often called the most beautiful city in the world, but there’s more to France than lining up to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. For a cleaner experience of French urban life drenched in incredible wine, you’ll need to go to Bordeaux.
This city along the river is the center of the Bordeaux wine region and boasts magnificent sights like the St. Andre Cathedral, the ruins of a third-century amphitheater known as Palais Gailen, and shops along the Rue.
Bordeaux offers plenty when it comes to art and culture, too, with many museums and monuments, as well as fine cheese and—ofcourse—wine.
RELATED: More than Just Wine: Why You Need to Go to Bordeaux Now
Most trips to Colombia begin in Bogota, but it would be wrong to travel to Colombia and not visit the coastal city of Cartagena. Revered for its colonial tradition, Cartagena’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with colorful buildings and airy balconies. With good weather all year round, this Caribbean destination is a rich source of historical sights, beautiful beaches, and plenty of cobbled alleyways to lose yourself in.
For a medieval twist on Poland, skip Warsaw and head to the streets of Krakow, where Old World charm fills the squares in the Old Town. Krakow offers wonderful and harrowing sights from the Wawel Royal Castle to the famous Schindler Factory, where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of his Jewish workers during the Nazi occupation. You’ll explore the important role Krakow played in history from the Middle Ages to the 20th century in the heart of central Europe.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Once the political capital of Russia, until it was moved to Moscow during the revolution of 1917, St. Petersburg is still referred to as the capital of Imperial Russia and is the perfect city to experience the height of Russian opulence.
In warm weather, you can explore the city along the historical canals, or head indoors and check out the State Hermitage Museum, Yusupov Palace, or see the ballet at Mariinsky Theatre.
Though Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, it’s often overlooked by travelers who prefer take a quick trip to Lisbon. It is just as lively and just as beautiful. The historic center of Ribeira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with a recent boom in tourism, the city is more ready than ever to receive visitors.
In addition to the medieval charm and layout of Porto’s streets, as the birth place of port wine it’s a must-see destination for wine lovers who will delight not only in tastings, but also in riverside wine tours that take you through the surrounding countryside.
RELATED: The 6 Things You’ve Got to Bring Back From Portugal
When you think Morocco, you probably think of sand-colored buildings, intricate tapestries, and tile art. But if you head to the little city of Chefchaouen, one thing is certain to pop into your mind—the color blue. This city perched in the mountains and washed in blue is a sight to behold, but it’s even more incredible to enter the city and lose yourself in the calm of its color.
You can enjoy Chefchaouen by walking up and down the Medina or discover the Rif Mountains and the natural beauty that surrounds the city at the Cascades d’Akchour.
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