You’ve been to Lisbon, Brussels and Berlin, kissed beneath the Eiffel Tower and posed for a picture in front of Big Ben. These world-class cities are among the greatest in size and global allure, but beyond the glamour and spotlight, hidden in the overshadows of these most massive cities, lay some glittering gems: Europe’s second cities.
These underestimated destinations are capitals of culture, history, education and innovation. They are livable cities where modern green spaces meet charming old quarters, and they offer gourmet cuisine, historic architecture, first-class museums and unique cultural character.
Don’t let a visit to Dublin or Dubrovnik distract you from the discoveries that await you in our Top 10 second cities across the pond.
If you want to escape the big big city and find some serious charm—Antwerp is the place for you. In this port city, cobbled streets lead to the medieval heart of the city—Grote Markt—lined with ornate guildhalls. It’s also home to one of the oldest zoos in the world, the oldest skyscraper in Europe and a large assortment of 16th-century homes built by the wealthy citizens who thrived here during the city’s golden age.
Antwerp is known as Belgium’s “Capital of Cool,” and is also an epicenter for international fashion—rivaling Milan, London, New York and Paris. The city’s artistic roots can be traced back to the baroque painters who called it home, most notably Peter Paul Rubens, whose home and studio, Rubenhuis Museum, is open to visitors.
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Built on the Bahlui River in northeastern Romania, Iasi is just a quarter the size of Bucharest. The whopping five universities in the city, including the oldest university in Romania, make it an education and research center with a thriving international student population.
Iasi is known as the Cultural Capital of Romania—not just today but since the 15th century. It’s home to the first Romanian newspaper, literary luminaries throughout history and currently the philharmonic orchestra, national theatre and national opera, just to name a few contributions to its country’s culture. To give you an idea of how fascinating this city is: it has three museums in 19th-century palaces and 100 churches throughout the city, including the stunning and ornate Church of the Three Hierarchs and the largest Orthodox Church in Romania. And to top it all off—the city is surrounded by the Moldavia wine region, just a short train ride away!
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Along the River Elbe in northern Germany lies the second-largest port in the world: Hamburg. It is home to vibrant neighborhoods, multicultural eateries and an electronic music scene. Speicherstadt, the largest warehouse district in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is part of an urban regeneration project called HafenCity that’s transforming old warehouses into hotels, shops, offices and apartments. The sight is like nothing you’ve seen before.
Hamburg’s many streams and rivers are crisscrossed by 2,500 bridges. That’s more than London, Amsterdam and Venice combined! With more than 40 theatres, 60 museums and 100 music venues and clubs, including the Elbphilharmonie concert hall built atop an old warehouse building, there’s something in Hamburg to keep anyone engaged and entertained.
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Weighing in at just one-third the population of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, Maribor is more like a small provincial town along the Drava River, oozing with charm—the kind of place where you can walk along the pedestrian streets, and stop to enjoy a cup of coffee at a cobblestone café. Maribor is home to the World’s Oldest Vine that grows right in the town center, and it’s the gateway to Slovenia’s largest wine region, Podravje.
In the 20th century, the city’s population was overwhelmingly Austrian Germans, until most of them were expelled after WWII. After some discord, the country became part of Yugoslavia until Slovenia seceded in 1991. The city’s got a cultural museum in a castle, a Gothic cathedral, a Franciscan basilica and the second-oldest synagogue in Europe. Needless to say—it’s got some serious history.
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Cork City, nestled in the south-west of Ireland, is less than a quarter of the size of Dublin, making it a cozy and compact alternative. Cork is a youthful and diverse city with a vibrant foodie scene—home of the hip yet maintaining its historic roots. Its strong arts community is reflected in its theatres, galleries and at the annual jazz festival that makes it famous.
The pedestrian-friendly St. Patrick’s Street is a great place to shop or take in the Georgian architecture. The Church of St. Anne, perched atop a hill overlooking the River Lee, welcomes visitors to ring her world-famous Shandon Bells and climb her tower for a bird’s-eye view of the city. The Cork Public Museum tells stories of the city’s past, and Cork City Gaol is said to be haunted.
As an added bonus, Cork City is just a short drive from Blackrock Castle and Blarney Castle, where you can kiss the famous stone.
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Perched along the Dalmatian Coast in eastern Croatia between mountain and sea, Split is a center of Croatian culture and has a literary tradition that dates back to medieval times. It’s been passed back and forth between many kingdoms and countries through history, from Albania to Austria.
The city is centered around the fourth-century Diocletian’s Palace, which takes up about half of the old town and city center and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Operas and ballets are performed at the 1893 Croatian National Theatre, and there are bustling bars and restaurants across the city to socialize with the locals.
A short boat ride away is the lovely Hvar Island with its hilltop fortress and Renaissance Cathedral.
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On the east coast of the Jutland peninsula, just a few hours north of Hamburg, is Aarhus—Denmark’s second-largest city at just one-fifth the size of Copenhagen. A center for trade and culture, Aarhus is a friendly, relaxed university city with lots of restaurants, parks, museums and festivals. It was even selected as the 2017 European Capital of Culture by the European Commission.
The open-air Old Town Museum takes you back in time—with 75 historical buildings collected from throughout the country. Aarhus is famous for its music scenes, starting with jazz in the 1950s and rock in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and continuing today at the city’s famous music festivals.
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8 | Lyon, France
At the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, you’ll find a center of French cuisine and innovation in the beautiful city of Lyon. The city’s funicular rises to hilltop neighborhoods like Fourvière, home to the Basilica of Notre-Dame. It’s known as the “Capital of Lights” for its famous winter light festival, Fête des Lumière. Winter also brings a massive Ferris wheel to La Place Bellecour, one of the largest public squares in Europe.
Lyon’s history is rooted in the silk trade, as preserved at the Musée des Tissus, and historic artifacts of the cinema are on display at the Institut Lumière. The resistance museum commemorates the city’s position as a stronghold during WWII, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts is said to rival the Louvre. And there’s even more history in the old world charm of Vieux Lyon, one of Europe’s most extensive Renaissance neighborhoods, and at the city’s ancient amphitheater.
Bergen lies on a fjord along the west coast of Norway and is surrounded by the “Seven Mountains,” although locals and visitors alike argue about which seven peaks count. The city is known for its dynamic cultural life, food and coffee scene, music venues and art. It is Norway’s street art capital.
The city has been plagued by multiple fires throughout its history, including one in 1702 that destroyed almost 90% of the city. The oldest remaining building in town is St. Mary’s Church from the 12th century. The Hanseatic Museum tells of the merchants that lead the stockfish trade during the 13th century, and the Hanseatic merchants left their mark on the city with the adorable colorful, wooden buildings they built along the harbor.
Gamlehaugen is home to the Norwegian Royal family when they are in Bergen and is open to the public, and Bergenhus Fortress is one of the oldest fortresses in Norway!
10 | Porto, Portugal
Porto is perched on the Douro River in northern Portugal. The river city extends to the Atlantic coastline and is surrounded by the wine-producing Douro Valley. Porto is home to one of the oldest city centers in Europe within the city’s 14th-century Romanesque wall and the many historic bridges throughout the city, including Ponte D. Maria—a wrought iron railway bridge built by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame.
The city boasts a museum of contemporary art, many beautiful concert halls and theaters and the ornate Lello Bookshop—voted one of the best in the world.
What other cities would you add to this list? Add them in the comments below!
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