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You’ll get a warm welcome, find stylish steals, and enjoy food, wine, fashion, and culture that’s second to none in Europe’s smaller cities.
Europe’s most famous metropolises tend to also be its largest: London, Paris, Rome, and Berlin spring to mind, of course. But dig just a little deeper into European history and culture and you can discover another world. Europe’s “second cities,” those that, you guessed it, come in second place for population size, often pack a second-to-none punch when it comes to great food, art, cultural sites, and affordable lodging. Here, six of our favorite second cities, where you can have a great European vacation without busting your budget.
1. BIRMINGHAM, U.K.
A foodie destination in England’s heartland
Anybody visiting a city from which both J.R.R. Tolkien and Ozzy Osbourne sprang should be prepared for a dose of cognitive dissonance, and Birmingham (or “Brum,” as it’s affectionately known in the U.K.) delivers, with canals (yup, they surprised us, too), more contemporary architecture than you might expect from a sixth-century city, and a foodie scene that has earned more Michelin stars than any U.K. city other than London.
WHY BIRMINGHAM IS SECOND TO NONE. In a word, food. But we don’t mean nearby Cadbury World (though we have a fondness for any tour that hands out free chocolate!) or that justifiably popular Birmingham fixture, the Custard Factory. These days, this town is more about innovative cuisine and locally sourced ingredients. The Balti style of cooking Kashmiri curries—in small, artisanal batches rather than in one enormous pot—was developed here in the 1970s, and an entire district, the Balti Triangle, serves up tasty varieties at bargain prices at restaurants such as Al Frash. Celeb chef Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian dishes out heaping plates of wild-rabbit tagliolini and crab spaghettini. And for contemporary riffs on classic English dishes, there’s a lot to love about, well, Loves; Steve and Claire Love’s waterfront restaurant has been wowing U.K. food critics with dishes like (vegetarians, avert your eyes) Warwickshire venison and Gloucestershire pig’s head.
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery offers one of the world’s most acclaimed collections of pre-Raphaelite paintings, including the iconic, otherworldly work of 19th-century Birmingham native Edward Burne Jones. Speaking of other worlds, Lord of the Rings fans must spend time at Sarehole Mill, said to have inspired the locale of Tolkien’s trilogy. And no trip to Brum is complete without dropping by the Bull Ring Open Market, which is at once a throwback to England’s agrarian past and a forward-looking source of local fruits and vegetables at great prices. The nabe is also known for its Rag Market (not as dismal as it sounds—think eye-popping fabrics, vintage clothing, household goods, and treats like mince pie and pickled chile peppers for a song).
GET THERE. Birmingham is 117 miles northwest of London, a two-hour drive or a three-hour bus ride.
2. ANTWERP, BELGIUM
An inland port with a world-class sense of style
Antwerp’s playfulness is evident everywhere you look—whether it’s the quirkily dressed local in a public square, a fashion model in the city’s historic district, or the mind-blowing design of its Museum Aan de Stroom. Located on the docks that have made Antwerp Europe’s second biggest port (after Rotterdam), the museum’s exterior mimics giant packing crates stacked on one another.
WHY ANTWERP IS SECOND TO NONE. Stroll down any Antwerp street and you’ll see it—style. Whether you’re looking for imaginative architecture, the most inspiring new art galleries, or a great selection of vintage and second-hand clothing, Antwerp will pleasantly shake up your expectations and likely send you home with something surprising.
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. The Zuid (“south”) district is the place for art lovers; here, you’ll find the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (featuring an exquisite collection of paintings by Baroque-era Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, such as “The Adoration of the Magi”), galleries of contemporary art, and a thriving cafe culture. Running north from the square in front of the museum, Kloosterstraat offers a stretch of cool antique shops that often boast mid-century design finds alongside older pieces. (On Sundays, the shops open for business at 2 p.m., so plan to visit after, not before, the museum.) Ready to cleanse your palate of modernism? Het Steen (“old fort”) was originally built in the early Middle Ages to defend against—wait for it—marauding Vikings; it has been made over many times since those days and basically looks like a child’s fantasy of a castle.
GET THERE. Antwerp is 28 miles north of Brussels, a 40-minute drive or a 40-minute train ride.
3. PORTO, PORTUGAL
Raise a glass to the next great wine region
Most discussions of Porto begin with some kind of comparison with Lisbon, its hustle-bustle big-city neighbor. But we love Porto just for being, well, Porto. (Of all the gorgeous images of Europe we had to choose from, we picked Porto, with its elegantly meandering Douro River, for our September/October tablet edition cover!) The city that gave Portugal its name, this place has been making waves these days with some exciting new buildings, great public markets, and a thriving art scene.
WHY PORTO IS SECOND TO NONE. If you’re thinking “What about the Port wine?” You’re on the right track. But Porto is about more than just the rich red digestif that bears the city’s name. You might say the town is a bit vino-crazed at the moment, with the Douro River region finally getting its due as a world-class wine producer—and one of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet. Here, you will find not only delicious Ports (start with a tour—and tasting!—of the classic Sandeman winery, or a tasting at Vinologia) but also excellent red table wines. And you’ll also be delighted by Porto’s sense of humor, with wine- and cork-inspired designs and products popping up all over this fun, friendly town.
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. Porto’s Casa da Musica is eye candy of the highest order. The concert hall, designed by Rem Koolhaas, is home to Porto’s three symphony orchestras and was inaugurated by rocker Lou Reed in 2005. If the casa’s quirky design inspires your inner hipster, head down to Porto’s Ribeira neighborhood, with its popular cafe and bar scene. If you lose your way on the winding medieval streets leading to the harbor, ask for directions to the statue of Porto native Henry the Navigator. The city is ideal for strolling and shopping. Don’t miss the Mercado do Bolhão public market and the contemporary art galleries arrayed along Rua Miguel Bombarda. But the coolest sourvenir of all may be a pair of shoes made of cork from the distinctive shop Porto Signs.
GET THERE. Porto is 195 miles north of Lisbon, a three-hour drive or about two-and-a-half hours by train.
4. MILAN, ITALY
Bargain shopping in the world’s fashion capital
Ah, Italy! A country where a city that’s a fashion capital and home to arguably the world’s greatest opera company and Leonardo’s second most famous painting can be considered a “second city.” But Milan, with a population second only to Rome, often gets missed by tourists who try to cram the Eternal City, Florence, and Venice into one trip. Well, we’re here to tell you it’s time to head back to Italy and spend some time in Milan.
WHY MILAN IS SECOND TO NONE. Sure, you know that Milan is the epicenter of the fashion world, with its Fashion Weeks inspiring—and sometimes dictating—what will be the hip new colors or fabrics for a season. But like its fashion-centric sister city, New York, Milan is also a place to find incredible shopping bargains if you know where to look. Go ahead and ogle the designer duds at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, but duck out and hit the outlet stores on the same street to find deep discounts. Natives swear by Il Salvagente (“the lifesaver”), which offers three floors of bargains at Via Fratelli Bronzetti 16.
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. Art lovers and spiritual travelers visit Milan just to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Don’t miss it, but you should also drop into the Duomo, a Gothic cathedral that can hold 40,0000 congregants. Unwind in lovely Parco Sempione, which is also home to the imposing Castello Sforzeso. This stylish city’s artsiest residents hang out in the Navigli district, a center of design and culture and home to Milan’s annual flower show.
GET THERE. Milan is 167 miles west of Venice, a two-and-a-half-hour drive or two hours and 15 minutes by train.
5. SPLIT, CROATIA
History comes alive on the Mediterranean
You don’t have to remember the name Diocletian to have a blast in Split, a city of more than 250,000, but you can thank him for pioneering the notion of Split as a lesser-known Mediterranean getaway. A Roman emperor who abdicated his position in the face of rival claims, Diocletian built an amazing palace here, completed in A.D. 305, and to this day the city has one of Europe’s finest collections of Roman ruins.
WHY SPLIT IS SECOND TO NONE. From Diocletian’s day to the present, Split has done an exceptional job of preserving its past, making it a first-rate destination for immersing yourself in living history—even in the face of the civil war that rocked Croatia in the 1990s. This UNESCO World Heritage Site invites you to balance your beach-going and nightlife with visits to its Roman ruins, medieval forts, Romanesque churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, plus Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque palaces and other noteworthy buildings; a historic district, archeological museum, and of course the ruins of Diocletian’s palace round out the historical offerings.
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. When you yearn to return to the land of the living, drop yourself on Bacvice beach, a crescent-shaped stretch of sand that rivals any of the tonier—and pricier—Mediterranean beaches. We won’t tell if all you want to do is stretch out on a blanket and soak up some rays. But when the sun goes down, dip a toe into Split’s lively bar scene, with popular “crawls” around the neighborhood of the Roman palace ruins. In the morning, get classy again with a trip to the Metrovic Gallery, spotlighting the work of Croatia’s best-known sculpture, Ivan Mestrovic.
GET THERE. Split is 140 miles northwest of Dubrovnik, Croatia, a three-hour drive.
6. HAMBURG, GERMANY
Europe’s greenest city
Hamburg’s location on the Elbe river less than 70 miles from the North Sea has made it a vital port for centuries, but it’s seldom visited by American tourists. Duck into the sketchy Reeperbahn or check out the bustling fischmarkt and you’ll experience one Hamburg. Kick back in one of its exceptional green spaces and you’ll experience quite another. Devastated by bombings during WWII, and the place where four lads from Liverpool first became international stars, Hamburg is ready for its close-up.
WHY HAMBURG IS SECOND TO NONE. We love the fact that gritty Hamburg is also a shining example of green living—half of the city is given over to parks, woodlands, gardens, and water. Devote a day to a park such as Planten un Blomen (“plants and flowers”), in the center of the city, or check out HafenCity, a 388-acre redevelopment-in-progress (the most ambitious in Europe) on the harbor that has created an entirely new residential and business district, featuring bold new buildings by some of the world’s “starchitects.”
MUST-SEE SIGHTS. While we don’t recommend the Reeperbahn (the city’s red-light district) in general, Beatles fans should consider taking a guided tour devoted to the band’s history and its early-’60s performances here. Or, if you want to party like its 1897, savor the Rathaus, or city hall, located on gorgeous Binnenalster lake. The Kunsthalle museum boasts a collection ranging from Old Masters to modern art, with rotating exhibitions dedicated to contemporary paintings, photography, and mixed media.
GET THERE. Hamburg is 180 miles northwest of Berlin, a three-hour drive or 90 minutes by train.