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Europe’s 15 Best Second Cities

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When it comes to traveling across Europe, most tourists come equipped with a checklist of must-see places: London, Paris, and Rome, among others. Meanwhile, lesser-known cities remain under the radar for most travelers—but bypassing these “second cities” would be a mistake, as these destinations offer distinctive cultures and histories that are worth experiencing firsthand. From a quaint, medieval Latvian town with stunning 13th-century architecture to a vibrant Greek coastal city with friendly locals and fresh fish, these cities prove that “second” doesn’t always mean “second best.” Here are our picks for Europe’s best second cities.

By Emily Wasserman

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Birmingham, England

Once a thriving metropolis, Birmingham took a hit during World War II. But the city has since rebuilt itself as a vibrant cultural center, plus it’s near some of England’s most renowned historic sites—including Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace. Stop by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to view a world-renowned collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, or learn more about the area’s industrial history at the Black Country Living Museum. Bullring, a popular shopping center, features three floors of retail and an impressive curved façade made from 15,000 aluminum disks.

Insider Tip: Birmingham has more canals in its city center than Venice. Visitors can walk along the water and browse modern shops, restaurants, and colorfully painted barges.

Where to Stay: Rooms go fast in Birmingham, so make sure to book your accommodations well in advance. Located in an old Victorian hospital, Hotel du Vin & Bistro features sleek, contemporary furnishings and a chic Parisian-style restaurant. For unparalleled views of the city skyline and upscale amenities, book a room at Staying Cool at the Rotunda.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Birmingham Guide

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Valencia, Spain

Over the past twenty years, Valencia has re-invented itself as a thriving cultural center. The city—historically plagued by conquests and flooding—now charms visitors with its bold architecture and delicious Moorish cuisine. Stop by the futuristic Ciutat de las Arts i les Ciènces to tour crustacean-shaped buildings and take a submarine ride through Europe’s largest marine park. Take a leisurely stroll through Old Town to visit the Museo de Bellas Artes and adjoining Jardines del Real, the city’s fine art museum and royal gardens.

Insider Tip: Visit Valencia in mid-March for Las Fallas, a week-long festival with fireworks, solemn processions, and a grand finale with giant bonfires.

Where to Stay: Most hotels in Valencia’s city center provide basic accommodations, while properties closer to the beach cater to families and business travelers. Neptuno offers beachfront accommodations and full amenities, including a celebrated local restaurant. For easy access to Valencia’s main attractions, book a room at Ad Hoc.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Valencia Guide

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Riga, Latvia

Striking architecture and upscale ambiance set Riga apart from neighboring European cities. The Latvian capital is the perfect blend of old and new, with refined restaurants, vibrant nightlife, and colorful Art Nouveau buildings. Visit Old Town to tour Doma baznca, a towering thirteenth-century cathedral with one of the largest organs in Europe. Tris Brali—a trio of three stone houses—feature the city’s oldest dwellings and styles that span centuries.

Insider Tip: Gastronomy takes center stage in Riga, and food lovers will enjoy Vincent’s. The restaurant caters to a celebrity clientele, and offers international dishes prepared with fresh, local ingredients.

Where to Stay: For old-world elegance and antique furnishings, consider staying at the Grand Palace Hotel. Step back in time at Konventa Seta: The hotel’s buildings date from the Middle Ages and feature rooms with medieval detailing.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Riga Guide

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Naples, Italy

Most travelers come to Naples for its pizza—but stay for the local character and history. While the city boasts the original margherita pizza, it is also home to early century buildings and monuments that have withstood the test of time. Visit Pio Monte della Misericordia to browse baroque-era paintings and altarpieces. Palazzo Reale features lavishly furnished apartments with ornate historic artifacts. Watch the sunset over the city at Certosa di San Martino, a clifftop destination that boasts many of the town’s religious and cultural attractions.

Insider Tip: The best places to hear canzoni napoletane, or folk songs, is at one of the city’s traditional restaurants. Singers entertain guests with classic Neapolitan tunes, and will play a tableside concert if you tip a few euros.

Where to Stay: Hotels in Naples and the surrounding Campania region fill up quickly during high season, so make sure to book well in advance. Hotel Palazzo Alabardieri, one of the city’s most chic hotels, features elegant furnishings and stately public salons. For friendly service and Art Nouveau décor, book a room at Costantinopoli 104. The hotel includes alfresco dining and a garden room with a small swimming pool.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Naples Guide

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Ljubljana, Slovenia

What Ljubljana lacks in size, it makes up for in charm: The tiny Slovenian capital features picturesque neoclassical buildings and squares. Take a stroll along the crystal blue waters of the Ljubljanica River in the city’s Old Town, then cross over to the left bank to explore the French Revolution square and its monument to Napoleon. Rub elbows with locals at the city’s open-air market, which includes everything from dried herbs to locally produced honey.

Insider Tip: Every year from late June until mid-September, the city hosts its International Summer Festival. Stop by for music, theatre, and dance performances from renowned international artists.

Where to Stay: Located in Ljubljana’s bustling city center, Grand Hotel Union offers modern guest rooms and luxurious amenities. For views of the Julian Alps and nearby Tivoli Park, consider staying at Hotel Lev. Rooms feature contemporary furniture and lighting, and the property is a ten-minute walk to the city center.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Ljubljana Guide

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Bordeaux, France

Located in one of France’s most esteemed wine regions, Bordeaux enchants travelers with its delicious cuisine, fine vintages, and captivating châteaux. Visitors can tour the city’s stunning neoclassical architecture or take a short trip to the countryside to sample the area’s best wine. Serious tasters will enjoy Château Latour, an upscale winery that requires a guide or professional accompaniment. For a more laid-back approach, rent a bicycle and head to Pauillac. The picturesque village features less expensive wineries, and visitors can picnic with a glass of wine by the riverfront.

Insider Tip: To learn more about the area’s wine, consider stopping at the École du Vin de Bordeaux. The school offers wine initiation and tasting classes, and an on-site bar that features 57 appellations.

Where to Stay: Most visitors opt for rural accommodations, but rooms at country inns go quickly. Many city hotels help guests coordinate wine-country tours, and offer updated amenities. Located in the heart of Bordeaux, Burdigala features recently refurbished guest rooms and a gourmet restaurant. Grand Barrail Château Hôtel & Spa in nearby St-Émilion offers fairytale ambiance and unparalleled views of the vineyards.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Bordeaux and the Wine Country Guide

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Dresden, Germany

Once known as “Florence on the Elbe,” Dresden has regained its reputation as a blossoming metropolis. The Saxon capital was demolished during the World War II, but has since rebuilt much of its historic center. Don’t miss Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), a baroque masterpiece that was restored after the city’s historic bombing. For a quiet oasis away from the city, visit Zwinger. The multi-building complex includes hidden courtyards, wide staircases and sculptures, and historic museums and galleries.

Insider Tip: While Dresden is best known for its history and architecture, the city also boasts one of the world’s finest opera houses, the Semper Opera House. Tickets are hard to come by, so consider reserving in advance.

Where to Stay: Once a former Baroque palace, Hotel Bülow-Residenz offers upscale accommodations and modern amenities. For easy access to most of the Dresden’s sightseeing spots, book a room at Rothenburger Hof—one of the city’s oldest luxury hotels.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Dresden Guide

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Basel, Switzerland

Located at the border between France and Germany, Basel combines the best of both worlds: The city features delicious gourmet cuisine, a diverse mix of residents, and a variety of cultural attractions. Art lovers will enjoy Kunstmuseum, which houses an impressive collection of Swiss paintings. Walk through the quiet medieval streets of St. Alban for some of the city’s best antique shops and bistros. Don’t miss Münster, a stunning red-sandstone cathedral with unparalleled views of the city.

Insider Tip: Visit Basel during the spring for Fasnacht, a colorful three-day Lenten celebration. Beginning at 4 am on Ash Wednesday, costumed revelers take to the street and participate in a colorful citywide parade.

Where to Stay: The hotel scene in Basel reflects the city’s eclectic character: Visitors can find everything from palatial accommodations to humble inns. For the ultimate in glamour, book a room at the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. The regal hotel features ornate 19th-century furnishings and a renowned brasserie.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Basel Guide

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Frankfurt, Germany

Money doesn’t grow on trees—but it might seem that way in Frankfurt. Also known as Europe’s financial capital, the city delights visitors with its avant-garde buildings, cultural attractions, and endless entertainment options. Frankfurt’s city center includes picturesque parks and gardens, and visitors can bike along riverbank paths. Cross the Eiserner Steg bridge and visit Sachsenhausen, a popular district with museums and historic pubs. Stop by Alte Oper, the city’s Renaissance opera house, for special concerts and events.

Insider Tip: For a week in July, Frankfurt’s Old Town transforms for the Schlossfest outdoor festival. The area glitters with lanterns, and visitors can enjoy open-air concerts, organ recitals, and fireworks over the Main River.

Where to Stay: The majority of Frankfurt’s hotels are located near the train station and business district, with smaller properties in the suburbs. For modern furnishings and impressive on-site amenities, book a room at Roomers Hotel. Steigenberger Hotel Frankfurter Hof, one of the city’s oldest hotels, features luxurious guest rooms, a grand courtyard, and a popular day spa.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Frankfurt Guide

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Antwerp, Belgium

When it comes to Antwerp, there’s more than meets the eye: The thriving port city hosts a variety of historic attractions and is also home to a thriving couture culture. Visitors can stroll through narrow, winding streets and explore centuries-old churches or head to the city’s fashion district to browse haute couture clothes. Stop by Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal for an up-close look at stunning medieval architecture. The city’s diamond district features the area’s finest jewelry shops and boutiques. Shopping aficionados will enjoy Graanmarkt 13, a nineteenth-century townhouse that offers an impressive collection of women’s clothes, unique pottery, and jewelry.

Insider Tip: Most visitors try to visit Antwerp in a day, but consider giving yourself more time. With two or three days, you can explore the city’s restaurants, lively nightlife, and culture at a more leisurely pace.

Where to Stay: Antwerp’s Oude Stad neighborhood features some of the city’s finest hotels, although a few notable properties are also located near the city’s train station. ‘T Sandt offers antique furnishings and a view of the nearby cathedral. For friendly service and large, stylish guest rooms, consider staying at De Witte Lelie.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Antwerp Guide

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Zagreb, Croatia

Crystal-clear waters, beautiful parks, and towering fortresses make Zagreb an ideal tourist destination. Located at the southern slopes of the Medvednica mountain, the city features stunning scenery that is ripe for exploring. Visitors can take a hike through Gornji Grad, a romantic hilltop district that dates back to medieval times, or take in emerald green lakes and cascading waterfalls at Nacionalni Park Plitvička Jezera. Take a half-day trip to Veliki Tabor, a giant fortress with stunning twelfth-century galleries.

Insider Tip: The best time to visit Zagreb is during the summer months, when many tourists flock to the coast and hotel rates drop.

Where to Stay: Hotel prices run high near Zagreb’s city center, but travelers can find more reasonable rates at properties a short tram ride away. For the ultimate in luxury, book a room at Hotel Esplanade Zagreb. The property boasts a celebrity clientele, and features spacious guestrooms and sweeping views of the city.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Zagreb Guide

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Thessaloniki, Greece

Past meets the present in Thessaloniki: The coastal city offers a variety of historic attractions and a laid-back culture with youthful energy. Explore the area’s Byzantine and Christian monuments by foot, or sit back with fresh mezedes (appetizers) in one of the town’s stone squares. Visitors can browse ancient artifacts at the Archaeological Museum, or explore colorful mosaics at Osios David, a little church with a stunning view of the city. End the day at 7 Thalasses, a seafood restaurant that serves up fresh dishes with a modern twist.

Insider Tip: Many of Greece’s most ancient grounds are footsteps away from Thessaloniki. Consider taking a trip to Dion, a nearby city with a rich mythological history.

Where to Stay: Hotels in Thessaloniki range from modest, family-run affairs to luxurious boutique properties. Located near the waterfront, the Bristol features antique furnishings and personalized service.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Thessaloniki Guide

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Derry, Northern Ireland

As one of the oldest inhabited destinations in Ireland, Derry delights visitors with its captivating history and culture. Located on the banks of the picturesque River Foyle, the city still maintains many of its original buildings and ramparts. Derry’s famed city walls—which recently celebrated their 400th anniversary—offer an up-close look at the town’s rich history. Don’t miss Guildhall, an ornate neo-Gothic building with elaborate ceilings and stained glass panels. Once the city’s military base, Ebrington Square is being re-developed into a thriving artistic center with galleries, studios, and shops.

Insider Tip: Derry is known for its artistic leanings, and literary types will enjoy the city’s Verbal Arts Centre. Stop in to watch storytellers spin tales by the fire, or get cozy with a book at Bloom's Cafe, a small cafe overlooking Derry’s historic walls.

Where to Stay: Most accommodations reflect Derry’s rich history, and guests will feel as if they’ve stepped into the pages of a Victorian novel. Once the town home of a wealthy merchant, The Merchant’s House has since become the area’s most popular B&B. For a more rustic setting, book a room at Beech Hill Country House Hotel. The hotel is located on 32 acres of woodland, and features rooms overlooking the gardens.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Derry Guide (Richard Semik)/Shutterstock
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Bergen, Norway

Visiting Bergen feels like stepping into the pages of a fairy tale. Surrounded by verdant green mountains and fjords, the city is ripe with natural beauty. Take a stroll around Bryggen, a historic wharf, for an up-close look at ships and pastel-colored houses. Stop by the busy Fisketorget to watch fishmongers bring in their daily catch. One of the largest museums in Norway, Bergen Kunstmuseum features works by notable international and regional artists.

Insider Tip: For the best views of the city, take the funicular (cable car) up to Fløyen, the mountain to the east of Bergen’s harbor.

Where to Stay: Tastefully decorated rooms and a celebrated in-house restaurant make Thon Hotel Bristol popular among travelers. The historic hotel is within walking distance of the city’s main sites, and offers upscale furnishings and amenities.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Bergen Guide

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Dundee, Scotland

Verdant green hills, pristine beaches and historic charm make Dundee an ideal destination for travelers. The seaside town features a variety of cultural and historical attractions, including the RRS Discovery, a ship that was used in early twentieth-century Antarctic expeditions. Stop by the city’s West End for lively bars and restaurants, or browse an extensive collection of exotic and native plants at Dundee Botanic Garden.

Insider Tip: Don’t leave Dundee without sampling the area’s standout dishes: fish and chips, and ice cream. Murray’s Fish Bar in nearby Broughty Ferry boasts the crispiest chips—but visitors line up outside Visocchis for the shop’s mouthwatering ice cream cones.

Where to Stay: For views of the harbor and stylish, Scandinavian-style guest rooms, consider staying at Apex City Quay Hotel & Spa. The quayside hotel is also home to a popular restaurant and brasserie with a global menu. For quieter accommodations just outside the city, book a room at Duntrune House. The sprawling property includes acres of picturesque scenery and a dining room that overlooks the gardens.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Dundee Guide