When most travelers visit Europe they come with an itinerary that typically includes destinations like Paris, Rome and London. While those places certainly have plenty to offer, they also mean high prices and big crowds. Some of the lesser-known cities, or “second cities” like these offer plenty to experience without having to battle the crowds or shell out an arm and a leg for a hotel room and meals.
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Porto, Portugal (Hotel Prices & Photos)
While Lisbon is an exciting city with happening nightlife, a thriving arts scene and beautiful historic buildings, Portugal’s second city, Porto, is hard to beat. Like Lisbon, the streets are cobblestone and the building facades gleam with colorful tiles, yet Porto is much more intimate, with its beauty concentrated in the historic city center. Its public buildings and churches like the Church of Sao Francisco with its elaborate Gothic rose window are true works of art. The grand cathedral, a 12th-century fortress/cathedral where Prince Henry the Navigator was baptized is a must-see. Porto is also popular for its wine. The Wines of Portugal’s tasting room in the Ribiera District offers the chance to sample a wide range of selections from many different Portuguese wineries.
Zagreb (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Croatia is known as one of the more affordable destinations in Europe, and as most tourists skip its capital city of Zagreb, hotel rates here are generally quite cheap. Situated along the southern slopes of Medvednica mountain, spectacular scenery abounds. Plitvice Lakes National Park is just a two-hour drive away, considered one of the most stunning natural landmarks in all of Eastern Europe as a maze of lakes and waterfalls, lush greenery and clear azure waters. Right in the city you can take a stroll through the romantic hilltop district of Gornji Grad which dates back to medieval times.
Lyon, France (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Lyon is considered by many to be the world’s gastronomy capital, making it a must for foodies and just about everyone else with an appetite. The city is jam-packed with high quality restaurants for all budgets, and of course, being in the heart of the Beaujolais and Cotes du Rhone wine regions, its eateries not only serve impressive dishes but a variety of outstanding wines too. Beyond the outstanding food and fine wine, are grand churches, Roman ruins and museums. The Musee des Beaux-Arts, Musee d’Art Contemporain de Lyon, Musee des Tissus et des Arts decoratifs de Lyon and Musee Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière are just a few of the favorites.
Cork, Ireland (Hotel Prices & Photos)
While Dublin has lots to offer, it also suffers from horrible traffic and thick crowds. Cork, on the other hand is sometimes referred to as the “real capital of Ireland,” and tends to be much easier to navigate. It’s filled with happening pubs that host live music, outstanding art galleries and thought-provoking museums, as well as offering one of the best food scenes in the entire country. Pedestrian-friendly St. Patrick’s Street is ideal for shopping while taking in the impressive Georgian architecture. Climb up the tower at the Church of St. Anne and you’ll enjoy a bird’s-eye view of this attractive city.
Munich (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Munich is a dynamic Bavarian capital filled with world-class art museums, upscale shopping, and plenty of beer and brats, especially during the massive 16-day Oktoberfest celebration in late September. No matter when you’re here, head to the central square, Marienplatz, for people watching and to view some of the city’s most iconic landmarks. This is where you can view the Glockenspiel, located in the New Town Hall’s tower. The gorgeous carillon is over a century old and you can hear it chime and watch the life-sized figures reenact historical Bavarian events at 11 a.m. and noon daily.
Aarhus (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Located on the east coast of the Jutland peninsula just a few hours north of Hamburg, Demmark’s second largest city, Aarhus is just a fifth the size of Copenhagen and offers many reasons to visit. Frequently named one of the happiest cities on Earth, it’s located near stunning fjords and forests as well as Viking rune stones and boasts a picturesque Old Town that displays traditional Danish architecture from the 16th to 19th centuries. It also hosts a vast array diverse museums – so much so that the city was honored with the European Capital of Culture title for 2017. The open-air Old Town Museum will bring you back in time with its 75 historical buildings collected from throughout the country.
Bergen, Norway (Hotel Prices & Photos)
A visit to Bergen feels as if you’re stepping right into the pages of a fairy tale. Established centuries ago in 1070, it’s surrounded by the Seven Mountains, with its Old Town built right on the water and colorful 15th-century wooden merchant houses surrounding the harbor. The narrow alleyways are lined with artist studios, leather crafters, potters, jewelers and other artisans in between the historic homes. Stop by the busy Fisketorget to watch fishmongers bring in their daily catch, and if you’re up for a hike, the surrounding mountains offer endless options. The best view of the city can be had by riding the cable car up Floyen mountain, just east of the harbor.
Thessaloniki, Greece (Hotel Prices & Photos)
If you’re visiting Greece for the first time, Athens is truly a must, but you also shouldn’t miss the nation’s second city of Thessaloniki. Some say it’s the cultural capital, as a seafront metropolis with Ottoman alleys and Roman ruins along with rich culinary traditions. Its waterfront is lined with enticing cafes while the walled Old Town and former Turkish quarter hosts narrow streets with traditional tavernas.
Bruges, Belgium (Hotel Prices & Photos)
While Brussels certainly offers several fascinating sights, it can’t compare to the Flemish city of Bruges. Often referred to as the “Venice of the North,” its medieval center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, complete with charming cobblestone streets and picturesque canals lined with Gothic churches, 17th-century mansions, chocolate shops and flower markets. It offers many of the allures of Venice without the big crowds, and it can easily be explored on foot, by boat or even horse-drawn carriage.
Liverpool, England (Hotel Prices & Photos)
Liverpool boasts a waterfront to rival any other in the United Kingdom and is considered one of its most cosmopolitan cities, yet it’s relatively small, walkable and filled with friendly locals. The city that birthed The Beatles hosts a Beatles museum and Beatles tours, but you’ll find a lot more to do than explore the Fab Four. Marvel at the maritime-heritage architecture, explore world-class museums and cultural attractions that are easily accessed within a one-mile stretch along the Mersey. The city also boasts an outstanding art scene and happening nightlife with a wide array of clubs and bars.