Rick Steves: Don’t skip Europe’s second cities

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Unshackled by the obligation to be their country’s role model, second cities are free to just be themselves

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Each European country has its marquee city that attracts the vast majority of travelers — think Rome, Paris, Amsterdam. And all too often, that tourist-pleasing destination is a traveler’s one and only stop.

Although I’d never suggest skipping those places entirely, I like to complement them with a visit to the country’s “second city.” In fact, if you have four days to spend in any of these capitals, I recommend cutting your visit a day short to make time for these cities.

While lacking the popularity and the bucket-list sights, Europe’s second cities tend to enjoy a creative edge, a strong civic spirit, a Rust Belt toughness, fun-loving eateries with cutting-edge menus, entertaining street art … and far fewer tourists, which also means lower prices, a more authentic welcome and arguably a more honest cultural experience.

In Portugal, visitors flock to Lisbon. But the second city of Porto — three hours north by train — is smaller and more manageable. Without taking anything away from Lisbon, the city has a delightful food scene and more than its share of diamond-in-the-rough architecture. And, as a plus for wine lovers, it’s known for port.

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In Scotland, the capital city of Edinburgh — with its prominent castle, its Royal Mile and its romantic cityscape — grabs travelers’ attention. But just about a one-hour train ride away, funky Glasgow entertains with a laid-back attitude, sassy street murals, and Scotland’s best food and live music scene. (Glaswegians like to say, “We have more fun at a funeral than people in Edinburgh have at a wedding.”)

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In France, the great sights of Paris dominate most visitors’ itineraries. But I’ve enjoyed wonderful days in the livable culinary capital of Lyon and in the bustling Mediterranean shipping center of Marseille. The same goes for London — understandably England’s top draw — and a whole list of rejuvenated postindustrial cities that Anglophiles love to explore: Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and more.

Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, boasts the stunning Grand-Place. But after you’ve strolled through that thrilling square, nibbled some pralines and seen the “Manneken Pis,” you may find yourself killing time. Why not hop on a train to explore the equally historic, far more entertaining design capital of Antwerp?

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Visitors to Ireland shouldn’t miss Dublin. While they’re at it, they can take a short train ride up to visit Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast.

Berlin has world-class museums and Cold War history. But the German capital is also swarmed by international travelers. Meanwhile, Hamburg has rebuilt its futuristic and fascinating harborfront, and most visitors are Germans in town to experience the city’s legendary nightlife.

This also works on a regional level. Exploring the countryside west of London, the stately Georgian city of Bath is a big draw. But if you can squeeze in a side trip, the port city of Bristol is just a 15-minute train ride away.

If I turn my sights closer to home, this approach works stateside, too. I’m proud to be from Seattle. But after poking around Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square and the Space Needle, why not head down the road to Tacoma to check out Dale Chihuly’s iconic works in the Museum of Glass?

I’ve been thinking about why I tend to favor Europe’s second cities. In most cases, there’s a reason these places never quite managed to rise to the status of “leading city.” Often, it’s because they were once the center of an industry that fell on hard times. Or maybe they just have a long legacy of always playing second fiddle.

But everyone loves an underdog. And maybe that’s why my most endearing travel memories tend to take place in these underappreciated, often-overlooked destinations. They may not have the cachet or the world-famous sights. But they more than make up for that with a resilient spirit, a lack of pretense, an easygoing charm and an exuberant creativity. Unshackled by the obligation to be their country’s role model, second cities are free to just be themselves. And that’s why they’re so wonderful.

Rick Steves is a TV host, best-selling guidebook author, and founder and owner of Rick Steves’ Europe, a travel business with a tour program. Rick lives and works in Edmonds, Wash.

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