Europe's best second cities

Swap Barcelona for Valencia, Paris for Lyon: go on, we dare you

Europe's best second cities L'Umbracle, the City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia
By: Time Out editors

So, you've seen city names Valencia, Gothenburg and Thessaloniki in the destinations list of cheap flight operators such as EasyJet, Ryan Air and Jet2, but where are they, what's there and why go? Here, we uncover ten of Europe's best, too often overlooked, cities.

Antwerp, Belgium

Although officially Antwerp is Belgium’s second city, its citizens view their hometown as top of the premier league and refuse to concede second place status to that pretender of a capital, Brussels. And they have much to be proud of. Antwerp has seen a magnificent transformation in the past 50 years, from wounded and bombed-out war victim, to the strikingly confident and beautiful city of today. Popular among fashion moguls and art-lovers, Antwerp’s cobbled-lane centre is crammed full of antiques shops, designer boutiques and exclusive chocolate outlets where spending-money can be happily squandered. 

What's on

Visit in July and August to catch Zommer van Antwerpen (, an invigorating performing arts festival that takes place in squares across the city.

Stay at Hotel Julien (+32 3 229 0600,

Cork, Ireland

‘The only good thing to come out of Dublin is the road to Cork’, is an apparently popular saying among the proud dwellers of Ireland’s former ‘rebel city’. Sitting on the River Lee, this buzzing place has a burgeoning arts, culture and restaurant scene to rival the country’s capital, while those with general disdain for Dublin will tell you it has better retained its traditional Irish charm. In truth, the city is an invigorating mixture of cramped 17th-century alleyways, snug old pubs, top cuisine and modern architectural masterpieces such as the Lewis Glucksman Gallery and the Cork Opera House.

What's on

Go in late October, when the city draws in hundreds of musicians and thousands of music fans for the Cork Jazz Festival (

Stay at The Imperial (+353 21 4274040,

Edinburgh, Scotland

The ‘Athens of the North’ is a place of high culture, reincarnated parliaments and the world’s most extravagant arts festival. Yet Edinburgh is also one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, draped across a series of rocky hills overlooking the sea. In this unique town, cityscape and landscape are one and the same, as cliffs overshadow monuments, castles sit on dormant volcanoes and buildings spread out over grassy hills.

From the towering turrets of the sloping historic centre to the tatty souvenir shops of Royal Mile and the impressive boutiques of the Georgian New Town, the city offers a compact array of contrasts that can all be explored by foot.

Read the full guide to Edinburgh

What's on

If you want to avoid the chaos and high room-prices that flood the city during Edinburgh Festival time, visit in Spring for a host of more low-key events (Ceilidh Culture Festival, Edinburgh International Science Festival, Beltane Fire Festival) and, fingers crossed, a few rain-free days (May is one of the driest months).

More festivals and events in Edinburgh

Stay at The Howard (0131 274 7402,

See all hotels in Edinburgh

Gothenburg, Sweden

With barely half a million inhabitants, Gothenburg is doing remarkably well at masquerading as a metropolis. It has no fewer than 25 theatres, 18 museums, four Michelin-starred restaurants and a steady stream of tourists thanks to Ryanair. The No.1 tourist attraction, Liseberg amusement park, draws over three million visitors each year, and the city even beat Barcelona in the contest to host the 19th European Athletics Championships in 2006. Add to that a reputation as the gastronomic capital of Sweden, and ‘stuck-up Stockholm’ (as Gothenburgers refer to the actual capital) has reason to be worried.

What's on

Visit in August for good weather and Göteborgskalaset (‘Gothenburg Party’;, the biggest city festival in Sweden, with more than 600 concerts and cultural events.

Stay at Eggers Best Western (+46 31 333 4440,

Lyon, France

Dirty, sprawling, fast, sexy Lyon is like Paris waking up after a hard weekend. It has its beautiful parts – what better place to build a city than at the confluence of two of France’s most graceful rivers, the Rhône and the Saône – and its history stretches back to Roman times, but France’s second city is best loved for the here and now: for food, fashion and culture. In addition to its Renaissance architecture, Lyon has a thriving arts and nightlife scene, a fine opera house, a slew of museums and monuments, superb shopping and, best of all, some of the country’s true gourmet tables.

What's on

Visit in December for the Festival of Lights, a candle and lantern tradition that stretches back to 1852. Special concerts and events are held as well as a twinkling procession.

Stay at
Cour des Loges (+33 4 72 77 44 44,

Munich, Germany

Munich embraces just about every German cliché in the book. Old Bavarians in Lederhosen and shaving-brush hats sing in rustic beerhalls, horsing a hulking great Mass of Hacker-Pschorr and wielding a Weisswurst topped and tailed with mustard. It’s an oompah image unchanged since the long reign of the Wittelsbachs through most of the last millennium. But away from cliché and history, today’s Bavarian capital is dynamic, filled with modern museums, world-class art collections, high-end shopping and adventurous restaurants.

What's on

If you like boisterous tents full of beer, sausages and Schweinsbraten (roast pork), get involved in Oktoberfest (, a massive 16-day Bavarian celebration, from late September.

Stay at Advokat Garni (+49 89 216310,

Rotterdam, Holland

Long-ignored by Holland’s hashish-loving holidayers, this multicultural city is fast becoming recognised as an artist’s haven and an architectural inspiration. Bombed to oblivion during World War II, the city was left in the hands of wacky architects to be pieced back together again. The result is a futuristic skyline that includes some of Europe’s most innovative, ingenious and ultramodern designs. To see it all, climb to the top of the Euromast tower and enjoy a full view of the city.

What's on

September marks the beginning of the cultural season with the De Wereld van Witte de With ( festival of art and culture.

Stay at Stroom (+31 102 214 060,

St Petersburg, Russia

Once known as Petrograd, then Leningrad, and now ‘Russia’s window to the West’, Peter the Great’s imperial capital is also Russia’s most elegant and European city. Crammed with tsarist palaces, wonderful museums, neoclassical architecture, rock stars, artists and war veterans, this is a city steeped in history, literature, high culture and dark underground music. The Hermitage is Russia’s answer to the Louvre, a must-see collection of art treasures housed in the magnificent Winter Palace that includes early Picassos and a room full of Rembrandts.

What's on

Visit in December and January to experience the city in all its icy glory while catching some of the world’s most famous stars of classical music and ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre’s New Year concerts (

Stay at The Astoria (0800 7666 6667, +7 812 494 5759,

Thessaloniki, Greece

Although Thessaloniki – or Salonica as it’s more widely known – may be Greece’s second city, it’s certainly its capital when it comes to culture. This seafront metropolis, sheltered in a tight nook of the Aegean Sea, offers Roman remains, Byzantine glories, Ottoman alleys and a culinary tradition that makes Athens look like the backwater. Expect a buzzing atmosphere: the waterfront is lined with cafés, the walled old town (and former Turkish quarter) is woven with narrow streets and traditional tavernas and the city’s landmark, the enormous white Roman rotunda, is thronged with university students.

What's on

Some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean are only an hour’s drive away, so why not couple this city break with a summer holiday?  For those who prefer the milder months, the city hosts an international film festival in November (

Stay at The Luxembourg (+30 2310 252 600,

Valencia, Spain

Less barmy than Barcelona and more laid-back than Madrid, Valencia is Spain’s understated, orange-grove-sprinkled sun-and-culture city break. Just as the Olympics gave Barcelona a facelift back in 1992, so has the City of Arts & Sciences – Valencia’s futuristic leisure complex – upgraded the city from backwater to boomtown. By contrast, the historic old town is a well-preserved, car-free amalgam of Baroque, Gothic and Modernista architecture, full of small alleys, honey-coloured stone and shady spots to relax in. Malvarrosa beach is another surprise, a wide expanse of clean white sand, and the cuisine is excellent, too.

What's on

Visit during Las Fallas festivities in mid March (, when Valencia puts on some of the best fireworks displays in the world.

Stay at Palau de la Mar (+34 963 162 884,

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