Ask someone to name all the foreign cities they’ve visited, and it’s likely that they’ll rattle off a list of capital cities or well-trodden tourist hubs. This is, of course, understandable. These population centers tend to be the easiest to fly in and out of, house the famous sights travelers want to see, and are full of accommodation options at all prices.
And yet—that’s exactly why you should avoid them. At least if you’re interested in the kind of travel that subverts the expected and leaves room for experiences that locals would actually want take part in. And, according to American Express Travel’s 2018 Trend Forecast, that’s exactly what a majority of travelers do want. The survey found 57% of respondents would name “exploring a new destination they’ve never seen more” as their top travel goal for the year, with 52% enjoying “getting lost and spontaneously discovering hidden restaurants, shops and bakeries.”
That’s not to say one can’t do these things in a city like Barcelona, Bangkok, or Buenos Aires. But the traditional tourist circuit can often make it harder to find experiences that locals would recommend doing. Even if you go a slightly more adventurous route by booking an Airbnb versus a hotel, some busy neighborhoods have already been reshaped by the phenomenon of “Airbnb clusters”—meaning you might just find that your “Charming Barcelona Apartment” is in a block of flats that caters to a bunch of tourists. Indeed many of the globe’s current hotspots are grappling with the effects of over-tourism thanks to this tendency of travelers to flock to the same places.
I learned the value of ditching the main attraction for something less obvious recently on a New Year’s Eve trip to Holland. As my partner and I searched for accommodation ahead of the trip, the only options still available on Airbnb seemed to be professionally run (and expensive) listings–clearly catering strictly to tourists—rather than places where a local actually lived. Our next preferred option, a boutique hotel, had us looking at room rates far above our budget.
Instead, we stayed in Utrecht, a charming university town just 25 minutes by train from Amsterdam. We booked one of the city’s nicest boutique hotels—converted from an old eye hospital—for the same price as a decent Airbnb in Amsterdam. We enjoyed the canals, bicycles, beer, and gouda that Holland is known for. Every cafe, restaurant, and bar we chose—either through research or simply by chance—was filled with locals. I can count on one hand the number of tourists we saw in Utrecht during our four day stay.
The phrase “second cities” is often used to refer to a city with the second-highest population in a country. When used to describe an approach to travel, however, it means any city that might not be the first or most obvious choice for foreign tourists, but still offers the culture, food, charm, and attractions that travelers seek when they go abroad.
There are countless destinations that fall into this category. For example, instead of heading to Mexico City, Rome, Istanbul, Lisbon, Cape Town, London, or Seoul, why not head to Guadalajara, Milan, Ankara, Porto, Durban, Manchester, or Busan? Or instead of Paris, Marrakech, Dublin, and Buenos Aires, fly to Lyon, Fez, Cork, or Cordoba.
What follows is the Quartzy guide to a second city visit, covering transportation, accommodation, food, and culture.
Arguably the biggest drawback of a second city visit is that it might be more expensive to get there. After all, there are far more direct flights into Paris, London, and Tokyo than there are Lyon, Manchester, or Osaka. However, if you look at the cost of your trip as a whole, the extra expense of an internal flight, train, or transfer from a main hub elsewhere can look quite different. Often, tourist heavy areas will charge a premium for everything from a glass of wine to a hotel suite. You might not even realize you’re paying this, but you are. If you spend the bulk of your trip in a city where the economy is not centered around tourism, you might find that tourist premium is far less prevalent.
Another transportation strategy is to get the best of both worlds: Spend a night or two in a capital city (where you’ll fly into) at either end of your trip, and then spend the bulk of your time in a second city in between. That way, you can minimize the inconvenience of adding an extra leg to your travel, as well as experience a country from different perspectives. What’s more, using a rail service or traveling overland in a country rather than flying direct can often reveal a lot about a place’s culture—which you often miss if you parachute in.
Eating & Drinking
When it comes to eating and drinking, second city visits arguably have more to offer than a visit to capital. After all, scouring Trip Advisor, Four Square, Instagram geotags, and travel blogs for food recommendations in a touristic city tends to yield a predictable result: Establishments where other tourists eat. However, in cities that are still predominately catering to locals, you can rely on both your instincts and recommendations from residents much more confidently. You can also wander into establishments and not worry if you’re going to be ripped off, as it’s harder for restaurant owners to extort you—like what happened to these unfortunate Japanese tourists in Venice—when they’re are locals sitting at the next table.
Another major perk of a second city visit is that your accommodation budget is likely to get you a lot more for your money. While there may be fewer options compared to a capital city, those establishments won’t be as expensive. And if you’re going down the Airbnb route, you’re far more likely to find listings that are akin to the platform’s original mission—living like a local—rather than the professionally-managed listings that are so prevalent these days. Search for recently-opened, or smaller boutique hotels rather than chains, as they are likely to be eager to cater to adventurous tourists looking for an unusual experience.
Culture & Sightseeing
Another supposed downside of a second city visit is missing out on the big ticket tourist items. How could one go to France, England, or Spain without seeing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and La Sagrada Familia?! The answer depends on what kind of travel you want.
Chances are, if you poll most travelers who just returned from a vacation, they will not highlight “Waiting in line to see X attraction” as an unforgettable moment. Instead it will be the night they spent in a tiny wine bar swapping stories with the eccentric bartender, or the seven-hour lunch that morphed into dinner with the local couple sitting at the next table, or the craftsman’s open studio they stumbled into on an afternoon walk.
While second city visits may mean you miss out on what’s in the guidebooks, the upside is that they will encourage you to embrace the spirit of flânerie when you travel. Swapping itineraries for spontaneity, spending more time chatting to actual locals who live in your destination, and making time to visit smaller, less obvious attractions like regional museums or local markets can give you a much better sense of a place. And best of all, you might just find locals are much more willing to talk to you in a place where tourists aren’t seen as a scourge.