It’s alright to be number two: Top 10 second cities

Here at Kiwi.com, we’re interested in all aspects of travel. We realise some people don’t just travel for a holiday, but for a more specific purpose. In this series, we’re going to look at one topic or idea, and suggest destinations for you based on that. This week, we’re looking at…

Second Cities

Capital cities are all very well. You’re aware of the expensive and touristy delights of London, Paris, Prague, Amsterdam and… erm… Ottawa. But there’s a lot to be said for having a mooch around the second city of a country.

Often you’ll find they’re more laid-back, more comfortable within themselves, and don’t treat tourists with utter contempt.

Kiwi.com is, in fact, based in the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno. I was tempted to add it to this list, but we’re cool enough as it is. So anyway, here’s a guide to 10 second cities you should visit. Enjoy!

Córdoba, Argentina

Córdoba is a centre of education and, therefore, home to a large number of students — saiko3p / Shutterstock second cities
Córdoba is a centre of education and, therefore, home to a large number of students — saiko3p / Shutterstock

In the foothills of the Sierras Chicas lies Córdoba, a city of just under one and a half million people. Population numbers exploded at the beginning of the 20th century with many immigrants arriving – mainly from Italy – to work in the agriculture industry.

In fact, in the 1900s, it only had 90,000 inhabitants, but by 1970 had taken its place as Argentina’s second city.

It’s home to one of the most important financial centres in South America, as well as the country’s oldest museum (unusual, seeing as there were so few people to educate early on). Being a centre of education, it’s also home to a large number of students, giving it a nightlife scene based predominantly around electro and reggaeton.

There are more relaxed cultural activities, mind you. Córdoba’s literary festival is well-known throughout South America, and in the city, there’s an entire shopping centre given over to local artisans selling their wares: cheese, wine, leather goods and more besides.

Antwerp, Belgium

With 170 minorities Antwerp is the second most diverse city in the world — Shuterstock second cities
With 170 minorities Antwerp is the second most diverse city in the world — Shutterstock

Ah, Belgium. Mayonnaise-filled home of Tintin, heavy beers, pipes that are not pipes and a statue of a small boy having a whizz.

There’s more to the country than you’d think. Bruges is wonderful, though packed in the summer, Brussels is nicer than you’d imagine, and Ghent is all canals and bicycles, like a provincial Amsterdam.

But we’re here to talk about Antwerp. It’s had a storied history; in fact, residents of Antwerp are known colloquially as Sinjoren, due to the city being ruled by Spanish noblemen in the 17th century.

It’s also, apparently, the second most multicultural city in the world, with 170 different nationalities being noted in the last census (if you’re wondering what’s the most multicultural city in the world, have a think. The answer is at the end of the article*).

Its past wealth means that Antwerp is home to many grand houses built for wealthy merchants in the 16th and 17th century, many of which are still preserved today.

Antwerp is also home to around 1,500 Jains, one of the most ancient Indian religions. They’re mainly involved in the city’s diamond trade, and there’s a large Jain temple in the city as well.

Antwerp is also home to Belgium’s major fashion houses – there’s a fashion design school, as well as a painting school that produced such luminaries as Rubens and Van Dyke – and holds an annual festival called the Bollekesfeest, based around local produce (mainly beer, coffee and liquor) and art. It’s also twinned with the next city on our list…

Fez, Morocco

The main reason to go to Fez are the two walled cities called medinas — Shutterstock second cities
The main reason to go to Fez are the two walled cities called medinas — Shutterstock

The entire city centre of Fez is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It truly is an ancient city – the University dates back to the year 859 – and was the capital of the country until 1912, until the French got tired of its rebellious citizens and moved the Moroccan capital to Rabat.

It’s got a pretty European climate, ranging from cold, wet grimness and occasional snow in the winter to hot and sunny in summer, with all the spring and autumn in between. Go in summer and you’ll be greeted by around 35°C, hot enough to not be stifling.

The main reason to go to Fez are the two medinas (walled cities) and their mazes of streets. It’s become very crowded of late, however, and so both the Moroccan and local governments have introduced schemes to protect every aspect of life within, be they physical or intangible.

This means looking after the buildings and walls, but also protecting traditional methods of crafting and producing art that take place there, such as leather tanning and copperwork.

In a world where mass-production and tourism seem to be taking over, the lawmakers of Fez are working with artisans in the medina to try and create an environment in which the whole thing is sustainable.

They keep the balancing act between maintaining traditional culture while trying to reap the benefits of contact with the outside world is maintained. Will it work? Only time will tell.

Montreal, Canada

Apparently, a Capital of Design is a thing, and Montreal is one of them — Shutterstock second cities
Apparently, a Capital of Design is a thing, and Montreal is one of them — Shutterstock

Montreal is named after Mount Royal, the hill in the centre of the city, and is très French, with around 60 per cent of the city able to speak both that and English.

It’s hosted an Olympics and a World Expo. The Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just For Laughs comedy festival are renowned worldwide. The Ile Notre-Dame on the St. Lawrence Seaway hosts the Canadian round of the Formula One World Championship.

The 2017 QS Best Student Cities survey ranked Montreal as the number one city in the world in which to be a student. There’s clearly a lot going for it.

Walking around, you’re first struck by how historic it all seems, and you’d be right. The city has more National Historic Sites than any other in the country, and there is also a lot of public art, particularly in the Metro system.

In fact, Montreal is one of only three UNESCO Capitals of Design in the world, standing in exalted company with Buenos Aires and Berlin. I didn’t even know being a Capital of Design was a thing. Now you do too. Don’t say I never teach you anything.

The much-loved Mount Royal Park is one of the country’s largest green urban spaces and was designed by the prolific Frederick Law Olmsted who was responsible for Central Park, among his other glories.

It’s also a city of many, many churches. Mark Twain once noted: “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.”

Please don’t go lobbing bricks around downtown Montreal. Although if you do, I guarantee the Canadians will be awfully polite about telling you to stop.

Cork, Ireland

Being “sophisticated, vibrant and diverse” the city on the River Lee was named European Capital of Culture in 2005 — Shutterstock second cities
Being “sophisticated, vibrant and diverse” the city on the River Lee was named European Capital of Culture in 2005 — Shutterstock

Sometimes referred to by residents as “the real capital”, Cork is a thriving university city on the banks of the River Lee in southwest Ireland. It was European Capital of Culture in 2005, and was referred to as being “sophisticated, vibrant and diverse”.

There’s certainly a lot of pride in the city, as witnessed by the rivalry with Dublin and the “People’s Republic of Cork” t-shirts you see on sale. The 35,000 or so students who live there give the city its oomph, while notable Corkonians include figures as diverse as Danny La Rue and Roy Keane.

Architecturally, Cork is handsomely Georgian. It’s also home to Ireland’s tallest building, the Elysian, completed in 2008 and not something to be especially proud of. Much nicer is the English Market, dating from 1786 and home to a number of traders selling local wares and foods.

There’s also a decent beer scene in the city, with a plethora of microbreweries having sprung up over the last few years. Both The Rising Sons and The Franciscan Well are brewpubs that have won international awards for their beers; both are excellent and reasonably priced.

Debrecen, Hungary

If having a government-funded school of rock isn't a reason to respect a city, what is? — Radu Bercan / Shutterstock
If having a government-funded school of rock isn’t a reason to respect a city, what is? — Radu Bercan / Shutterstock

Debrecen is the only city I’ve come across that has a government-funded school of rock. No, really. It offers training, mentoring and performance classes for young people looking to hone their skills, and if that’s not a reason to respect a city, I don’t know what is.

It’s almost smack on the border with Romania and used to prove a bit tricky to get to, but now has an airport with flights to many big cities, including Brussels, London, Milan and Paris.

So what else is there to do when you’re not rocking out? Well, the Déri museum holds some of Hungary’s finest cultural treasures; the university has a large botanical garden; you can spend time relaxing and enjoying one of Hungary’s great cultural pastimes at the Kerekestelep baths and spa; or get out and see a bit of the countryside with a trip to the Hortobágyi national park.

Oh, they also have a cactus research laboratory, because why not?

Birmingham, England

Heaving six universities, symphonic orchestra and ballet is a far cry from Birmingham's reputation of a ham-fisted industrial city — Shutterstock
Having six universities, a symphonic orchestra and a ballet is a far cry from Birmingham’s reputation of a ham-fisted industrial city — Shutterstock

From the outside, Birmingham seems like an oddly unloved place. Bristol has art and music, Manchester is new media, Leeds boasts a vibrant music scene, Glasgow has its rough-and-tumble charm, Liverpool is synonymous with football and the Beatles, and London is London.

So what of poor old Brum?

Well, it has six universities, a symphony orchestra and a ballet – a far cry from its reputation as being a ham-fisted industrial city (the old joke goes that in the car industry a hammer was known as a Birmingham screwdriver).

It boasts one of England’s most historically successful football teams in Aston Villa, as well as the Blues of Birmingham City.

Birmingham could also lay claim to being the birthplace of heavy metal, with Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Robert Page and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin all hailing from the area, although Birmingham also produced the risible UB40, so who knows what to think?

It’s also a very popular city for shopping, with the revamped Bullring at the forefront. Nightlife is great too; your author spent many a night spent lurching from bar to wall to grim, sticky floor at the legendary Snobs indie club during his (brief) time as a student.

Oh, and go for a curry. Trust me on that.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch is fairly English-looking in its architecture - Phillip Maguire / Shutterstock
Christchurch is fairly English-looking in its architecture – Phillip Maguire / Shutterstock

The biggest city on New Zealand’s South Island has had something of a geologically lively recent history. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 it was shaken by earthquakes that demolished or partly demolished around 1,500 buildings.

The plan is that by 2022, these quakes will have proven a force for good, as the local government’s City for People Action Plan is attempting to improve public spaces in the city and to entice people to move into more central locations rather than be stuck out in the suburbs.

It’s a popular destination for skiers, being within easy reach of the Southern Alps and, oddly, with Japanese tourists (signage in and around Cathedral Square is in both English and Japanese).

There’s also a museum and visitor centre to do with all things Antarctic – after all, Christchurch airport is where resupply flights for both the McMurdo and Scott Antarctic bases take off from.

It’s called, creatively, the International Antarctic Centre, and its Antarctic Attraction is a draw for tourists, showcasing as it does the weather conditions you can encounter there, some of the vehicles used to explore the landscape, and, above all, penguins that have been rescued from the wild and need help reintegrating.

Christchurch is fairly English-looking in its architecture (and its street names: Chester, Hereford, Durham and scores of others), but one of its crowning glories is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, which surely wouldn’t look out of place in the centre of any grand European city.

Culturally, it’s seen as the home of experimental music in New Zealand, and every January the city hosts a busking festival. It’s also the country’s centre of hip-hop. Who knew?

Bergen, Norway

The view over the city is surprisingly picturesque itself — Shutterstock second cities
The view over the city is surprisingly picturesque itself — Shutterstock

Bergen is built on a fjord facing out towards the oilfields and chilliness of the North Sea, and is known as the City of the Seven Mountains, because of its surroundings.

It’s a busy port, with around 300 cruise ships making the stop every year, and if you were to climb one of the surrounding mountains, you’d find a surprisingly picturesque view over the city itself.

Many of those on the cruise ships come to Norway to hike around the fjords, and Bergen makes a perfectly logical starting point. If you’re just in and around the city though – and not feeling as rangy and athletic – the nearby Mount Fløyen has a funicular railway that chunters up and down.

Due to the city having been oddly susceptible to fires throughout its history, in 1964 the city council decided to demolish three areas of traditional wooden houses, but eventually saw sense after a massive public outcry. Nowadays, it still retains a lot of its handsome Hanseatic buildings, many of which have been beautifully restored.

The city has a healthy performing arts scene, with theatre being the biggest draw, as well as classical music (Edvard Grieg was from Bergen, for example). There’s also an annual International Arts Festival, as well as the Bergen Film Festival.

Bergen is also considered the street art capital of Norway. In the year 2000, British graffiti artist Banksy visited the city and is generally cited as the inspiration for many people to take up street art.

In fact, it’s now actively encouraged, with the city council launching an action plan to ensure that Bergen will “lead the fashion for street art as a form of expression both in Norway and Scandinavia”.

Porto, Portugal

Porto has carved itself a reputation as a superb and affordable destination for tourists — Shutterstock second cities
Porto has carved itself a reputation as a superb and affordable destination for tourists — Shutterstock

Our final stop in our second-city celebration is Portugal, and Porto. Famous, of course, for port wine, it’s one of the oldest centres of civilisation in Europe.

The Douro Valley through which the river of the same name flows is where the grapes are grown that are used to make port. The Douro River, as it heads out to sea in Porto is spanned by the magnificent steel arch of the Dom Luís I bridge. I love a good bridge, and this one is a belter.

Over the last 25 years or so, Porto has carved itself a reputation as a superb destination for tourists, at once cultured, storied and affordable.

Throughout the 2000s it was showered in awards ranging from architectural to gastronomic. Buildings range from the stupendously over-the-top baroque interior of the Igreja de São Francisco to Rem Koolhaas’ daringly minimalist Casa da Música; there really is something for every taste.

It’s also home to two Primeira Liga football teams, FC Porto and Boavista. Portugal’s hosting of the European Championships in 2004 led to a raft of new stadia and redevelopments of existing venues, leading, eventually to Portugal winning the competition themselves in 2016 in a final as memorable for Cristiano Ronaldo losing centre-stage to a moth as for anything else.

So there we have it. Second cities don’t have to be second best. Oh, and *it’s Amsterdam.