Second Cities: The Up-and-coming Destinations You Need to Visit Now

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There is nothing like a capital city for the energy and excitement. But emerging cities offer a sense of discovery, rich experiences and tourist-free zones. Here are some of the world's best second cities and why they need to be on your radar according to our favourite travel experts.

Bilbao, Spain

Bilbao

Linda Jaivin: You’d be lucky to score an invitation to one of Bilbao’s private, traditionally male-only cooking clubs known as txokos (“cosy corners”). But great fare is everywhere in this ancient city on Spain’s north coast, from restaurants listed among the world’s best, such as the three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi , to small bars that pride themselves on their pintxos. Follow the local custom of ir de potes: start in one bar with a pintxo and a drink – a lightly sparkling txakoli from nearby La Rioja or a zurito (taster glass) of beer – then head to another and repeat until you’re ready for a late supper, clubbing or bed. (Book yours at the art-themed Gran Hotel Domine, across from the gleaming Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.)

I’ve been ir de potes with local friends, including Ainhoa, who puts one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, vibrant and atmospheric Casco Viejo by the River Nervión, at the top of her list for bar-hopping. The zona’s many great bars include bohemian Marzana 16 (Martzana Kalea, 16; +34 946 743 036) and cosy Baster (Posta Kalea, 22; +34 944 071 228). The district’s 15th-century streets are also home to the Gothic Santiago Cathedral, the Neoclassical Plaza Nueva and restaurants and shops specialising in bacalao, the dried salted cod featured in typical Basque dishes such as bacalao al pil pil. Come morning, follow Ainhoa’s lead to Basquery  for excellent pastries, bread and brunch. The Basques speak Euskara, one of the oldest and most mysterious languages in the world – “genetically isolated”, as linguists say, from all others. You don’t need to speak Euskara to say kaixo (hello) to good times in Bilbao or to get to know the cuisine that’s central to Basque culture and life.

Helena, my friend from Madrid, lives with her Basque partner in one of the lovely, uncrowded beach towns of Greater Bilbao. “You have everything here,” she tells me. “Nature, modern city life, a healthy lifestyle – and food, drink and fiesta.” 

Pamplona, Spain

Pampalona

Kendall Hill: Stepping into the tile-and-timber interiors of Café Bar Gaucho feels like walking into a wall of noise. Staff holler orders across the bar as glassware clinks, cutlery clatters and patrons raise their rapid-fire voices to be heard above the din. Perhaps they’re just as excited about the food as I am.

A serial winner in Pamplona’s annual Semana del Pintxo (Pintxo Week), when eateries across Navarra showcase delicious creations celebrating the bounty of the northern Spanish region, Bar Gaucho’s must-try pintxo is the huevo trufado: a slow-cooked egg laced with mushroom, Navarran truffle oil and fried potato sticks. Rich and luxurious, it’s served in a glass and savoured with a spoon, pairing perfectly with Chivite Legardeta chardonnay from Navarra’s oldest winemaking family.

The bar is close to Calle de la Estafeta, Pamplona’s most famous street for eating – and for running with the bulls. But such indulgence is commonplace across the historic centre and Plaza del Castillo, the main square. (Stay on the square at Gran Hotel La Perla, for convenience, luxury and switched-on service.)

Most food-focused travellers to Spain head for swanky San Sebastián or the neighbouring La Rioja wine region but they’re missing the action an hour down the road. “San Sebastián has become a Disneyland,” guide Fran Glaria assures me. “Pamplona doesn’t get as much tourism so our bars have to work a bit harder. They have more imagination.” 

Navarra is culturally (though not politically) Basque and similarly obsessed with turning local produce into high gastronomy. Besides Pintxo Week, Pamplona also holds annual contests for best croquette and best cazuela (autumn stew). Thanks to its unique geography – from the north’s mountains and beech forests (home to witches, it’s said) to river valleys and the southern Bardenas Reales, one of Europe’s largest deserts – the province is a food basket of Spain

Between meals, walk the banks and medieval bridges of the Arga River or the centuries-old city walls that recall Pamplona’s strategic role as a bulwark between Christian and Moorish Europe. Visit the drawbridge at the Gateway of France where pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago enter the city after crossing the Pyrenees. This city is, thanks to Hemingway, most famous for the unhinged Festival of San Fermín. “For one week in early July, we become the centre of the world,” says Glaria with a laugh. But even when the bulls aren’t running, the party continues in Pamplona. 

SEE ALSO: Why Menorca Island Needs to Be on Your Travel Radar in 2022

Philadelphia, USA

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lance Richardson: Many locals would fight me on this but the bar that best sums up Philadelphia is the Tavern on Camac. It’s not particularly beautiful from the outside and the inside is like a sports bar, with televisions everywhere. But there is a grand piano in the corner in front of some paisley wallpaper and on Saturday nights an older gentleman puts out his tip jar and sings hours of showtunes. This city is rough and unpolished, and also surprising and fabulous. It puts you at ease and then knocks you off your feet, like a wallflower who steps up to a microphone and turns out to be a soprano.  

The food, people are often surprised to hear, is truly excellent. I don’t mean the hoagies or the soft pretzels or the famous Philly cheesesteak, although all have their merits. I mean the tomato pie at Iannelli’s Brick Oven Bakery – a focaccia-like pizza with nothing on it but the sauce – which is actually delicious. I also mean the exquisite tehina shake of tahini and almond milk at Goldie and the bagels at Korshak Bagels, which are better than anything in New York. (Saying such things while in New York may get you killed.) It is possible to visit Philadelphia and do nothing but eat. 

But it would be a shame not to see at least some of the museums. I never get tired of dazzling visitors to Philadelphia with what is perhaps the strangest art gallery in America: the Barnes Foundation. In the 1920s, Albert Barnes used his considerable pharmaceutical fortune to buy dozens of Impressionist and Modernist paintings when they were much more affordable; then he hung them around his house in elaborate configurations that made the walls themselves into works of art. Today, the collection lives on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in a structure that recreates much of Barnes’s house, like a building within a building, with paintings placed exactly as he arranged them. 

Philadelphia Museum of Art

I like to visit the Barnes then stroll past the also top-notch Philadelphia Museum of Art to the Schuylkill River, which is as hard to pronounce as it looks. There’s a beautiful trail, filled with joggers and cyclists and people doing group yoga on the grass. In the warmer months, a mobile beer garden called Parks on Tap sets up near the old water works. Sitting in a picnic chair with a glass of rosé, it’s impossible not to feel the brotherly love, which is the literal translation of the Greek, “Philadelphia”.  

Dallas, USA

Dallas Arts District

Catherine Marshall: My first visit to Dallas several years ago was fuelled by the pairing of local produce with the southern city’s diverse cultural traditions: gulf oysters washed down with Mezcal Amarás at Boulevardier and sweet buttermilk chess pie at Emporium Pies

My hotel breakfast at the historic Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek consisted not of bacon and eggs but lip-smacking green chilaquiles, a Mexican assemblage of chicken confit, eggs, avocado, sour cream and queso fresco. I roamed the Arts District (the largest contiguous urban arts district in the United States) and browsed the litany of food trucks lined up at Klyde Warren Park, a vast green space atop an eight-lane recessed freeway.  

Dallas has evolved from its cotton, ranching and oil baron origins to become a leading hub for Fortune 500 companies, “thanks in no small part to the absence of a state income tax and business-friendly legislation”, says Carole, my friend and a local. But Texas’s best-known city (due largely to the eponymous 1980s TV series) has retained its cowboy charm and southern hospitality despite this corporate revolution.  

Back then, before I checked out The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, I ate shrimp and grits at Ellen’s a downtown diner known for its Southern comfort food. Consolation was key, as I was entering the former book depository from which it is said Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy as his motorcade passed along Elm Street in 1963. Peering out from that fateful window, I was struck by the precinct’s leafy, genial atmosphere, a salve to the deep national grief imprinted there. 

In town on my second visit, I had breakfast on Carole’s homemade brioche doughnuts filled with chocolate custard (“Chocolate, vanilla, lemon?” she’d asked before I left Australia. “I’ll happily accept any request!”). Later, Carole and her husband, Dale, introduce me to the most Texan of dishes, tortilla chips and queso, at Tacodeli

“Apparently Arkansas claims it as its own invention but they’re just wrong,” says Carole. It’s a thoroughly Texan meal to me, the bowls of hot, spiced cheese scooped onto chips and guzzled in ample mouthfuls, and it’s a win for Dallas: my heart has been stolen stealthily, by way of my belly.

SEE ALSO: 37 Ultimate Experiences to Have in the United States

Okayama, Japan

Okayama Castle

Catherine Marshall: On my first day in Okayama, guide Jasmine Nakai foretells my gratitude with a reminder of how to correctly pronounce the Japanese word for “thank you”. “Remember: alligator, alligator, alligato, alligato, arigato,” she instructs. “Easy: arigato.”

There’s much to be thankful for in this city located on an inlet to the Seto Inland Sea, on the southern end of Honshu. On an earlier visit I was introduced to okonomiyaki. The chef cooked the savoury pancake on a hotplate before me; it was stuffed with cabbage and oysters fresh-caught from the sea. A fellow diner grunted at me from across our shared table and his comment was translated as: “You’re not using your chopsticks correctly.”

Opportunity abounds to improve my dexterity. Okonomiyaki restaurants are dotted all over the city but I recline on a tatami mat at a more conventional eatery, Japanese Cuisine Issen. My skills are challenged with a kaiseki of pickles and lily bulb buns, conger eel rolled with kelp, miso-marinated flounder and – oh, joy – a miniature version of okonomiyaki. 

“This is Japanese cuisine – it goes best with sake,” says Nakai. “I can compromise with beer, as long as it’s Japanese. But please, you have to learn to expand your horizons. As a sake evangelist, I must tell you – be brave and try some.” 

I find the sake pleasantly crisp, light and fragrant, though its effects may hinder my success with chopsticks. Later, I wonder what Confucius would say of my progress as I wander Korakuen, the garden named for the philosopher’s aphorism on delayed gratification. Patience rewards me with surprises in this citadel moated by the Asahi River: the “borrowed scenery”, a central principle of Japanese garden design, comprises mountain contours and Okayama Castle, framed in a froth of flowering cherry trees; Japanese irises refracted in the Meandering Stream; a group of gumboot-shod men sweeping iridescent moss from the pond bed.

Across the moat, Jonathan Hasegawa is an elegant boutique hotel designed in imitation of the serene house that once stood there and as a foil to the commerce and industry on its doorstep. Nearby, the most Japanese of condiments was once produced in the Fukuoka Soy Sauce Building, built during the Meiji era just steps from Korakuen. Today it houses the Fukuoka Shoyu Gallery, where digital art collective teamLab’s Tea Time in the Soy Sauce Storehouse can be relished amid the pulsing lanterns and mirrored walls of an experimental basement tearoom (until March 2023). It’s a mishmash of antiquity and modernity and a reminder to never again dip my fork into a dish of soy sauce; only chopsticks will do.“Come with me, live in my hometown,” says Nakai. “I will make you Japanese.” “Easy,” I respond. “Arigato.”

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa

Catherine Marshall: Kanazawa is suffused with gold dust. It burnishes the objects – chopsticks, lacquerware, ornaments – displayed in shop windows. It speckles the air as artisans tweeze tissue-thin sheets of gold leaf from tins and instruct tourists in its application. It even finds its way into food and drink, flecking tea and enveloping grilled rice balls in bowls of ochazuke. In the Higashi Chaya district, it’s draped around soft-serve ice-creams so that they appear armoured and inedible; only when you sink your teeth into the gold does it reveal its hammer-wrought pliability. It’s said that Kanazawa floats in a “golden marsh”, the alluvial plains it was built on and for which it is named. 

I expect the entire skyline to be painted in the precious substance, given that almost all of Japan’s gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa on Honshu’s northern seaboard, about three hours by fast train from Tokyo. But this city is a natural beauty, sitting between the Sea of Japan and a line of snow-capped mountains. Urban architecture and structures dating back to the Edo era coexist seamlessly with the environment; laced between them are rivers, expansive gardens and meandering corridors of forest.

Kanazawa Gold Leaf Icecream

“The weather along the Japan Sea is fickle,” says guide Jasmine Nakai. “They say you can forget to bring your lunch box but don’t forget your umbrella!” There’s no need for bento boxes, I discover, as we make our way along rain-slicked, gingko-lined streets to Omicho Ichiba (Market), where stalls groan beneath fruits of the sea – crabs, urchins, broiled eel steaks glistening in their soy marinade – and earthly offerings such as water chestnuts, edible lily bulbs and yams from those mountains. This market has fed the people of Kanazawa for more than 300 years.

History has been similarly preserved at Kenroku-en Garden, once part of the Maeda Clan’s castle grounds and now one of the country’s most esteemed landscape gardens. Here, the many-limbed Karasaki pine tree planted as a seed in the 1800s is propped on stilts over Kasumiga-ike Pond. This eye for nature’s value is upheld nearby at Korinkyo, a timber-and-stone-finished hotel where guests can blend elixirs from essential oils and distilled water in the onsite aroma distillery.

Adornments are common in the Higashi Chaya district, where powder-faced, rosebud-lipped geishas dressed in luminous kimonos drift past traditional tea houses. But their modern counterparts adopt an altogether different disguise. “People wear masks for pollen and germs on a train,” says Nakai. “And a third reason: girls who oversleep don’t have to do their make-up.”

SEE ALSO: 5 Quintessential Japanese Experiences You Shouldn’t Skip

streets of orbetello

Orbetello, Italy

Orbetello

Lee Marshall: Like an Italian hill town that’s taken a trip to the Tuscan seaside, Orbetello may have fortress-like walls but inside, everything is laid-back Mediterranean charm. Jaunty palm trees shade café-lined piazzas and green-shuttered houses line a series of parallel lanes where locals and holidaymakers come – after the obligatory siesta – to stroll, meet and shop, before adjourning for aperitifs in friendly bars such as Barakà (Via Gioberti, 78; +39 3928 904 686).

But what’s most remarkable about Orbetello, about two hours drive north-east of Rome, is its position – at the end of a finger of land that juts into central Italy’s largest saltwater lagoon. Flamingos and more than a hundred other species of birds nest or pass through here; fishermen in small boats catch eels, bream and grey mullet just as their great-grandfathers did; and a scenic windmill – the only remaining of the nine that were dotted around the lagoon in the 17th century – has become a local Instagram star. “It’s mainly a vacation destination for Italians,” says New Yorker Matthew Adams, who lives in Orbetello and operates a stylish three-roomed B&B called Casa Iris in the centre of town, with his partner, James Valeri. “This is a town where everything slows down.” 

To the west, connected by a bridge across the lagoon, rises the rocky profile of Monte Argentario, a peninsula with two pretty port towns – Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano – much frequented by the international yacht set and a handful of upscale seaside hotels, including one of Italy’s most exclusive resorts, Il Pellicano. 

Back in quiet Orbetello, tuck into a plate of spaghetti with vongole and bottarga (the local fish-roe speciality) at trattoria Per Piacere (Via Roma, 75; +39 0564 867 597) or take things up a notch at smart new Osteria Bolle (Via Vittorio Veneto, 9; +39 0564 182 8235), which opened in May and is looking like the place to visit for good-value creative Tuscan fare. As Adams says of his adopted home: “It’s the perfect place to relax on the beach, take long naps and enjoy the local cuisine.”

Spoleto, Italy

Spoleto

Lee Marshall: Take a train on the meandering Umbria-bound line from Roma Termini station and arrive in Spoleto, just under two hours north of the capital, after threading through a series of tunnels separated by glimpses of wild mountain scenery. Walking towards the high, walled town centre brings you to another portal: a system of civic escalators that burrow up through the rock to emerge just below the magnificent 13th-century duomo, framed by a backdrop of olive-covered hills. For me, these two forays through the underworld make this town somehow all the more magical.

Spoleto, in the Umbria region, mixes grand architectural flourishes with secret corners where rose beds nuzzle up against ancient ruins. Among the flourishes is the Ponte delle Torri –a medieval bridge and aqueduct that leaps across the steep valley below town on 10 arches. Nearby is Palazzo Leti, a former aristocratic villa that’s been converted into a delightful 12-room hotel, the kind of place that makes you want to dress up and stroll, parasol in hand, through its palm-shaded formal garden.

In the bustling centre, Wine & Passion (Piazza del Mercato 21, +39 3490 220 6917) is the best spot to check out Umbria’s wine scene. At aperitivo time, order a fresh, tangy trebbiano spoletino – an ancient white variety that’s recently been saved from oblivion. Head for dinner to Il Tempio del Gusto, a trattoria not far from the Roman-era Arch of Drusus. Romantic and rustic, its four small rooms (book ahead) are a charming setting for chef-owner Eros Patrizi’s inventive but still genuine Umbrian cuisine, showcased in a fragrant saffron and white truffle risotto. 

Given the town’s apparent knack for theatrical set pieces – which include a Roman amphitheatre – it’s perhaps not surprising that Spoleto has hosted Italy’s most prestigious summer music and performing arts event since 1958. For two weeks from late June the Festival dei Due Mondi transforms Spoleto into an open-air concert hall and playhouse. Nureyev has danced here, Pavarotti once performed and in 1968 a young Al Pacino starred in a local production. The Italian TV series Don Matteo – filmed here from the ninth season – offers further testimony to Spoleto’s sheer handsomeness; no filter required.

SEE ALSO: Speed through Sicily in a State-of-the-art Supercar

Image credits: Raquel Guiu Grigelmo,  Caroline Gutman, Melinda Ortley, Ben Weller,  Ben Richards, Susan Wright.

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