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If you’re an avid traveler, there’s a strong chance that Europe’s big hitters have already been crossed off your bucket list. The likes of Paris, Rome, London, and Amsterdam are dream destinations—but with great tourism infrastructure comes far greater crowds and a diluted authenticity. For a different taste, try one of Europe’s second cities.
Bursting with a culture of their own and usually (but not always) boasting far better prices, visiting lesser-known destinations can unlock a country in a way the A-listers have long forgotten how. After all, an orchestra is nothing without its second fiddle.
To get your itinerary started, we’ve listed the best hotels in Europe’s second cities.
*We’re taking some liberties with our city selection. Some are literally the second biggest or second most visited city; others are major cities that we think warrant the title. In other words, don’t email us upset that we picked Lyon instead of Marseille.
The Edwardian – Manchester, England
Location: Manchester, England, UK
Price: $150 +
Vibe: 5-star Victorian luxury
The rundown: London is the bread and butter of any trip to England, and rightly so. It’s arguably the best hotel city in the world, has more attractions than you can shake a stick at, and is steeped in history. But for a chance of pace, try its northerly cousin, Manchester.
The UK’s third-largest city has a reputation as something of a trendsetter. The world’s first industrialized city has housed musical movements, suffragism, and even, oddly enough, western vegetarianism. Throw in a thriving nightlife, an outstanding art scene, and a couple of the world’s greatest football teams, and you’ve got a destination waiting to thrill you.
We recommend basing yourself at The Edwardian—a five-star set in a historic building. Centrally located and wonderfully designed, there’s nowhere better for your Mancunian exploration.
Hotel Florentine – Lyon
Location: Lyon, France
Price: $289 +
Vibe: Laid-back luxury vantage point
The rundown: While Marseille might be France’s second-largest city, it’s Lyon that wins more hearts. Strikingly beautiful and bursting with history, the town is more than worthy of turning your head away from Paris.
Roman ruins, including an amphitheater still used for performances, and a mesmerizing history as the silk capital of Europe lend to a visit’s culture, but its food is the star of the show. While Paris might be better known for its food, Lyon has been the gastronomic capital of the world since the thirties and boasts no fewer than twenty Michelin-starred restaurants. Come hungry.
Stay at the Hotel Florentine, and gaze out on the cityscape from its rooftop pool.
Suite Hotel Pincoffs – Rotterdam
Location: Rotterdam, Netherlands
Price: $116 +
Vibe: Delightfully design-forward
The rundown: The vibrant port city of Rotterdam was virtually flattened by German bombing raids during World War II. As the city emerged from the chaos, its leadership granted a blank slate to rebuild the city. The result is one of Europe’s most architecturally groundbreaking and modern cities—a far cry from the traditional aesthetic of Amsterdam.
Effortlessly cool, Rotterdam flies under the radar for many tourists, but those who do make the trip make it a point to brag.
On your trip, we recommend Suite Hotel Pincoffs. Its old meets new design will draw you in, while the waterside location will win your heart.
Hotel Pilar – Antwerp
Location: Antwerp, Belgium
Vibe: High design with a vintage twist
The rundown: Belgium, as a whole, has a bad habit of being overlooked in favor of neighbors France and the Netherlands. And many of those who do stop off between Paris and Amsterdam stick to Brussels. While the capital is tremendous, they’re missing out on the creative powerhouse of Antwerp.
Another post-war redirected city, the city matches its colorful history with forward-facing business, tech, and creativity. Fashion is a major player here, and the nightlife is some of the best in Europe. Make time for a stop here.
Stay at Hotel Pilar, a property that leans heavily into the city’s artistic tendencies. Super cool, ideally located, and boasts a string of local produce on offer in its bar and restaurant.
Babila Hostel, Milan
Location: Milan, Italy
Vibe: The chicest hostel you’ve ever stayed at
The rundown: Calling Milan a second city feels strange. But despite being one of the most visited cities in Europe, it still lingers in the shadow of Rome. Thankfully, that means for all its popularity, it never feels quite as touristy as the capital.
For fashionistas, it’s one of the necessary pilgrimages; for everyone else, it’s a city that’s going places, begging you to hop on for the ride. It might not shine with the same historical glamor as its other Italian counterparts, but it’s more than worth your time.
Prices can be steep here, but check out Babila Hostel ad Bistro. Don’t be too thrown off by the hostel. It’s mighty sleek and has an excellent restaurant.
Hotel Louis C. Jacob – Hamburg
Location: Hamburg, Germany
Vibe: Portside 5-starred service
The rundown: When you’ve had your fill of Berlin and Munich, turn your attention to Hamburg. Arguably the most underrated city in Europe, cool doesn’t cut it. Its role as a major port city has left its imprint, culminating in a wondrously international culinary scene, eclectic nightlife, and some unique historical attractions.
It’s also the second largest city in Germany—beating out Munich and its beer festivals by a few hundred thousand.
To take in the best of the port city, check in to Hotel Louis C. Jacob. This five-star property gifts its guests with stunning views of the port itself, but far from the noise.
Barracart Apartments – Valencia
Location: Valencia, Spain
Price: $139 +
Vibe: Self-service comfort
The rundown: You could argue for days about whether Barcelona or Madrid is the top destination for travelers. Or, you could skip them both and head to the dreamy city of Valencia.
Known for its high livability, Valencia is modern in all the right places and ancient where it matters. Some staggering infrastructure projects highlight the ingenuity of its population, while its eateries, bars, and clubs define the enjoyment they also take from life.
For a deliciously simple stay, try Barracart Apartments. If you feel the need to save, you can even cook in your apartment—but frankly, that’s madness.