International “Second Cities” and Why They Should Be First On Your Family’s Travel List

Apr 26, 2019

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If you’re looking for destination inspiration, look no further than a “second city.” By skipping the tourist trail in the world’s major cities, you’ll encounter fewer crowds, lower costs and enjoy a more authentic experience than at a marquee site.

What Is Second-City Travel?

Simply put, second-city travel refers to a destination that doesn’t immediately spring to mind when a country is mentioned. In the USA, a first city might be New York and a second city might be Cleveland. The first city has the postcards, the songs, the crowds. Most tourists skip the second city altogether. If you take the time to explore the second cities of the world, I promise you’ll be rewarded.

Second-city travel will reward you in a number of ways: terrific regional food, a laid-back pace and, most of all, great value. I find splurge-worthy hotels and restaurants in second cities usually run about what I’d pay for an average 3.5-star in the marquee destination.

Here’s a shortlist of my favorite second cities:

Tea on the Titanic. (Photo courtesy of Visit Belfast)
Tea on the Titanic. (Photo courtesy of Visit Belfast)

Try Belfast

My son was born in Rotunda Hospital in Dublin so my status as a Dubliner is pretty much sealed. However, taken as a whole, Belfast may have more to offer tourists to Ireland than the first city of Dublin. On a recent trip, we went directly to Dublin from Belfast and our first thought was, “Wow, it’s so crowded!” Belfast just didn’t feel rushed or harried at all, no matter where or when we went.

The highlight of our Belfast trip was Tea on the Titanic, offered every Sunday at the Titanic Belfast. The tea is held in a historically accurate re-creation of the grand dining room of the Titanic. If your kids have never done an afternoon tea, this is a great introductory option as the kid-friendly platter of mini sandwiches and pastries isn’t intimidating like some more grand teas can be. It’s also more boy-friendly than some more fussy teas: the tragic history added interest for my normally tea-averse son. The tea is worth every penny of its 28.5 GBP ($37) price tag and is an especially good value for kids 2–11 at only 12.5 GBP ($16).

The striking Titanic Belfast museum is located at the site of the shipyard where the ill-fated Titanic was built. You can visit the SS Nomadic, the only surviving White Star Line cruise ship. TIP: Visit the galleries early on weekdays to take advantage of “early bird” savings: 14/7 GBP ($18/$9) for adult/child respectively versus 19/8.50GBP ($24/$11) or buy a family ticket that admits two adults and two kids for 46.5 GBP ($61). Children under 5 are free. Whichever option you choose, be sure to buy tickets in advance as they sell out in peak season, especially for the Sunday afternoon tea.

A visit to the Ulster Museum shows that Belfast has been ground zero for conflict for most of its history. A black cab tour is highly recommended if time allows, but in one quick drive through the neighborhoods you will see the wall murals and razor-wire fences — memorials to past conflict. You can go back further in history taking a train or car to nearby Derry to see the castles.

I’ve seen just about every shore in Ireland and I don’t think any compares to the Antrim Coast drive north from Belfast to Giant’s Causeway. The kids especially loved Giant’s Causeway, which is an outcropping of more than 40,000 basalt columns that are tailor-made for climbing. Giant’s Causeway ranks up there with Iguazu Falls on my teenage son’s favorites list.

A crowd of tourists to see Giant's Causeway. (Photo by LuckyTD / Getty Images)
A crowd of tourists to see Giant’s Causeway. (Photo by LuckyTD / Getty Images)

Where to Stay in Belfast

While I typically shy away from Radisson Rewards, in Belfast there are two good Radisson options: the Radisson Blu at 44,000 points per night and the Park Inn at 38,000 points a night. Of the two, I recommend the Radisson Blu for families. Our family of four was more than comfortable in the business-class family room and my daughter raved about the hot chocolate. Be sure to check cash rates as you sometimes do better earning points rather than spending them. You can top up Radisson Rewards points with the Radisson Rewards Visa.

Move Over Paris and Head to Marseille

Marseille has that “border town” feel — in a good way. So, while I enjoy Parisian shopping as much as the next girl, when it comes to France, it’s Marseille that stole my heart.

The city reminds me a bit of Paris — and Miami. Marseille has a North African culture mixed into the French in the same the way Miami has Cuban culture mixed into American. Marseille felt like a happy jumble.

We visited Marseille in the middle of August — prime tourist season. The tourists we saw were mostly French families vacationing at the sea for the weekend as opposed to throngs in buses. Most of Marseille’s tourist sights are within reach of the Vieux (Old) Port. Vieux Port was lively, but we never felt like it was overcrowded.

Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral rises over the city and is a marvel to explore. Fortunately there’s a tourist “petit tren” that takes you up and down the steep hill to the cathedral. If you have a chance to attend a service there, as we did, I highly recommend it — regardless of your faith. Kids appreciate the grandeur of Notre Dame de la Garde — and they’ll especially appreciate the model boats and planes hanging from the ceiling as symbols of Notre Dame “keeping watch” over voyagers.

Marseille was named a “City of European Culture” in 2013 and many museums got a major face-lift. Our favorite, both inside and out, was the Mucem ( Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) and the attached Fort St. Jean.

The Mucem building is a marvel in itself. The entire building is covered in coral-like latticework. The fort has amazing views and a picnic area begging for a family lunch. Fort St. Jean’s cafe seating includes … wait for it … lounge chairs. The Mucem cafe serves fresh-off-the-boat oysters. The Mucem is open every day except Tuesday from 11am-6pm with extended seasonal hours and best of all, kids under 18 are free. Adult tickets are 9 euros; 14 euros for a family ticket.

Marseille, a port city, offers many ways to get out onto the water. An easy option is a cruise to Chateau D’If, setting for the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” If you have more time you can visit the Calenques (cliffs), which makes for a lovely half-day. There’s a two-hour and a three-hour option: We did the two-hour and it was enough.

Les Calanques de Sugiton, Marseille. (Photo by Adam Dore / Unsplash)
Les Calanques de Sugiton, Marseille. (Photo by Adam Dore / Unsplash)

Where to Stay in Marseille

I liked my first stay at the InterContinental Mon Dieu so much that I got the IHG Rewards Premier Credit Card just so I could get a free fourth-night award. At 55,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, I’m saving $275 by TPG current values with the four award night free. With cash rates over $300 in season, even without the fourth night free, points could be a good option.

The hotel is a couple of blocks back from the harbor but the views from the breakfast terrace are gorgeous. The Mon Dieu dates from the 18th century and feels luxe from the moment you arrive. I’d stay there again just for the indoor pool — a work of art.

The Intercontinental Mon Dieu, Marseille. (Photo courtesy of Intercontinental)
The InterContinental Mon Dieu, Marseille. (Photo courtesy of Intercontinental)

Don’t Overlook Osaka

Tokyo was a cacophony — in a good way — but four days there was enough. Osaka, while not quiet, felt so much more manageable. It was so easy to get around compared to being constantly lost in Tokyo. Besides having its own Osaka Castle to explore, the city makes a terrific base to explore Kyoto and Nara. Some people prefer to overnight in Kyoto but I don’t see why you would need to.

The main reason we loved Osaka is that it was so kid-friendly. The Osaka Kids Plaza is a kids museum, indoor play zone and computer studio rolled into one. There’s even a TV studio! Osaka also has a Legoland, Aquarium, big wheel and Universal Studios — but, to be honest, Osaka Kids Plaza was more than enough for us.

Osaka is where we had our travel play date with the kids of Kids Travel Japan. Spending time with local kids was an absolute highlight of our trip.

Where to Stay in Osaka

TPG has a comprehensive review of the St. Regis Osaka. It’s a Marriott Category 7 going for 60,000 points a night and is a good luxury option.

The Hyatt in Osaka deserves special mention in the value category; at a Category 2, it’s an absolute steal. If you’re a Globalist and use a suite upgrade, you’ll end up with more than 1,000 square feet. Our 25th-floor suite offered expansive views. For non-globalists, it makes sense to use 12,000 points a night for a club room so you can get included breakfast and snacks. If you need Hyatt Points, check out the World of Hyatt Credit Card.

Osaka Castle (Image by 861345458 / Getty Images)
Osaka Castle (Image by 861345458 / Getty Images)

Perfection in Puebla

I recently wrote about Puebla, Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo family-friendly activities, but I’d be remiss not to mention it in my roundup of second cities. It’s well worth the two-hour bus ride from Mexico City and would be perfect for a four-day weekend any time of year. Check out my post for more details about Puebla’s lodging options.

(Photo by Sandra Gabriel/Unsplash)
(Photo by Sandra Gabriel/Unsplash)

Bottom Line

By selecting second cities, you can save money and enjoy your trip more because fewer tourists will be battling for that Insta-worthy shot. I’d love to hear about your favorite second cities in the comments.

For more inspiration check out:

Featured image by 861345458 / Getty Images

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