Sometimes there’s a habit you gravitate to, perhaps even subconsciously, and only realize in hindsight it was part of a cultural trend. For us, second city travel is a great example of this. Second city travel is the practice of avoiding the capital city or top tourist destination of a country in favor of lesser-known, usually smaller cities. This trend is seeing a surge in popularity and was even named Booking.com’s #1 travel trend for 2020. We’ve been traveling primarily to second cities for years, but only recently put a name to this practice. Let’s explore what second city travel is, it’s advantages, drawbacks, and some examples from our personal travel experience.
Why Second City Travel?
There are many reasons travelers are choosing second cities, some obvious and other less so. On the most basic level, veteran travelers probably have already visited certain top destinations like London, Paris, and New York City. If you have an affinity for France but already did the whole Paris thing, your mind naturally wanders to what else the country has to offer.
Another major reason to explore second city travel is to avoid overtourism. Overtourism is a broad term that encompasses the various negative effects of having too many visitors in one city. This includes things like driving prices up for locals, structural damage to historic landmarks, general overcrowding, and increased emissions from air travel (among other environmental effects). In many ways, this is an unfortunate side effect of global standards of living rising the past few decades. As millions more have the means to travel, they naturally gravitate towards the flashiest destinations like Venice and Prague.
It’s not all just self-sacrifice for the greater good, however. Don’t underestimate the value of being treated better as a tourist/traveler. Try bumbling around Barcelona with your guidebook, DSLR camera, khaki shorts out. You’ll be scoffed at by locals tired of your dime-a-dozen kind. In contrast, locals from Málaga will probably be much more patient and accommodating. They would be much happier having tourists boosting their local economy. You’ll also have fewer street sellers hassling you to buy souvenirs and other overpriced nonsense.
Second city travel is easier on the wallet. Prices for everything from accommodation to restaurants to gifts in heavily touristed areas are massively overpriced. On the same budget for a one-week splurge trip to New York City, you might be able to take a two-week vacation to charming, historic Boston instead.
Are you really “missing out” by skipping the main city?
The sooner you strike the phrase “must-see” out of your vocabulary, the happier you’ll be as a traveler. Don’t worry about answering questions like these from your friends and coworkers: “Oh, you went to France and you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower?!” People make comments like these in a robotic, knee-jerk manner. Most of the time they have no clue what they’re talking about. Do you really feel fulfilled standing in line with hundreds of other people to take a picture in front of a famous landmark? For what? To prove something about your status to them? To check an item off your bucket list? Seriously examine your motivations for traveling and what you want to get out of it.
Most people, when they really reflect back on it, value the stories and spontaneous experiences that arose out of their travels. I couldn’t string together a sentence about what it was like to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but I’ll always remember the lovely dinner I had with a local French family in the beautiful little town of Angers trying to communicate in two languages (mostly sounds and hand gestures, really).
At its core, this could be summarized as authenticity. More and more people, millennials and Gen Z especially, value authenticity over canned sights and experiences. Basing your trip in second cities greatly increases your chances of integrating into the local culture and having these authentic experiences.
Finally, just because you spend most of your time in second cities doesn’t mean you have to skip the main cities entirely. Chances are you’ll still need to fly into a major hub before taking alternate means of transportation to the second city. You could spend 1-2 days on either end of your trip getting a taste of the main city as a little “bonus.” This is one form of stopover travel that we like to take advantage of whenever possible.
Drawbacks to Second City Travel
There are a few minor drawbacks to second city travel. Transportation to the second city is often longer and more expensive than getting to a major hub and staying there. You might even have to take an additional flight through the main city to get to the second city. At that point, you aren’t really reducing your carbon emissions over the more obvious alternative. That additional flight or bus trip will also add to your travel costs. However, there’s a good chance that the money you’ll save on food and accommodation in the second city will make up for the increase in transportation costs.
The additional travel cost might not be as much of a problem as the increased travel time if you’re on a tight timeline. There will probably be fewer hotel options and other tourist infrastructure in place in the second city. It might not have the convenience of a metro/subway system or even a walkable city core, in which case you’ll be forced to rely on local buses or taxis to get around.
Finally, you might have to take more initiative in seeking out “things to do” when there aren’t obvious “must-see” attractions. A guidebook isn’t going to hold all the answers. You may have to try wandering around or talking to strangers, which can be uncomfortable for some people.
Examples from our travels
Recently we’ve been making a conscious choice to travel to second cities, especially when looking to stay somewhere for a few months. But even before that, we just happened to end up there a lot of the time. Here are just a few examples of second cities we’ve loved and would actively recommend:
- Valencia, Spain (rather than Barcelona or Madrid)
- Plovdiv, Bulgaria (rather than Sofia)
- Brașov, Romania (rather than Bucharest)
- Zagreb, Croatia (rather than Split & Dubrovnik)
- Guanajuato, Mexico (rather than Mexico City)
- Medellín, Colombia (rather than Bogotá)
- Cuenca, Ecuador (rather than Quito)
- Chiang Mai, Thailand (rather than Bangkok)
Remember, a “second city” in a travel context doesn’t necessarily mean the second most populous city in the country. Sometimes the capital is a second city to a smaller town from a tourism perspective! Zagreb, Croatia is the perfect example of this, since most tourists flock to Split and Dubrovnik on the coast. Even though it’s the capital of Croatia, it often flies under the radar.
So the next time you’re planning your trip, consider making a second city your first choice!