Travel Outside the Box of City Big Hitters


Where is it we’re going again?

I’m always a fan of a cheap flight and the cost of the trip is often what determines where I go.

But sometimes bargain plane tickets can take you to cities that make people ask “why?” when you tell them where you’re off to. They’re the less obvious destinations that don’t have full shelves of guidebooks dedicated to them in Waterstones or WHSmith. To some that means they’re dismissed from the travel wishlist, but in reality, that’s what can make the jaunt all the more intriguing.

These places are usually not capital cities (though I believe Lisbon is an exception – it’s still something of a well kept secret).

Often they’re compact enough to have centres that are easily strollable, and given my predilection for pavement pounding, they tend to be right up my street.

Sunshine Lisbon

Lisbon – why more people don’t visit is a mystery to me.

That’s precisely why I spent my December #take12trips adventure in Dusseldorf, why I fell hard for Rotterdam and Jerez de la Frontera, and why I loved Verona (yes, I know Verona’s not exactly unknown, but it does seem to attract less attention than I reckon it deserves). In many ways, Verona felt like a more weekend friendly Rome – you see, I spent four days in Rome barely scratching its surface, whereas I felt I got right under the skin of Verona in just three.

Promenading in Dusseldorf

Ever thought of a weekend in Dusseldorf?

Sunshine Jerez

How about Jerez?


And lovely Verona!

In less obvious city break destinations, it’s also much simpler to avoid being chained to a regime of box ticking that can sometimes start to feel like a chore in major tourist magnet cities.

Consider Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Unless you know you’ll definitely make another trip there, you’re unlikely to skip it. And you shouldn’t!

But there’s no escaping what can occasionally feel like pressure to undertake some structured sightseeing in a city such as that, especially on a first (and perhaps only) visit. However, when you look at cities that don’t have all the world renowned shiny-shiny, there’s still always something to see, but there’s also much more opportunity to just be.

Then there’s the chance to understand a country a little more when you visit its “other” cities. Take London – great though it is, it’s not necessarily a realistic representation of the rest of England – try Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester for a different point of view. For the real Scotland? Well, I wouldn’t make the effort to visit Edinburgh without making sure I had time to fit Glasgow into my trip too, if I was travelling from far enough away that my trip had to be longer than a weekend.

George Square

Glasgow. Heart it big time.

Liverpool Central Library

Liverpool always gets a mention – you should know that by now!

And so the story goes on…

I’m hoping to get to a few secret gem cities in Europe soon. Ljubljana in Slovenia and Bilbao in Spain are just two I’m intrigued by. I also fancy Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium, which often seem like they’re overlooked in favour of Brussels and Bruges.

Of course, when you really want to go to a particular city – you should definitely make that happen.

But when you find a cheap flight that fits your travel dates and it’s to somewhere you’ve never heard of or considered going to before, don’t automatically ask yourself “why?” and instead just ask yourself “why not?”


  • Jessi says:

    Couldn’t agree more on Lisbon – such a hidden gem that doesn’t seem to be on the radar like it should be! I’m looking forward to more discoveries like you mention in 2014 as well… I really want to get to Riga and Warsaw, among many others 🙂

    • Clare says:

      Totally with you on Lisbon – I’d love to revisit the city and I’ve been singing its praises ever since I returned. I think Riga looks like it would be fab, too!

  • Lucy says:

    So agree on the hidden gems – there are some great cities that are a bit unknown or just unloved. I spent a couple of months in Brisbane in Australia and had a great time there but people seemed to think I was mad, same with Vientiene in Laos. Look forward to seeing a few closer to home this year hopefully – Bratislava and Strasbourg both on the list so far.

    • Clare says:

      Bratislava and Strasbourg sound like ideal candidates for the lesser known gem list. I hear good thing about both – I hope you get to visit!

  • Davide says:

    Interesting post giving me a few more city to add to my “to do” travel list; nice to see my hometown Verona being mentioned.

  • You make such a good point, Clare! Those smaller “second cities” do not always get the love they deserve, but offer the same (if not better) glimpse into the country and culture. I felt that way with Seville in Spain – the city was almost empty and had so much character. Coming from Madrid and Barcelona it felt like a private tour! I would love to explore some smaller and less popular cities in Germany and France.

    Next month, I am heading to Austin, Texas, which has a great reputation among those who are well-traveled, but is not one of the big “it” cities in the US (yet). Everyone keeps asking me why I would ever go there! Unfortunately, many people cannot see beyond the typical top 5 lists to other cities that have a lot of character. There are not many landmarks to see in Austin, but instead experiences to be had (great food trucks and live music among others). I’m looking forward to not checking the boxes, but instead absorbing the culture!

    • Clare says:

      I loved Seville! I visited several years ago when I wasn’t blogging, but I’ve been meaning to write about it for a while. We also took a couple of day trips to Cadiz which was also lovely. I’d love to go back to both.

      I’ll look forward to reading about your adventures in absorbing the culture of Austin – everywhere has stuff going for it and I’m sure Austin is no exception. In many ways, these are the kind of places I love to read about most.

  • Josh says:

    100% going to Lisbon this year. Been high up on the to-do for aaages now… Also Paris, Dortmund, Prague (again), Madrid (again again) and Morocco.

    Couldn’t recommend Ljubljana and Bilbao highly enough. Both are fantastic cities! Great post as per Clare, full of ideas!

    • Clare says:

      Thanks Josh! Great to get another push for me to go to Ljubljana and Bilbao. I must make both of them happen! You should definitely visit Lisbon – so so lovely.

  • Marianne says:

    Like you, I LOVE to travel – and it’s often away from the most popular tourist destinations that you really get a feel for the country you are visiting.

    I can absolutely recommend Bratislava (which I stayed at whilst on a train trip from Prague to Budapest) and Bilbao, which as Josh says, is a fantastic city.

    • Clare says:

      Another vote for Bilbao! I know there are cheap flights from where I live, but so far I haven’t been able to make the dates work. I will get there though! I’m also really interested to read more about Bratislava now, too. Thanks so much Marianne!

  • Julika says:

    Great post Clare! I totally agree that the “unpopular” cities tend to be more real and thus make it easier to understand a country — even if you’re only there for a short amount of time. I really think that Lisbon is utterly Portuguese, although it’s probably already a little faster and more expensive than the really rural cities. You should add Porto to your hidden gem radar 🙂 And you’d absolutely love Ljubljana! It’s such a quaint, beautiful, little capital!

    • Clare says:

      I’d love to get Porto on the radar! And defintely Ljubljana – though I’m not sure it will be this year. It’s quite exciting making a list of all these hidden gems to visit. This comment thread has been hugely inspirational for me so far! Fab suggestions from so many people!

  • NZ Muse says:

    One of my favourite smalltown destinations was Maastricht, actually.

    I hear ya on feeling like you struggled to ‘crack’ Rome. It’s so large, so overwhelming. When staying in big cities, we try to stay in at least a couple different areas, and away from the tourist hubs (plus it’s cheaper).

    • Clare says:

      I absolutely loved Rome. So, so much. But it *was* overwhelming and it’s kind of a relief to admit it. I definitely want to return and I think staying away from the tourist hubs will be the key to getting the feel for the “real” Rome. Thanks!

  • Really excited to start my #take12trips later this month! Thank you for the great inspiration.

    Happy travels 🙂

  • I often get asked “why are you going there?” when I rattle off the places I visit. Although I like to visit the well known spots too – I feel like the lesser known are just as amazing.

    • Clare says:

      I think I’m the same as you – I like the well known spots (I’m off to Paris again this Spring – I could never tire of it), but you’re so right about lesser known spots. They so often are amazing places!

  • Vlad says:

    I totally understand what you mean, I had the chance to visit some less known cities from Portugal and Spain and these are the moments I remember the best from the trips. I definitely recommend Peniche in Portugal, such a beauty 🙂

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