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Our top 10 European city breaks, no capitals!
Posted on 05/01/2015 , Modified on 07/01/2015

CultureAustria

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TOP 10: Often over-looked in favour of their bigger, more alluring cousins, Europe's second cities have so much to offer. They may lack capital-city status, but what they lack in name they make up for it in history, culture, character and more. From Austria to Portugal, Holland to Slovenia, there is life beyond the capital and we've got the top 10 to prove it!

Marseille, France

Marseille, France
© Halina Jasinska / 123RF

Situated on the southern French coast, Marseille is the gateway to Provence. Built by the Phocaean Greeks over two and a half thousand years ago, the second French city is today a bustling metropolis with an unmistakable identity. Only three hours from Paris on the TGV, there is much to discover and admire in and around Marseille.
Start by exploring the Vieux Port, one of the most popular gathering places in the city, with its two protective forts and locals sipping pastis and slurping on bouillabaisse. It is from here that you can catch the ferry to the Ch‚teau d'If, the infamous political prison in the Frioul Archipelago from Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Christo.

Graz, Austria

Graz, Austria
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For most, going to Austria involves either Vienna or skiing. But why not check out Graz, the home town of Arnold Schwarzenegger and UNESCO world heritage site. Sitting on the Mur River, the city marries a rich history with world class modern architecture and design. It is also a large university town with four internationally-recognised schools and the Schloss Eggenberg, a sparkling baroque palace which was once home to the dynasty of the same name.
For picture-perfect gardens, take a trip to the Schlossberg, perched above Graz on a tree-clad hill and accessed either by a winding staircase (the kriegssteig) or the funicular railway. This fortress, along with its impressive clock tower, the uhrturm and bell tower, glockenturm, was so impregnable that it was never taken.

Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark
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Many have never even heard of the delightful Danish city of Aarhus, such is the domination of Copenhagen on the international scene. Situated on the Jutland peninsula, it was founded by the Vikings as Aros, meaning 'river mouth', and is thus one of Scandinavia's oldest cities and most important ports.
Art, design and architecture are the main pulls of this city, exhibited in the City Hall, designed by Arne Jacobsen, the ARoS museum, one of the largest in Northern Europe with 10 floors and the famous work Your rainbow panorama, as well as the Den Gamle By, one of the world's first the open air museums. Aarhus is also home to Denmark's tallest and longest church in the form of Aarhus Domkirke as well as several examples of the work of renowned architect Hack Kampmann, such as the Aarhus Theatre and the royal summer residence, Marselisborg Palace.

Maribor, Slovenia

Maribor, Slovenia
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With about one third of the population of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, Maribor is about the size of Durham, except with perhaps less to see, which turns out to be its biggest attraction. Set on the Drava, which eventually joins the Danube in Croatia, the city has an immensely rich history of wine growing and visitors can climb up through the vineyards surrounding the town to sample the many varieties - just give yourself a bit of time before scrambling back down!
But Maribor is not all about sightseeing, it is also a very active town with top quality skiing right next door in the form of the Pohorje resort, the largest in the country. Perhaps the biggest pull, however, is the town's world famous Lent Festival at the end of June, featuring hundreds of performances of opera, theatre, music, dance and more.

Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Rotterdam, the Netherlands
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Arguably the most well-known city of the 10 in this list, Rotterdam has, after horrific bombing during the Second World War, had the chance to completely reinvent itself into a young, dynamic and avant-garde city. It is still the largest port in Holland and the fourth largest commercial port in the world, with a fantastic Maritime Museum boasting over one million artefact.
Even several of the architecturally interesting sites in Rotterdam have a sea faring theme. The Euromast, Holland's tallest observation tower, is the place to go for some of the best views in Rotterdam - you can even see the Hague and Antwerp on a clear day - offering rooms, restaurants and even abseiling! No trip to Rotterdam would be complete without visiting the seven remaining windmills in and around the city or renting a bike and seeing the city from a different point of view.

Antwerp, Belgium

Antwerp, Belgium
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Antwerp has much in common with its close neighbour, Rotterdam. Like the second Dutch city, it is its country's largest port and has taken the opportunity to rebuild and rebrand itself after severe Second World War damage. It is technically Belgium's biggest city but very much second to Brussels, the European powerhouse, in terms of politics.
In the Flanders part of the tiny Benelux country, Antwerp sits on the Scheldt and while some of its medieval heritage has been preserved much of the city is relatively new, becoming a world centre for fashion with an important school, a museum and some of the best shopping in Europe. For something completely different and to really get under the skin (almost literally), think about taking a tour of the city's ruien, a series of underground waterways which later became the sewer system!

Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland
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Hugely popular with British tourists, Poland's second city has both a glorious and dark past. The former capital is perhaps, for many, inseprabale from the atrocities of the Second World War given its proximity to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The former Jewish area of Kazimierz - where much of Spielberg's Schindler's List was filmed - now has many tributes to the period, as well as its own cultural festival and visits to the Remuh Synagogue.
The city also has some of the most spectacular examples of baroque, renaissance and gothic architecture. The best way to see it is by taking the Royal Road, along which you will pass St. Florian Gate, a gothic tower used in the city's fortifications against the Turks, and St. Mary's Basilica, next to the Main Market Square. The road ends at Wawel Castle, built by Casimir III the Great, which sits on the eponymous hill and where you can also see the Sigismund Bell.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal
© Zoonarth vietz / age fotostock

It may play second fiddle to Lisbon, but Porto certainly knows how to hold its own against the Portuguese capital in this north versus south battle. Positioned on the beautiful Douro estuary, the city is, and will always be, most famous for its fortified wine and namesake, port.
Not only is the drive to the city through the Douro Valley magnificent, passing by river and the vines, but once in Porto, you can stop off just to the south at Vila Nova de Gaia where the port is stored and aged and where you can choose between many adegas for a tasting session. And if you can get up after all the drinking, there is much to see in the city itself, such as the Mercado do Bolh„o food market, the Clťrigos Church and its Torre dos Clťrigos bell tower, the Casa da Musica designed by Rem Koolhaas and, for football fans, the Drag„o football stadium.

Kosice, Slovakia

Kosice, Slovakia
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Slovakia's second city, Kosice, is arguably the least well-known on this list. A young city in a young country, the place is full of potential and has a charming old town right on the banks of the river HornŠd. It is the perfect place to discover Slovakia and the best place to start is in and around Main Street where many of the city's attractions lie. The best known of these is St. Elisabeth Cathedral up whose tower visitors can climb for a great view of the town, whilst the jets of the singing fountain jump up in time to music and the stunning Jacab's Palace surveying it all at a distance.

Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg, Sweden
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Last but certainly not least is Sweden's second city, Gothenburg. Situated at the mouth of the river GŲta šlv at the Kattegat Sea, this is one of the most exciting, vibrant, inventive and welcoming cities in Scandinavia. For many Brits, Gothenburg may simply be known as the home of Volvo cars - there's even a museum dedicated to the city's famous brand - or, for fans of athletics, as the place where Jonathan Edwards smashed the triple jump world record in 1995. Those who have visited, however, will know what a magical place it is with an enchanting marriage of the old and new and a real sense of fun.