As the summer travel season approaches, many people will soon be heading to iconic destinations like Rome, Paris, Tokyo and New York.
These cities are popular for a reason—they’re full of fun attractions, delicious food, and scenic spots. But visitors to such hotspots can also expect huge crowds and peak prices.
However, there is another way to explore exciting destinations without these drawbacks. It’s called a “second city” trip. But what exactly is it and how do you take full advantage of this type of travel? Below, travel experts break it down.
What is a trip to a “second city”?
“Second city travel means skipping the most popular city or region in an area and visiting the second, third or fourth (and so on) most popular,” said Phil Dengler, co-founder of The Vacationer. “After all, you avoid traditional and famous tourist destinations, which are often overcrowded.” Instead of visiting Miami, you can visit Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach.
Although the literal meaning of the term refers to the second most famous or populous city in a country, it has really expanded to refer more generally to lesser known destinations. Over the years, some have interpreted second city travel as referring to one of those less popular travel destinations built around a classic location like Rome.
“It’s often the smaller, lesser-known city in a region,” said Laura Lindsay, travel trends and destinations expert at Skyscanner. “For example, in Southern California, San Diego would be considered the ‘second city’ and Los Angeles the primary city, and on the East Coast, Boston would be the ‘second city’ and New York the primary city.”
“Second cities” may not be the most obvious choice for tourists, but these lesser-known destinations can still offer enough attractions, food and cultural experiences to make for a wonderful vacation.
What are the benefits of traveling to a second city?
“Second cities often have fewer crowds, are cheaper and offer a more authentic experience,” Dengler said. “While places like New York have a lot to offer, they can often feel hollow and inauthentic with tourist attractions around every corner.”
In addition to affordability and a greater sense of tranquility, second cities can also provide a special charm and a more unique travel experience.
“The main benefit of second city travel is discovering hidden gems and places off the beaten path,” said Ravi Roth, travel expert and host of The Gaycation Travel Show. “I recently traveled to Italy and Venice and took an hour train ride to Verona which offers amazing food, sights and hidden gems. The best part was that it wasn’t too crowded.
Visiting a destination that is not overcrowded with tourists allows travelers to better interact with the community that lives there.
“These trips can provide opportunities to connect with locals and immerse themselves in the culture, leading to a deeper understanding of the city,” said Gordon Gurnick, chief operating officer at Hilton Grand Vacations.
Based on data from Skyscanner, Lindsay noted that smaller island or coastal destinations such as Crete, Mallorca and Cancun are attractive options for travelers looking to visit Greece, Spain or Mexico.
“Understated second-tier cities definitely don’t stand in the shadow of their fancier neighbors,” she said. “Often full of local flair, amazing food, great value and a more relaxed pace, second cities are not to be missed.”
In this era of overtourism, turning to second city trips also helps mitigate the negative impact the tourism industry can have on the environment.
“We’ve seen an increase in people looking for ways to make tourism more sustainable,” said travel blogger Rocky Trifari. “The second cities trend is helping to reduce the heavy burden on the most visited cities, while opening up the opportunity for tourists to take the (slightly) less traveled road!”
How can you plan a premium second city trip?
“When planning a second city trip, I recommend researching the most populated places within driving distance of the top one,” Dengler advised. “By doing this, you increase your chances of being able to fly to an international airport, which is often cheaper and has better routes than regional ones.”
Indeed, a downside to second cities is that they sometimes require a more expensive or inconvenient combination of planes, trains and cars to get there. Consider transportation options when choosing a destination.
“The biggest downside to second city travel is that the most popular city is the most popular for a reason,” added travel blogger Sean Lau. “Chances are, you could be missing out on some of a destination’s most iconic sights and attractions by going to the ‘second city’ instead.”
But even if you don’t see the classic sites of a country or state, you can still have a fulfilling and exciting experience in your second city of choice.
“Pick a place that has plenty to do, and consider booking a room at a smaller boutique hotel or bed and breakfast,” Dengler said.
Wherever you decide to go, be sure to do your research ahead of time.
“‘Second cities’ are sometimes not as developed as the ‘main’ city, especially if you’re not in a very developed country,” noted Lau. “This may mean that you will need to rent your own car to get around, or it may mean that you should avoid certain neighborhoods because they are potentially dangerous. And if you’re visiting a foreign country where English isn’t common, the ‘second city’ may require you to know a bit of the local language.”