City trips: Forget NYC, London or Madrid – here are some great alternatives

Stephan Brünjes
By Stephan Brünjes
© Julia Caesar /

Skip the overcrowded capital cities and check out these awesome alternatives. Capital cities and popular metropolises are awarded this title as much because they are a country’s centre when it comes to tourists, power shoppers and party people, as they are politically or economically important.

But many top cities are like the main character of a good film. The protagonist, as cool as they are, is only as good as their supporting cast and often has their best scenes stolen by a trusty sidekick. Here are seven of the best city alternatives, from seven different countries, guaranteed to win best supporting actor …..

USA: Philadelphia instead of New York

Not as loud, not as crowded – with either people or cars and positively dripping with history. Head to the famous symbol of freedom, the Liberty Bell with its distinctive crack. From the Liberty Bell Pavilion simply turn and opposite from you is Independence Hall, where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the other founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

Rising up to the challenge of our rival in Philly. The perfect alternative to NYC © Songquan Deng /

If you’re a fitness fanatic or not it doesn’t matter; if there is one place in the world you have to get your ‘outdoors routine on’ it’s the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 72 steps up and 72 down again – just like Rocky Balboa in the classic movie. Naturally, there is Stallone statue here, just so you can take an out of breath, red-faced, sweaty photo with the Italian Stallion.

Shopping? In the classy surroundings around the Rittenhouse Square, you will find luxurious designer boutiques, small galleries, fine jewellers, as well as cosy bookshops complete with I’ll-just-read-the-first-chapter-and-see-what-it’s-like cafes and shops for kids. If you still have money to burn, head to Walnut Street and ask the burning question, “Which restaurant will we go to this evening?” Because from the handful of options on the city’s central axis, every restaurant is among the best in the country.

Non-stop flights from £339Hotels from £81

Czech Republic: Pilsen instead of Prague

No, Pilsen doesn’t have a big old castle town like Prague’s Hradčany district, but does it have a big old Medieval square? Damn straight it does! In fact, it appears to be more like an open-air ballroom, framed by colourful, staircase façades, and a bourgeois palace. The VIP lodgings of the city, this square, Náměstí Republiky, is the historical centre of Pilsen and Pilsen itself is historically important, especially if you’re a fan of fine ales.

The stunning square where the (arguably) world’s best beer got its start © Anilah /

Here is where Pilsen’s beer tradition began – with a flood. In protest of bad beer quality and extortionate prices, the citizens of Pilsen smashed 36 barrels of sub-par beer in the street. Before a foul taste (think American domestic beers) could be left in the collective mouth a brewery was built and a master brewer, a Bavarian named Johannes, was brought to the city, Pilsner was invented in 1842 and remains the lifeblood of the city to this day. Why, in the souvenir shops you can even get products such as beer hand cream, beer aftershave and beer shampoo.

Flights from £68Hotels from £21

✈ 14th– 16th February, flights from Manchester to Prague  from £91

Australia: Brisbane instead of Sydney

Okay, you don’t need a degree in Geography to know that Sydney is not the capital of Australia, but if capital came down to character, it would be. With its usual flair, the metropolis with the characteristic seashell Opera House typically stands right in the foreground, but take a peek behind it and head on down to Brisbane!

‘Brissie’, as the Aussies affectionately call Queensland’s capital, is a city of two halves, thanks to the Brisbane River. Heading into the centre, you can largely leave the left bank well alone; there are some cool bars and restaurants of course, but it’s not the prettiest with its concrete slopes and Sixties-style pedestrian zones.

This Brisbane view has zero opera houses and is all the better for it © Kyrle Spillane /

Buuuuuut, on the right side of the river, is an area called the Southbank. A  spacious promenade with cafes, restaurants and a Ferris wheel, flanked by the five-storey, light-flooded Gallery of Modern Art, GoMa, and The Courier-Mail Piazza, an artistic and cultural hub, featuring an amphitheatre in which there is always something going on. The whole scene garnished by a beach, tanned Brisbanites and ample palm trees.

Oh, and then definitely take the boat up the river, to the ‘Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary’, a sanctuary for injured animals and the best opportunity to cuddle a koala. The pope, Gorbachev and Eric Clapton have already been able to take pictures with these sleepy fluffballs … now, that’s something you’re not gonna find in Sydney!

Flights from £510Hotels from £ 37

England: Liverpool instead of London

Liverpool is a city that was once reliant on its docks, and the staple food of the sailors and dock workers was a meat and vegetable stew called Lobscouse, which when shortened gives us the slang name for Liverpudlians – Scouser, and boy is that an accent.

These days Liverpool is a modern, thriving city packed with great restaurants, cafes, live music venues and bars; and boasting a burgeoning art scene. This north-western metropolis is home to an incredible range of galleries: from The Victoria Gallery and Museum, a proper old-school creepy museum jam-packed with skeletons and the like; to The Royal Standard, an artist-led gallery that is constantly pushing boundaries and challenging conceptions; and there is even a branch of the Tate here.

The lanes of Liverpool rival London, and that’s a fact © M.V. Photography /

But there are two things that Liverpool is perennially famous for, and the first is football. Liverpool FC and Everton FC both represent this city – heading here for a home game is a top football experience but get in early with your accommodation bookings as rabid fans start booking all the hotels out months in advance.

And then, of course, The Beatles. Fanatics should stay in the Hard Days Night Hotel – with a Paul and a John suite, a Beatles-themed bar in the basement, and memorabilia everywhere starting right at reception.

And just round the corner is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, the venue that gave the fab four their start and where they, in fact, appeared 292 times. Start here for more Beatles Mania, and naturally, a few pints. If the cover bands don’t cut it continue further along and check out Liverpool’s thriving craft beer scene. If a Magical Mystery Tour of the town doesn’t fix the next day’s hangover, nothing will.

Flights from £96Hotels from £43

Italy: Trieste instead of Venice

Trieste also has its ‘Grand Canal’, although, this moat with its dingy motor boats isn’t what would bring you to the city. Instead, the city’s fineries rival Vienna – pristine, five to seven-storey palaces, which extend along entire streets, resplendent in neoclassical columns, ancient marble god statues or swirling art nouveau style facades.

This Italian alternative is a marriage of many worlds © IriGri /

Scattered in between are churches with rounded towers or rigid chapels. Examples of everything from Greek Orthodox to Roman Catholic. Exciting and enigmatic at the same time. The reason can be found on a small metal plaque: Trieste belonged to the Habsburg Empire for more than 500 years and was expanded to become Austria’s only seaport by Empress Maria Theresa’s architect, making Trieste a cultural melting pot for 100s of years.

The Molo Audace, a 200-metre-long jetty that extends into the Adriatic Sea, is, so to speak, Trieste’s catwalk, displaying sunbathers and anglers throughout, and for lovers in the evening. Trieste is also synonymous with coffee, at least in Italy, because, in this famously coffee-loving nation, Trieste drinks the most.

Flights from £43Hotels from £ 61

Canada: Toronto instead of Montreal

Toronto is “New York – but run by the Swiss,” actor Peter Ustinov once said. True: like Manhattan, the city is laid out on a checkerboard grid, glittering skyline (that A-ha should make a song about) and is nestled by the water, but is squeaky clean and everything works. And in the heart of the city, shopping, galleries, cafes, shopping, entertainment and restaurants are all within easy reach and walking distance, oh, and did we mention shopping?

If you stay in one of the big city hotels such as the Sheraton, Hilton or Marriott, you can simply stroll through the glittering downtown past entranceways to all the boutiques and stores you can imagine, before hitting the massive department stores and shopping malls. To give you an idea, the Eaton Center has about 300 shops to get lost in. Not a bad effort at all.

Take an old street car into the distillery district of East Toronto for a different side of the city.

The sprawling grounds of the old distilleries, originally built in 1837, were allowed to fall into ruin and decay, but these days they have been completely revamped, and now the red brick radiates anew with housing galleries, cafes, and small artisan shops, as well as Toronto’s most beautiful Christmas market.

Toronto: that says it all, really. Have a shopping getaway @ Kiev.Victor /Shutterstock

Flights from £ 311Hotels from £ 51

✈ 20th March – 3rd April, flights from Manchester to Toronto from £ 380

Spain: San Sebastian instead of Madrid

Once a year, Hollywood comes to the Basque Country: the big stars flock to the film festival in September in this small seaside resort near the French border. And find it as irresistible as an A-list smile: radiant blue water, surrounded by the crescent-shaped sand beach and white Belle Epoque residential palaces behind it, richly decorated with floral decor and playful balconies.

San Sebastian
A San Sebastian city break is as fantastic as its harbour is beautiful © AnnaKostyuk /

The view from the top of the mountain of Monte Igueldo is simply stunning, as it looks out over La Concha, so named for the shell-shaped bay. Despite being a prime city centre location, not a grain of sand is fenced off or private property. In this city of 183,000 inhabitants, the diversity the beach brings is appreciated and is at its heart – families with strollers, people grooving out to everything from punk to hip-hop on their headphones, as well as loads of Basque flag carriers strolling along Spain’s most beautiful city beach.

And behind the beach? The chessboard-like old town. In 1813, after a fire swept through the city, most of the houses were rebuilt giving it the architectural charm it has today. It feels like almost every second doorway opens into a small bar with ‘pintxos’ on the counter, the Basque tapas.

Almost daily, the hosts offer new variants. But whether it’s blood sausage with pistachio or salted cod croquettes – everyone must try the most famous, and probably the first, pintxo. Invented in the late forties, the ‘Gilda’, a pepperoni-anchovies-olive spit, is named after a film that slipped through Spanish post-war censorship. Well, it’s actually named for the film’s heroine, played by the indomitable Rita Hayworth, whose spicy sass matches the ingredients perfectly. Pair this with a glass of Txakoli, the dangerously easy to drink local white wine, before moving on to the next bar.

Flights from £ 124Hotels from £ 51

Note: These rates are based on search queries made on on January 18th, 2017. The prices are quoted in GBP. Flight prices are based on results for a return economy flight search. Hotel prices are for double occupancy at base price. Prices are subject to change, may vary, or no longer be available.