Girona, Spain.

When you land in New York, Barcelona, London, Hong Kong or Sydney, you just know you’re going to get gouged on well… just about everything. Everything you want to see has been on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. There are no “secrets” here, just more choice to disperse crowds.

You go anyway, because they’re iconic and life wouldn’t be complete without seeing each one of them, at least once for most people. I’ve heard from plenty of people who can’t die happily until they’ve seen that one thing in that one place. It’s usually like the Sagrada Familia or something.

Living in them can be amazing too, don’t get me wrong. I do.

But once you’ve done the bright lights and big cities, and find yourself craving a style of travel that offers a more intimate look, what do you do? The answer: take a flight, then maybe a train, plane or automobile to a secondary, or even tertiary city or town.

“I just can’t stand the crowds in Barcelona”…

Timing is everything in travel, and with more flights from more places at sliding prices, you’d need lucky timing or the flexibility of avoiding dreaded school holidays to swerve the crowds in any major city.

Sure, some major cities were built with mass tourism or transient lifestyles in mind but others weren’t, and either way it can be chaotic. There’s really no “easy” way to miss big crowds at the iconic tourism sites.

a river with buildings and a bridge

For those that have “seen it all”, or don’t care about the tick box style of tourism, preferring more personal experiences, it’s the secondary and tertiary cities in each country which should really be on the radar.

If you once flocked to Barcelona, no one is saying it shouldn’t still be on the itinerary, but it just may not be the final destination for a trip that offers a sense of true “place” in Spain.

After a flight into the Catalan capitol, it’s a train ride or car journey to nearby Girona for the idyllic views, outrageously good food, lower prices and a slightly less cosmopolitan glimpse into true Catalan life. The nearby beaches don’t hurt either.

But we’re talking about everywhere, not just Spain…

The rise of these second cities is nothing short of exhilarating. Immensely talented chefs, designers, artists and curators are returning to their regional roots as airlines open up more point to point direct flight routes to bring “in the know” tourists to these new hot spots.

With more people fleeing the big cities, there’s more demand to create something special in a smaller environment. Work from “anywhere” is fueling this interesting shift that is dispersing talent more broadly.

a stairway leading up to a cityIt’s why we’ve said go here not there, or alternatives to major cities in Italy, within an easy ride to a city worth visiting, but without all the fuss of finding food coloured gelato and Caprese salad in the middle of winter.

Call it “big fish, little pond” or whatever you will, but it’s making for incredible tourism in a time where people crave new places to go, and unique experiences they won’t see everyone else sharing. You can’t beat a restaurant where you must adjust to their culture, not yours. No menu in English is often a great sign.

That includes cities like Bilbao, which has always played Spain’s third or fourth fiddle, just as much as Gothenburg, Brisbane, Taipei or Calgary. Yes, they’re big cities, but they’ve always been part of the orchestra. It’s why we recommend these budget friendly Southeast Asian gems over the ones you were probably thinking of.

Forget a New York foodie trip! Pittsburgh is winning all sorts of culinary awards. Just don’t go in winter.

Everyone goes to Tokyo! Osaka has better food and cheaper hotels.

Why Miami? Tampa is up and coming with a cool new waterfront.

british airways 100 offer

No one is saying you should skip major cities, but if you’ve done them, or are seeking a place you can sink your teeth into for a bit more breadth of understanding for a place, there’s genuinely never been a better time to spread your proverbial wings and fly somewhere new.

Thanks to new planes which are smaller and more fuel efficient, airlines are prioritizing direct flights to more cities over flights from one major hub to another, the possibilities are everywhere.

In other words, cities which were once a few stops are now direct, or one stop at the worst. Rail connections are the largest focus in Europe right now, so connecting even between multiple countries is easy.

For every action there’s a reaction, and as locals lose their grip – and neighborhoods – to mass in major cities, they’re bringing all the good stuff back to local environments where you’ll feel a deeper sense of discovery. The world is getting “small” again, and to grab the horns of the next travel trend, look at that great big city you were considering and then find the closest nearby getaway.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Add Bologna, Naples and Milan(kinda) over Venice, Rome and Florence. Although the latter are great…just not in the summer:)

  2. Photo 1 is probably a good example why people avoid second-rate, I mean second class, I mean secondary cities.

    But photos 2 and 3 look very interesting. Could you caption them with their locations? Thank u.

  3. AK beat me to it — was wondering where the second and third photos were taken! 🙂

  4. I had a wonderful time (evening and next morning) in Kadoka, South Dakota showing that off the beaten path is sometimes fun.

  5. @AK 2nd picture if from Penang hill, looking down into the old part of Georgetown, and mainland Malaysia in the background. it’s a lovely city

  6. Yep, most major cities are overrated and over crowded. The reason travel brochures and tours want to promote them is simple:
    1. they close to major airports and have public transport infrastructure;
    2. they pay a lot of money to advertise, so they can make even more money from tourists (through taxes and fees);
    3. people don’t have enough own imagination and follow herd psychology to go into the beaten path laid in front of them;
    4. most people are not “adventurous”enough to come up with their own travel plan and afraid to implement in.

    I’m fine with that mentality as it serves the majority, but leaves “secondary” cities/towns with much smaller tourism footprint and authenticity. Hence you can get a feel for the country you’re visiting, and not dealing with globalized cookie-cutter culture of major metropolitan areas. There are some exceptions, for example Vienna mostly retains its charm (on the contrary Prague is overrun by tourist for over a decade now, and mainly lost its appeal – yes, you better off visiting Ljubljana, pictured in the article – with budget-priced food, accommodations and sightseeing tickets).

    Most countries can be explored by car, and in Europe it’s safe, comfortable and cheaper compared to trains/buses. This way traveler can wonder to smaller towns and interesting sights, untouched by major tourist routes (like Medina-Sidonia, Evora or Torremolinos in Spain; Girona is fine too if you want to see one of the few remaining walled cities plus a great Salvador Dali museum).

    So the mass tourism can be avoided, but one have to set their mind to it, then do it.
    Happy travels!

  7. I feel you. Most people go to the handful of iconic places because how can you not? In Spain, mot people go to Barcelona, Madrid or the islands. Andalucia gets its fair share of attention as well.
    But Valencia? Valencia is still off the beaten path for many, in spite of being the third largest city in Spain. It is true that Valencia is popular with expats, but it’s still not a mass tourist destination although it has a lot of potential.
    And if you decide to take day trips to the nearby villages… well, most of them barely received any local tourists, let alone international travelers.
    It certainly is important to decentralize tourism for both travelers and the local communities. Spain might be a major tourist destination, but few people ever travel beyond a handful of obvious destinations. And they are missing out, imho.

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