What to see & where to go after the capitals

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

City travel is dominated by the likes of London, Bangkok, Moscow and Rome, but what about the second cities of the world? Those places unfairly relegated to live in another city’s iconic, much-loved shadow? From St. Petersburg and Florence to Chiang Mai and Geneva, we take a look at just a few of the world’s most stunning, travel-friendly second cities that we believe are worth a little of your time in 2020.

St. Petersburg

Peter the Great’s imperial capital has the flair and style of Paris and the museums to rival New York, Paris and London. Characterised by its sumptuous and grand architectural diversity, the city feels like a jewellery box stuffed to bursting with bewitching jewels like the Amber Room in Catherine’s Palace, the Versailles-inspired Peterhof with gardens full of fountains and sculptures, the delightful Fabergé Museum, the striking golden dome of St. Isaac’s, and the vast collections of art within the magnificent Winter Palace. And when compared to the stark Soviet brutalism of Moscow, St Petersburg is an unfathomably colourful, fairytale city, with vibrant architectures, a pretty network of glittering canals and a legion of ornate bridges.

St Petersburg is home to a surprisingly large collection of beaches in and around the city, all looking out across the Finish Gulf, as well as more than a hundred islands to explore. And an overlooked gem of these islands is the mostly residential Krestovsky Island that boasts an impressive collection of waterside restaurants, a yacht club and a delightful 18th-century German brewery and restaurant set in a stone windmill amongst idyllic gardens, made all the more blissful by its dreamy sea views. 


While most favour fashionable Milan as Italy’s second city, Florence is just so much more explorable and in a word, beautiful. To properly appreciate the beauty of it all, take an evening walk along the amber-lit banks of the river and upwards to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the staggering scale of Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the castle-like tower of Palazzo Vecchio and the medieval Ponte Vecchio stretched across the River Arno, all soaked in the poetic oranges and burning reds of that much romanced Tuscan sunset. And while Milan arguably has the edge when it comes to shopping, Florence has local fashion multi-brands Luisa Via Roma and PNP Firenze serving up contemporary collections from many of the world’s most fashion-forward brands — as well as boutiques, cafes and museums from local Florentine houses such as Gucci, Ferragamo, Cavalli and Pucci.

Culture lovers will be in awe of Florence’s art museums, while foodies will be enamoured of local delicacies like delicious Bistecca alla Fiorentina and street foods such as the now world insta-famous panini at All’Antico Vinaio, and Lampredotto — a local favourite best tried at the delightful 100-year old Antico Trippaio food van (it’s not the original van) that’s usually parked between Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo.

Chiang Mai

Thailand’s northern capital — with its thriving coffee culture and modern restaurants — is every bit as cosmopolitan (though admittedly much smaller) as Bangkok, but it has an undeniable, historic charm wrapped up in that stunning moated old town that’s full of ancient temples, leafy cobbled streets, quaint shops and food stalls serving delicious northern Thai cuisine. Hovering over Chiang Mai is the mountain-top temple at Doi Suthep, with its lavish gold-plated Chedi, collections of Lanna art, scores of orange-robed monks, traditionally dressed Lanna tribespeople and some of the most incredible, swoon-inducing views in all of Thailand — with sweeping vistas of the surrounding Samoeng jungles, the undulating countryside of Mae Rim and the striking network of lights that radiates from the city below.

The delightful but chaotic Night Bazaar is a highlight of Chaing Mai’s various food markets, while Nimmanhaemin is where one finds the city’s modern face, with contemporary clubs, stylish rooftop bars and some of the city’s better hotels.


While Geneva doesn’t have the fairytale good looks of Bern or Zurich, the city boasts a lively international populous (Geneva is after all home to the World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to name but a few), as well as an explorable old town filled with chic bars and cafes, countless chocolatiers, artisanal boutiques, offbeat museums, jewellers and a decent collection of restaurants (Domaine de Châteauvieux in the countryside is a highlight), all cuddled up on the lovely shores of the vast Lake Geneva with its huge Jet d’Eau — a 140-metre high water fountain.

Foodies should book an evening anywhere that makes fondue in the traditional Genevan manner — with just one cheese, Gruyère from La Roche — while summer travellers should take to the lake to explore Lausanne, Montreux and Évian-Les-Bains, and take a boat trip along the French border that cuts through the very heart of the lake.

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