So you're headed to New York, or London, or Paris. They're great. Everybody knows they're great. But they're also pretty much the beaten path. You can get many of the same thrills of top tourist cities in somewhat lesser-known, less-expensive, less-mobbed burghs, where you can climb skyscrapers, visit castles, eat top-notch meals and bed down with a little bit less stress. The Eiffel Tower, of course, will always be the Eiffel Tower. But if you're looking for an alternative to save money or expand your horizons, try one of our 'second cities.'
Thinking of New York? Try Chicago. Of course we had to start this story with the original "Second City," a friendly and dynamic metropolis with breathtaking skyscrapers, a complex patchwork of ethnic restaurants and world-class museums. I'm a New York native, but I love Chicago as a place that's a little more relaxed, yet still huge, complex, powerful and vibrant. The Art Institute is marvelous but doesn't overwhelm like the Met. The El is efficient, but doesn't confuse quite as much as the subway. Chicago's top chefs, guys like Grant Achatz and Charlie Keller, can hold their own with anything New York has to offer. The people are friendlier, the tall buildings are even taller, and there are beaches near downtown.
Thinking of Paris? Try Montreal. Ah, the romance of sitting in a sidewalk cafe, sipping coffee in the spring air while the fellow next to you annotates Rimbaud. That's life on the Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal, the most Parisian place you can go outside Paris -- and for people who live in the eastern USA, you can drive there. Wander through the streets of the old city, stand on the steps of the Oratoire de St. Joseph (Montreal's Notre-Dame) or get coffee on the plateau, and c'est magnifique. Montreal has its own vibe, of course, a bit of an edgy underdog that creates far more indie rock music than its size suggests. But that only enhances its status as the perfect bridge between America and Europe.
Thinking of Boston? Try Portland, Maine. The soul of New England inhabits the cobblestone streets of Portland's old port area, which is chockablock with historic homes, walkable neighborhoods, and surprisingly good restaurants. The city has a high-quality art museum and a (minor-league) baseball team where you can actually get close to the field, as opposed to at Fenway. Portland even has a university, cementing its position as Boston's more manageable, more charming little brother.
Thinking of San Francisco? Try Portland, Oregon. Portland takes San Francisco's silly, freaky, leftish vibe and mellows it a bit. The fun of Portland is in capturing its mood, so let me try: there's a chain of local brewpub/hotels that specializes in renovating historic buildings, and one of their best outlets is in a rebuilt elementary school. Everyone celebrates the big independent bookstore Powell's, a hub of local culture. The biggest tourist attraction is a rose garden attached to a huge park. Everyone seems to have tattoos, whether they're loggers or hipsters. And Mount Hood, perfect for skiing, is only an hour away.
Thinking of London? Try Cardiff. The capital of Wales has completely reinvented itself over the past ten years, becoming one of our favorite destinations for 2008. Cardiff has not one but three castles, two major parks, and a highbrow performing arts scene anchored by a shimmering, brand-new concert hall. New British cuisine is easily available at several restaurants in the refurbished city center. And it's still relatively cheap, at least compared to London.
Thinking of Chicago? Try Pittsburgh. Yeah, yeah, we know we just told you to try Chicago. But after you've tried Chicago, try Pittsburgh. Another of our Top Destinations for 2008, Pittsburgh is a patchwork of interesting neighborhoods topped by hills and criscrossed by rivers, with a surprising (to outsiders) artsy side. Pittsburgh's mainstream museums include top-notch art, natural history and science museums; the home of Andy Warhol also has a museum devoted to his work. The Strip District features the cuisines of the sort of muscular European ethnicities one associates with Chicago and other blue-collar Midwestern towns.
Thinking of Tokyo? Try Seoul. Yet another one of our Top Destinations for 2008, Seoul, like Tokyo, is a dynamic first-world Asian metropolis where an obsession with modern technology meets ancient palaces and shrines. Seoul overwhelms just like Tokyo, with surprising pockets of peace just like Tokyo. But almost everything in Seoul costs considerably less than in Tokyo, thanks to the somewhat weaker Korean won; for instance, a room at a Westin hotel which could run you $280/night in Tokyo is only $178 in Seoul, and a short taxi ride that would cost $6.50 in Tokyo runs a mere $1.40 in Seoul.
Thinking of Prague? Try Krakow. Poland remains just a step below the Czech Republic and Hungary in cost and touristiness, and Krakow is Poland at its most charming. Krakow's been fully discovered by Europeans for its charming streets, medieval town center, fairy-tale castle, and the attractiveness and verve of its many college-age inhabitants. The city's Jewish history is also notable. But Americans haven't quite flooded its streets yet, making the city feel like a prize for Americans willing to head east of the Czech border.
Thinking of Rome? Try Naples. Naples' gritty reputation gives it less of a tourist mob than Rome does, but it's chockablock with history, art, and delicious food. Frommer's lists a full two dozen churches and museums to see, including the massive national archaeological museum and a slam-bang collection of Italian painting masterpieces. As for your three-hour dinner, Naples invented pizza, and the local cuisine works wonders with seafood and rice. The incomparable historic site of Pompeii is only 45 minutes away.