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Cities which aren’t the capital – but should be

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Predictably, our first visit to a country will often focus on its capital city. Not only does this mean everybody sees the same old stuff, but this blind focus on the capital can also mean other great cities go unappreciated. So here we present five cities we think are worthy of – and sadly lacking – the accolade. As Shakespeare so beautifully put it, what’s in a name?

Barcelona

Culturally and historically, Barcelona likes to think of itself as the capital of the Mediterranean rather than Spain’s second city. It’s perfect for you if your idea of fun is being unable to turn round without an eyeful of Catalan modernist architecture. The best of this is Gaudi’s colossal Sagrada Familia church, so vast that it still won’t be completed till 2026. There are hundreds more galleries and museums as well as an aquarium and zoo which routinely amaze visitors. It’s not as big as Madrid, but Barcelona is the centre of tourism in Spain, and you’ll never stop talking about it once you’re home.

Venice

Italy, Veneto, Venice, Rialto Bridge over Grand Canal

Venice is where all the cannier visitors head to in Italy. For centuries it’s been said that everyone should visit the city at least once. The real trouble is that the Grand Canal and the Piazza San Marco are both on practically everybody’s to-do list, and they can get so busy that it seems like everyone really HAS visited at once! You can lessen the stress of this by getting off the beaten track a bit and wandering around Dorsoduro or visiting San Giorgio. And if possible by plan your trip a little out of season, for example in May before the crowds get too big, but far enough into the season that most tourist services will be running.

Glasgow

Cityscape with an office building, The Lighthouse, Glasgow, Scotland

Instead of hitting Edinburgh yet again for its castle, its festivals and its not-much-else, we suggest Glasgow as a warmer, less expensive alternative. This is where most Scots head, after all. Its once-dark reputation gave way in the 90s to decades of regeneration, and the derelict shipyards have been replaced with gleaming science centres and museums. The west end has long been one of the artiest places in Europe and you can get all the way from the centre of the city through its bohemian quarters and out into the country purely by walking through gigantic, colourful Victorian parks. As you’d expect in the UK’s third biggest city, shopping and nightlife are busy throughout the week and the architecture draws art students from all over the world. Well, that and the beer.

New York

New York City and Empire State Building

New York will blister the eyeballs of any unsuspecting visitor. You’ve seen it in hundreds of TV shows and movies but the massive scale of its busy, scary, beautiful and sometimes-slightly-dangerous traffic and crowds have to be seen to be believed. It’s basically a tough blue-collar town which has for some reason become the emblem of America, and that’s why 47 million people show up every year to gawp at the attractions, museums, and parks hidden between the emblematic destinations like the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty. The real question is how so much has been fitted in. Well, the answer to that becomes clear quickly: the place is crammed together and stacked high into the sky like a very, very workaholic anthill, so it’s just as well that 28,000 acres of parkland have been woven in too, in which you can find some peace and quiet!

St Petersburg

The most “Western” city in Russia hasn’t been the capital since 1918, but it’s had a bruising and terrifying journey through time since then which has left the place completely unique, architecturally and culturally. You’ll certainly want to check out the St Petersburg Ballet and there are so many festivals through the year that you won’t be able to choose. You’ll have the same problem with libraries (over 2000 at last count). Really, we ought to be grateful that St Petersburg isn’t the capital, because that’s the only reason it survived the big Soviet architectural prestige projects – they tended to get dumped on Moscow instead. There’s nowhere like St Petersburg for sheer history and it’s as rich as a cultural fruitcake. Get yourself a slice.