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Cover story: Europe’s second cities

The likes of Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin dominate the conversation when it comes to Europe’s best-loved cities, but what of the Continent’s rising stars? From Antwerp to Liverpool, Munich to Tampere, we take a look at 10 of the best

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 3 May 2019, 12:36 BST
Liverpool docks
Liverpool docks
Photograph by Getty Images

Liverpool, UK

With the nocturnal naughtiness of a southern European capital and a waterfront to rival any in the UK, Liverpool is one of England’s most convivial and cosmopolitan cities.

I first tasted it as a wide-eyed child and was baptised into football at both Goodison Park and Anfield as a teenager. Although I’ll forever be a ‘woollyback’ (out-of-towner) to the locals, I consider Liverpool my home city. I indulged heavily in the parties and festivals during the European Capital of Culture year of 2008. Since then, things have settled down and Liverpool feels big, solid, important again.

I start my visit, as always, at the Tate Liverpool in the Albert Dock. I prefer it to either of the London branches and its collection makes St Ives look like the seaside small-timer that it is. Finding a quiet corner, I eye the landmark 20th-century works: Arp, Duchamp, Ernst.

This Tate is a place to ponder art without having to do battle with annoying crowds. Liverpool is home to half a million people, and they’re spread out over a large area — there is little jostling, no tension over space.

I have a coffee here and then mosey along to the Maritime Museum. It was boats, far more than The Beatles or Bill Shankly, that made Liverpool the greatest city on earth. The displays fascinate, but don’t shirk from stories of slavery.

Liverpool is small, walkable. I like the ungentrified area between the docks and the city centre, known as the Baltic Triangle. This used to be where all dock depots were — a few shipping agents remain — but it’s becoming a creative hotspot. I like the functional buildings, the post-industrial messiness of the area.

I zigzag up to the Anglican cathedral, the neo-gothic masterpiece looming over the southern edge of the city centre. Nearby, close to the university, is the Catholic cathedral, which looks like a yurt. I like the gloomy interior of the former and the light flowing into the latter — the modernist piazzas remind me of Brasilia.

I have lunch on Hope Street, one of Liverpool’s pre-eminent dining and drinking strips. The London Carriage Works does lots of locally sourced dishes. I have Liverpool Bay seabass but don’t drink, reserving that urge for a post-prandial pint of Strongheart at The Phil (aka Philharmonic Dining Rooms), one of the most beautiful pubs in Britain. The two snugs are ideal for cosy chats, but I’m alone so remain at the bar reading Paul du Noyer’s Liverpool: Wondrous Place — a fine book about the city’s pop music culture.

The Hard Days Night is a smart, central theme-hotel with a great cocktail bar and cool pop art in the rooms. But my favourite hotel is the funky Parr Street Studios, in the Ropewalks district. Its Studio2 bar is as glamorous as any in town after dark and the studios are still fully functioning. Rock ‘n’ roll.

Best for: Pubs with history: Baltic Fleet, Philharmonic Dining Rooms, Ye Cracke, Ye Hole In Ye Wall.
Go now: The ‘Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain’ exhibition at the Tate, featuring works by Sonia Boyce, Derek Jarman and Stephen McKenna. (28 February – 11 May). 
Alternative: Hull, the other great northern city — too often overlooked, but fun, friendly and bracingly Baltic.

Words: Chris Moss

Grote Markt, in Antwerp’s old town
Photograph by Visitflanders

Antwerp, Belgium

The woman behind the counter at Huis A Boon doesn’t need to think twice: one expert glance at my hands, and she knows instantly what size they are. Turning to the shelves behind her, she pulls down box after box of leather, lambskin and peccary gloves in every conceivable colour, all hand-stitched, buttery soft and supple.

As someone who doesn’t enjoy clothes shopping, I’m surprised to find myself doing just that. But then the whole experience is so much more appealing in a city where handsome cobbled streets are lined with interesting one-off boutiques, and there’s a refreshing lack of attitude in even the grandest of designer stores.

In Dries Van Noten’s imposing Het Modepaleis, the friendly assistant is happy for me to have a nose round even though I’m clearly not buying. At nearby Maison Anna Heylen, the designer herself rocks up on a big, old, sit-up-and-beg bike and greets me with a smile as I’m admiring her elegant creations. The amiability rubs off. In the tranquil environment at Ann Demeulemeester I’m sorely tempted to buy, even through the price tag is way out of my comfort zone. Possibly getting a little carried away, I even find myself eyeing up crowns (yes, crowns) in concept store Ra.

Regal headgear aside, there’s a welcome understatedness to Antwerp, even though the city has plenty to shout about — the grand gothic cathedral; the ornamented guild houses lining the Grote Markt; and the beautiful Museum Plantin-Moretus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the world’s oldest printing presses.

This is one of those places where it pays to ditch the sightseeing tick-list and just wander. Head down a cobbled side street and a twist and a turn later you find yourself in a pretty hidden courtyard or secret garden. Walk north of the centre and you can explore the regenerating docklands area of Eilandje; head south instead and you’re bang in the middle of Zuid, with its Paris-style cafe culture.

One thing I quickly discover: whichever way you go, there will be chocolate. At the Chocolate Line, you can pick up chocolate lipstick and paint in the gilded surroundings of an 18th-century palace. At Chocolatier Burie, they’re just as likely to be making their own palace out of chocolate for the famously creative window displays. And Del Rey, near the station, does a fine line in ‘chocolate milks’. Not as innocent as they sound — my Chocomarnier comes (in a silver pot, on a silver tray) with a generous shot of Grand Marnier liqueur and accompanying bowls of ice cream. If I’m clothes shopping again tomorrow, I may need to go up a size.

Best for: Clothes, culture and confectionery.
Go now: The new Red Star Line Museum in Het Eilandje tells the story of the thousands of passengers who set sail here for a new life in the New World.
Alternative: Bruges — not as big on fashion, but it ticks the culture and chocolate boxes.

Words: Suzanne King

Wine bar in the Place de la Comedie, Bordeaux
Photograph by Getty Images

Bordeaux, France

It’s possibly the only UNESCO-listed city that visitors can’t wait to leave, but then Bordeaux’s main attraction isn’t in its stately 18th-century squares and harmonious architecture; it’s by the roadsides as you leave town. Running north west from the city centre, the Route des Châteaux skims through the Médoc wine region, hemmed in by never-ending vineyards and livened up by a spectacular wine château every so often. Latour, Margaux, Lafite Rothschild — the names read like a rollcall of the greats, and many are open for tastings (though the most famous ones require you to book in advance).

It’s a dreamy ride, with fairytale castles — such as the turreted Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande — looming magisterially over the vines. But if you’d rather concentrate on drinking than driving, the Bordeaux tourist board runs coach trips to different appellations every day in season (and three times a week year-round), as well as a blending visit to two châteaux in Haut-Médoc. But if you really can’t drag yourself away from the incredible centre, you’ll find the wine museum — the Musée du Vin et du Négoce — in Rue Borie, and the tourist board running cheese and wine tastings in restaurants across the city.  

Best for: Boozy break.
Go now: The Bordeaux Wine Festival from 26-29 June. 
Alternative: Ireland’s most Irish city, Galway is full of quality boozers, including some where Irish is the dominant language. What’s Gaelic for Guinness, again?

Words: Julia Buckley

Cafe by the Dom Luis Bridge in the Ribeira district, Porto
Photograph by AWL

Porto, Portugal

I’m sitting by the river in Vila Nova de Gaia. It’s early evening, and a pink light falls on the jumble of domes, spires and townhouses stacked along the Ribeira. It’s the beginning of a dazzling sunset, a sequence that will throw the iron arch of Dom Luis Bridge into silhouette, make the Rio Douro look like treacle, and finally turn Porto’s townhouses the colour of tawny port.

You can see where I’m going with this. The Douro Valley is famous for its fortified wines — those unique white, ruby and tawny ports created by arresting the fermentation process (and sweetening the results) with the addition of brandy. You can’t visit Porto without clocking the warehouses, restaurants and bars emblazoned with names such as Quinta do Noval, Taylor’s, Croft and Ferreira.

I taste the port. And it’s good. But that’s just the beginning.

The real thrill of a visit is Porto’s magnificent mash-up of traditional and modern. That slick metro whizzing beneath shopfronts laden with salted cod. Those brand-name boutiques sitting next to shops selling wax body parts — hearts, lungs, arms and intestines which are left in churches as pleas for divine intercession.

Porto is a city as defined by its musty warehouses as contemporary architectural set-pieces such as Rem Koolhaas’s Casa da Música. This was the first new building in Portugal dedicated entirely to music. Taking the form of a distorted cube, its rippled windows seem to invite the city lights in to illuminate performances ranging from classical to jazz, fado and electronica.

In São Bento railway station, blue-and-white azulejos (tiles) depict scenes from Portugal’s history against a backdrop of rushing commuters and dawdling tourists. Cavalries charge. Peasants toil. Beneath the tall windows, a young woman sits sketching the scene, rucksack tucked into the small of her back. Nearby, graffiti featuring a fighter plane has been stencilled onto a wall. It reads: ‘Enjoy American Airlines’.

In Bolhão Market, a customer dips into a slithering tray of fish. Behind her, a poster of the Virgin Mary is tacked to the wall. Along Cais de Gaia, the river’s south bank which provides stellar views back over the Ribeira (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), restaurants and wine bars tailor menus to their cosmopolitan clientele. Clubs open late, rocking right through to dawn.

I gobble gristly sardines in the harbour area of Matosinhos. I sample a cutting-edge take on black pork in the sleek surroundings of Cafeína on Rua do Padrão. In the art nouveau Majestic Café, I consider matching Toucinho do céu, a Portuguese almond cake, with a suggested pairing of port (in this case, a 10-year-old tawny). The endless mirrors are starting to age. The clientele around me write letters and read newspapers, keeping one eye on each other, the other on tourists ogling this belle epoque beauty.

If Lisbon is the meal, Porto is the sweet and storied digestif.

Best for: Port is one of the classic fortified European wines, and this is the best place to taste it. The drink is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley.
Go now: Festa de São João (23 June) is Porto’s party night. Expect fireworks of every kind as locals bash each other over the head with leeks or plastic hammers in an age-old celebration of love — with nods to John the Baptist.
Alternative: Faro is another underrated city, with a lovely old town, marina and surprisingly vibrant nightlife.

Words: Pól Ó Conghaile


Read more in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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