World's Most Underrated Cities
Welcome to the urban underdogs—cities that aren't on the radar for most travelers. Some, like Slovakia's capital of Bratislava, might be overlooked because of their proximity to better-known cities. Others, like Detroit, can't seem to live down a bad rap. But if undiscovered art scenes, experimental cuisine, great architecture, and interesting neighborhoods are on your travel checklist, then these cities deserve a second look.
Taipei, for example, suffered for years from both obscurity and a reputation of being one of Asia's most polluted metropolises. But thanks to official efforts to crack down on car emissions, improve public transportation, and create more parks, Taiwan's capital has become one of the region's most livable cities. Meanwhile, neighborhoods such as Xinyi and Da'an districts have grown increasingly sophisticated, with refined restaurants, elegant boutiques, and eclectic cafés and bars.
In Valparaíso, Chile, residents worked with what they had—gorgeous 19th-century houses from the city's glory days as South America's most vital port. Throughout the city, you'll find painstakingly restored houses converted into restaurants, hotels, and galleries.
And then of course there's Detroit. What most people would consider as evidence of Motor City's sad decline—empty lots, abandoned houses, and disused factories—others view as unparalleled opportunities for artists, designers, and other creative types. In fact, Patti Smith and David Byrne, two of music's eternal cool kids, recently exhorted budding artists to move to Detroit, and young people are heeding their advice, moving into neighborhoods like Midtown and Woodbridge.
For a traveler, the main appeal of these neglected cities is authenticity. "You go to the Old Town in Prague, it's mostly tourists. In Bratislava, it's all locals," says Jaroslave Vitazka, a project manager for a private equity firm who has called the city home since 2002. Or, as Phillip Cooley says about Detroit: "It's real, it's honest. You can spend the day at an urban farm, and then head off to a Tigers game or the opera, just like the locals do."
A new breed of urban homesteader is helping to revive Motor City. Abandoned factories and warehouses like the Russell Industrial Center have been turned into studios for artists and artisans, while gardens now flourish in formerly vacant lots. The exuberant Heidelberg Art Project turns urban blight into a symbol of hope. Detroit's food scene, meanwhile, is taking off. Foran's Grand Trunk micropub, the Eastern Market, Supino Pizzeria, and Slows BBQ are just some of the gastronomic must-dos. Don't forget the city's museums, including the Detroit Institute of Art, home to Diego Rivera's "Detroit Industry" murals, and the delightful Motown Museum.
Don't Miss: If you're there on the weekend, swing by Café d'Mongo's, an antiques-filled speakeasy with live jazz that's open only Friday nights.
In the 1980s and '90s, this city of 3 million was choked in smog. Today, Taipei is one of Asia's most pleasant capitals, with acres of green space and an easy-to-use public transport system. And there's plenty to do for outdoor enthusiasts: Yangmingshan National Park, a hot springs in Beitou, hiking trails throughout the surrounding mountains, and riverside bike paths. But the biggest draw is the cuisine. Taipei has some of the best Chinese food in the world, from humble holes-in-the-wall to culinary temples. Don't fret if you can't speak or read the lingo—friendly locals are eager to help visitors.
Don't Miss: Lan Jia Gua Bao, near the Gongguan Night Market, serves superlative gua bao, or braised pork belly buns.
It's not just rodeos and golf in this laid-back city of 518,000. Surrounded by mountains and Saguaro National Park, Tucson has abundant natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage. Now you can add a happening downtown to its list of attractions. Decade-long efforts to redevelop the area have resulted in top-rated restaurants like chef Janos Wilder's Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, along with scores of new shops, restaurants, and bars. And every second Saturday, a few downtown blocks are closed to traffic in the evening for a street fair, with artisans, food vendors, street performers, and live music acts.
Don't Miss: Some of downtown Tucson's historic buildings have been given a second lease on life. Have a drink at Hotel Congress before attending a concert at The Rialto, a theater built during the Roaring Twenties.
London and Manchester might dispute this claim, but Glasgow has the best music scene in Britain. Acts like Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand got their start in clubs like King Tut's and the Barrowland Ballroom. And there's much more to experience in Scotland's largest city. Take your pick of innovative restaurants such as the mod-Scottish Cail Bruich or the seafood-centric Crabshakk. Architecture buffs shouldn't miss the Glasgow School of Art, an Art Nouveau gem designed by native son Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A new Zaha Hadid–designed transport museum opening this spring seals the city's reputation for forward-looking design.
Don't Miss: Hit the vintage shops along Byres Road. We Love to Boogie has a well-curated collection, café, and free Wi-Fi.
Often neglected in favor of nearby Kyoto, this former imperial capital is equally rich in ancient Buddhist temples, shrines, and gardens, but without the camera-wielding crowds. You'll find tame deer and the 8th-century Tōdai-Ji temple complex in Nara Park, while the lovely Isui-en garden provides serenity just a short walk away. The city also has an impressive collection of machiya, or traditional wooden townhouses. Spend an afternoon wandering the narrow streets of Naramchi, the old merchant district where many machiya have been converted into cafés and restaurants.
Don't Miss: Nara is the birthplace of sake, and numerous breweries can be found in and around the city. Arrange a visit to Harushika, a 127-year-old brewery, or drop by Kuramoto Hoshuku, a popular sake bar run by another local brewer.
Fairy-tale buildings, charming squares, a medieval castle looming over the city. No, we're not talking about Prague, but its Slovak counterpart down the Danube. Since Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, its once-sleepy capital has transformed into a buzzing hot spot. Nowhere is this more evident than the revitalized Old Town, where locals pack the many atmospheric cafés, bars, and restaurants. Though the dining scene has become more international, a new wave of old-school beer halls is finding favor among Bratislava's hipsters. Check out Beer Palace near the opera house and Kolkovna in the new, riverside Eurovea complex.
Move over, Boston. A renewed waterfront, vibrant arts scene, and sophisticated dining have turned this small college town into New England's most exciting city. Edgy galleries like New Urban Arts and AS220 host parties as well as exhibitions, while the RISD Museum shows French Impressionists, 20th-century masters, and rising young artists (including alums). The once-derelict West End neighborhood is now the city's epicenter of cool, with friendly dive bars, vintage stores, terrific eateries, and indie record stores. Swill cocktails at The Avery before moving on to the E&O Tap, a local institution.
Don't Miss: Opened in March 2010, Cook & Brown brings French finesse to down-home classics. Try the stuffed quail with cranberry relish and wild rice.
Nicknamed "the city of churches," this picturesque coastal city has long shed its stuffy reputation thanks to its multiethnic mix, lively café culture, and avant-garde art scene. Every February sees the Adelaide Fringe Festival, while the biennial Adelaide Festival of the Arts takes place in March. (The next one is in 2012.) During the rest of the year, get your art fix at cutting-edge galleries such as Greenaway Art Gallery and the aboriginal art–focused Tandanya. Bustling Central Market provides a window into the culinary scene. Adelaide is also blessed with a mild climate, so you can enjoy its fine beaches and the 125-acre Adelaide Botanic Garden all year round.
Don't Miss: People-watch from an outdoor table at Scoozi, one of the dozens of welcoming cafés on Rundle Street East.
A two-hour drive from Santiago, this port city has long been known for the colorful houses that dot its steep hills. In recent years, it's been undergoing a renaissance as residents turn historic buildings into character-filled boutique hotels, restaurants, and galleries. Catch this new spirit in Cerro Alegre or Cerro Concepción, two bohemian neighborhoods accessible by the city's distinctive ascensores, or funicular elevators. Check into Hotel Gervasoni or the Zero Hotel, both located in 19th-century mansions with sweeping views, before having dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in the area.
Don't Miss: One of the homes of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, La Sebastiana is now a museum filled with quirky items collected by the poet during his travels.
Just 38 miles from the “jewel of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik, Croatia, this equally photogenic walled city deserves every bit of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. With a backdrop of pale gray mountains and sapphire-blue Boka Kotorska Bay, Kotor’s medieval Old City, built from the 12th to 14th centuries, is a tidy warren of narrow cobblestoned streets and squares intersected by steep stairways. Above its orange rooftops rise a clock tower and several steeples, the most notable of which tops the Cathedral of Sveti Tripun (Saint Tryphon).
Don’t Miss: Climbing the vertical pathway to the hilltop fortress of Sveti Ivan (Saint John), some 919 feet above sea level, to take in the city’s geography.
Home to 70-plus pubs—most packed with young people downing pints while enjoying everything from traditional Irish music (at Tigh Neachtains) to folk, rock, and U2 covers (at Monroe’s)—this Irish university city of 236,000 warmly embraces its medieval-meets-mod vibe. Known for its “Irishness,” Galway hums with a bilingual English-Gaelic buzz while its Crayola-hued streets are backdrops for dozens of festivals, from arts to oysters. The food scene is especially hot, with kudos to Matz in The G Hotel for contemporary Irish cuisine and McDonagh’s Seafood House for perfectly crispy fish-and- chips.
Don’t Miss: Traveling back in time via a 90-minute, eco-friendly “glided” tour (“Heritage & The Craic”) with Segway Adventures.
Home of the hoagie and the Liberty Bell, Philly has come a long way since the moment screen icon Rocky Balboa trained on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum (he’s still there, by the way, cast in bronze). No longer the underdog, our nation’s first capital is attracting more than just students on field trips. One reason is its melting-pot food scene, invigorated by chefs such as Jose Garces, who runs eight Latin-inspired eateries, from Amada to Tinto; Marc Vetri, who helms Italian eateries Vetri, Osteria, and Amis; and Adan Saavedra, who serves Mexican haute cuisine at Paloma.
Don’t Miss: Visiting The Franklin Institute, where the hands-on science exhibits and IMAX theater make learning fun for kids.
Thirty years after “the Antwerp Six,” a group of avant-garde designers, took the fashion world by storm, this Art Nouveau city remains a hothouse of all things funky and stylish. Home to both the Antwerp Fashion Museum, or MoMu, and the Rubenshuis, the former residence and studio of 17th-century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, whose subjects were typically unclothed, Antwerp exudes an offbeat sexiness. It also has a youthful café culture (its local pale ale and deep-fried frites are a must) and seven Michelin-starred restaurants, including Gin-Fish and Dome.
Don’t Miss: The cathedral-like Antwerp Train Station, where in March 2009 a group of 200 students danced to “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in a YouTube video that went viral.
Located on the Yucatán peninsula, just a 2.5-hour drive but centuries away from resort-clogged Cancún, this colonial gem, known as The White City for its limestone architecture, is the region’s cultural capital. Home to both a growing number of expats and the oldest cathedral in North America (the circa-1598 Cathedral de San Ildefonso on Plaza Mayor), Mérida has a sophisticated ambience and a historic heart. Its Museo Macay showcases local contemporary art while its streets lined with pastel-hued low-rise colonial buildings house a growing number of galleries. For dinner, indulge in flavorful Yucatecan dishes such as lime soup and papadzules, or savory egg-stuffed tortillas.
Don’t Miss: Exploring Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal, both less than 90 minutes away.
The Mile High City, founded in the 1860s by gold rushers, is forging a hip identity of late. Its first permanent structure was a saloon, so it’s fitting that dozens of brewpubs, like LoDo’s (lower downtown) Breckenridge Brewery, and some 16 distilleries dot the city. The sleek new Four Seasons Denver delivers 21st-century luxury with a splendid spa and rooftop pool. Also noteworthy is the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building, a bold new landmark designed in 2006 by Daniel Libeskind and covered by 9,000 titanium panels.
Don’t Miss: Making a dinner date with Denver’s culinary stars, such as Alex Seidel for local, seasonal cuisine at Fruition; Nelson Perkins for innovative, earthy dishes at Colt & Gray; and Jennifer Jasinski for Mediterranean flavors at Rioja.
Visitors to Spain’s third largest city, an architecturally rich cosmopolitan port on the Mediterranean, in a single stroll can amble past the Baroque facades and splashing fountains of the Plaza del Ayuntamiento to the Gothic spires of the Silk Market, the Art Nouveau lines of the Mercado Central, and the mélange of styles in the photogenic Plaza de la Virgen. Across town at the City of Arts and Sciences expect to be wowed by the futuristic imaginings of hometown architectural guru Santiago Calatrava. This space-age complex houses, among other attractions, the Oceanografic, an aquarium home to 45,000 undersea creatures.
Don’t Miss: Paella, the city’s best-known contribution to Spanish gastronomy, is served all over Valencia, but the best is at La Pepica and L’Estimat on Malvarrosa Beach.
Unlike neighboring Buenos Aires and Santiago, this South American capital of 1.6 million people set on 14 miles of beach is far from a household name. Perhaps that’s because it’s a bit of an urban jigsaw puzzle, with eyesores such as its industrial port and unkempt older neighborhoods adjacent to eye-candy high-rises. Yet, in the Ciudad Vieja, the city’s historic heart, Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings have been restored by local artists, and restaurants and designer boutiques are flourishing. And in the courtyard of Palacio Municipal you can check out a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David.
Don’t Miss: Soaking up the sun on the white-sand beaches, accessible from almost anywhere, and simply people-watching.
Foodies with a craving for Italy’s most flavorful dishes know to head to Bologna, the culinary epicenter of Emilia-Romagna and a delightfully pedestrian-friendly city of 390,000. Designed in the 13th century with mandatory porticos lining its streets, it remains full of vaulted arcades and medieval passageways. Swap the ancient for the modern at the city’s newest museum, the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (a.k.a. MAMbo) and then prepare your taste buds for an extravaganza of tortellini, spaghetti Bolognese, Parma ham, mortadella, and local game—made all the more flavorful with truffles and fresh Parmesan cheese.
Don’t Miss: Bologna’s gelato also gets raves, so sample a scoop (or several) at Gelateria Gianni or Stefino.
China’s most renowned dynasties all left a mark on this eastern city known for its scenic setting on man-made West Lake, a favorite imperial retreat. See it by boat or walk its shoreline in the morning, when thousands of residents start their day with tai chi. Hangzhou’s gardens are numerous—worth a visit is the Quyuan Garden, which has 250 species of lotus blossoms growing in bridge-linked ponds. Enjoy city views from Wu Hill with its seven-story pagoda tower. Stay at the recently opened Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake, a tranquil enclave where traditional architecture meets modern amenities.
Don’t Miss: Take a walk on the zigzag Long Nine Turns Bridge, which actually has 30 turns so you experience the setting from as many angles as possible.
Voted the city with the best quality of life in Germany, this metropolis just north of Cologne on the Rhine River offers a fashionable welcome to visitors. Its congress center hosts some of Europe’s major trade shows, while its chic Königsallee, a tree-lined shopping street fondly called the Kö, is home to every designer boutique imaginable. To sample Düsseldorf’s less stuffy ambience, head to Old Town, where each night crowds of young locals descend to slurp huge steins of pilsner and feast on pork knuckles.
Don’t Miss: Allow time for a visit to Schloss Benrath, a circa-1755 Rococo palace set on expansive, parklike grounds and home to a trio of museums.
This colorful colonial city near Lake Nicaragua was founded in 1524 by conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in honor of his Spanish birthplace, making it the oldest city in Central America. Its buildings are awash mostly in pale yellows and greens and are topped with orange clay roof tiles. Granada’s distinctive canary-hued cathedral, constructed in 1583, rebuilt in 1880, and still the city’s most prominent landmark, is Neoclassical in design. Also postcard-perfect is the distinctive periwinkle facade of San Francisco Convent and Church. Stay in a Spanish-colonial mood at La Gran Francia, a romantic, 21-room hotel in the heart of town.
Don’t Miss: Visit on a Friday night, known as Noche de Serenatas, when bands of troubadours and mariachis fill the streets with song.
Best known for hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics (when the Jamaican bobsled team made headlines) and the Calgary Stampede (the world’s most famous rodeo) for 10 days each July, Alberta’s largest city effortlessly mixes skyscrapers and spurs. With a population of 1.07 million, this city of glass and steel built on cattle and oil exudes urban-cowboy confidence within easy driving distance of pristine wilderness. Attractions include Stephen Avenue Walk, a promenade lined with restored early 20th-century sandstone buildings, and a buzzing Chinatown anchored by the Chinese Cultural Centre. More local flavor is on tap at cowboy bars like Ranchman’s.
Don’t Miss: Take it all in from the observation deck of the 525-foot Calgary Tower, which served as the world’s tallest Olympic torch.
A three-hour TGV ride from Paris, this UNESCO World Heritage port city in southwest France has undergone a facelift of Renaissance proportions over the past 15 years. Its once-grimy period facades have been scrubbed clean, the desolate quays along the Garonne River have sprung to life with grass-lined bicycle paths, and a futuristic tram winds through its streets with style and efficiency. Standout sights include the Place de la Bourse, with its panoramic reflecting pool, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Stay at the opulent 150-room Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux, and plan day trips to vineyards in nearby Medoc and St.-Emilion.
Don’t Miss: Reserve a table at La Tupina to savor hearty regional fare such as fire-roasted black pig and French fries prepared in duck fat.
Durban, South Africa
Like a peppery, multicultural soup, this fascinating and sunny city of three million people overlooks the Indian Ocean in KwaZulu-Natal state and offers the most diverse ambience in South Africa—plus some of its best swimming and surfing, on beaches with names like Bay of Plenty and Blue Lagoon. Called Durbs or Thekwini (“sea” in the Zulu language), Durban has high-rise hotels mixed with historic Victorian and Art Deco buildings, a dozen museums, impressive Botanic Gardens, and an Indian population of about one million that’s had a strong influence on the city’s cuisine—curry flavors many local dishes.
Don’t Miss: Feel like a giant as you stroll through Mini Town, a replica of the city done to 1/24 scale and located on the beachfront.