I was thrilled to see a feature on Marseille in a recent Washington Post Travel section. I have a love/hate relationship with WaPo Travel but they got this one right. I just got back from Marseille and it’s my latest second city travel recommendation.
What is Second City Travel?
Simply put, second city travel involves a destination that doesn’t spring to mind when a country is mentioned. In the USA, a first city might be New York and a second city might be Chicago. The first city has the postcards, the songs, the crowds. Most tourists skip the second city altogether. However if you take the time to explore the second cities of the world I promise you’ll be rewarded.
Consistent across second city travel are a number of traits: terrific regional food, a more laid back pace and most of all great value. I find splurge worthy hotels and restaurants in second cities usually run about what I’d pay for your average 3.5 star in the marquis destination.
Here’s a shortlist of my favorite second cities. I’d love to hear about yours in the comments.
Deal Kid was born in Rotunda Hospital in Dublin so my status as a Dubliner can not be questioned. However, taken as a whole, Belfast has more to offer tourists to Ireland than first city Dublin. We went directly back to Dublin from Belfast and our first thought was “wow, it’s SO crowded!” Belfast just didn’t feel rushed or harried at all, no matter where or when we went.
The highlight of our Belfast trip was Tea on the Titanic. The entire Titanic Belfast museum, built on the actual construction site, is striking, but I’m focusing on the Tea held every Sunday. The Tea, which especially for kids is a good value, is held in a historically accurate re-creation of the grand staircase of the Titanic. Add in the fact that the Amazing Race filmed in that exact spot and you have a winner!
Much of Belfast has almost no age to it (courtesy of Hitler– did you know that? Me neither!), but a visit to the Ulster Museum shows that Belfast has been ground zero for conflict for pretty much all of its history. A Black Cab tour is highly recommended if you have time, but one quick drive around and you’ll find yourself deep in the neighborhoods with the wall murals and razor-wire fences- they’re all still there, living memorials to how little it takes for people to kill each other. Like your history with a little more age to it? Take the train or a car to nearby Derry- lots of castles and such there.
I’ve seen just about every shore in Ireland and I don’t think any compares to the Antrim coast drive north from Belfast to Giant’s Causeway. I related in detail the hassles of car rentals in the republic of Ireland compared to the UK (Belfast). Maybe it’s just me, but I also felt the UK side was safer; in fact the week of driving in Western Ireland was about the most unsafe I’ve EVER felt driving, and I’ve driven in some unsavory places!
Of course the first city that comes to mind when you say “Italy” is Rome. I’ve shared my underwhelming views on Rome although to be fair they may be marred by my frightening taxi ride there. Naples probably isn’t a second city- it might not be in the top five places you think of visiting in Italy!
Naples seems to be a city people either love or love to hate. I get it. It’s exhausting. Literally. I needed a nap by my 3rd day. Naples assaults your senses unlike any other city in Europe; in fact the best way I can describe it is to imagine a 3rd World Capital City dropped on top of Rome. Naples isn’t Italian so much as an outpost of Italy.
Naples has been a border town for its entire existence and proudly displays remains ranging from Egypt to Macedonia to Greece to (currently) North Africa. Even the construction debris is art. Its cathedral contains art from the 4th to the 17th centuries.
Most pass by Naples on the way to Pompeii, which is a real shame. The national archaeology museum contains many of the treasures found in the ancient city. My visit to Pompeii would have felt hollow without the context of the museum exhibits.
Similar to Naples, Marseille has that “border town” feel- in a good way. So while I enjoy Parisian shopping as much as the next girl, when it comes to France, it’s Marseille that stole my heart.
The city reminds me of Paris – if you dropped it on top of Miami. Marseille has a North African culture mixed into the French the way Miami has Cuban mixed into the American. While France has definitely had issues with integration, Marseille felt more like a happy jumble than segregated communities.
We visited Marseille in the middle of August – prime tourist season. However, the tourists we saw were mostly French families coming down to the sea for the weekend as opposed to throngs in buses. Most of Marseille’s tourist sights are within reach of the Vieux (Old) Port. While Vieux Port was lively, we never felt like sardines.
Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral watches over the city and is a marvel to explore. Fortunately there’s a tourist “petit tren” that takes you up and down the steep hill to the cathedral. If you have a chance to attend a service there, as we did, I highly recommend it even if you aren’t Catholic. Even kids appreciate the reverence of Notre Dame de la Garde- and they’ll especially appreciate the model boats and planes hanging from the ceiling as symbols of Notre Dame “keeping watch” over voyagers.
Marseille was a “City of European Culture” in 2013 and many museums got a major facelift. Our favorite both inside and out was the Mucem ( Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) and the attached Fort St. Jean.
The Mucem building is a marvel in itself. The entire building is covered in coral-like latticework. The fort has amazing views and a picnic area begging for a family lunch. Fort St. Jean’s cafe seating includes…wait for it…lounge chairs. If you didn’t bring snacks, the Mucem cafe serves fresh off the boat oysters.
Being a port, Marseille offers many options to get out onto the water. An easy option is a cruise to Chateau D’if, site of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” If you have more time you can visit the Calenques (cliffs) which makes for a lovely half day. There’s a two hour and a three hour option- we did the two hour and it was enough. Three might have been overkill.
I lucked into an especially great hotel deal thanks to Sheradill at the Residence de Vieux Port. The hotel had the absolute best location on the port and I’d recommend it even if it weren’t 90% off. The Radisson is another possible option, but wouldn’t be my top choice as it’s at the opposite end of the harbor.
We also spent a night at the Intercontinental Mon Dieu and the experience was absolute five star. At 40,000 IHG points or 180 Euro a night in high season including breakfast we definitely thought we got our money’s worth. The hotel is a couple of blocks back from the harbor but the views from the breakfast terrace are gorgeous. The Mon Dieu dates from the 18th century and feels luxe from the moment you arrive. I’d stay here again just for the indoor pool- a work of art in itself.
And of course Provence is right down the road…
Tokyo was a cacophony- in a good way- but four days there was enough. Osaka, while not quiet, felt so much more manageable. It was so easy to get around compared to being constantly lost in Tokyo. Besides having its own Osaka Castle to explore Osaka makes a terrific base to explore Kyoto and Nara- I know some prefer overnighting in Kyoto but I don’t see why you would need to.
The main reason we loved Osaka is that is was so kid-friendly. The Osaka Kids Plaza is every kids museum, indoor play zone, and computer studio rolled into one. There’s even a TV studio! Osaka also has a LegoLand, Aquarium, big wheel, and Universal Studios- but to be honest Osaka Kids Plaza was more than enough for us.
And of course Osaka is where we had our travel playdate with the kids of Kids Travel Japan. Spending time with local kids was an absolute highlight of our trip.
The Hyatt in Osaka deserves special mention in the value category- at a category 2 it’s an absolute steal. If you’re a diamond and use a suite upgrade you’ll end up with over 1,000 sq. feet and full breakfast in addition to a happy hour for 4,000 points and $55.
Have you visited any of my second cities? Do you have any of your own? I’d love to hear in the comments.
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