Big cities, with their bright lights and endless skylines, get all the love. With their iconic edifices and frenetic pace, they exude urban sex appeal and draw tourists in like moths to flame. Think New York City, Tokyo, London, Moscow, Shanghai. All wonderful places to visit to be sure, but for all their accomplishments, there’s one thing they can never offer: small town allure.
So if you want to immerse yourself in the madness of a world metropolis like Sao Paulo, Cairo or Mexico City, go ahead. But this list right here, is all about the best small city vacation destinations. These gems of less than a million residents marry big city creature comforts with the quaint charm of a cozy hamlet. With less claustrophobic streets, thinner crowds and impressive sights, these destinations are worth a closer look.
The capital of the province of Quebec has a more famous and popular neighbour in Montreal in terms of tourism. Be that as it may, to visitors the city is like a delicious secret on the brink of discovery. The old town within the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts fortification walls the likes of which exist nowhere else in North America, save for Mexico. The city has a rich history as a European settlement that dates back to 1608 and can lay claim as one of the veritable birthplaces of the continent as we know it today.
Residents enjoy a unique quality of life here that is evident in the many festivals the city celebrates. From Winter Carnival to Summer Festival, to the many food and wine events that observe the incomparable cultural heritage of Quebec, Quebec City is resplendent any time of year.
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Auckland and Wellington may get more publicity but the regional capital of Canterbury, New Zealand has them beat on many fronts. Geographically the city is a marvel, with borders on Pegasus Bay, the Pacific Ocean, the estuary of the Avon and Heathcote Rivers and the volcanic slopes of the Port Hills. Imagine the photo-ops that abound as a result.
Christchurch as a city is just as picturesque. A stroll through beautiful Cathedral Square is the best way to get a sense of the place. There is much to see and do here, from the unique Botanical Gardens, Orana Wildlife Park, Arts Centre and Ferrymead Heritage Park.
If in season, a good way to become a defacto Kiwi is to take in a cricket or rugby match. Christchurch has pro teams in both sports. In addition, the city serves as a perfect base from which to explore the wine culture of New Zealand’s South Island.
Have a look at some Christchurch hotel deals if you’re planning a holiday here.
Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels are all fine and dandy but for many, the heart and soul of Belgium is in Ghent. This little Medieval city has bona fide soul. Residents are hearty, warm and exude a salt-of-the-earth authenticity that many tourists romanticize about.
And talk about history. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that there were human inhabitants in the region as far back as the Stone Age. Until the 13th century in fact, Ghent was second only to Paris in terms of population within Europe. The ancient city walls and other Medieval architectural marvels are still remarkably intact, a fact the good people at UNESCO are well aware of. Much of Ghent is under World Heritage Site protection.
While many of Ghent’s best sites are visual, there is another way to appreciate the unique history of the city. Beer and Belgium go hand in hand of course and if ever there was a place to pub crawl, Ghent is it. The craft of beer brewery is very much alive and well here, as is the legendary nightlife. Best yet, the city centre is a pedestrian-zone and night bus transportation is free on the weekends.
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The Basque region of Spain is clearly a different world from say, Andalucia or Catalonia. The people are fiercely independent and proud, with a strong sense of local heritage and culture. Gorgeous San Sebastian is awash in this regional spirit.
With a pretty coastline within snug little Bay of Biscay, people come here in the summer for the beach and in September for the famous film festival. But San Sebastian has a lot more than sand, sun and cinema to offer.
Food for one. We dare say San Sebastian has the best cuisine in all of Spain. The city is home to two three-star Michelin restaurants, one run by legendary Juan Mari Arzak and daughter Elena and the other by upstart chef Martin Berasategui. But even better, the town is the home of the pintxo bar. Pintxo is the Basque version of tapas and many believe the culinary phenomenon began here. The old town area of San Sebastian teems with pintxo bars that serve up delicious morsels that must be savoured with homemade Basque cider or txakoli. The atmosphere in the bars is convivial, warm and very happy to indoctrinate strangers into the local way of life. Shyness is highly discouraged.
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