Six overlooked cities that are well worth visiting

14 November 2017

Travellers' bucket lists are packed with iconic sights in world-leading metropolises like Paris, London and New York, but exploring alternative and often overlooked cities can offer more local experiences and the opportunity to further maximise your travel budget.

The Spree River, Berlin. Photo: Getty Images

Berlin

With the hop-fuelled charms of Oktoberfest and the storybook appeal of nearby Neuschwanstein Castle, Munich is a favourite destination for New Zealand travellers, but Berlin is definitely an edgier and more vibrant city. Join a Trabi-Safari to self-drive one of the compact and simple cars made in the DDR (East Germany), cruising past parts of the Berlin Wall, and explore life in the former Communist East at the fascinating riverside DDR Museum. In the 21st century, the formerly divided city is now a focus of cutting-edge art and culture. Head to the predominantly Turkish suburb of Kreuzberg for cafes, vintage shopping and late night/early morning music venues, and then detour east to up and coming Friedrichshain for some of Europe's best street art. Just across the Spree river, the East Side Gallery is a 1.3km stretch of the former Berlin Wall with more than 100 paintings by international artists.

The Australian War Memorial Museum, Canberra. Photo: supplied

Canberra

Sure, Canberra can't compete with the big city urban thrills of Melbourne or Sydney, but the Australian capital is actually one of the country's most surprising destinations. The Anzac displays at the Australian War Memorial are equally relevant and poignant for New Zealand travellers, and Canberra's museums and galleries showcase diverse discoveries like Captain Cook's HMS Endeavour log and the stories behind classic Aussie movies and TV shows. The restaurant scenes around Braddon and the Kingston Foreshore are eclectic and innovative, and Canberra's cool climate wine country offers 30 tasting rooms within 40 minutes drive from the city.

The Market on Main weekly event in the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. The hip neighbourhood is home to several new shops, restaurants, upscale apartments and entrepreneurial offices. Photo: Getty Images

Johannesburg

The nearby Cape Winelands, Atlantic coast beaches, and visiting Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated all combine to make Cape Town an interesting destination, but South Africa's northern city of Johannesburg is also worth visiting. Take a tour through Soweto, stopping at the Apartheid Museum telling the story of South Africa's tragic segregationist policies, before moving on to discover a more unified multi-cultural present and future in the city's revitalised neighbourhoods. Head to inner-city Maboneng for warehouse art galleries and artists' studios, while bohemian Melville, a haven of multi-culturalism during the apartheid era, is packed with restaurants and enlivened by students from the nearby University of Johannesburg.

The Holy Trinity Column and Town Hall by night in the main square of Olomouc, Czech Republic. Photo: Getty Images

Olomouc

Prague is definitely a stunning destination, but the Czech capital's Old Town and hilltop castle does get extremely crowded. Instead, catch a train around two hours east to the city of Olomouc. Look forward to a stunning Old Town the equal of Prague – minus most of the tourists – with the essential highlight the gloriously Baroque Holy Trinity Column. Olomouc's Astronomical Clock was originally constructed in the 15th century, but was given a Communist makeover in the 1950s with the addition of scientists, sportspeople and factory workers. Don't leave town without combining Olomouc's famously ripe cheese with a local beer at the Moritz microbrewery.

The Lincoln Memorial at sunrise, Washington DC. Photo: Getty Images

Washington DC

New York's position as an absolute must-visit city is untouched, but travellers to the east coast of the United States should also detour three hours by train southwest to the nation's capital. Superb museums centred on the National Mall, the tree-lined pedestrians-only boulevard stretching from the US Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, include the Smithsonian, the American History Museum and the National Air & Space Museum. History-making highlights of the Air & Space Museum include the Wright Brothers' 1993 aircraft, Flyer, and the Columbia command module from Apollo 11's first successful moon landing in 1969. For more modern US history, and maybe for House of Cards' fans to get the lowdown on the current real life machinations of the White House, head to bars like Off the Record and the Blue Duck Lounge.

The Millenium Bridge at Salford Quays, Manchester. Photo: iStock.com

Manchester

Having given the world Brit cultural touchstones like The Smiths, the Stone Roses and Coronation St, the grittier northern city of Manchester is an interesting alternative to London. Factor in the opportunity to experience Premier League football at the home grounds of Manchester United or Manchester City, and it's a top destination for Anglophile travellers. Culturally, the city can also hold its own with the country's southern capital with architecturally spectacular institutions including the Imperial War Museum North and the People's History Museum. To experience the northern English warmth and dry wit of the local Mancunians, head to the bars and cafes in the trendy Ancoats area.

Brett Atkinson

Brett Atkinson is a full-time travel and food writer who specialises in adventure travel, unusual destinations, and surprising angles on more well-known destinations. He's based in Auckland but frequently on the road for Lonely Planet and other publishers in New Zealand and abroad. @travelwriterNZ