London frequently ranks as the world’s most visited city, and with 2000 years of history etched into its streets, along with some of the world’s best contemporary art and music venues, it’s not difficult to see why. However, as many travellers have found, it can also be tremendously expensive; the prices sky-high on everything from accommodation to transport to beer. So here are ten less expensive alternatives to London, each of which proffer much of the same historic interest and creative excitement as the UK’s sprawling capital.
Photo via blogsession.co.uk.
Unlike, say, Spain or Italy, the UK is dominated by a single city: its capital has no Barcelona or Seville to compete with for social and historic significance. Annual visitors to London number a world-leading 15 million; in comparison, Manchester - which places third on the list of Britain’s most visited cities - draws about 900,000. But these figures are utterly unrepresentative of all that Manchester has to offer. It has its own version of Shoreditch, in the bohemian Northern Quarter, and its own sexually deviant Soho in the Gay Village - and both have retained a great deal more soul than their commercialism-saturated equivalents in the capital. For history buffs, Manchester’s heritage as the cradle of capitalism - at least, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution - is captured in the Museum of Science and Industry, and the excellent People’s History Museum.
Glasgow, Scotland’s most populous city, may not have the grand, upmarket districts of neighboring Edinburgh or London; neither The Mall nor The Royal Mile roll regally through its stone-hewn Victorian center. But its residents care little for this, and the steadily rising number of visitors - it is now the UK’s 6th most visited city - know that it is a city well worth going out of your way to discover. The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum houses a staggeringly good civic collection, ranging from artworks to biological displays to anthropological artifacts, including a great interactive area for kids. The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery is housed in a gorgeous sandstone university building, showcasing a world famous collection of pieces by James McNeill Whistler in the gallery and diverse local history exhibits. And there’s a great live music scene, centered around the legendary Barrowlands venue.
A centre of mercantile trade in the 18th century, then a hub of civil engineering beneath the aegis of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th, Bristol’s fast-moving legacy was largely flattened during World War 2. It took a while to recover, and for a few decades the city seemed grey and desolate, and you had to dig deep in order to uncover its beating cultural heart. This was always there, though, an underground scene that produced Banksy, trip hop and lots of drum ‘n’ bass, and was the epicenter of the UK’s Free Party Scene in the early ‘90s. Bristol still has one of the best underground music scenes today. For those who prefer to remain on the surface, the city is exceptionally uneven and surrounded by a girdle of green hills (the Mendips), which means you can turn a corner and suddenly be gazing out over the tops of buildings to a beautiful landscape beyond. Plentiful pub gardens are perched overlooking such views. And Bristol has a great summer festival scene, from a famously colorful hot air balloon parade to St Paul’s Carnival, a much less-crowded version of London’s Notting Hill Carnival.
Berlin has long been known for its cheap rents and, consequently, low prices, a factor of its turbulent history that left one half of the city gutted following reunification in 1989. Now that it’s settled into its 21st century groove, prices are rising rapidly - but they’re still a massive amount lower than London. Yet Berlin has surely just as much history etched onto its city streets - explore the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the fragmentary remains of the Berlin Wall. And this history is explored and explained at a huge range of fascinating museums, such as the Jüdisches Museum, which turns an unflinching eye on a millennia of German-Jewish relations. And then there’s a vibrant contemporary scene of music and politics, embodied in clubs such as ://about blank.
Krakow in south-west Poland was caught at the center of the thunderstorm during WW2, before falling into Soviet hands through the decades afterwards. Somehow its historic center has survived through all this, the main memento of the Soviet period being a gargantuan steel works that looms over the suburb of Nowa Huta. Mainly, though, Krakow is a city to walk around: hike the entire Royal Way, which moves from the 14th century gothic tower of "wild stone" St. Florian’s Gate, to the grand and gothic Wawel Castle. Then plunge into the city’s Old Town, and explore its narrow cobblestone streets, stumbling across sharply spiked churches and a huge old market square. Just next to the Old Town is Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, whose dusty synagogues speak of the region’s terrible past. Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps are about 65 km from the city.
Bilbao is, like London, a grimy old industrial city of concrete and steel that has developed a thriving cultural scene. This is centered, of course, around the Guggenheim, Frank Gehry's fabulous twisted titanium art museum that still manages to reflect Bilbao’s grittier history, evoking the ships that used to dock in Bilbao’s harbor and the coastal terrain lying beyond the city’s bounds. It is perhaps a little more exciting outside than in, although there is usually at least one excellent temporary exhibition open at any one time. The Guggenheim is the flagship gallery of a city with many of them, and others worth visiting include the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Museum of Sacred Art, and the Museum of Artistic Reproduction. There’s also an excellent Basque history museum and a great maritime museum.
Budapest is sliced in two by one of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube. Reflected on the water is a spiky gothic Houses of Parliament that easily outdoes London’s slightly kitsch, late-Victorian attempt at the same. Also like London, Budapest draws on a long and varied history. Statues dotted around the center depict armour-clad horsemen and naked boys chasing deer through forests, commemorating the Magyar’s wild and nomadic origins. Then there are the glory days of King Stephen, Hungary’s first King, whose mummified hand is kept in the grandly neoclassical St Stephen’s Basilica, an architectural counterpoint to the Houses of Parliament. And latterly there are the scars of WW2, and of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, a half-forgotten (by the rest of Europe) "Budapest Spring" that took place 12 years before the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague - and which came to a similar, but more violent, conclusion.
Hamburg grew up alongside London as one of Europe’s great trading cities during the Middle Ages, and into the frantic years of global exploration, mercantile trade and imperial expansion that marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Unlike London, this maritime life has survived the onslaught of finance and digitization, and Hamburg today is Europe’s second busiest port - despite being located 100 km from the open sea on the banks of the Elbe. But this isn’t to suggest it’s been left behind, as it is also the heart of Germany’s media industry. Unsurprisingly, this bustling life makes Hamburg a great city to relax in - whether you prefer to catch a play at one of the many theaters, listen to classical music at the Laeiszhalle, eat out on the excellent dining scene, or slink off into the famously seedy Reeperbahn.
Like London, Portland’s hipster scene has turned swaths of the city into outposts of Mediterranean cafe culture, where you can buy a coffee brewed by Australia’s finest baristas while watching the fashionistas stalk by outside. Portland is also renowned for its food carts, though their version is rolled out in truck form, and wandering between them is like moseying around the world - grab some fish and chips from the Flying Scotsman, try the kimchi at the Koi Fusion truck, then travel to Texas with the meat-heavy Brunch Box. Or if it’s craft beer that scratches your lightly tattooed back, Portland outdoes London to claim the unofficial title of the microbrewery capital of the world; top spots include the bike-friendly Hopworks Urban Brewery and the colorful Lucky Labrador Brew Pub.
In the heart of Texas Hill Country, Austin can seem a world away from London, surrounded by southern England’s temperate arable land. But the Texan capital’s thriving political, technological, arts and food scenes increasingly mirror its counterpart across the Atlantic. Perhaps a highlight is the music: every march, the SXSW festival sweeps through town, bringing more than 2000 performers 90 of the city’s venues. But any night of the week you can find indie rock, alt country, punk, jazz or funk somewhere in the city - good places to try include The Cactus Cafe and The Saxon Pub.