CNN — (CNN) — Perhaps because of their proximity to better-known locales, travelers too often neglect legitimately interesting cities.
Call us sentimental, but it’s an oversight we want to correct.
These places are livable, creative hubs, championed by locals, worth more than a quick stop before you head elsewhere.
Queens, New York
OK, officially it’s a part of NYC, but this borough has a population of 2.3 million and virtually qualifies as a city in itself.
It might lack the glamour of Manhattan, but it’s still one of the most diverse places on the globe.
“Queens is definitely overlooked … I’m glad that it’s not nearly as visited (save for it being the location of two major airports) as Manhattan or Brooklyn. I’d like it to stay as is …” says CNN commenter BuildingMyBento.
More than 170 languages and dialects are spoken in the borough — residents say it’s like going around the world without ever leaving.
First stop? Jackson Heights gives a sub-continental vibe. It’s the place for saris and gold jewelry and South Asian restaurants.
Then there’s Flushing, home to the U.S. Open Tennis Championships as well as the second largest Chinatown in New York, and Jamaica, with its jazz heritage.
Other “musts” include the Museum of the Moving Image and the Bohemian Hall Beer Garden, a relaxed neighborhood park and watering hole serving Czech beer and food with live music — perfect in warmer months.
Queens has beaches and forested parks, including Rockaway, a surfing beach, and Flushing Meadows Corona, with a zoo, lake and theater.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Shea Stadium as home of the New York Mets baseball team. The Mets play at Citi Field.
Surrounded by mountains and the gateway to the Norwegian fjords, this pretty city on Norway’s west coast is the ideal destination for cruise fans and nature lovers.
By European standards it’s compact, and locals are proud of Bergen’s small town charm and laid-back atmosphere.
Attractions include the old quarter of Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with picturesque alleyways and harbor buildings.
Music lovers will be drawn to the Edvard Grieg Museum, once home of Norway’s most famous composer, while foodies will want to sniff out the Bergen Fish Market.
There’s also a funicular to the top of Floien Mountain to catch views of the city and a selection of hikes on well-marked trails.
That said, it’s not an idyllic holiday destination, as CNN commenter Mentat57 attests: “Bergen is a nice city all right, but it does have the slight drawback of 275 days of rain per year.”
Still, as American writer William Author Ward famously said: “A cloudy day is no match for a sunny disposition.”
The locals have plenty of that, too.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Given Puerto Rico’s stunning beaches and coastal highlights, including the Bioluminescent (phosphorescent) Bays and El Yunque Rainforest, people sometimes assume the capital doesn’t have much to offer.
There’s the dramatic El Morro Fortress, high above the sea, and the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, with their 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings.
But the city is also in the throes of a revival.
From chic new hotels to nightspots, boutiques, dance venues (salsa rules here) and art galleries, urban sophisticates will find much to whet their appetites.
For starters, there’s the newly revamped Museo de Arte, featuring Puerto Rican artists, a two-hectare garden and theater.
Night owls will love the sleek San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel, with its waterfalls, blue-lit rooms, bars, restaurants and minimalist decor, and the Nyuorican Café, which has a live salsa orchestra.
There’s good midnight curry at the Latino-Hindu fusion restaurant, Tantra.
“[The] old city is a gem, though a tiny fraction of the city, which is otherwise plain bland,” says CNN commenter Oushen.
In the shadow of big sibling Sydney, Darwin is a balmy, tropical city, with a relaxed vibe.
It’s just four hours by air from Singapore, and two from Bali.
Of course, there’s no pleasing some people.
“Darwin??!?! Really??! I grew up there and couldn’t wait to leave! I now reside in Melbourne and nothing could drag me back!” spits CNN commenter Prasad Gunatunga.
But for others, the likes of Robbie Mills, a traditional Larrakia guide (his people are the traditional owners of Darwin) who offers cultural walking tours along the city’s esplanade, make it a worthwhile stop.
You’ll learn about aboriginal history and culture, bush tucker and plants.
Mindil Beach has some great open-air markets, open from April to October, from sunset till late.
Here you’ll find a range of food stalls serving global fare and everything from indigenous art to pottery. There’s live music, too.
Harbor cruises and, if you’re a fan of the late Steve Irwin, the Cage of Death (an underwater crocodile viewing cage) at Crocosaurus Cove, are parts of the experience.
Isfahan is one of Iran’s great treasures, breathtakingly elegant, located at the foot of the Zagros mountains.
Its star attraction is Imam Square.
It’s one of the world’s largest, dominated by the Imam Mosque complex, which twists toward Mecca, though it’s the smaller Sheik Lotfollah mosque with its stunning dome that stuns visitors.
The covered bazaar, just off the square, is great for miniatures and decorative tiles and chaikhanas, or teahouses, offering fresh brews and flavored shisha pipes.
After dark belongs to the courtyard café and tearoom at the Abbasi, a five-star hotel and former caravanserai. It’s a magnet for city’s professionals, who are eager to practice their English on the all-too-rare tourists in their midst.
Final mention must go to the Zayandeh River and its exquisitely pretty, arched Khaju Bridge (pictured in gallery).
When it comes to European cities, tourists usually look to Paris or Rome.
Or London or Amsterdam or Barcelona or Prague or … you get the picture.
Lisbon deserves a look-in.
It’s full of character and flanked by beautiful, un-crowded beaches, making it a good alternative to the touristy Algarve.
The city is home to the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, one of the world’s great (largely unsung) museums, housing a collection of Egyptian, Green, Roman, Islamic, Asian and European art and the Belem Tower, a city landmark.
Portugal is renowned for the sweet, soft eggy confection known as Pasteis de Nata.
The best custard tart in town may be found at the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem.
The recipe is 170 years old and the sweet treats are thought to have originally been sold at the Jeronimos Monastery across the road.
Travelers who make the journey north from England most often head to the Scottish capital Edinburgh.
Glasgow, however, arguably has the best music scene in Britain (Londoners will dispute this) with scores of clubs and concert halls, including the much raved-about Barrowland Ballroom, which hosts all sorts of acts — large, cool and up-and-coming.
There’s a lot more to do here.
For families, there’s the Science Centre and the collections of curios at the Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum — it has everything from children’s toys to motorbikes.
The city has some of the UK’s best shopping outside of London.
For designer goods there’s Princes Square, while the Willow Tearooms, designed by influential Scottish architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh provides a great cuppa.
The menu features Scots Porridge and Scottish shortbread.
Hoi An, Vietnam
It’s not technically a city, but this seaside heritage spot on Vietnam’s central coast is such an enchanting contrast to hectic Hanoi that it’s worth a mention.
It’s already a recognized spot in the Vietnamese tourist trail.
“I enjoyed Hoi An, Vietnam. But it’s already teaming [sic] with … numerous cafes and boutiques catering almost exclusively to tourists! Any further uptick in rating will start ruining the place (if the process hasn’t begun already),” says one CNN commenter.
The former trading port is known for its historic architecture, a mix of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and European styles.
Visitors rave about its fairytale lanterns, Vietnamese silk and custom tailoring — it’s a great place to revamp a wardrobe.
A Japanese-designed bridge, old canals, art galleries and great street food — local specialties include “white rose” seafood dumplings — make this town memorable.
You can learn to cook the dumplings at the Secret Garden, a restaurant and live music venue that runs classes.
Where to stay?
The swish Nam Hai Hotel, seven kilometers up the coast on Ha Mai beach, is a favorite choice.
The grounds are immaculately landscaped and the hotel runs a shuttle bus to town.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Canada’s gateway to the Rockies is often viewed as little more than an airport pick-up point.
But it’s special.
It has a cowboy heritage all its own, and it’s one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities.
In winter, the Calgary Flames NHL hockey team roars into action, while in summer, their place is taken by local football heroes, the Calgary Stampeders.
The Calgary Stampede is one of North America’s best-loved and biggest rodeos.
If you’re more “do-er” than watcher, Canada Olympic Park offers seasonal skiing, zip lines and mountain biking.
Calgary is also home to the Glenbow Museum, Canada’s largest, housing a vast collection of art and artifacts documenting the history and culture of western Canada.
There’s a growing foodie scene here.
At the Farmers’ Market you can find specialties such as elk and bison or pick up a pie at the Saskatoon Berry Farm stall.
Durban, South Africa
Perceived to be unsafe, it’s not surprising that the city, on the country’s eastern coast, isn’t the first port of call for visitors.
But, largely thanks to its role as a host in the 2010 World Cup, tourist numbers are up.
Locals rave about their city’s year-round sunshine and vibrant, cosmopolitan vibe.
“Durban is fantastic and the people are great,” says CNN commenter Enban. “Miss that place and the wonderful atmosphere. Gounden’s make the best bunnies.” (See below for explanation.)
Among cities, Durban is home to the highest concentration of Indians outside the subcontinent and has a blend of African and European cultures, too.
Big draws include surf-friendly golden beaches, many temples and mosques (including the beautiful — and beautifully named — Hare Krishna Temple of Understanding, the uShaka Marine World theme park and the mammoth art deco-style Suncoast Casino, which doubles as a shopping mall and has its own private beach.
Local specialty bunny chow — piping hot curry in a scooped-out bun — is best had at The House of Curries on Florida Road.
Now tell us about your favorite underrated cities in the comments.
– Jini Reddy is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist based in the UK.
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10 of the world"s most underrated cities