Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
If you have big dreams of jetting off to Europe, but worry that your bank account isn't quite ready, don't worry. For every expensive city, there are dozens of charming — and surprisingly affordable — places that offer all the European charm for a fraction of the price. Ljubljana, Porto, Budapest, even Berlin — these cities have all the rich culture, stunning architecture, and delicious food that you'd find in pricey European capitals, but they're perfect for budget travelers.
You can even travel to some of Europe's best (and famously expensive) destinations without breaking the bank — you just have to know how to save money without sacrificing on experiences. Travelers can often score deals on flights from the United States to major cities like Paris or London, and upon arriving, transportation within Europe can be much more affordable (hello, budget airlines). Those large cities also offer a wide range of accommodations, so you can certainly find something in your budge. You can even save money on food by hitting the local markets. After all, a bottle of wine, fresh bread, and cheese from a Parisian market make for an unforgettable meal when picnicking under the Eiffel Tower.
And you might be surprised by how many museums, churches, and other attractions are free or inexpensive to visit, too. Be sure to keep an eye out for free entry days (often one day a month) or tourist cards that offer entry to multiple attractions for one flat fee. (Do the math ahead of time by calculating the cost of every included attraction that you want to visit to make sure it's really worth the money.)
Trimming your budget doesn't mean sacrificing the quality of your trip. In fact, the less you spend, the less insulated you are from the local culture. Staying in a thatched Irish farmhouse, perusing old masters in Rome, or snacking your way through Spanish specialties aren't just tricks of the frugal traveler — they're the stuff dream vacations are made of.
Here are some of the top destinations for an affordable European vacation (and tips for saving money once you arrive).
The iconic architecture of Apulia — the "heel" of Italy's boot — is the prehistoric trullo, a cylindrical whitewashed house with a cone-shaped roof of stacked gray stones. There's no greater concentration of trulli than in the UNESCO-protected town of Alberobello, where whole neighborhoods are made of the structures, and the local entrepreneur behind Trullidea has fixed up dozens of the abandoned ones and rents them to visitors. Cool in the baking summers and with cozy fireplaces for wintertime, a rental trullo lets you live like a local for less than the cost of a tourist-class hotel in town. Want to sample what the Amalfi Coast was like before the hotshots and high prices moved in? Apulia's forested Gargano Peninsula is popular with sun-loving Italians, but is otherwise refreshingly off the tourist map.
The capital of Hungary, Budapest offers all the charm of more popular European destinations for a fraction of the price. The Hungarian Parliament Building and Fisherman's Bastion are just a couple of the picture-perfect attractions you'll spot in the city, and you'll find lots of affordable accommodations, meals, and nightlife, too. Even the city's famous thermal baths — some of which date back over 100 years and feature beautiful architecture — can be affordable to visit.
Take a break from sizzling on the crowded Costa del Sol beaches for a self-guided driving tour along the Route of the Pueblos Blancos. This string of clifftop, whitewashed villages stretches from the Moorish town of Arcos de la Frontera through the Sierra de Grazalema to Ronda, a maze of medieval streets perched above a 500-foot gorge. Opt for a stay in nearby Seville — the capital of Andalusia — to take in the beautiful architecture, watch some flamenco dancing, and indulge in classic tapas.
Berlin has Cold War mystique, contemporary architecture, and booming gallery and restaurant scenes. With its cosmopolitan, East-meets-West edginess, it's no wonder the city has become the cultural capital of central Europe. It's a destination that continues to attract creative types and in-the-know travelers. Begin your trip to Berlin in the fashionable Mitte (or "middle") district, as it's convenient to major sites such as the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz.
Bath and the Cotswolds
The charming villages of the Cotswolds look like they're straight out of a fairy tale — Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, and Bourton-on-the-Water are among the prettiest. There are inns and pubs sprinkled throughout the little towns, but we'd suggest staying in Bath, a quaint city dating back to the Roman era, for its variety of accommodations. While there, check out the Royal Crescent, Pulteney Bridge, Bath Abbey, and of course, the historic Roman baths. Best of all, Bath is under two hours from London by train, making it an easy weekend trip from the city.
Istanbul's major state-run museums may charge hefty admissions, but the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, just behind the Blue Mosque adjacent to the Arasta Bazaar, costs only 30 Turkish lira (that's about $4). These delightful mosaic scenes of hunts, myths, animal battles, and everyday life in antiquity — boys riding a camel, a man milking his goat — once covered the floor of a large courtyard of the Palatium Magnum, the Great Palace built between the time of Constantine the Great himself and Justinian I (fourth to early sixth centuries). You can even cruise between the continents for an affordable price when taking the ferry.
Take a tour of the architectural masterworks of prodigious local talent Jože Plecnik, who took the Secessionist Art Nouveau style he learned in Vienna back home (via Prague) to remake his native city along his own, idiosyncratic lines. Like Gaudí in Barcelona, Plecnik designed his buildings right down to the smallest fittings, like the Pegasus door handles on the entrance to the National and University Library. Plecnik designed a bit of everything around town, from the central market to the two flanking spans of Ljubljana's iconic Triple Bridge to the café-lined embankments of the Ljubljanica River (Plecnik planted alternating rounded willows and pointy poplars to emulate the domes and spires of Prague). The city also has a number of incredible, affordable restaurants, and you can take a public bus (for a small fee) to nearby Lake Bled for a day trip.
The Dalmatian Coast
Skip the overexposed island of Hvar for the walled medieval village on the Adriatic island of Korcula, purported home to Marco Polo. Korcula is more of a day-trip destination, and that means the tourist crowds thin considerably by sundown, leaving those who remain to relax in the cafés and stroll the narrow alleys. While every old city in Europe has an Old City historic district, Split has the only downtown actually carved from the carcass of an ancient Roman palace. When the emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire in A.D. 305, he built a lavish palace on the Croatian coast to live out his days as head of the empire's eastern half. In the 1,700 years since, the ruins of his enormous structure have been colonized by the locals, the buildings turned into medieval town houses, and the emperor's tomb transformed into the cathedral.
Want to experience fabulous French cuisine on a budget? Opt for a midday splurge — many cafés and restaurants offer less expensive menus at lunch. And a picnic is always a good idea in Paris. Stop by a market to peruse the (typically) extensive options for cheese and wine, or pick up a simple yet delicious crepe from a stand. If you plan to visit the City of Light's top museums and attractions, you might want to invest in a Paris Museum Pass. For one fee (priced depending on the number of days you purchase), you can gain admission to top tourist spots like the Arc de Triomphe, Sainte-Chapelle, Panthéon, Louvre, Musée Rodin, and more, and you get to skip the ticket line. Talk about a win-win.
Avoid the tour bus-clogged Ring of Kerry for its neighbor to the north, County Clare, home to the dramatic Cliffs of Moher rising more than 700 feet from the crashing Atlantic waves; the weirdly eroded limestone landscape of the Burren, where prehistoric slab tombs perch on the rocky flatlands like miniature houses of cards; and Doolin, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village that has become a popular destination for traditional Celtic music. Local pubs are the perfect evening stop for hearty (and usually affordable) Irish fare and — if you're lucky — live music.
Rome has more than 900 churches, all of them free, displaying great works of art and architecture by the likes of Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Bramante, and Pinturicchio. And that's just the short list of artists contained in one church — the little-visited Santa Maria del Popolo. Other iconic landmarks, like the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Rome's famous piazzas are all free to visit, too, and some museums offer free entry days, so check their websites for details.
Portugal's Lisbon and Porto are among Travel + Leisure readers' favorite European cities, and once you visit, you'll see why. In Porto, visitors can admire the Art Deco architecture, sip port, and explore the walkable city on foot without going over budget. Plus, a day trip to the Douro Valley, a picturesque vineyard region along the Douro River, is worth the trek.
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