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Best Value Cities in Europe for Budget Travellers

12 min read
Published on May 09, 2017
Christian Baines
By Christian BainesGlobetrotting Contributing Editor

It’s a cheesy metaphor, but words like "buffet" come to mind when first planning a Europe vacation. You can’t finish it all in one sitting, and even if you could, you’d be ready for a return trip by the time you were done. The trick is to prioritize, starting with the key cities that interest you. These might boast specific sights, or they might just be a list of Europe’s greatest hits like London, Paris, or Amsterdam. Unfortunately, none of the cities on that list are cheap! But world travel isn’t just for the rich, so let’s talk about Europe on a budget. Globetrotters willing to use public transport, eschew tourist restaurants, and eat and drink locally can cut their costs down considerably. Furthermore, because Europe has so many worthwhile stops at every price point, it’s possible to design a great itinerary that allows you plenty of time to explore for very little. So, with that in mind, here are my picks for Goway’s 10 best value city breaks on a Europe vacation:

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

No matter which way you approach it, Amsterdam is expensive. This is a smallish city that everyone wants to visit once in their lifetime, and you’ll pay dearly for a room anywhere near the canal rings. You also won’t want to stay anywhere outside of that. Dining isn’t cheap either. The good news is it’s worth it. Once settled in, Amsterdam is enchanting regardless of how much or how little you want to spend. If you do want to save, pick up an Amsterdam City Card for the duration of your stay. It includes public transit, a canal cruise, and entry to countless sights including Rembrandt’s House, and the Van Gogh and Stadelijk Museums. Since many great Amsterdam attractions don’t take that long to visit, you can zip through a lot quite cheaply during your stay, which more than offsets a high hotel and restaurant bill.

Recommended Stay: 3 to 5 days Buy an I amsterdam card to offset those pricey essentials. If there’s a day your card doesn’t cover, use it for free attractions like Vondelpark, or the Rijksmuseum or Heineken Experience, which aren’t included.

Lisbon, Portugal

Right now, people seem to be talking about Lisbon in much the same way they talked about Berlin fifteen years ago. Okay, Lisbon is smaller, more relaxed, and less international than the German capital, but here’s what it does have to offer on your Europe vacation. One of the most beautiful downtown cores in Europe, centuries of history as a major port city and capital of a vast empire, delightful architecture and traditional infrastructure around every corner, a hopping nightlife, and a laid back nonchalance about everything that makes it great. We haven’t even gotten to the food, wine, or day trips out to fantastic sights like Sintra yet. Plus, Lisbon seems to be an afterthought for many Europe travellers. Take advantage of their mistake and enjoy the lack of crowds in this gorgeous, and very affordable slice of Southern Europe.

Recommended Stay: 2 to 3 days You’d expect such a lovely capital to lure big crowds or high prices, but for now, Lisbon remains free of both.

Madrid, Spain

Madrid doesn’t have the complex history of southern Spain, nor the eye-popping eccentricities of Barcelona. But it is the heartbeat of the modern country, one of the best party and cultural destinations in Europe, and the ideal jumping off point for many of Spain’s best day trips, including Toledo. Art lovers are spoiled for choice with the Prado, the Reina-Sofia, and many other museums, while the city’s numerous large parks offer plenty of green space for when you need to escape the capital’s rush. Plus, for culture vultures, there’s just something about walking in the footsteps of Lorca, de Cervantes, Almodovar, and countless others. After dark, Madrid can catch out unwary budget travellers who stumble into trendy nightclub districts and restaurants. But here’s a tip. Weekend Madrid is full of touts offering coupons for free or discounted entry to clubs, or a free drink or two once inside. Rather than being a tourist trap, this is just how people afford the nightlife here. Don’t be afraid to ask a local if you’re unsure if an offer is legit. A little Spanish goes a long way in Madrid too.

Recommended Stay: 2 to 4 days. More if you’re doing day trips. Solidly mid-priced with relatively inexpensive attractions, Madrid makes a great city break on almost any budget. Just don’t be caught out by the trendier nightlife districts.

Madrid skyline with Santa Maria la Real de La Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace during sunset, Spain
Santa Maria la Real de La Almudena Cathedral and the Royal Palace at sunset, Madrid

Berlin, Germany

Ten or fifteen years ago, Berlin would have topped this list without a second thought. But times have changed. Everyone is heading to Berlin these days on their Europe vacation, to the point local authorities are intervening to try and keep the city affordable for natives. That means seeking out local haunts if you want to keep your costs down. Luckily, Berlin’s happening neighbourhoods make this easy. Spend a day contemplating the madness of World War II and the city’s division, then another exploring world class museums like the Pergamon and Nueues. Then get to know the "real" Berlin by heading into hoods like Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Shoneberg. Be sure to visit both west and east to get the complete Berlin picture. Finally, if you’re coming here to party, leave the vanity at home. Clubbing is a bargain in Berlin, largely because it’s completely unpretentious. So ditch the designer duds, and remember, no photos inside!

Recommended Stay: 3 to 5 days Berlin prices in 2017 will come as a rude shock to anyone who visited the city in the 90s or 00s. But considering its rapidly growing influence and popularity, it’s still one of Europe’s best urban travel deals.

Budapest, Hungary

Forget all the meaningless labels like, "The next Prague" or "Paris of the East." Budapest is a city as unique as the Magyars who founded it. The sharp, utilitarian blocks of the communist era are juxtaposed with the gorgeous neo-gothic splendour of buildings such as the Parliament, Opera House, and Fisherman’s Bastion. Immerse yourself in both the awe-inspiring history and architecture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the sobering tales of Cold War Budapest. Then recharge with a couple of hours in one of the city’s many thermal baths, before hitting the famous "ruin pubs" in the old Jewish Quarter after dark. Don’t forget to sample your way through the flavourful (if sometimes heavy) Magyar cuisine, and best of all, enjoy it at a bargain price, with surprisingly few non-European tourists around you.

Recommended Stay: 2 to 4 days If Hungarian was easier to learn, Budapest would be an expat/artist’s paradise. It’s a city unlike any other in Europe, where you can try some wonderful experiences and meals on a pretty slim budget.

Hungarian Parliament Building at Sunset, Budapest, Hungary
Hungarian Parliament Building at sunset

Paris, France

Undeniably on the pricey side, Paris is about good value, not cheapness. In short, you’re going to spend a lot each day and leave wishing it could have gone on forever. Paris has a number of the world’s greatest museums, particularly for art, and they’re quite reasonably priced, particularly if you pick up a Museum Pass (which also lets you skip the inevitable queues). When it comes to meals, pre-fixed menus are the mid-budget traveller’s best friend, letting you sample a wide range of French and other cuisine at a very reasonable price. If your food budget does start to spiral, stop in at a creperie or boulangerie for a fresh and filling snack - like the locals do. You know a Europe vacation to Paris is on practically everyone’s bucket list, so be ready for crowds and pricey hotel rooms (and some would argue, grumpy Parisians) if you come in the spring or early fall. Want to bypass all of the above? Paris is one of Europe’s best winter destinations, with mild weather, and much thinner crowds at its most famous attractions.

Recommended Stay: 5 to 7 days A trip to Paris will never be cheap on a Europe vacation, but consider a Museum Pass, buy a carnet of discounted Metro tickets, and look for pre-fixed menus, plus local happy hours. Drinking is particularly expensive here.

View of Paris from Notre Dame in Autumn, France
View of Paris from Notre Dame in autumn

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona sees far more non-Spanish speaking tourists than the rest of Spain, and so feels far easier to navigate. What’s more, the Catalan capital can be a bargain. But here’s the trick. There’s the Gothic Quarter, and everywhere else, and if you’re here on a budget, you’ll want to eat, sleep, and party in a neighbouring district. Don’t skimp too much on your hotel or sightseeing. Comfort and space in Barcelona will set you back a little extra, as will seeing those lovely modernista interiors. Your reward? Truly one of the most beautiful and culturally complex cities not just in Europe, but anywhere in the world. Provided you don’t spend all your time in the Gothic Quarter, you’ll find Barcelona a very reasonably priced "must-see" city on your Europe vacation, with sights on par with Paris and Rome, astonishing cuisine, and great nightlife. Just remember not to sit down to dinner before 9pm. What’s more, if a bar is hopping before 11 on a weekend, you’re almost definitely in a tourist place.

Recommended Stay: 5 to 7 days If you skip entry to Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, Barcelona can seem quite cheap. My advice? Don’t. Splash out for a couple of entrance tickets and let these truly unique treasures dazzle you.

Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain
Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain

Rome, Italy

Like Paris, Rome is a relatively pricey city that nonetheless offers fantastic value for money. Rather than being all about museums, Rome lets you go right to the source of its incredible history, and like Paris, its attractions aren’t all that expensive. Just don’t underestimate your meal budget. Having to leave Rome with an unfulfilled stomach is a tragedy that would get Nero fiddling, so sit down and take your time at every meal. Good, moderately priced restaurant or trattoria meals can be found all over the city. Just use your common sense and don’t dine right in the shadow of big tourist attractions. Also, this is one city on your Europe vacation where you’ll want a city pass that lets you bypass the lines, particularly in high season. Google image search "Vatican museums line" if you don’t believe me.

Recommended Stay: 5 to 7 days Accept that you’ll pay a little more for meals, and Rome isn’t outrageously pricey. Plus, many of its famous sights including the Spanish Steps and Pantheon are very cheap or free. Just consider avoiding summer.

Colosseum at Sunset, Rome, Italy
Rome's Colosseum at sunset

London, England

London? A bargain? Well, yes it can be. Just accept that you’re not going to save so much on meals or transport, which can come as a rude shock, particularly in popular areas such as Soho. The good news is that around half of London’s top attractions, particularly its museums and galleries, are absolutely free. So you can have several days of top notch sightseeing here without spending a penny on attractions. For a dose of world class theatre on the cheap, pick up a "yard" (standing) ticket at Shakespeare’s Globe, or queue early for a same-day ticket to a hit West End show. A pint at a London pub is also pretty reasonable next to the rather pricey plate of fish and chips you ordered with it. In short, yes, this is the most expensive city on the list, and this manifests in some expenses you can’t avoid, particularly food. Accept that these will set you back, then focus on enjoying the very best of a city that’s truly without peer. Be sure to budget a little extra for the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and other paid attractions. These London icons might be pricey, but nobody will argue they’re not worth it. 

Recommended Stay: 5 to 7 days Research attractions for this Europe vacation and work out your sightseeing budget before turning up. Then take the pricey meals, tube, and taxis on the chin, and let London enchant you. There’s no other city like it on earth.

Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Bridge in London, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Bridge in London

Prague, Czech Republic

Medieval Disneyland? Ruined by tourists? The next Prague? Fie! Fie! The old Prague is doing just fine, thank you. This is the kind of magical city most travellers dream of when visiting Europe, so you really can’t blame the crowds who pack the Old Town and Charles Bridge every summer. Despite twenty years of ever spiraling tourist numbers, Prague remains hands down the best bargain you can add to your Europe vacation. Spared from the bombing of World War II, and having shaken off the soot and shackles of communism, the city of Kafka embraces oddity and fairy tale beauty in equal measure. Know that like Paris or London, there’s no escaping "tourist Prague" at any time of year, but considering just how far past "hidden gem" status the city is, it’s amazing that prices remain so low. If you want to avoid crowds and enjoy those bargains, stay and eat outside the Old Town. Prague is a compact city, so getting around is easy. You’ll be thankful for the lower prices, as well as a chance to breathe amid local Czechs.

Recommended Stay: 3 to 5 days Tourism has been a double-edged sword to Prague prices. Hotels can seem a bit steep, but stiff competition will keep your meal costs down, particularly outside the Old Town or Castle Quarter.

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Christian Baines
Christian Baines
Goway - Globetrotting Contributing Editor

Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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