True, the Continent is expensive, but choose an unexpected location, time it right, and you’ll be surprised by just how much you can save. Here are four great alternative choices that offer all the amazing attractions of the most popular destinations -- for a whole lot less.
How Much You Can Save: 25%
Why Here: Like Central European capitals Prague and Vienna, Budapest is known for its glittering riverfront, coffee culture, and classical-music scene. “Still, it’s one of the more affordable large cities on the Continent,” says Roger Wade, founder of PriceofTravel .com. Food and wine are about 75% cheaper in Budapest than in Vienna, and the Hungarian city offers amazing deals on lodging; the average room rate in Budapest is $104, vs. Prague’s $138, according to hotel comparison site Trivago.com. The city is also evolving at a startling pace, says Ellison Poe of Poe Travel: “Even last year’s guidebooks are as stale as week-old angel food cake.”
See and Do: Start with a tour of the old city, which is divided by the Danube River. For a bargain option, Wade recommends the “Original” walk from TripToBudapest Free Walking Tours. This three-hour stroll passes sites such as the Danube Promenade, lined with iconic 19th-century buildings, and the neoclassical St. Stephen’s Basilica. Want a more in-depth take? Context Travel is known for its scholar-led tours; topics range from Budapest’s 19th- and 20th-century golden years to a look at the city’s current politics ($50).
Head back to St. Stephen’s for $21 Thursday concerts, or get dolled up for an opera at the Hungarian State Opera House. With good matinee seats as low as $20, prices are a fraction of those in Vienna, says Poe. Later walk along Falk Miksa, Budapest’s antiques street, to window-shop for paintings, glassworks, jewelry, and more, says Daniel Göczo˝, a guide with JoAn VIP Travel.
Eat and Drink: Sample authentic Hungarian dishes, such as layered potatoes or duck breast, for $12 at Café Kör, says Attila Dankovics, concierge at the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest. Or try the Great Market Hall for traditional street foods such as lángos, flatbreads topped with sour cream and cheese, or kürto˝skalács pastries.
Dankovics also suggests enjoying a $3 glass of wine at one of the city’s “ruin bars,” which are housed in buildings abandoned during the communist years.
Stay: In Budapest, as in many European cities, you’ll miss out on great bargains if you dismiss anyplace with “hostel” in the name. The Maverick Hostel, housed in a renovated mansion, has private rooms for just $37 a person (unless otherwise stated, all rates in this story are for October). Or for an affordable indulgence, book the Lánchíd 19 Design Hotel, where some rooms overlook the iconic Chain Bridge (from $110).
How Much You Can Save: 38%
Why here Like classic European capitals such as Rome and Madrid? Then you’ll love Lisbon. The city can go toe to toe with the big names on food and wine, architecture, and museums, but at a fraction of the cost. A three-course meal runs $42 (vs. $61 in Madrid), according to cost-of-living index Numbeo.com, and at $120 a night, average hotel rates are 38% lower than Rome’s, says research firm STR.
See and Do: Take a peek into the city’s history at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo ($7), housed in a former convent. The museum has a stunning collection of azulejos, the hand-painted tiles that cover buildings throughout Lisbon. For something a bit more modern, there’s the industrial-looking Museu da Eletricidade (entry is free). Fashion lovers should hit the Museu do Design e da Moda (MUDE), another free option, this one stocked with more than 1,200-plus haute couture masterpieces.
Want an ensemble you can take home? Explore the shops in Príncipe Real. Lisbon-based blogger José Cabral of oalfaiatelisboeta .com recommends Espaço B for smart designs by European designers. Many stores offer a VAT refund, which you’ll redeem at the airport, for savings of up to 23%.
Take a break from the bustle at the 18th-century, rococo-style National Palace of Queluz, 20 minutes outside the city. Admission is $10 if you arrive at 3:30 or later. Be sure to see “the fountain-dotted gardens,” says Your-Lisbon-Guide .com founder Mary H. Goudie.
Eat and Drink: The cuisine at Mini Bar is reminiscent of the food at Spain’s late El Bulli, which was known as one of the world’s most experimental restaurants, says Joel Zack of Heritage Tours Private Travel. But while El Bulli’s tasting menu was about $320, the six-course prix fixe at Mini Bar is a more palatable $53.
Prefer something traditional? Try Cantinho do Bem Estar ($32) in Bairro Alto, known for generous portions of codfish and black pork, says Anja Mutic, EvertheNomad.com travel writer. For a nightcap head downtown to 1930s-era bar Ginginha do Carmo for a $2 ginginha, a traditional sour cherry liqueur.
Stay: In the riverfront area of Cais do Sodre, seek out the hip LX Boutique Hotel ($135), says Mutic. Request a room with views of the Tagus River. Or try the simple rooms at the nearby Lisb’on Hostel. Rates drop slightly after Oct. 15; book a private room for $90, including breakfast.
How Much You Can Save: 19%
Why Here: Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast cities of Split (to the north) and Dubrovnik (to the south) have a lot in common with the Amalfi Coast of Italy. There’s the stunning scenery, sea-to-table cuisine, olive oils, and, of course, fantastic wines. Yet Croatia, while pricier than it once was, is still the more affordable. Last year the average hotel rate in Amalfi was $315, vs. Dubrovnik’s $254, according to Hotels.com.
See and Do: Pick up the Split Card (complimentary if you’re staying three days) at the tourism bureau for local discounts and free access to museums. Split is a great city to explore on foot. Start by wandering the café- and market-packed streets of Diocletian’s Palace, built in the early fourth century. Next explore the Riva promenade, which is flanked by stately palms and yacht-dotted waters. For a dose of nature, visit Marjan, a reserve just a 20-minute walk from the city center.
In Dubrovnik soak in the view from the top of Mount Srdj. You could take an $18 cable car, but consider hiking the 40 or so minutes to the lookout point, says Croatian private city guide Anada Pehar. Warm day? Take a dip in the Adriatic at Banje Beach, just outside the old town. The UNESCO-protected Lokrum Island (ferry: $12), with its beautiful grounds and free-roaming peacocks, is a good alternative if it’s not quite swimming weather.
Later, stroll the 1.24-mile wall that circles the old city ($18). You’ll see St. Savior Church, where bullet holes from the 1991 siege of Dubrovnik are still visible, and the Friars Minor Pharmacy, one of Europe’s oldest.
Eat and Drink: Make an excursion to Mali Ston, 50 minutes north of Dubrovnik by car. There, take the $27 Bota ˆSare tour, a boat ride through a family-owned oyster bay, which includes wine, grappa, and oyster tastings. Back in Dubrovnik, snag a table at Bota Oyster & Sushi Bar in the old city (dinner: $16) for sushi made with local fish, says Pehar. In Split you’ll find hearty homestyle Dalmatian cuisine—grilled calamari and stuffed peppers—at the charming Villa Spiza (dinner: $20).
Stay: Croatia’s low-season rates don’t kick in until November, when you’ll find deals like 36% off at Dubrovnik’s stunning five-star Hotel Dubrovnik Palace (regularly $296).
Similarly, rates at Split’s centrally located Hotel Luxe drop from $224 to $95 in November. Going earlier? Look to Tripping.com— an aggregator for sites such as FlipKey.com and HomeAway.com—to find convenient apartment rentals for as little as $60 a night.
How Much You Can Save: 50%
Why Here: Germany’s largest city is also its capital of cool. Packed with contemporary art, indie music, and innovative restaurants and lounges, the vibe is reminiscent of London at its most swinging. The prices, though, couldn’t be more different: The average Berlin hotel room is about half the cost of those in England’s capital, according to Trivago.com. Plus, while the euro is no bargain for Americans, it beats the pound.
See and Do: Skip the touristy sightseeing buses, which charge more than $23 a head, and board public Bus 100 ($3.50). You’ll get the same great view of sites such as the stately Reichstag and the neoclassical Brandenburg Gate.
Spring for a $33 three-day Museum Pass. With access to 50 institutions like the Jewish Museum Berlin ($12), housed in Daniel Libeskind’s striking steel-and-glass building, and architectural gem Bauhaus-Archiv ($8), you’ll make up the cost in as little as two visits.
Berlin’s gallery scene (there are over 400) is not to be missed. Start in the Scheunenviertel neighborhood or the historic Jewish quarter, says Andrea Schulte-Peevers, author of Lonely Planet Berlin. “Stop in Kicken Berlin for its avant-garde photography from the 1920s.” The neighborhood is also known for its street art, so keep your eyes peeled as you walk.
Eat and Drink: At Der Hahn ist tot!, which focuses on rural German and French cuisines, you’ll find a $26 four-course menu that changes weekly, says lifestyle guide Henrik Tidefjaerd of berlinagenten.com. Check out Markthalle Neun, a mix of food trucks and stalls that sell curry wurst, homemade pasta, and German wines on Thursday evenings.
Berlin’s nightlife is legendary, but you don’t have to stay out until 5 a.m. to enjoy it. Chef Kolja Kleeberg of Michelin-starred Restaurant Vau suggests cocktails like the Rum Traders Rum Sour at Le Croco Bleu (drinks: $12). The rooftop Monkey Bar at the 25hours Hotel is great for sips with a view (drinks from $5). Order a Hugo, made with sparkling wine, mint, and elderflower.
Stay: “Hotels are a bargain in Berlin, with rates at top properties priced close to $100 a night,” says Bob Diener, co-founder of Getaroom .com. Doubles start at $130 at the stylish and centrally located Circus Hotel. For an even better price, try the Motel One. Branches of this hotel are located throughout the city, and start at $94 per night.
Tips for International Travelers