The prices might be rising as budget airlines take hold, but Hungary’s beautiful capital Budapest boasts heaps of activities for those travelling on the cheap. Though much of the pricier tourist action is centered along Budapest’s riverside, it’s free to explore on foot and visitors can even take advantage of free walking tours led by knowledgeable guides. Across the Danube, the beautiful Fisherman’s Bastion boasts stunning panoramic views across the city and offers free entry between mid-October and mid-March. Of course, a trip to Budapest wouldn’t be complete without stopping by one of its famous thermal baths. The reasonably priced and beautiful Széchenyi Baths are a perfect choice.
Prague, Czech Republic
Its reputation as stag party central may have hiked up the cost of a trip to Prague in recent years. In fact, according to Euromonitor International, it’s now Europe’s fifth most visited destination, but there’s still plenty to do in the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’ without spending a fortune. While hotspots like the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square are a must on any visitor’s itinerary, much more wallet-friendly food and drink (including its legendary cheap beer) can be found away from Prague’s historic center in neighborhoods like hip Žižkov. There’s public art aplenty in Prague too. Walk its streets and you’ll be treated to the sight of several works by Czech sculptor David Černý including In Utero and Hanging Out.
Significantly less touristy than many other Eastern European cities, Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius is one of the best low-cost destinations in the Baltic states. There are a ton of free things to do in the city. Take a simple stroll around its historic Old Town, which is home to quirky locales like Užupis, a ‘republic’ of artists with its own anthem and constitution. You can also see the Literatu Street Project, an artistic homage to Lithuanian literary greats. In Vilnius, even activities that aren’t free, aren’t that expensive. For example, entrance to Gediminas’ Tower, with its gorgeous views out over the capital, costs just €4.
Famed for its historic monuments and architecture – the beautiful Wawel Castle, dating back to the 11th century, and the Old Town’s magnificent medieval main square – Krakow is fast becoming a must-see on many a European traveler’s itinerary. One of the major pulls for Poland’s former royal capital is its buzzing, and often very affordable, nightlife. It’s said Krakow is home to the highest density of pubs and bars in the world, mostly clustered around the Old Town and historic neighborhood of Kazimierz, and according to Go Euro’s 2015 Beer Price Index, the city also boasts the cheapest beers on the continent.
Brimming with eclectic historical buildings, it’s no wonder that Latvia’s vibrant capital Riga is often hailed as an architectural pearl. Nowhere is this more evident than in its charming Old Town, where the restaurants may be typically expensive, but many of its attractions are relatively cheap to visit: the Porcelain Museum, celebrating Riga’s porcelain industry heritage, the quirky Sun Museum and the beautiful St. Peter’s Church. Stop by Riga’s legendary Central Market for affordable, locally made eats like pickled cucumber and smoked eel, and amble through the Old Town to Bastejkalns park for a picnic when weather permits.
It’s often said that Dubrovnik is one of the more expensive cities of the eastern Mediterranean, and indeed it’s one of the priciest destinations in Croatia, but with a little effort the charming Dalmatian Coast city can still be enjoyed on a modest budget. Luckily, a lot of the main attractions in Dubrovnik’s historic walled Old Town – like the beautiful Sponza Palace and Rector’s Palace, and even a walking tour of the city walls themselves – are all reasonably priced or free. Also, much more affordable accommodation and food can be found beyond the bounds of the Old Town.
Sofia – nestled in the heart of western Bulgaria against the backdrop of the majestic Vitosha Mountain – may be one of Europe’s cheapest capitals to visit, but that by no means makes it a second-rate destination. The city, one of Europe’s oldest, is home to a rich history, from the medieval Boyana Church to the even older Rotunda of St. George, dating back to the 4th century. For tourists who like to travel in style, there are plenty of affordable multi-starred hotels alongside many inexpensive, yet upscale restaurants serving classic, authentic Bulgarian cuisine.
Perhaps a surprising addition given that most of the destinations featured here reside in Eastern Europe, but Portugal’s lovely capital Lisbon is doable on a shoestring budget. Modest accommodation gets the luxury treatment at locales like The Independente Hostel from as little as €12 per night (breakfast included), while many no-fuss, traditional restaurants serving typically Portuguese cuisine can be found dotted throughout the city. Add to that a lively cultural calendar featuring plenty of summertime festivals with free activities and the fact that on the first Sunday of each month many of Lisbon’s main attractions – the Torre de Belém and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga included – offer free entry, and Lisbon might not be as expensive as you thought.
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Blighted by the war as recently as a couple of decades ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, Sarajevo, has truly risen from the ashes and is today a cosmopolitan city home to a rich history, both distant and recent, as well as a vibrant nightlife. Visit (free of charge) local landmarks like the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, built in 1532 and considered one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture in the Balkans, and the Latin Bridge, site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War I. Make sure to indulge in some of Sarajevo’s deliciously cheap ćevapi, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national dish.
While Krakow may often be Poland’s more raved about city, its capital, Warsaw, is more than worthy of a visit. After being largely rebuilt in the aftermath of World War II, it boasts a far more modern ambience than its southern neighbor. For a dose of culture, there’s quite possibly no better place in Europe to visit on the cheap. Many of Warsaw’s museums and art galleries, including the National Museum and the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, cost less than €5 to visit, while catching a ballet or opera performance at the Teatr Wielki can cost as little as €7.
By Helen Armitage