Everyone knows European travel is expensive – or is it?
Far too many Americans take one look at the cost of a week in the Latin Quarter in Paris and abandon any hope of European travel. But savvy travelers look beyond the obvious destinations for a more affordable, and often more authentic, European experience.
Whether you’re a history buff, architecture enthusiast, avid skier, or foodie, spice up your travel log with these low-cost but unforgettable European destinations.
There are plenty of ways to save money on traveling internationally. A few notes before we dive in:
- As a general rule, European countries with their own currency, rather than the euro, tend to be more affordable.
- If you’re worried about flight costs, use mileage from a travel rewards credit card. Don’t have a credit card? Try these tricks to find cheap flights.
- We’ve included the average cost of a three-star hotel in each destination, but in many cases, Airbnb options are even cheaper and more comfortable and authentic. You can also use Expedia to find deals on everything from hotels to airfare and even rental cars or activities.
Also worth noting: Upon arriving in any European city, be sure to buy a SIM card if you plan on renting a car and doing any driving. SIM cards will serve you far better than standalone navigation systems, which may translate street names differently than Google does. I learned that lesson the hard way.
This small, oft-forgotten country nestled between Italy and Switzerland offers the best of both countries at a fraction of the cost of either.
Arrive in the capital city of Ljubljana and stroll its beautiful historic Old Town. Take a tour of the Ljubljana Castle or simply enjoy some žlikrofis – small dumplings made with bacon, onions, potatoes, herbs, and spices – from a nearby café.
Slovenia is most famous for its mountains and lakes, so make sure you get outside the city to see the gorgeous countryside. The Alps run through Slovenia, and they’re just as impressive here as in Switzerland.
When you’re ready to see the countryside, start by heading out to Lake Bled, a popular tourist destination with a small island church dating back to 1465. Next, head toward Maribor, where you can enjoy some excellent and affordable skiing in the winter. Maribor sits on a beautiful lake and boasts its own old town and castle. After soaking in the culture and history, visit some wineries in the surrounding countryside to try the local wines.
If you have time, check out the Postojna Cave. The 800-year-old Predjama Castle, nestled into a cliff face, provides access to the extensive cave network. It’s a bit on the touristy side with a train running through the most-visited part of the caves, but it’s worth a visit.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Ljubljana: $87 per night (all hotel quotes from Hotels.com)
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $8.14 to $16.28 per person (all meal quotes from PriceofTravel.com)
- Currency: Euro
- Learn More: Slovenia Tourist Board
While Croatia has grown more expensive over the last decade, it’s still decidedly cheaper than its neighbor across the Adriatic, Italy.
Starting in the capital, Zagreb, take in the architecture of the Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption, which dates to the early 12th century, and Ban Jelacic Square. When you’ve had your fill of ancient buildings, drop by the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, which is dedicated to unrequited love and packed with everyday objects and stories about both famous and ordinary people.
If you’re a “Game of Thrones” fan, head south to Dubrovnik, the picturesque – if now well-known and crowded – seaside town where the King’s Landing scenes are shot in the epic fantasy TV series.
For a classically beautiful Mediterranean island experience, take a ferry to Korcula, which is known for its wineries, sailing, beaches, and historic town.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Zagreb: $74 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $5.55 to $9.51 per person
- Currency: Croatian kuna
- Learn More: Croatia Tourist Board
Cyprus is its own country, although it’s largely Greek ethnically and culturally. Cyprus is split into two, with the northern part of the island still occupied by Turkey after an invasion in 1974. In the capital city of Nicosia, you can cross the border, which runs through the middle of the city, into Turkish-controlled territory. (Be sure to bring your passport.)
After visiting the city, head to the Troodos Mountains and the wine village of Omodos, then check out seaside Larnaca for a relaxing beach experience. While in Larnaca, set aside an hour or two for a wine tasting at The Oak Tree Wine Cellar. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the excellence of Cypriot wines and the proprietor’s knowledge of them.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Nicosia: $73 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: Exact figures unavailable from PriceofTravel.com. I found budget meals in the range of $6 to $12 per person.
- Currency: Euro
- Learn More: Cyprus Tourist Board
4. Czech Republic
Prague, the Czech Republic’s capital city, is stunning. I set my alarm for 5am one morning while there to photograph the city at dawn before the crowds. When I shared my shots with a photographer friend, he agreed that “Prague has the best cobblestones in Europe.”
But what’s most striking about Prague is its sharp Gothic towers, set amidst Renaissance and Baroque buildings. Unlike so many medieval cities in Europe, Prague was almost entirely untouched by bombs in World War II.
Enjoy a $2.15 pint of Czech beer at the U Zlatého Tygra, or House at the Golden Tiger, which dates back to 1702. Then, have a traditional Czech pork knuckle dinner in the nearby warren of alley streets in Staré Mesto (Prague’s Old Town).
If you like the pampered spa experience, try the nearby town Karlovy Vary and its healing spring waters. Next, visit Olomouc, a fun town known for its fountains, each honoring a different Roman god, in the town’s many squares. Another must-see in Olomouc is The Saint Wenceslas Cathedral and its sharp Gothic spires.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Prague: $69 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $6.37 to $11.38 per person
- Currency: Czech koruna
- Learn More: Czech Republic Tourist Board
Hungary’s capital, Budapest, is split down the middle by the Danube River separating the western Buda bank from the eastern Pest bank. Buda is hilly, with a decidedly Austro-German influence, palaces, and scenic overlooks. Pest is flat, with a more Eastern European feel.
History buffs will enjoy the blend of architectural styles, a testament to the many conquests of Budapest as it fell under different rule over the last thousand years. The religious will enjoy the abundance of churches and synagogues dating back centuries, including an ancient church dug into a cave in the side of a Buda hill. A traditional hot spring feeds the Szechenyi Bath, a traditional bathhouse over 100 years old. The adventurous can even indulge in a beer bath!
All of this will keep you entertained until the sun goes down, after which you can swing by one of Budapest’s famous “ruin bars” for a taste of local nightlife. My favorite is Szimpla Kert. If you’re traveling alone, these fun, funky bars feature plenty of conversation pieces and opportunity to meet fellow travelers.
If you enjoy white wines, spring for a winery tour beyond the city’s limits. Look for tours that include dinner with a local family for a more authentic experience.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Budapest: $69 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $6.90 to $12.32 per person
- Currency: Hungarian florint
- Learn More: Hungary Tourist Board
Like many European cities, Poland’s capital city, Warsaw, claims a bustling historic old town worth seeing. But get outside Warsaw to catch some of the more unique sights in Poland.
Kraków is home to the impressive Wawel Castle and one of the largest medieval squares in Europe at 9.4 acres. It dates back to the 13th century and contains St. Mary’s Basilica, Town Hall Tower, the giant historical market Cloth Hall, and dozens of ancient residences dating back centuries.
If you can’t get enough of castles, visit Malbork for the Castle of the Teutonic Order, a 13th-century fortress. It’s the largest castle in the world by land area and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For a more recent and somber history lesson, visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Learning about the Holocaust in a textbook makes it feel distant and clinical, but walking the camps and hearing the personal stories of those who died there bring it all to colorful, horrifying life.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Warsaw: $62 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $4.36 to $6.81 per person
- Currency: Polish zloty
- Learn More: Poland Tourist Board
The Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park, dating to 535 B.C., puts the other castles on this list to shame. Be sure to check out Saint Petka’s Chapel inside the fortress, as well as the Crkva Ruzica, or Church of the Holy Mother of God, and the neighboring quaint Zemunski Kej on the Danube River.
If you like your history with a touch more violence, try the Skull Tower of Niš, built by Turkish general Hurshi Pasha in 1809 out of the skulls of vanquished Serb rebels.
For a change of pace from ancient churches, visit the Subotica Synagogue, an enduring art nouveau building that survived the wars and cultural clashes of the 20th century intact.
Next, take a detour off the beaten path to Rajac, a small wine region village that includes about 20 stone buildings that look like houses but are actually dedicated to making, storing, and drinking wine. The villagers take their wine so seriously that they bury their dead next to this wine cellar complex; the unmarked-but-elaborate tombs in Rajac Cemetery date back centuries.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Belgrade: $60 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $4.65 to $9.30 per person
- Currency: Serbian dinar
- Learn More: Serbia Tourist Board
Romania is home to fabled Transylvania, a forested, mountainous region dotted with ancient castles and small towns. If the locals get sick of all the Dracula talk from tourists, they hide it well. At a courtyard café in Bucharest’s Old Town, my wife and I spotted several people dressed in capes, top hats, and vampire teeth – the first of many we’d see.
Upon descending into the café’s cellar to find a restroom, I instead found a long, stone-lined medieval dining cavern packed with at least 60 “vampires.” I couldn’t resist asking the lead vampire what was afoot. A middle-aged Belgian man, he grilled me on my political leanings and said he’d grant me my wish of eternal life if I agreed with his politics. It seemed a small enough price to pay, and he handed me a cape, top hat, and teeth before returning to guzzling red wine with his equally drunk Belgian comrades.
Bucharest’s charming Old Town aside, it’s not the most beautiful city in Europe. One night there is enough.
From Bucharest, drive north into Transylvania proper. Start with Brasov for its lovely old town, excellent hillside hiking accessible on foot from the city, and nearby skiing. A quick 45-minute drive will take you to “Dracula’s Castle” – more accurately, the Bran Castle. It has only tenuous connections to Vlad Dracul and his son Vlad the Impaler, but it’s still a beautiful castle rich with history.
If you fancy a seaside retreat, head east to the Black Sea coast to small Vama Veche. It’s a quirky town formerly populated by Bohemian artists, poets, nudists, and other Soviet dissidents. If an artsy vibe isn’t your scene, there are plenty of more traditional resort options along the coast.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Bucharest: $56 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $4.53 to $7.56 per person
- Currency: Romanian leu
- Learn More: Romania Tourist Board
Like most Eastern European capital cities, Sofia has an attractive, historic city center surrounded by Soviet-era scars and tenements. On our walk to a well-reviewed restaurant, we passed by a small craft beer store blasting Bon Jovi with a handful of patrons dancing in the street out front. The Sofians welcomed us with a beer, a cheer, and a chorus of “Oh, we’re halfway there …”
That’s the kind of place Bulgaria is. It can’t claim a booming tourism industry, and the locals are genuinely happy to see tourists. In Plovdiv, the young owner of a new bodega sat and spoke with us for over two hours about Bulgarian wine, opening several bottles for us to try and giving us one we liked as a gift. In Veliko Tarnovo, the owner of our tiny bed-and-breakfast invited us to sit and enjoy the sweeping mountainside vista with some complimentary cheese and olives.
Bulgaria is also quite affordable. We skied in Borovets for $20 lift tickets and visited the wineries surrounding Plovdiv, tasting a dozen wines for $3 total. The Black Sea coast offers inexpensive seaside escapes for beach lovers.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Sofia: $52 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $4.79 to $8.98 per person
- Currency: Bulgarian lev
- Learn More: Bulgaria Tourist Board
Anyone who loves Cold War history will love the raw, Soviet-era offerings in and around the capital city of Riga. The “Corner House” was an old KGB headquarters and interrogation station. Ligatne is the site of a secret Soviet bunker you can still visit today. Then there’s Skrunda-1, a “secret Soviet city” that was a military installation housing radar for intercontinental missile detection.
If you’d rather gaze at beautiful buildings than military history, Riga is famous for its flamboyant art nouveau architecture. Walk the Jugenda Stila Nami neighborhood, specifically Elizabeth Street and Albert Street, to see stunning facades.
When you’re hungry, pick up some street food and meander into the Vermanes Garden. It’s an urban park with canals where, at the right time of year, you may spot beavers swimming.
Venture outside the capital to visit Latvia’s castles and larger national parks. Try the Cesis medieval castle, hiking in the Gauja National Park, or a less strenuous stroll on the boardwalk at Kemeri National Park.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Riga: $42 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $5.81 to $10.47 per person
- Currency: Euro
- Learn More: Latvia Tourist Board
Is Georgia in Europe or Asia? The debate rages on. If you ask Georgians, they consider themselves Europeans. While Georgia is a poorer, and in some ways more difficult, country to navigate than the others on this list, it also offers incredible charms not found elsewhere in Europe.
Forget hotels in Georgia and stay at a “guest house,” a mom-and-pop bed-and-breakfast. Each host was friendlier than the last when I visited, offering local cheeses, meats, and wine to us before we ventured out for dinner at night. On our final night, our host gave us a bottle of homemade wine made from her own backyard vines.
Spend a night in the capital city of Tbilisi and visit the Anchiskhati Basilica built around 522 to 534. If its sheer age doesn’t awe you, nothing will.
Then, venture out to Sighnaghi, which looks like a Tuscan town plopped down in the midst of the Georgian mountains. Stop by the beautiful Bodbe Monastery on your way into town, then enjoy a wine tasting at the top of the tallest building on the tallest hill in town.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can visit the Uplistsikhe ancient cave city, where no fewer than 17 civilizations have lived over the last four thousand years.
- Average 3-Star Hotel in Tbilisi: $51 per night
- Dinner at a Local Restaurant: $2.30 to $9.90 per person (meal quote from Tbilisi prices on GlobalPrice.info)
- Currency: Georgian lari
- Learn More: Georgia Tourist Board
Traveling foreign countries, particularly less-visited ones, rewards you in surprising ways. Yes, it’s fun to wander the Louvre and climb the Eiffel Tower. But there’s a different kind of magic in visiting an ancient cave city in Georgia or wandering the ruins of the old Bulgarian Kingdom’s capital castle. There’s also plenty of charm in spending $50 per night rather than $250.
So, dispense with the excuses and plan your next European vacation on a budget. You may be pleasantly surprised at just how much you can find to do when you commit to spending less.
What are your favorite inexpensive European destinations?