Traveling on a shoestring in Europe is easier than you think. Maybe it’s not quite as simple as when your parents made their way here in bell bottoms and drove around in a tiny car, but it’s still doable, you just have to know where to go.
Yes, it’s great to come back home and said you’ve seen all the top spots like Paris, London and Barcelona, but wouldn’t it be even cooler if you dropped the name of a country no one’s ever heard of? You can be proud of your trail-blazing skills and you don’t even have to break the bank to do it. Plus, you can give your friends a little free geography lesson while you’re at it.
I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry – you can still fly into one of these big hubs and see the sights before you venture off into the “unknown.” The cheapest flights are actually usually to big cities like London, Barcelona and the like. And one of the coolest things about Europe is that flights to and from tons of destinations here big and small are actually super affordable with low-cost airlines, and convenient since they often fly into smaller, more relaxed airports.
So props to you for doing your research, because your next European vacation shouldn’t have to put you in debt. Let’s go on a journey from the beautiful mountains of Slovakia to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and everything in between. This list will get you where you need to go and where you never knew existed – on a budget.
20 Zagreb, Croatia
Although Croatia is quickly becoming a favorite destination for Europeans, it’s still a little under the radar when it comes to the rest of the world. Besides that, it’s still super affordable and
you can rent an apartment for about $30-40 a night, and a hostel for even less at about $15-20 per night.
This coastal city is a beautiful mix of cobblestone streets and ancient architecture, plus so many museums you won’t know which one to pick first. The Contemporary Museum of Art is housed in a giant and sleek modern building designed by local architect Igor Franić, with a collection featuring many Croatian artists, as well as international greats, and entrance is only about $5. For a more random museum experience, check out the Museum of Broken Relationships – it sounds pretty strange, but that’s what makes it interesting. Entry here is only about $4. It’s easy to get around the city with a tram pass, renting a cheap city bike, or you can just hoof it. Croatian cuisine and wine are a must, and most places are pretty affordable, even if you want to try a swankier place like Trilogija (app. $20/person). But if you’re looking to spend less, head to the Dolac Market to browse and grab some cheap eats on the northern end of the market.
19 Lille, France
Right on the border with Belgium, this sweet little French and Flemish mix of a city is a treat to explore. It’s long been overlooked, even by Europeans, but it’s been on the up-and-up for years and is cementing itself as a cultural hub that’s worth the trip. A one-night stay here starts at about $25 for a hostel and about $40-50 for a hotel. It’s a bit higher than other budget spots, but you’re still in France, after all. Plus, the affordable city attractions and eateries make up for it. They’ve got some great museums here, like the Palais des Beaux Arts with 15th to 20th-century art, plus archaeology exhibits and more. There’s also a contemporary arts museum with some Miró and Picasso. Entry to each of these museums costs only $8. My favorite part about this city though is actually free – the architecture and impressive squares that could rival any European city. The Central Square is the most famous, with pretty ochre and mustard-hued narrow houses, reminiscent of traditional Belgian/Dutch architecture, with a beautiful statue in the center. For great restaurants, shopping and bars, head to the charming northern narrow streets of the Vieux Lille (Old Town) area.
18 Kraków, Poland
This gorgeous Polish cultural center is a breath of fresh air. Already a popular destination for young Europeans looking for cheap beer and cool hangouts, it’s still remained a super affordable spot nevertheless.
You can get a hostel here (and they have a million great options to choose from) starting at only about $12 a night. If you want more space, it’s not much more for an apartment at about $20-30 per night.
You’ll find the best spots in the Old Town or Kazimierz neighborhoods, the latter having a reputation for being one of the funkiest and chilled-out areas of the city. There are beautiful synagogues in this former Jewish district, and plenty of laid-back cafes, snap-worthy graffiti and wild bars with cheap $2 beers and plenty of cheap kielbasa to keep you going. Besides rowdy nights out, there is a lot of history in this city, like the stunning Wawel Cathedral and Royal Castle. There are also many reminders of the Holocaust, such as the Ghetto Heroes Monument and the Museum of Pharmacy where there’s a large exhibit dedicated to the Polish pharmacist who kept a pharmacy open in the Jewish ghetto during the German occupation. You’ll also find plenty of history wandering Kraków’s streets in its many Rennaissance, Baroque and Gothic buildings.
17 Belgrade, Serbia
This bustling city in Serbia is an all-out, no holds barred kind of capital. With a complicated history and passionate people, it’s got a vibe that’s really like no other in Europe. Right on the Danube River, it’s got interesting architecture, buzzing nightlife and plenty of culture. On top of that, it’s unbelievably affordable as far as European destinations go. You can stay a night here in a hostel starting at about $14, or an apartment for only $20 per night. So drop your bags off and start exploring – one of the coolest things to visit is the Kalemegdan Citadel, a fortress set right along the river that’s seen 115 battles and was even extended by the Romans when the city was known as “Singidunum.” There were so many influences here you’ll have to actually read the pamphlet to take it all in. But entry into this piece of history only costs about 80 cents, so just spend a while here! There’s also the Museum of Yugoslavia, giving insights into what life was like there over the 20th century, with entry only costing about $4. Belgrade also has super affordable Balkan cuisine and a very lively nightlife scene, with tons of night clubs and traditional bars called “kafanas.”
16 Rīga, Latvia
This sweet little city is a hidden treasure in the Baltics, right on the Baltic Sea along the Daugava River. There are so many reasons to visit, among the top being the gorgeous architecture, medieval Old Town and lively nightlife.
Hostels start here at just $15-20 a night, or hotels and apartments for $20-30 per night. One of the most beautiful places to stay is in the Old Town, with brightly colored Gothic buildings and inviting and open squares.
But you can also find great spots in just about any part of the city, with Āgenskalns filled with the famous wooden houses by the river, or Miera Iela being a bohemian vibe neighborhood that’s great for cafes, shopping and nightlife. The sights to see include a lot of Rīga’s buildings – famous for its wooden architecture, Gothic spires and Art Nouveau, wandering is the perfect free activity. While you’re here, make sure you see Alberta Iela, a Jugendstil Art Nouveau picturesque gem, plus Blackheads House, Rīga Cathedral and the Freedom Monument. For cheap snacks and plenty of people-watching, make sure you visit the Central Market. It’s been in operation since 1570 and is now expanded and housed in Zeppelin hangars from WWI.
15 Athens, Greece
Even though Athens is one of Europe’s biggest cities, it’s still a breathtaking place that’s actually affordable – the trick is to stay away from the tourist traps around the Acropolis area. As long as you follow this rule, this city will treat you like a Greek god/dess, and you’ll feel like one too, surrounded by so many ancient ruins.
A one-night stay here starts at about $25 for a hostel, but it isn’t much more for a hotel (about $35), so I’d treat yourself on this occasion and opt for that (many have swimming pools!).
Athens has some amazing spots to explore, like the hilltop Acropolis, 5th-century ruins of the city featuring the impressive Parthenon. If you want to learn more about the history, check out the Acropolis Museum with just a $6 admission price. Another must-see is the Temple of Zeus, which is within walking distance. Besides these pieces of history, Athens has interesting and eclectic neighborhoods to explore, like Psiri and Exarcheia, filled with funky bars and cool cafes. You’ll also want to check out the Monastiraki flea market in the city’s old town. Oh, and don’t forget to eat a lot of seafood here – it’s reasonably priced, fresh as can be and pairs perfectly with Greek wines.
14 Brno, Czech Republic
This city on the border with Slovakia is often overlooked, even by Europeans. Which really is a shame, because its culturally vibrant and friendly locals make this city a must-see if you’re exploring Eastern Europe. You can get a place to lay your head here for around $25-30 a night. I’d recommend going for a hostel, as it’s a great way to meet people from all around the world and really enjoy the city’s laid-back and young vibes. It feels so vibrant here because there’s a big university, so it’s definitely a student city. The architecture is beautiful and different, with modernist builds like Villa Tugendhat from the 1930s, or historic sites like the medieval Špilberk Castle, which used to also have a prison in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now it has its own museum – don’t miss the lookout tower here. Another really unique sight is the tunnels underneath Cabbage Market, built for food storage and as hiding places during wartime. Take a 45-minute tour and explore these historic underground passages of the city. Taking a train here from the fairy-tale capital of Prague is extremely easy and affordable, so you can see both places in one trip. You can also fly into Brno’s small airport from many cities throughout Europe.
13 Dublin, Ireland
You might not immediately think of Ireland’s capital as cheap when you’re planning a European getaway, but think again.
You can get here for as low as about $160 round-trip from New York with Norwegian Air. If you’re already in Europe, there are also cheap flights from just about any city. You can stay at really unique and fun hostels for about $15 a night like the Abbey Court Hostel, and most places have breakfast included.
You can also get a room at great guesthouses for about $60 for two people, but if you’re up for meeting people, just go the hostel route. Must-sees while you’re here include the Guinness and/or Jameson factories if you’re up for paying a bit for the tickets. If not, you can just have a beer at the Guinness rooftop bar, with great views of the city. Another area you’ve got to check out is the Dublin Castle and Trinity College, as well as St. Stephen’s Green – a gorgeous leafy park with swans and statues. One of my favorite avenues to wander is Great George’s Street, with great markets, restaurants and little bars off every side street. Another free activity? A walk along the River Liffey over the Ha’Penny Bridge, built in 1816.
12 Bucharest, Romania
This spot is perfect for a weekend city trip if you’re making your way through Europe. Flights to Bucharest are super cheap, from just about anywhere, and you won’t be disappointed when you arrive. Romania’s capital city offers you a very interesting mix of architecture, from the Orthodox churches you’ll find around every corner, to the beautiful French-influenced old town mixed with Communist-era blocky buildings and awesomely unique Art Nouveau beauts. Don’t miss the colorful old town or the Parliament Palace – the world’s second largest government building after the Pentagon. It’s totally affordable to stay here, starting at about $20 a night for laid-back and badass hostels or a bit more for guesthouses and hotels. Wandering the city and seeing the eclectic mix of buildings was my favorite thing to do here, as well as exploring the beautiful and giant parks throughout the city. Head to Herăstrău Park, with open greens, tree-covered paths, romantic bridges, and a huge lake with skyline views behind. On top of all that, food and drink is cheap as can be, and satisfying to say the least. Although it’s a little touristy, you have to have a meal at the traditional Caru’ cu Bere restaurant that’s in a beautiful old Gothic revival building from 1899.
11 Vilnuis, Lithuania
Another often overlooked European city, Vilnuis has tons of beautiful baroque architecture in store for you, plus a medieval Old Town and endlessly charming cobblestone streets.
Guesthouse stays and adorable rooms for two at hotels start at just $25 a night, even in the pretty Old Town area. Must-sees here are also pretty much free, like the neoclassical Vilnius Cathedral and the Gothic-style St. Anne’s Church with giant spires reaching towards the sky.
You should also check out the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the Geidminas Castle and Museum, perched on a hilltop above the Neris and Vilnia rivers. The museum only costs about $3 to visit and features exhibits on ethnic Lithuanian culture, archaeology and history. Eating out here is also really affordable, with delicious dishes like stuffed savory dumplings called “cepelinai,” with meat, cheese curds or mushrooms. The culinary scene is very alive here, and you can enjoy a delicious sit-down meal for about $15 per person. If you’re feeling like venturing out of the city, take a half-hour train ride to Trakai and see the unique 15th-century castle that’s nestled on this tiny island (only $8 for adults and $4.50 for students). It’s also surrounded by a gorgeous national forest, great for scenic walks.
10 Valencia, Spain
It seems like almost everyone’s been to Barcelona or Madrid, but Valencia is an intimate yet bustling city on the southeastern coast that’s actually the third largest in Spain. You wouldn’t think so with its quiet pedestrian streets and laid-back atmosphere pretty much anywhere you walk, but this charming quality is what makes it totally worth the trip. You can get cheap flights here from most places in Europe and accommodations start at about $30/night for 2 people. Right on the Mediterranean, this sweetly sunny locale will have you craving their unbelievably good oranges and more wandering to see gorgeous spots like the Turia river park, plus romantic architecture. Most of the must-sees here are all free and include the 13th-century Cathedral and the Mercat Central built in 1928, it’s a beautiful example of Modernista architecture of iron and stained glass windows. The food here is delicious too – grab some paella, olives and jamón and post up on the steps outside to people-watch. If it’s summer, spend a day at the beach, and then take the bus back to see something out of this world. The “City of Arts and Sciences” is one of the most magnificent creations of modern architecture I’ve ever seen. It seriously looks like it’s straight from a Star Wars movie that hasn’t premiered yet, with undulating white structures and lines that bend, converge and connect. Inside, there’s a science museum, planetarium, oceanographic park and the Palace of the Arts.
9 Kotor, Montenegro
This breathtaking town is nestled in a bay on the coast of Montenegro, surrounded by imposing mountains. This beautiful gem near the Adriatic Sea was built up in the 12th and 14th centuries, this fortress walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that you can totally afford to get away to.
Amazing guesthouses, apartments and hostels start at around only $20 a night, many with awesome views of the sea. Many of the best streets to wander are in Kotor’s Old Town, a maze of small side alleys and cobblestone walkways.
Make sure you check out St. Tryphon’s Cathedral, displaying stunning yet quaint Romanesque architecture with pink stone pillars. Walking the fortification surrounding the city is a wonderful way to see its layout. Be aware there are 1,350 steps to the top, but the views are totally worth it, especially spectacular at sunset. At the top of this great hike you’ll find St. Ivan’s Castle, also offering awesome views over the city. Afterwards, head to a restaurant down below and enjoy some Montenegran seafood like the mixed dish with buzara sauce (garlic, wine and spices). This place is so mesmerizing you might think it falls quiet at night, but there are plenty of clubs and taverns to explore, some even with live music.
8 Leipzig, Germany
Move over, Berlin. Your little brother is arriving on the scene and I’m only hearing great things about him. Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Berlin, and if you haven’t been there you should go, but Leipzig is tearing it up when it comes to up-and-coming destinations. This is a city that’s known for its inventive artists and funky nightlife scene, made up of cool industrial architecture mixed with modern structures and some older historic churches too. Plus, they’re also responsible for starting the overthrow of communism in 1989. Who doesn’t like a revolutionary city? For starters, head to the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, a former cotton mill that’s now been converted into a space for art galleries, shops and cafes. Make sure you visit the Altes Rathaus, or Old Town Hall. This cool building was originally from around 1310 but was then redesigned in late-Gothic style around 1470. The city museum (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum) is located here as well, featuring all sorts of exhibits about the city’s history. You’ve got to enjoy some German cuisine of course, which is actually easy with so many cozy and budget-friendly cafes and restaurants like Kollektiv throughout the city. There are also plenty of private rooms for two people here that start at about $35.
7 Ljubljana, Slovenia
This secret little gem nestled in the mountains is endlessly scenic, with a mix of Germanic, Latin and Slavic histories. That means there are tons of castles and nature to explore outside of the city, but there are also medieval relics, museums and gorgeous parks to discover in Slovenia’s capital.
Hostel beds start at just $15 a night here, and it’s only a little bit more if you want a private room for two. Start your sightseeing off right with a visit to Ljubljana Castle, sitting pretty atop a hill overlooking the city’s Old Town.
It dates from the 16th century and is best experienced by just rambling around the grounds, which is free. It costs a bit to enter the Watchtower, St. George Chapel and some other sights up here, but it’s worth it if you’re interested. There are plenty of markets around the city, like Central Market building and open-air options like Tržnica na Prostem by the Triple Bridge. Check out the nearby Pogačarjev Trg market, which is in a beautifully colorful square with the Prešeren monument and elegant historic buildings. Spend an afternoon in the ultra-green Tivoli City Park and make your way back to the center over the Dragon Bridge. Restaurants around town are seriously delicious, and a great meal costs about $12.
6 Budapest, Hungary
This is one of my favorite European cities, and I’d like to see it in every season. There’s so much to experience and explore in this sprawling and epic spot that you don’t really need an excuse to keep coming back –
oh, and it’s super affordable. Accommodations here start at just $10 a night (whoa!) for a bed in a hostel, or just a little bit more for a private room. Budapest is a huge city, but it’s still great to walk around, no matter what season it is (yes, even in the dead of winter).
If you want some help from public transportation, they have a super cool metro system that’s actually the oldest in Europe – look out for the antique cars. Head up to Gellert Hill to get the best views of the city and Danube River, as well as a really cool statue watching over the city. Snap some shots of the glowing Parliament building! The thermal spa Gellert Baths are right below it and you should go inside and take a look at the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture. Right across the river from here you’ll find the impressive Great Market Hall where you can pick up some cheap lángos for about $2, the best Hungarian street food there is, then go wash it down with a beer at any one of the awesome bars throughout the city.
5 Tirana, Albania
Albania is not a destination that’s really even on European’s radars, which makes this one extra special. It’s got quite a history with lots of influences from all directions, but it’s coming out with its own personality now. There are beautiful parks, a strange yet interesting mix of architectural styles, and a buzzing nightlife. Prices for an overnight stay start at just $10 at some uber cool hostels that are the perfect place to meet other savvy travelers. Spend some time exploring the city’s eclectic mix of many architectural styles. Don’t miss the Et'hem Bey Mosque and the National History Museum, and it costs less than $2 to explore this museum where you can learn way more about Albania’s past. The museum is set right on the massive Skanderbeg Square, the city’s main plaza named after one of the country’s heroes who resisted the Ottomans – there’s a statue dedicated to him here. You’ve also got to check out the super random Piramida, built in 1987 by the daughter of one of Albania’s dictators as a museum. It’s now empty and graffitied, but sometimes it’s open for special exhibitions. Go for a chill day trip to Mt. Dajti National Park, a mountain range just 15 miles outside the city with a cable car to the top where you can take leisurely hikes and make a picnic, or eat at the restaurant up top.
4 Varna, Bulgaria
This could quickly become a new European favorite destination, but it’s still hidden under the radar. Varna is a port city on the Black Sea, and it’s right next to some pretty popular coastal resorts like Golden Sands, St. Konstantin and Albena. But don’t be fooled – this place is packed with history and it’s got the ruins and architecture to prove it. Here you’ll find Bulgaria’s largest Roman bath complex, along with an archaeology museum with some pretty impressive golden artifacts and other pieces from Varna’s history. They’ve also got a zoo and an aquarium, and all of these activities are super cheap. Don’t miss the neo-Moorish City Hall with an ornate façade, dating back to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Do some people-watching at a cafe on the main Baščaršija Square, then spend the day strolling Primorski Park that runs along the coast.
The food here is delicious and cheap too, with a full meal only setting you back about $10-15. Definitely try some seafood dishes while you’re here.
Take a little day trip to Euxinograd, a 19th-century royal palace with a park. You can stay here if you’re feeling fancy, or stay at a hostel in Varna’s center for just $10 a night.
3 Porto, Portugal
Everybody’s heading to Lisbon, but I’ve got a secret, and it’s called Porto. The northern cousin to Portugal’s busy capital, this sweet spot is somehow even more laid back and just as interesting, if not more. It’s definitely got its own vibe, and its own beverage – this is where the original Porto drink comes from, many of them aged in cellars right on the Douro River, just across from the center. There are so many chill and funky hostels here to choose from and they all start at about $10 a night for a bed. This is the perfect city for wandering, and it’s so enchanting you won’t even mind that there are hills. Just make your way around and see striking churches like the Igreja de São Francisco. You’ll find many churches throughout the city, big and small. Take a quiet look inside each to see the different architecture. One of my favorite buildings here is the Lello Bookshop, with an all-wooden interior and grand, red carpet staircase. Definitely check out the Clerigos Tower, with gorgeous panoramic views over the city and to the ocean. When you finally make it down to the riverside, look up at the very cool Dom Luis Bridge. You can walk across up top or down low, both offering sweeping views. And before I forget, the food here is absolutely amazing (seafood!) and cheap, so just keep walking and eating.
2 Tallinn, Estonia
This Baltic treasure has an Old Town that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and their ultra-cool architecture doesn’t stop there. With a bit of a complicated past, you wouldn’t know it right off the bat when you visit – the people are extremely friendly, warm and jolly, the food is amazing, and they’re celebrating life all throughout the year with fun festivals and parties.
A bed at a great hostel starts at just $10 a night, and you’re ready to go. Head to the Old Town and take in the mixture of historic colorfully painted buildings in the main square, Raekoja Plats, while you wander the cobblestone streets.
You’ve got to check out the Toompea Castle, dating back to at least the 9th century, and it happens to be painted pink. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is another really interesting building in Russian Revival style. One of the best parts of Tallinn? The food. It really hits the spot with delicious fish dishes and things like savory pancakes and hearty soups. They’ve also got a very vibrant cuisine scene, with fine dining restaurants that could rival big cities like London, and they’re way more affordable too. For a cheap treat, get a local-style donut from Sõõrikukohvik.
1 Tbilisi, Georgia
This capital city is flying way under the radar, and that’s good for you if you want to see somewhere that’s completely got its own personality, minus the tourist hordes. Nestled on hills around the Mtkvari River, it’s got breathtaking cityscape, colorful buildings and the Narikala 4th-century fortress keeping watch over the city. Besides the magnificent architecture, this spot also has a lively arts and culture scene.
A one-night stay here at a highly rated hostel starts at just under $3 a night (I know, right?), or treat yourself to a luxury double room at a 4-star hotel for just $40 a night.
Definitely explore the many beautiful monasteries and cathedrals around the city, as well as the very sleek newer contemporary buildings around town like the Concert Hall and the Bridge of Peace, which is very cool when lit up at night. Make a visit to the Georgian National Museum to learn more about the country’s history all the way back to the 3rd century BC – it only costs about $2 to get in. You can also wine and dine to your heart’s desire here! A full-course sit down meal will only cost you about $10, and that’s including the fabulous Georgian wine you should be ordering to pair with dishes like khachapuri (cheese-filled bread, mtsvadi (traditionally spiced BBQ kebabs) and ajapsandali (spicy eggplant, pepper and tomato).