13 Affordable Trips to Europe
Did you know you can see the Louvre and Notre Dame in Paris for free, get full meals in London for less than $10, and spend the night in a Bavarian castle for $60? How about cruising on the Bosporus in Istanbul for $1? (No, that’s not a typo.)
It's cheaper than ever for travelers to visit Europe, thanks in part to plummeting airfares provoked by ultra low-cost carriers — think $69 one-way flights across the Atlantic — and a strong U.S. dollar. But there are plenty of ways to keep the savings going even after you've booked your summer vacation to Paris or Western Ireland.
Here are some additional tips on how to shave hundreds of dollars off your next European vacation.
Transportation: Rail Europe has a variety of passes, but for any trip over five hours, opt for a faster, cheaper no-frills airline. Want to drive? Check the aggregators, as well as consolidators like Auto Europe. For a longer trip, a short-term lease of a brand-new Renault or Peugeot will be cheaper — and offer better insurance coverage — than a two-week rental.
Lodging: Consider the myriad of lodging alternatives — farm stays, cottages, private rooms, convents, campgrounds, villa rentals, castles — that are less expensive and more authentic.
Dining: Spend a pittance on a royal picnic. Just look for the daily markets you’ll find in most towns, and keep your eyes peeled for street stalls and carts selling roasted pork sandwiches and sugary crêpes. Or head to a pub, trattoria, or tapas bar for hearty, traditional dishes costing far less than at a restaurant. When you do dine at a temple of haute cuisine, go at lunch, not dinner: you usually get the same menu for less.
Sights: The best things in Europe can often be free. Those grandiose churches that showcase frescoes, stained glass, and architecture by Michelangelo and Matisse? Free. London’s top museums like the British Museum, Tate Modern, and others? No charge. Also, most European tourist offices offer discount passes for public transportation and sightseeing (a notable exception: the largely useless Venice Card).
Shopping: Sharpen your bargaining skills for Europe’s street markets, and you’ll return with more interesting souvenirs (and colorful stories) than the tourists who stuck to the overpriced tchotchke shops.
Trimming your budget doesn’t mean sacrificing the quality of your trip. In fact, the less you spend, the less insulated you are from the local culture. Staying in a thatched Irish farmhouse, perusing old masters in Rome, or snacking your way through Spanish specialties aren’t just the tricks of the frugal traveler: they’re the stuff dream vacations are made of.
For a storybook-worthy vacation to Europe, head straight to Bavaria. Book a room at Burg Colmberg (a 14th-century castle rising from a rocky crag above a tiny village). It offers an eclectic collection of rooms tucked throughout a warren of crooked hallways, hidden staircases, and cozy sitting nooks. Be sure to visit the postcard-perfect Cinderella castle of Neuschwanstein, resplendently perched atop its mountain, take the time to tour the castle in which “Mad King” Ludwig II actually lived. Hohenschwangau is a more modest pile of battlements on a smaller nub of a hill in the valley below. What it lacks in the carefully crafted pomp and circumstance of Neuschwanstein — which Ludwig II never lived to see completed — it more than makes up for in homeyness and history.
The iconic architecture of Apulia — the “heel” of Italy’s boot — is the prehistoric trullo, a cylindrical whitewashed house with a cone-shaped roof of stacked gray stones. There’s no greater concentration of trulli than in the UNESCO-protected town of Alberobello, where whole neighborhoods are made of the structures — and the local entrepreneur behind Trullidea has fixed up dozens of the abandoned ones and rents them to visitors. Cool in the baking summers and with cozy fireplaces for wintertime, a rental trullo lets you live like a local for less than the cost of a tourist-class hotel in town. Want to sample what the Amalfi Coast was like before the hotshots and high prices moved in? Apulia’s forested Gargano Peninsula is popular with sun-loving Italians, but is otherwise refreshingly off the tourist map.
Take a break from sizzling on the crowded Costa del Sol beaches for a self-guided driving tour along the Route of the Pueblos Blancos. This string of cliff-top, whitewashed villages stretches from the Moorish town of Arcos de la Frontera through the Sierra de Grazalema to Ronda, a maze of medieval streets perched dizzyingly above a 500-foot gorge. To avoid a big bill at dinner — or stave off hunger until your 10 p.m. reservation — join the locals in a tapeo: a gastronomic pub crawl from tapas bar to tapas bar, and sample a series of bite-size snacks at each, including almond-stuffed olives and Serrano ham.
Berlin has Cold War mystique, ambitious contemporary architecture, and booming gallery and restaurant scenes. With its cosmopolitan, east-meets-west edginess, it’s no wonder the city has become the cultural capital of central Europe; a destination that continues to attract creative types and in-the-know travelers. Begin your summer trip to Berlin in the fashionable Mitte, or Middle district, as it's convenient to major sites including the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz.
It’s common knowledge that many of London’s greatest museums (the British Museum, Victoria & Albert, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern) don’t charge admission, but don’t overlook some lesser-known freebies like the free lunchtime concerts at St-Martin-in-the-Fields church or the wonderfully hodgepodge collection of art and ancient sculpture in the wildly Victorian private house-museum of Sir John Soane. Budget travelers should also buy the city's Oyster Card, a kind of public transportation debit card that slashes the per-ride price on London buses and subways in half (think $3.10 instead of $6.30).
The country villages and rolling farmland of the Cotswolds are just a two-hour drive from central London or a two-hour train ride from Paddington Station. The area’s upmarket mix of designer boutiques, quaint cottages, and exceptional restaurants attracts weekenders who want an easy-to-reach rural retreat.
Istanbul’s major state-run museums may charge hefty admissions, but the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, just behind the Blue Mosque adjacent to the Arasta Bazaar, costs only 15 Turkish Lira (that's about $4). These delightful mosaic scenes of hunts, myths, animal battles, and everyday life in antiquity — boys riding a camel, a man milking his goat, a youth feeding his donkey — once covered the floor of a large courtyard of the Palatium Magnum, the Great Palace built between the time of Constantine the Great himself and Justinian I (4th to early 6th centuries). You can even cruise between the continents for something close to $1 — plus a bit more for a glass of tea on board— by catching a local ferry at the Eminönü docks on the Golden Horn.
Take a tour of the modern architectural masterworks of prodigious local talent, Jože PleCnik, who took the Secessionists Art Nouveau style he learned in Vienna back home (via Prague) to remake his native city along his own, idiosyncratic lines. Like Gaudí in Barcelona, PleCnik designed his buildings right down to the smallest fittings, like the Pegasus door handles on the entrance to the National and University Library, which has a magnificent stage set of a staircase inside. PleCnik designed a bit of everything around town, from the central market to the two flanking spans of Ljubljana’s iconic Triple Bridge, to the café-lined embankments of the Ljubljanica River (PleCnik planted alternating rounded willows and pointy poplars to emulate the domes and spires of Prague).
The Dalmatian Coast
Skip the overexposed island of Hvar for the walled medieval village on the Adriatic island of Korcula, purported home to Marco Polo. Korcula is more of a day-trip destination, and that means the tourist crowds thin considerably by sundown, leaving those who remain to relax in the cafés and stroll the narrow alleys. While every old city in Europe has an Old City historic district, Split has the only downtown actually carved from the carcass of an ancient Roman palace. When the emperor Diocletian split the Roman Empire in A.D. 305, he built a lavish palace on the Croatian coast to live out his days as head of the empire’s eastern half. In the 1,700 years since, the ruins of his enormous structure have been colonized by the locals, the buildings turned into medieval town houses, and the emperor’s tomb transformed into the cathedral.
The French Riviera is a premier resort destination for good reason: It has clear water bordered by stretches of white-sand beaches, rocky cliffs, and hidden coves — and it’s only a 90-minute flight from Paris. Start in the bustling city of Nice, which is the gateway to the Riviera, before driving to the legendary waterfront town of Cannes, and the once-sleepy village of St. Tropez. Along the way, before to stop for socca (chickpea pancakes) which are popular in the region.
Paris’s temples of fine dining at reasonable prices are its brasseries, a cross between a café and a restaurant where simple dishes start around $20. Traditionally, brasserie menus lean heavily on German-influenced Alsatian cuisine, hence the signature dish, choucroutes (tangy sauerkraut, usually served with sausages and pork) and the preponderance of beer over wine (brasserie means “brewery”). Visitors should become a museum VIP and waltz right past the long lines with the Paris Museum Pass. It costs €48 for two days (that's about $50); covers all admission fees (except special exhibits); and lets you bypass the lines at more than 50 top sights in Paris the surrounding region, from the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay to Versailles and Fontainebleau (pretty much everything except the Eiffel Tower). Collect yours from the central Paris Tourist Office to avoid costly shipping fees.
The key to hearty meals that won’t break the bank during your summer trip to Western Ireland is pub grub; entrées start around $10. Avoid the tour bus-clogged Ring of Kerry for its neighbor to the North, County Clare, home to the dramatic Cliffs of Moher rising more than 700 feet from the crashing Atlantic waves; the weirdly eroded limestone landscape of the Burren, where prehistoric slab tombs perch on the rocky flatlands like miniature houses of cards; and Doolin, a blink-and-you-missed-it village that has become an unlikely mecca for traditional Celtic music, its pubs often crammed with music lovers listening to top
Rome has more than 900 churches, all of them free, displaying great works of Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture by the likes of Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Bramante, Pinturricchio, and Annibale Carracci — and that’s just the shortlist of artists contained in one church: the little-visited Santa Maria del Popolo. Pro tip: The Vatican Museums are free on the last Sunday of each month — though every local resident and school group takes advantage of this fact, so arrive before they open at 8:30 a.m. to keep ahead of the crowds.