Budget-friendly alternatives to popular European destinations

Logan Ly | Live the World

January 4, 2023

Inflation-this, recession-that, the world will keep turning, so that doesn’t mean your travel has to stop either!

Look, I get it - we’ve all been in a budget crunch. Travelling, as much as I absolutely love it, can add up. Paying rent back at home while paying for a hotel room abroad - oop, been there (multiple times) and feels bittersweet. Also, travelling around Europe? Cities like Paris and London are glamorous and, in my opinion - definitely live up to the hype. But at the same time, those meals, museum tickets, and accommodations in Europe’s population destinations are definitely for the most part, not bank-saving moves. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

So to still give you the fun escapism and wonders of travel, here are some budget-friendly alternatives to the expensive, popular European destinations. Having been to both places and all of the recommendations I’m sharing… from the hotspots to the underrated, these alternatives are just as enriching as the more popular countries - and with an added thrilling touch of more hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path activities.

So if you’re looking to switch it up, save some bucks, and explore beyond the mainstream, check out these budget-friendly alternatives to popular European destinations.

Palermo, Italy

1. Instead of Rome… try Palermo

Rome is so divisive - some people love the Eternal city (I’m one of them), while others can only see its grungy side. Either way, there’s no denying that the capital city of Italy isn’t the most budget-friendly place. A city that I would highly recommend trading for Rome, is its Southern equivalent, Palermo in Sicily.

Palermo was crowned the Italian Capital of Culture back in 2018, and still very much lives up to that title today. The capital of Sicily, Palermo has been a melting pot of culture over the centuries, and these influences from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Roman, Arab, Byzantines make this sun-drenched historical city what it is today. Sicily and Palermo itself are beyond affordable - from street food lining up and down different open markets to taste, to the endless options of beautiful accommodations that would make one feel like an Italian aristocrat on the Grand Tour. Our local Sicilian editor, Clara, also made a Sicily and Palermo itinerary that you can follow along with as well! I’m already dreaming of the aranchi - and if you plan a trip here, your tastebuds and wallet will thank you.

Where to stay on a budget:

Al Politeama Rooms B&B - Who says being on a budget means giving up being stylish? Not here!

Papillon BnB - A chic stay only 5 minutes walk on foot from Palermo’s stunning harbourfront.

L'Aquilone B&B - A travel sustainable property!

San Sebastián, Spain

2. Instead of Barcelona… have you been to San Sebastián?

We all have a memory that we cherish with Barcelona - that vivacious, flirty city of Catalonia in Spain. It’s one city that time and time again energizes us and has a beauty incomparable to a Spanish rose. But in recent years, a weekend away to Barcelona adds up (unfortunately suffering from over-tourism).

An alternative to the overcrowded streets of Barcelona, as well as a super affordable urban escape, is the city of San Sebastián. San Sebastián, located in Basque Country in northern Spain, is just as effervescent and high-spirited as Barcelona, while still being remained largely off most tourists’ radar. It’s a city where if you love affordable and scrumptious food, you’re in for a huge treat - as the whole ambient old town is made for pintxo hopping. What are pintxos? They’re humble little dishes speared with a toothpick that you can collect different plates of. Similar to tapas, but with a Basque twist. Since San Sebastián is on the Bay of Biscay, there’s a surreal amount of nature that cradles the city for you to explore too.

Where to stay on a budget:

Koba Hostel - Industrial design meets the elegance of Basque Country for a complete stay.

Koisi Hostel - Gorgeous rooms that will make you feel like you’re not even in a hostel!

Green Nest Hostel Uba Aterpetxea - This property has a small football pitch, and there is also a terrace with picnic tables and park views.

Gdańsk, Poland

3. Instead of Amsterdam… explore Dutch architecture in Gdańsk

Speaking to you as an Amsterdam local, I’m not saying not to explore this beautiful capital of the Netherlands… In fact, I’ve even shared some of our local secrets to you - but the thing is, Amsterdam is a tiny city (comparatively to the likes of Paris and London) with triple the amount of people there should be. With an overtourism problem like Barcelona, Airbnb rentals are limited in the city and that has trickled down to the overall cost of just being in Amsterdam. Even for us locals, coffee is quite pricey (average latte cost: 4 euros).

An unconventional city that subverts any traveller's expectations that I would recommend as a switch-up to Amsterdam is the city of Gdańsk - all the way out in Poland. Now hear me out! Poland doesn’t use the Euro are their currency, and no matter if you divide your euros or USD, your spending will just go way further in Poland. Gdańsk is actually a coastal charm, with large series of canals (giving you that Amsterdam similarity) that leads out to the Baltic sea. But what makes it crazily similar to Amsterdam, in terms of looks, is the influence of Dutch architecture found in Gdańsk old town. In fact, roaming around the cobblestone streets myself - had someone blindfolded me and dropped me in the heart of Gdańsk, I wouldn’t have really been able to tell it apart from my own neighbourhood in Amsterdam. That’s because Dutch architects who flees from the Spanish inquisition found themselves in Gdańsk, where they designed the Old Town City Hall, the Great Armoury, and the colourful boulevard of Długa which has soaring Dutch-style buildings.

Where to stay on a budget:

Apartamenty Old Town Bednarska - Each unit comes with a fully equipped kitchenette with a dining table, a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom for your stay.

Sejf House - Conveniently, bathrooms are located on every floor and feature a washing machine, hairdryer and a clothes dryer.

Apartament Starówka Łagiewniki - Make your stay feel homey no matter where you are!

Budapest, Hungary

4. Instead of Paris… go to the Paris of the East: Budapest

Oh la la, Paris. No matter how many times I return to the city of lights, I still can’t get enough. Do you know what has had enough of Paris though? My bank account. Sitting out on a cafe terrace dipping my croissant into hot chocolate from Angelina’s can be costly! Yet I say it every time, it’s Paris!

…That is, until I have to wait until my next paycheck. A city that gives the same full romance, cobblestone streets and simply unexplainable magic of Paris - while costing half the price in pastries, accommodations, attractions, and overall travelling, is Budapest. The capital of Hungary has long attracted a bohemian set, wistfully taken away on a cruise down the banks of the Danube and experiences like soaking in its lavishly grand thermal baths (without the lavishly grand price tag). The city streets are so similar to France’s capital architectural splendour that Budapest has long been nicknamed the Paris of the East. Roaming around, you can see why - the two empires had built the two cities around the same time, and Budapest still retains the cosmopolitanism that one seeks out in a bustling city. The nightlife, the food scene, the sights - these gems are packed in Budapest, but with a quarter of what a trip will cost you in Western Europe.

Where to stay on a budget:

Maverick Urban Lodge - Budapest’s Great Market Hall can be reached within a 5-minute walk, while Gellért Thermal Baths can be found within 10 minutes on foot.

Flow Spaces - Conveniently situated in the centre of Budapest, the accommodation features karaoke and a shared kitchen.

NETIZEN Budapest Centre - Offers air-conditioned rooms, a shared lounge, a restaurant, in-house bar - basically everything you need in one spot!

Berlin, Germany

5. Instead of London… the city that matches its energy is Berlin

London has long been one of the most expensive cities in the world (up there with Singapore, Hong Kong, New York). It was expensive when I was doing an internship in the English capital and has always been expensive for travel and leisure trips. Are there affordable things to do there? Of course, Ella, our editor who grew up there shares her guide to free things to do in London here.

But for the most part, if you want the eclectic nightlife, the art scene, and the energy that London has - but for a quarter of the price, look further east to the capital of Germany, Berlin. The range of landmarks in Berlin can be an exciting match to sightseeing in London, as historical places like Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag Building have long been impressive points to explore. Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall stand as reminders of the not-so-distant past of how the Iron Gate had gripped Europe. Since then, Berlin has become an epicentre for street art, underground nightlife, and a restless youthful energy that London also offers.

Where to stay on a budget:

Industriepalast Berlin - This trendy accommodation has modern rooms with great city views, and most feature a private bathroom.

Corner Hostel Berlin Prenzlauer Berg - You can choose between a private apartment, single rooms or shared dorms for whichever type of trip you want.

Die Fabrik - baxpax Hotel - The rooms at Die Fabrik - baxpax Hotel are bright, spacious and quiet. You can also choose from private rooms to dormitory-style rooms.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

6. Instead of Reykjavik… adventure off into Ljubljana

It’s no secret that Reykjavik and Iceland, in general, are costly - after all, this is a Scandinavian country, miles off in the North Atlantic Ocean, and where a whole lot of people want to explore. I’ve even shared my recommendations on where to stay in Reykjavik on a budget, but when you need to save more but still want adventures, then Ljubljana and Slovenia is a better alternative.

Ljubljana may be a different climate to Reykjavik, but the Slovenian capital is where food enthusiasts, adventure seekers, and nature lovers have long known to be a true underrated gem in Europe. From Ljubljana's old town streets, you can have a glass of wine (made from the vineyards in Slovenia’s countryside) for an average price of 2 euros. There are plenty of street food stalls and options at the Ljubljana Open Market. From the capital, you can do easy day trips to stunning nature like Lake Bled, or explore secretive worlds of underground caves. The country itself, much like Iceland, is where you can immerse yourself in otherworldly mountains, lakes, and sceneries that fuel your imagination while stretching out a shoestring budget.

Where to stay on a budget:

LINA ROOMS - Feel cosy and live like you’re a local in your own apartment here.

HOSTEL Railway - All units are equipped with air conditioning, a fridge, a microwave, a coffee machine, a shower, free toiletries and a wardrobe.

4beds GreenSLO - Accommodation with free bikes, free private parking, a garden and a shared lounge that also boasts a sun terrace.

Trieste, Italy

7. Instead of Venice… be taken away with Trieste

Venice a city that always captures hearts no matter what occasion or when you want to go. Probably for that reason, Italy’s famous floating city and its lagoon is one of the more expensive cities in Italy to travel to.

For an affordable trip that still captures the romantic air of Venice, coupled with historic streets and that Italian la dolce vita, head to the North-Eastern part of Italy to Trieste. Our on-the-grounds local editor from Trieste, Giada, shares with you her top 5 reasons why you should visit Trieste, including the aperitifs by the seaside that would rival Venice. Since Trieste is located right on the Adriatic sea, there are pristine beaches that dots the city’s coastline ready to be explored. Because of this region’s more undiscovered areas, Trieste is one of Northern Italy’s affordable travel destinations and one where you can make a budget-friendly beach holiday out of!

Where to stay on a budget:

Zenzero & Cannella Boutique Rooms - With an optimal location, you can get to everything in Trieste from here as well as having a lovely stay.

Smart Accomodation - Be literally in the heart of it all, set in the old town of Trieste.

Casanova Trieste Centrale - This elegant accommodation will give you a feel of living the high life, without the high price.

Tallinn, Estonia

8. Instead of Stockholm… experience Tallinn

Having lived and worked in Stockholm during my early twenties, the Scandinavian city has always been like a shimmering pearl, long before me and long after my time there. Sweden’s capital is timeless - the King’s gardens, the Nordic style, the vibrantly full of characteristic neighbourhoods like Sodermalm and Gamla Stan.

But no matter what year it is, what’s also timeless to Stockholm is the high prices. The Swedish capital isn’t cheap, not for living or for travelling. So when my Swedish friends suggested we take the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, I was all in. Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia is a favourite weekend destination for Swedes, simply because everything is just so much more affordable while retaining an untouched architectural beauty. Some of the streets in the old town of Tallinn look like it could be another neighbourhood of Stockholm, making this city the belle of the Baltics.

Where to stay on a budget:

16eur - Old Town Munkenhof - Relax in the games room, or switch it up with bicycle rental service is available to explore the city.

Draper Startup House for Entrepreneurs - Working remotely from Tallinn? This is the place to do it!

The Knight House - Be part of history, the 700-year old building in which The Knight House Hostel is situated is a UNESCO listed monument.

Bratislava, Slovakia

9. Instead of Vienna… switch capitals for Bratislava

Frequently topping the charts as the most liveable city in Europe, and well, the world, in Vienna. It’s home to an international crowd from various industries, set on the backdrop of imperial palaces, grand estates and sprawling parks. The cafes are aplenty as their history is legendary, with intricate pastries and chocolate abound. It’s no wonder why we love travelling to Vienna, and with those charms, add those euros to the cost of experiencing Austria’s capital.

An alternative switch to Vienna for those on a shoestring budget is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It’s a city that is entrenched in a noble past similar to Vienna, with Hungarian kings and Great Moravian magnets frequenting the Bratislava Castle. From the Presidential Palace to the Primate’s Palace of Bratislava, the city paints a similar picture to Vienna, even with the Slovak National Theatre a good alternative to the Vienna Opera House. The two cities are near each other - you can do a day trip to one another, but with a sharp difference - Bratislava is noticeably cheaper, for everything you do from accommodation to food, drinks to activities.

Where to stay on a budget:

Unique Contactless Self Check-In Accommodation Schöndorf - A quiet abode in a central location, perfect for independent travellers.

Patio Hostel - Free internet PCs, free coffee and tea on top of you can use the washing machine, the dryer, irons and hair dryers free of charge.

Safestay Bratislava - With a fun vibe and a social atmosphere, it’s easy to make friends during your stay here.

Prague, Czech Republic

10. Instead of Munich… drink away in Prague

If you love beer, celebrate Oktoberfest, Munich is the crown city in Germany for where brewing and drinking is a part of everyday life. That, on top of being a city with a treasure of great architecture and parks, and cultural traditions special to Bavaria.

It’s also one of the most expensive cities in Germany, and Europe as a whole - while a pretzel wouldn't break the bank, the average price of beer in a local Munich bar is around 4 euros for one pint. Compare to Prague, where an average pint of beer costs 1.50 euros, well you’ve already got yourself a bargain. The beer in Prague is so tasty as well, on top of numerous nightclubs and drinking spots. Coupled with sights like its fairytale castle, or activities cruising down the Vltava River, Prague makes it a fantastic place to do more, see more, and drink more - without actually spending more. We’ve also covered the hidden gems of Prague extensively on our interactive map you can check out here for more inspiration.

Where to stay on a budget:

Plus Prague - The sauna and pool here makes this city stay a true escape.

Czech Inn - The staff here are happy to give directions to the main sights, but also recommends some of the city’s hidden gems.

Travel&Joy backpackers - Each bed has its own little lamp and charger, fit for any traveller.

Tbilisi, Georgia

11. Instead of Geneva… have you heard of Tbilisi?

Geneva is a great city to explore as well as being a gateway to the Swiss Alps on the French side of Switzerland. The streets are spotlessly clean and the mountain views are breathtaking - but you know what isn’t? My wallet after paying 22 euros for fast food french fries and a burger. RIP.

The capital of Georgia, Tbilisi on the other hand - is a wondrous alternative to Geneva and an escape to the mountains. Your spending power here goes thrice as much as a regular city in Western Europe (not even to mention a big city) while still enchanting each visitor who experiences its ancient old town where Medieval towers, synagogues, mosques, and Christian churches straddle each other within walking steps. Tbilisi also makes a great start to the mountain ranges of Georgia - where vineyards, valleys, and the best nature that still remains largely unknown to the world, awaits. Accommodations are beyond affordable, with a handful of options under 10 euros a night!

Where to stay on a budget:

Maria's homestay - Super yummy continental breakfast is available each morning at the homestay.

Guest House Zemeli - The accommodation features a 24-hour front desk, airport transfers, room service and free WiFi throughout the property.

Soul Kitchen - Soul Kitchen features express check-in and check-out, non-smoking rooms, a garden, free WiFi and a shared lounge.

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