The 11 Best-value cities in Europe for budget travelers in 2015
We recently released our European Backpackers Index for 2015, which ranked 56 European cities by price, comparing the same set of basic budget-travel expenses in each one. While it may be interesting to see which are the cheapest and most expensive cities in the continent, choosing where to go involves more information.
Needless to say, just because a city is cheap doesn’t mean you should go there, and just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean you should avoid it. With that in mind we’ve rated the region by value with this list of 11 cities where the prices of things are most worth it.
Updated for 2015
This article was originally published in 2011 and has been updated in March of 2015 to reflect current prices and even more information. We’ve added 16 new European cities to the site since the original version and most of the newer entries are in the lower price ranges.
There have been massive currency shifts since late 2014 with the US Dollar now far stronger than it was against virtually every currency on earth. Continental Europe is now about 25% cheaper than it was last year for Americans, and that number seems likely to keep climbing as the year goes on.
1 – Krakow, Poland
While Kraków may not be the easiest city to reach on a standard Europe tour, it offers great rewards for budget travelers who make the trip. With a compact and richly historic city center, this is a destination that offers the best of classic Europe (castles, towers, palaces, town squares, cathedrals) without the massive crowds you get in Prague and elsewhere, all at prices that are still shockingly low.
Kraków also has a great tourist infrastructure with an abundance of affordable quality hostels and budget hotels, along with cheap bars, cafes, and restaurants. Those looking for a place to relax for a while on a hectic tour of the region will find this to be a fun and budget-friendly stop. Beers for under US$2 per pint are hard to find in most of Europe’s top cities, but pretty easy to find here.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$25.73/day
While it’s not as cheap as Kraków, Budapest can be pretty close, and it’s a more visually impressive city loaded with worthwhile sights. This is another place where nearly everything seems like a bargain compared to elsewhere in Europe, yet it’s a classic and important city with all the amenities.
The Castle Hill sights are worth a good chunk of time, as are the highlights in downtown Pest, across the river. You’ve also got the many spas based around hot-water springs that tend to be very affordable and unique. Some may not like the paprika-heavy local cuisine, but for those who do it tends to be filling and cheap. The trick to getting good value here is to stay and eat most of your meals away from the river, which is mostly lined with high-priced touristy places.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$29.21/day
If you’ve never heard of Český Krumlov then you aren’t alone. It’s a small town in southern Czech Republic of about 14,000 residents, and it was mostly in ruins after decades of Communist neglect, but it’s been scrubbed and rediscovered by tourists looking for something different. The setting in between a lazy, serpentine river and beneath a 13th Century castle is simply stunning, and everything is within modest walking distance.
As lovely as it is, it’s the low prices and good quality that you might remember most. This is a town where you can enjoy a filling meal of local favorites for around US$4, while seated at one of the restaurants directly on the main square. A local beer will be around US$1.50 per half liter almost anywhere in town, so bargain hunters don’t have to scour the back alleys for happy hours. Hotels in the town center start at well under US$50 per night for something that would cost double or triple that in major European cities.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$30.78/day
4 – Istanbul, Turkey
Absolutely one of the world’s great and historically significant cities, Istanbul had been getting more expensive in recent years, but the Turkish Lira has come way down again so it’s back to bargain status. Overflowing with exotic-feeling temples, markets, cathedrals, and other sights, this is a huge metropolis that is changing rapidly and yet it’s still quite unlike the rest of Europe, partly due to the fact that it famously straddles Asia as well.
You might be going out of your way to get here, but once you make it you’ll find that staying on a very low budget is quite easy, with sandwiches and street food being as tasty as they are cheap, and alcohol is fairly cheap by European standards as well, although taxes have continued to rise. Hotels in this city can be expensive if you aren’t careful so we’ve created our Istanbul recommended hotels list with well located bargains.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$37.40/day
It’s definitely true that Prague isn’t nearly as cheap as it used to be, and that it’s also amazingly crowded if you follow the main tourist routes between the top sights, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to be a relative bargain. Hotels in particular seem expensive here, though an abundance of affordable hostels helps a lot, including reasonable private rooms for those who aren’t partial to dorm beds. Choose from our recommended hotels in Prague list for great prices at the highest rated hotels in the city.
The beer, as you’ve certainly heard, is excellent, and it’s consumed by the locals in frightening quantities. Usually at under US$2 per pint to this day, the fact that it was US$0.50 per pint 10 years ago doesn’t mean that it’s still not a bargain now. Try to steer away from the tourist restaurants with big English signs out front and you’ll be able to get hearty local meals for very little as well.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$40.66/day
6 – Lisbon, Portugal
Upon arriving in Lisbon people are often shocked at how different it is from the large cities in Spain, and also that it’s even a bit cheaper than Madrid and Barcelona as well. This historic port city is stunningly situated on 7 hills (like so many other cities) overlooking the port area, so it’s similar to San Francisco in that there’s interesting contrasts no matter which direction you are looking.
Another interesting thing about Lisbon is that it’s loaded with fiercely competitive hostels which somehow all rank very high on the various Best Hostels in the World lists. The fact that Lisbon is hard to combine with other cities on a European tour is the main reason why it’s not far more popular. Hotels and food here are also excellent bargains by European standards, and you’ll be impressed at how lovely and organized things are in that price range.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$45.64/day
7 – Berlin, Germany
It’s more than a little surprising that this many years after German reunification, Berlin continues to be more affordable than Munich or Hamburg. The key seems to be the fact that almost half the city used to be East Berlin, and the tens of thousands of communist-era buildings still offer cheaper rents and more flexibility compared to West Berlin. This means that cheap hostels are dotted between weird bars and trendy galleries, with prices that are still influenced by their former incarnations.
Berlin is huge and very different from any of the large cities in the western part of Germany, with huge numbers of expats and immigrants. Compared to the quality you’ll find, pretty much everything seems like a bargain by European standards. Some hotels offer very good rates when there isn’t a trade show in town, so see our recommended Berlin hotels list for great options.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$55.53/day
Vilnius makes the Best Value list here as a placeholder for Riga and Tallinn as well, as all three of the Baltic capitals offer high quality at suspiciously low prices. Tallinn and Riga are both cruise ports so they can feel a bit touristy in places, but Vilnius is landlocked so it feels more authentic and also even a bit cheaper.
The challenge for all three of these cities is that they are hard to reach unless you are on a tour of the area already. If you can find a cheap flight and are looking for a lovely and cheap place to spend a long weekend or even a week, then Vilnuis is worth a look. Great meals for under US$5 and quality local lager for well under US$2 per half pint are pretty much everywhere you look, since there is almost no exploitation of “rich” tourists here, yet.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$33.19/day
Speaking of hard to reach, Sarajevo is also unfortunately remote, but again, the fact that so few package tourists have found the place means that it’s incredibly cheap and still wonderful. The setting between two mountain ranges means that the city is photogenic from pretty much every angle, and the interesting local architecture only adds to the appeal.
The unusual attraction in Sarajevo is the pedestrian-only historic Old Town and its large Muslim quarter. It’s one of the friendliest and most interesting mixes of people and customs you’ll find anywhere in the world, which helps make it popular with Arabians and other Muslims that are less visible in Europe. The low prices on food and hotels are just a bonus, and alcohol is also cheap and free-flowing, just steps from the central mosque.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$27.89/day
10 – Bruges, Belgium
Even though it’s firmly in a traditionally expensive corner of the continent, Bruges can actually be quite affordable, and there’s no shortage of old-world charm to go along with that. Thanks to a large number of hostels this compact Medieval city has room for thousands of backpackers and budget travelers, and as long as you avoid the busiest months of summer you’ll actually have little trouble keeping costs down.
This is another town where all the main sights could be taken in on a 2-day stay, but due to its relative affordability, the relaxed atmosphere, and the large tourist infrastructure, this is a good choice for a chill-out stop on a longer European tour.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$59.04/day
11 – Athens, Greece
Athens isn’t as cheap as it was in the 1990s, but in its favor it has dramatically cleaned up its act since the Olympics, and it still surrounds a few of the world’s most impressive tourist attractions on the Acropolis. If you follow the news you are aware that Greece has really struggled since the financial crisis, and as of early 2015 it might be getting worse before getting better. The good news for visitors is that this has kept prices low and they might continue to drop, especially if Greece bounces itself out of the Euro.
Also in Athens’ favor is that it’s not difficult to see the main sights in only a few days or even less, and then take the metro down to the port of Piraeus to hop on a ferry to one of its holiday islands. This is a cheap and easy way to inject a bit of culture into a trip that will otherwise be about downing pints on a sunny beach.
- Daily Backpacker Index: US$50.11/day
Do you agree or disagree with these choices? Feel free to voice your own opinion in the comments below.