We recently released our European Backpackers Index for 2011, which ranked 40 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.
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$ per pint are hard to find elsewhere on the continent.
- Daily Backpacker Index: PLN78.60 = US$26.55/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.
- Daily Backpacker Index: HUF6900 – US$33.10/day
Absolutely one of the world’s great and historically significant cities, Istanbul has been getting more expensive in recent years, yet it’s still a fantastic bargain by European standards. 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 very cheap by European standards as well. 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: TRY 55.80 – US$35.77/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: CZK 754 – US$40.21/day
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: €41 – US$54.67/day
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 annual Hostelworld Best Hostels list. Lisbon is a bit more formal than Spanish cities as well, and there are excellent restaurants and cuisine at moderate prices, plus very good nightlife that won’t break the bank either.
- Daily Backpacker Index: €41.50 – US$55.33/day
It’s more than a little surprising that this many years after German reunification, Berlin continues to be so much 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.
Start with the excellent and free walking tour from New Berlin, and you’ll be acquainted with all the main sights in the city center, ready for one of their cheap and interesting pub crawls later that night. 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: €43.80 – US$58.40/day
Many people consider London to be the most expensive city in Europe, and in some ways it is, but it doesn’t have to be. Also, this list is about value rather than pure cheapness, and a city like this is worth more than most other places. While it’s true that so many things (like fish & chips, for example) can be stunningly expensive, London is also loaded with hostels, where decent rates are possible most of the year if you look around. Check our recommended hotels and hostels for London to find great value and low rates.
Perhaps London’s best budget-traveler feature is that all of the state-run museums are absolutely free for everyone. Visit the British Museum one day and the Tate Modern another and you’ll be in cultural heaven without having spent so much as a ha’penny. And unlike some other cities in Europe, finding affordable meals isn’t terribly difficult as long as you aren’t looking in Leicester Square or near Harrods. The British pound is also at a level that is reasonably favorable for the US dollar and even the Euro, and that situation may not last much longer.
- Daily Backpacker Index: £38.00 – US$58.46/day
Athens isn’t nearly as cheap as it used to be, but in its favor it has dramatically cleaned up its act since the recent Olympics, and it still surrounds a few of the world’s most impressive tourist attractions on the Acropolis. Some good-value hostels help the situation, many of which have ideal locations in the center of everything.
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: €45.30 – US$60.40/day
Compared to France or Germany, all of Spain is easier on the budget in general, and though Madrid is relatively expensive for the country, it’s still a bargain all things considered. The city center still has a classic and important feel to it, yet in the wee hours the parties start up and everything changes.
Those who can’t wait for 2am to start imbibing should be pleased that glasses of beer and cheap snacks and meals are very easy to find at any of the tapas places or the jamon restaurants. Barcelona could also be on this list, and many people actually prefer it to Madrid. They are dramatically different places, and both offer good value compared to most of Europe’s large cities.
- Daily Backpacker Index: €47.10 – US$62.80/day
It’s not really that Reykjavik is cheap, because it’s not; it’s more that Reykjavik is now a lot cheaper than it was only a couple years ago, and it’s hard to know how long that situation will last. Actually, the capital city is mostly just a jumping-off point for trips to all the dramatic natural sights around the island, but it’ll be necessary to spend a night or two here anyway.
Also, thanks to weirdly cheap fares from IcelandAir and Iceland Express Airlines, even a two-day stopover in Reykjavik can be cheap and very worthwhile. Whether on a proper weeklong stay or on a short layover, this is a destination that many of us have long dreamed about, and it may not be this affordable for long.
- Daily Backpacker Index: ISK 7,660 – US$66.34/day
Do you agree or disagree with these choices? Feel free to voice your own opinion in the comments below.