The Ultimate cheap European itinerary for 2 to 4 weeks
One problem that nearly everyone faces when choosing European cities to visit is that the most popular ones also tend to be the most expensive. Many people start with London only to discover that it feels like they are being pick-pocketed all day because trivial-sounding expenses add up so quickly.
Paris and Rome are almost as bad when it comes to your budget, so once you've hit the highlights you might be in the mood to travel through places that are wonderful and relatively cheap at the same time.
With that in mind we've created a perfect itinerary for those who want to spend between 2 and 4 weeks in Europe on something of a modest budget. There are cheaper cities for sure, but most of the cheapest ones are quite remote and may not be as memorable as the ones we've included below. Check the European Backpacker Index to see all major cities ranked by price, and that the ones below are all in the top group.
Note: This article was written in 2012, and revised and expanded in 2016.
Best four cheap European cities to visit together
- Berlin, Germany
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Budapest, Hungary
- Krakow, Poland
Each of the cities listed above is strong enough to be the highlight of almost any trip, and fortunately they are relatively close together so they work really well as a group. On the map they sort of form a box, so skipping one is easy, and there are plenty of side stops and trips possible in between for shorter or longer stays.
A version of this itinerary can also be found on my new best Europe itineraries for first-time visitors article.
Best cheap and gorgeous small town to add to your trip
- Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
You may not yet have heard of Český Krumlov, but either way you are in for a treat if you can add 2 or 3 nights to your trip. It's located just 3 hours south of Prague by bus or train, and it's an excellent contrast to the large cities on the list. Better still, it's incredibly cheap, and a favorite of almost all who visit.
Getting there and back
While none of these cities is among the cheapest in Europe to fly into, at least 3 of them have cheap enough flights that it's worth flying directly into one of them.
Of the four cities, Berlin will have the cheapest inbound flights from almost anywhere, and Krakow usually only has cheap flights from within Europe. So your best bet is to check airfares from your city to each of these four, and fly into the cheapest of them.
In many cases you can save the most money by buying a one-way ticket into one of them and a one-way ticket back out of another of them, but you have to price them out to see. Keep in mind that if you buy a round-trip ticket it means most of a day and about US$50 to $70 to get back to that first city, so an “open jaw” ticket might still be a better deal even if it's US$100 more.
Getting between the cities
There's little doubt that the most enjoyable way to get between these cities (and most European cities) is by train, but you do have two other main options to consider, namely, flights and buses.
With the exception of Berlin and Prague, which are about 5 hours apart, these cities are about 7 to 10 hours apart by train, and therefore perfect for overnight journeys. If you are the type who sleeps well enough on trains, this method is ideal because you save a night in a hotel or hostel, and you still have all day to see the sights. Taking daytime trains obviously means more scenery, but some of them are quite a bit more expensive than the night trains.
If you can get a cheap train fare at a time that works well for you then it's probably best to avoid all the hassles of flying and security and airport transportation. But if the train schedule doesn't look great, it's worth checking for low-cost flights between them. Some don't appear on the aggragator sites so it's worth checking whichbudget.com to see all your options in one place.
Rarely discussed in most circles, many don't even know that most European cities have comfortable and cheap long-distance bus service between them. They aren't as comfortable as trains, but often they are astonishingly cheap, especially if you find a promotional price. Check the Eurolines website and if you are skilled or patient enough to navigate its quirks, you might find a great deal on a bus that takes about the same time as a train.
2016 Backpacker Index: US$60.78/day
Berlin isn't such an obvious tourist city, but it's absolutely the kind of place where either you love it, or you've never been there. Everyone can find something to enjoy about it, partly because it's especially trendy and dynamic lately as a new hub of European and world culture, picking up where London and Paris left off.
One challenge is that Berlin is a huge and spread-out city, so it's important to choose where you stay wisely. Most budget travelers will prefer the former East Berlin section around Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, which is where most hostels are as well as the best and cheapest nightlife and shopping. Check our list of recommended cheap Berlin hotels for a place to start.
What to see and do in Berlin
Start with the Berlin Free Walking Tour on your first morning, and you'll have enough ideas for what to do for the rest of your stay from that alone. Being honest, the Reichstag (capital building) is a bit disappointing from the inside, although the city does have a handful of great museums clustered together that appeal to many.
But mainly Berlin is about exploring the weird and funky neighborhoods for food, shopping, and nightlife. Fortunately, most of it is quite cheap as well.
2016 Backpacker Index: US$41.77/day
You may not realize that most large cities in this part of Europe were practically flattened during WWII and then rebuilt just after. Fortunately, Prague is one where the historic center survived mostly intact, and it remains one of the continent's most beautiful and interesting. The downside is that the city center is almost always packed with other tourists, so you might have to work around them a bit.
Prague is also fairly compact, with most things walking distance from each other. The city is also quite cheap still, at least compared to Western Europe, although hotel prices can seem high if you want to stay in the middle. Check our list of recommended cheap Prague hotels for some really good ones only a quick and cheap tram ride away.
What to see and do in Prague
Aside from the famous clock in the town square, Prague has a few other very worthwhile checklist attractions. The Prague Castle is one of the largest and most incredible in Europe, and the Charles Bridge and its statues feels like you should have to pay to cross it.
There is plenty more to fill a few days, plus you can catch a cheap classical concert in one of the many venues offering them, or just indulge in cheap and excellent beer like everyone else.
2016 Backpacker Index: US$30.99/day
Though it's in the heart of part of Europe that isn't known for being well off, Budapest is quite a grand city that makes it feel rather rich. Still, it's among the cheapest European cities, and it offers very good value. Even if the castle up on the Buda side of the river isn't a stunner, and that the parliament building on the Pest side is a copy of the one in London, this is an attractive city with a feel of its own.
Budapest is also compact enough that budget travelers can stay in the cheap hotels and hostels a bit inland on the Pest side, and still walk everywhere while sightseeing. The Free Budapest Walking Tour covers highlights on both sides, and is a great introduction.
What to see and do in Budapest
During daylight hours, Budapest has the standard selection of munuments and museums in addition to its castle complex, but separates itself from other big cities with its abundant hot springs and spas. Tourists can easily mix with locals and take a dip at a modest fee in one of the unique facilities spread around town.
At night, however, Budapest really comes into its own, with some of the most interesting nightlife in Europe. Head for what are known as “ruin pubs” on the Pest side in the old Jewish Quarter to quaff cheap drinks in converted courtyards that each has its own weird vibe.
2016 Backpacker Index: US$24.71/day
When you hear that Krakow is among the very cheapest cities in Europe you might not expect much. But in reality, Krakow is also one of Europe's loveliest and most pleasant cities, with quite a lot to do. At its center you'll find about 30 square blocks of a historic medieval town, surrounded by a peaceful park, and with an enormous cafe-lined town square at its heart.
For those who like hearty portions of meats and sausages, Krakow is wonderful, but there are also many Italian and other international cuisines, including many vegetarian options, so something for everyone. Hotels just on or near the central square are reasonable, but you can stay for a lot less by going a few blocks away.
What to see and do in Krakow
As in many other cities, taking the Krakow Free Walking Tour is a great way to get oriented on your first day so you'll know what you want to explore more deeply. You can also cover many of the main central sights on that tour, which leaves time for day trips and hanging out. Sad though it may be, a half-day trip to nearby Auschwitz is something you'll never forget, and there is a fun salt mine attraction not far away as well.
In the evening you'll probably find out why Krakow is very popular with the weekend party and stag-do crowds. You can sip affordable wine at one of the cafes on the square, but it might be more fun to do a pub crawl through the varied drinking establishments in the nearby Jewish Quarter. It's easy to find a .5L beer for around US$1.50, so getting carried away is common.
2016 Backpacker Index: US$31.77/day
With a population of only about 13,000 people, Český Krumlov will be an extremely welcome stop in between Prague and Budapest, or Prague and Vienna or Salzburg. This well preserved town was forgotten and almost abandoned in the later years of Communism, and it wasn't rediscovered and renovated until well into the 1990s. Since it's still a relative newcomer to the tourist scene, it isn't yet “touristy” even though it's very tourist friendly.
There are almost no chain hotels or restaurants of any kind, so staying here will be a very local experience. Better still, hotels and food here are much cheaper than even in Prague, so the value is outstanding. The historic town center is small enough to walk through in less than 10 minutes, yet you can still get nice hotels in its heart starting at around US$50 per night. If you are willing to stay a few blocks away from the center, it's even cheaper.
What to see and do in Český Krumlov
Český Krumlov does have an impressive castle perched above the compact town center, and you'll definitely want to tour at least part of it. But really the main reason to visit the town is to slow down and appreciate being outside of Europe's large cities for 2 or 3 days. Those other four cities are always busy and crowded, while this one is gentle and lovely, although you will be surrounded by quite a few other tourists.
As with the other cities on the list, there is a highly recommended free walking tour in Český Krumlov, which is a great place to start. That tour will also show you and explain all of the other worthwhile nearby sights, but I won't blame you if you just prefer to grab a seat at one of the cheap restaurants with outdoor seating on the main square, and relax over a few delicious and inexpensive beers for a while.