The ability to experience a number of different European cultures on one trip is priceless, so to speak.
But if you want to travel Europe on a budget as well as achieve cultural immersion, you’ll probably want to choose your destinations wisely. Because from France’s iconic capital to Greece’s hedonistic islands, Europe’s rich diversity can make for a relatively high price tag to boot.
Luckily, however, some countries offer more bang for your buck than others.
As a general rule, the further east you travel, the cheaper the destination (in terms of food, attractions, accommodation etc.). But, there’s more to it than that. There’s an art to making your Europe trip work for your budget. And a lot of it’s to do with using our insider tips.
Being budget-friendly is far from the only appeal of these five countries, but it’s not a bad place to start:
Romania: budget-friendly on all levels
Preserved medieval villages with cobblestone roads, storybook castles and beautiful churches galore, Romania offers a quintessential European experience. The kicker: it’s all for a fraction of the price of other areas of Europe. To add to the allure, the Eastern European gem is also home to what’s known as Dracula’s Castle. Yep, Transylvania is the place to check out this cliff-top castle set against the dramatic backdrop of the Carpathian Mountains.
One of the major treats of Romania is that a lot of the worth-seeing attractions are free. Hike in Brasov, wander the amazingly-preserved medieval town of Sighisoara (the reported birthplace of Dracula) or gawk over the architectural beauty of Cărtureşti Carusel, a bookstore in Bucharest.
To see the extravagant castles (which you really should), you’ll only pay between $5-$10. The food scene is also great value for money. In Romania you can eat well for around $8.
Visit this destination: Intrepid’s 10-day Budapest to Bucharest trip takes you to many of Romania’s highlights.
Read more about it: 8 places you didn’t know you needed to see in Europe (Romania included!)
Spain: underrated cities that your budget adores
Ah, there is much to envy about the day-to-day life of Spaniards. Daily siestas, Gaudi architecture to gawk over and the food, oh yes, the food. But there’s much more than Spanish stereotypes to be uncovered, especially if you venture to underrated Spanish cities such as Bilbao and Salamanca. Oh, and it’s really not as pricey as expected.
Venture inland to Madrid, one of Europe’s cheaper-than-expected capitals. The lively barrio of La Latina is the area to hit up for all your budget needs. The city’s oldest neighborhood, it brims with tapas, bars, cantinas and street-food stalls. Alternatively, the market hall of Mercado de la Cebada is the perfect launch point to mingle, fill your belly on local eats and check out its exterior walls (containing one of the world’s biggest works of street art), all while on a budget.
For a truly immersive cultural experience in Europe, food undoubtedly plays a massive role. Instead of gathering at restaurants off of the main drags, opt for the more hidden gems (experience them on Intrepid’s 10-day Real Food Adventure). This is hardly a compromise to fit a budget. Street food, locally-owned restaurants and food markets have become essential to most European food scenes — not to mention that they contribute to the local economy.
In Spain, you’re obviously going to get to grips with tapas. But, did you know they come with a bonus? The snack-size shareable dishes sometimes come free with the purchase of a drink, like at Entre Cáceres y Badajoz in Madrid. Local restos often offer menu del día (menu of the day) which come with an appetiser, main and the option of a drink or dessert. All of this comes to about $15, so is worth hunting down.
When you find yourself in a major city like Barcelona, gravitate towards public markets. La Boqueria, for example, is a dream for street food. Its grand setting hosts an array of budget-friendly food vendors to take your pick from, including massive paella and fresh juices for only $1.50. Take it to go to make it a picnic and you’ve basically mastered Europe on a budget.
Visit this destination: Check out the best of Spain on Intrepid’s 15-day Best of Spain trip (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and more included!)
Read more about it: 6 cities in Spain to visit before everyone else does
Hungary: affordable luxuries and great value sights
Hungary may not be as much of a bargain for travellers as it once was, but it’s still more wallet-friendly than many countries in the west. Budapest is one of pricier capital cities in Eastern Europe – but if you know where to look, you can experience its best bits for next to nothing.
Budapest is actually split in two by the Danube, with one side named Buda and the other Pest – who doesn’t love a two-for-one deal? While the majority of the city’s buzz sits on the Pest side, it’s worth crossing the Liberty Bridge (an excellent – and free! – sunset viewing spot) to explore the hills of Buda and take in panoramic views of the city.
If you’re here for the thermal baths but don’t want to splash too much cash, here’s how to soak while saving a few hundred forint. The most famous bathing spot, Schechenyi, is better value if you opt for locker-only entry after 6pm on weekdays. But for an even better deal without the crowds, take your pick of the city’s lesser-known but equally soothing baths, such as Kiraly, a quaint old bathing spot with an atmospheric octagonal pool; tickets come at a fraction of the cost of Schechenyi.
Visit this destination: Many of our Central Europe tours start or end in Budapest.
Read more about it: What to eat and drink in Hungary.
Portugal: the free outdoors
When you visit a destination that has as many beautiful beaches, boardwalks, lookout points and maze-like streets to wander as Portugal, it’s easy to stay on budget. Bask in the sun on a beach cove by the jagged cliffs of the Algarve coast. Take a break from wandering the streets of Lisbon at a Miradouro (lookout) da Graça and stare in awe at the panoramic views.
Also visit Baleal Beach in Peniche and check-out the skilled surfers carving waves on the Atlantic. There’s so many outdoorsy things to do that your visit really doesn’t have to break the bank.
But, it’s not all about beaches and riverside strolls. We wouldn’t blame you if you go to Portugal just for the food (here’s a cheeky guide). Why? Well it doesn’t hurt that the price of food and drink is also some of the cheapest in Europe! Pastel de nata (custard tarts) are delightful and cost less than $3, plus they can be found pretty much everywhere. Delicious ocean-to-table fish and churrasqueira (BBQ) chicken are also plentiful and often cost less than $5. Coffee also costs as little as $1…
Heading north beyond Lisbon is a great bet to scale back your spending. When it comes to enjoying Port, a traditional Portuguese wine, there’s no better place to visit than its birthplace, Porto. Enjoying a glass of port can cost as little as $3.
Visit this destination: Eat your way through Lisbon, Porto and so much more on Intrepid’s 8-day Portugal Real Food Adventure.
Read more about it: Why Porto is the hottest destination in Portugal (and what to do there!)
Poland: off-season budget travel
Poland is the ideal place for a budget-friendly, off-season escape. Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea, this Eastern European country sees Jewish heritage and medieval architecture join forces for a destination with history, food and cities like no other.
Our best tip is to skip the peak summer months and travel on the shoulder season, which falls just before Easter or after October. The benefits? Cheaper flights and fewer fellow travellers.
Winter here captures the country in all of its magical, snowcapped glory. And fewer people go to the slopes of the Tatra Mountains (a range forming the border with Slovakia), which means you can hike their trails in relative seclusion. After you ease your way through the mountains, you can enjoy a hearty fireside meal in the company of locals who wisely benefit from the off-season perks.
Regardless of the season, Poland is already incredibly inexpensive for travellers. Yet to adopt the Euro, the currency of the Polish Złoty will do your wallet wonders. At traditional restaurants such as Kurna Chata in Wroclaw, you can feast on pierogi with sauerkraut for less than $8, and pair it with a glass of wine for around $3. And wandering around the stunning streets of Krakow, for instance, is absolutely free. Bliss.
Visit this destination: Explore epic mountains and incredible cities on Intrepid’s Best of Central Europe adventure.
Read more about it: 5 reasons why Poland is Europe’s most underrated destination
- Use helpful and sustainable apps like Too Good to Go. It lets you snag end-of-day food sales from dining spots all over.
- Bring a reusable water bottle. Not only is this good for the environment, but it saves you money to put towards more exciting things.
- Opt for a multi-day public transit pass. Taking public transit not only means you reduce environmental impact, but you can get from A to B like a local while saving some coin.
- When at a restaurant, ask for the lunch menu. Often these dishes are cheaper than the dinner menu.
- Travel with a local as your guide. It’s as authentic as it gets when locals invite you for food or take you to their favourite spot in their hometown. A cool experience AND one that’ll save you money? Tick.
Now you’re equipped with budget savviness. Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Europe.
(Moldova image c/o iStock/SpVVK. Romani image c/o iStock/AnSyvanych. All other images c/o Intrepid Travel.)