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Friends and family often come to me with the question: “I want to book to a cheap European city break, where should I go?” They want somewhere that’s easy to get to, includes a bit of culture & history, has plenty of tasty food and nice wine, and is perfect for a weekend of exploring on foot. The reason they ask me for advice is that this is exactly my travel style – I’m not a backpacker, a luxury traveller or a super-budget travel. I’m just your standard budget to mid-range weekend traveller who likes to have a drink along the way!
So, based on that, here are my top travel destinations for a cheap European city break, based on my favourite places that I’ve visited in the last couple of years. There’s a bit of a theme of Eastern European destinations here, mainly because it’s cheaper out there! But there’s some Italy through in too, don’t worry.
Want some extra tips for how to book a cheap European city break using minimal annual leave, even when it’s last minute? Have a read of this blog post before you get started.
Belgrade – The Ultimate Cheap European City Break
I’m yet to write a blog post on Belgrade, despite it being one of my favourite cities that I visited last year! One of the reasons for this is that I had so much fun that I forgot to take many pictures or really pay attention to much that I could write about.
So what’s so great about Belgrade? Well firstly, there’s lots going on, especially in the summer. It’s the kind of place where you can spend all day outside and not get bored – from meandering along the Kneza Mihaila street, stopping for an iced coffee and some people watching, to exploring the Kalemegdan park (including taking the land train!), to undertaking outdoor drinking sessions along the Danube, where bars float on the river and often involve deck chairs and sunbathing!
There’s lots of young people, and a great nightlife, but equally it’s a big enough city to completely avoid that side of things if you wish. It’s also super cheap! We grabbed breakfast from the market one morning and feasted on pastries for pennies, and at the other end of the spectrum we treated ourselves to an eight course tasting menu, complete with a wine pairing, for around £55 (equivalent) for the both of us.
I visited Budapest in the winter, and really enjoyed being there in the cold! It meant that it wasn’t too busy (I’ve heard it can be pretty packed in the summer), and we got a great deal on flights and our hotel. There’s a lot of fun to be had and you could easily spend a couple of weeks here, as there are so many things to do in Budapest! And it’s cheap, too.
You can go on a boat trip, take the funicular up to the Castle District, get lost in the Labyrinth of Buda Castle, have a soak in one of the thermal baths, or just get drunk in the ruin bars. If you’re looking for a nice dinner whilst in Budapest, you should definitely visit this restaurant.
Cluj-Napoca – A Lesser Known Cheap European City Break Destination
Cluj, Cluj-Napoca or Cluj Napoca depending on how you’d like to write it, is a smallish town situated in the Transylvanian region of Romania. It actually feels quite Italian when you’re there, with plenty of pasta restaurants and a gelato stall on every corner. It was at one point part of the Roman Empire, so this kind of makes sense! However, its prices are most definitely more in line with Eastern Europe than Italy.
There are plenty of reasons to choose Cluj for your cheap European city break, but my favourite reasons are:
- The wine! Romanian wine is amazing, especially the red wine, and you’ll find that most restaurants and bars serve it as their house wine.
- The laid-back vibe – everyone seemed to be taking life at their own pace, taking the time to enjoy a coffee and absorb their surroundings.
- There are plenty of things to do in Cluj town centre: wandering through Unirii Square, exploring the Botanical gardens, climbing Fortress Hill for a glass of wine with a view or making a love potion at the Pharmacy museum.
- You can venture outside of Cluj to the National Park (if you read the post I’ve linked to above you’ll see why it’s really important to NOT GET LOST), surrounding towns and the Turda salt mines!
If Gdańsk was lovely in January, then I can only imagine how nice it would be in the warmer months! We stayed in the centre of the Old Town, and it was my first experience of the colourful facades and comforting pierogis of Poland. The city has a lot of history, especially as the first fight of World War II began just outside of Gdańsk. The German forces won this fight, and Poland suffered under Nazi rule until 1945.
It’s a wonderful city to wander around, exploring independent shops and stopping for a bite to eat – which I imagine you’d do outside in the summer. You can also hop on the train to Sopot for a day on the beach if you have some extra time. Walking out along the pier into the Baltic sea in minus 17 degree temperatures wasn’t ideal, but we had a lovely slice of cake at the end!
I visited Hamburg for the Christmas markets, and they were seriously impressive! The festivities were spread across the whole city, and mulled wine was available in abundance. However, Hamburg is a great choice for a cheap European city break at any time, and it’s size means there’s plenty to do! We took a boat trip which was fun, despite it being entirely in German – don’t worry, I just invented the facts and pretended to my mum that I could speak German.
The Minatur Wunderland miniature railway museum is reason enough alone to go to Hamburg – it’s incredible and shouldn’t be missed off of your itinerary. If you decide to visit in the lead up to Christmas, make sure not to miss the Santa Pauli kinky Christmas market!
Technically only half of Istanbul is in Europe, but it definitely qualifies for this blog post! Istanbul offered a sensory overload like I’ve never known before, resulting in an unforgettable 48 hours experienced there. The food alone is enough reason to visit Istanbul, and even on an all-day Istanbul food tour I barely made a dent in Istanbul’s culinary scene.
There are of course the must-do bucket list sights to see in Istanbul, such as the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and the Haiga Sofia, but there’s so much more to this wonderful city. If you have time, a trip out to one of the islands is definitely worth doing, or you could just spend days wandering around the various markets.
All I would advise is to stay aware from the tourist traps when choosing where to eat and drink as you’ll pay an awful lot more, and think carefully about whether you want to spend your limited time queuing for busy landmarks. If you’re after a boozy European city break, this might not be the place for you as many restaurants and bars don’t serve alcohol.
As with Gdańsk, I visited Kraków in the winter. Although it was freezing cold, it was beautiful under a dusting of snow and it also meant that we didn’t experience the many stag dos that can descend on Kraków in the warmer months.
Kraków is one of the oldest cities in Poland, dating back to the 7th century, so again there is a lot of history here. When Poland was taken over by Germany at the start of World War II, Kraków became the centre of Germany’s General Government, and it’s not far from Auschwitz which should be visited if you have time. You can also visit Schindler’s Factory for more history.
There’s a gorgeous market square, buzzing with cafés, bars and restaurants, and in the centre sits the impressive cloth hall. Make sure to spend plenty of time wandering around here. There’s the Jewish Ghetto to visit, Barbikan, St Florian’s gate and Sukiennice, the world’s oldest shopping centre! I visited for two days and it was nowhere near enough time to do everything I wanted to, so I’d recommend Kraków for a slightly longer cheap European city break.
Of the places mentioned in this blog post, Ljubljana is one of the more expensive, but compared to a lot of Western Europe it’s still cheap! I absolutely loved Ljubljana and it’s definitely in my top three cities. It’s a beautiful location, with pretty buildings, cobbled streets and an emerald green river running through the centre. The castle looms over the city, and provides the most incredible views if you venture up there, and the food and wine (especially the wine) is awesome.
There are plenty of day trips to take from Ljubljana including Lake Bled, Kamnik and, one of my favourite places ever, Velika Planina. If you have extra time and fancy a bit of luxury, take a trip to Maribor (about an hour and a half from Ljubljana and accessible by public transport) and stay on this luxurious glamping resort, on a vineyard! Honestly, it was stunning.
If you’re planning a trip to Slovenia, travel blogger Wandering Helene has loads of incredible content that’s worth looking at.
Sofia – A Cheap European City Break Perfect for Summer Relaxation
I spent a couple of days in Sofia last summer and the majority of time was spent sipping coffee (or £3 Aperol Spritz) outside cute cafés along the Vitosha Boulevard, relaxing in one of the many green parks and looking up at stunning buildings such as the Alexander Nevksy Cathedral and The Russian Church.
If you’re looking for a relaxing summer city break in particular, I’d most definitely recommend a weekend in Sofia. I’ve also seen some beautiful pictures of Sofia under a dusting of snow, so I’m sure it would be a fabulous cheap European winter city break too!
If you have more time on your hands, I’d hugely recommend tying this in with a trip to Istanbul. Fly into Istanbul, spend a couple of days there, take the night train from Istanbul to Sofia, and then fly home from there! Or vice versa!
Italy has a reputation for being expensive – far from the cheap European city breaks we’re talking about here. However, it completely depends on where you go! Last year I took a solo trip to Trento, in the region of Trentino, to attend the Traverse travel blogging conference. Given that it’s not too far from Venice and Verona (these are the airports I used to travel to Trento, followed by an easy train journey), I was worried that it would be quite costly.
Trento is lesser known than other Italian destinations and, as a result, the locals much outnumber the tourists – and the cost reflects this! But it’s not just about the cost of course. Trento is a breathtakingly beautiful town, surrounded by mountains which can be admired from the town centre.
There’s plenty to do there, from taking the cable car up to Sardagna for stunning views, relaxing in the Piazza Duomo with a glass of Trento Doc, playing princess at the Castello del Buonconsiglio or wine tasting at the Palazzo Roccabruna, home to the wine board of Trentino. Oh, and as it’s Italy there is a lot of pizza, pasta and gelato eating to be done in Trento!
Venice – Can You Really Have a Cheap European City Break Here?
Venice can be ridiculously expensive, but it doesn’t have to be! You might need a mortgage to enjoy a coffee at Café Florian in St Mark’s Square, but head to the right places and I promise you that you can drink €2 glasses of Prosecco all day long. All you need to do is hang out with the locals in Venice’s cichetti bars and stay aware from the tourist traps.
It doesn’t even have to cost the earth to get nice accommodation in Venice! The hotels along the Grand Canal can set you back hundreds (even thousands) a night, but we stayed in an Air BnB on Murano and it was excellent value for money.
We had a water taxi stop right outside, the room offered us the perfect balance of traditional and ultra modern decor, and we had the all-important canal view from our bedroom window! It cost us €62 a night, and that was September so I’d imagine it would be cheaper in the winter. If you want to book an AirBnb and haven’t used it before, you can use my code *here and get £34 off your booking.
If you’re not sure, I’d highly recommend reading my blog post about how I fell in love with Venice!
Vilnius – The G-Spot of Europe
If I had to sum up my trip to Vilnius in one word it would be ‘magical’. However, this could be because it was blanketed with thick snow, and as a result it couldn’t have looked any less than magical if it tried. I’m sure it would be lovely in the summer, with all the cute cafés we visited spilling out on to the streets, and trees lining the boulevards – I just can’t comment because I’ve only seen it in the snow!
What I will say though is that it was a foodie’s dream! We ate some incredible food from some interesting and unique restaurants, and if you’re into your food, I would most definitely recommend Vilnius as a cheap European city break for you. You can follow these links to read about where to eat in Vilnius and the cosiest places to drink in Vilnius too.
Aside from the eating, there’s great shopping, towers & hills to climb for those all-important views, and a self-proclaimed republic to visit for wall art and bohemian vibes. I’ve written a blog post about things to do in Vilnius to give you a better idea of what you can get up to!
If you have time, make sure that you get the bus or train to Trakai for the day, which takes about half an hour from Vilnius. Trakai is made up of 200 lakes and 21 islands, and in the centre there’s a huge lake with a castle in the middle. The lake was frozen over and covered in snow when we visited, making it look like a fairytale! In the summer, you can take picnics there, hire a rowing boat or go for a long walk around the lake.
Oh, if you’re wondering about the title, Vilnius is known as the G-spot as Europe because no one knows where it is, but when you find it it’s amazing!
Warsaw really surprised me. I love Poland but I hadn’t considered visiting Warsaw because I assumed that the capital city wouldn’t be as pretty as the smaller cities. My goodness was I wrong! It might not be quite as cheap as the likes of Gdańsk and Wroclaw, but of course it’s still Poland prices.
The city is so green! There are loads of parks, wide streets and open spaces, and you already know I’m a sucker for an Old Town square. There are plenty of places to get great views over the town, and the vast availability of e-scooters mean that you can pretty much see everything.
This was my most recent cheap European city break, and I haven’t stopped talking about it since! It really was cheap, let me give you some examples:
- Beef tartare, two vodkas and two beers at Przedwojenna came to a total of zł 29, which is less than £6!
- Dinner at Konspira including a two person pierogi platter (the best Pierogi we had in Wroclaw) plus drinks (wine & beer) came to around £12 equivalent
- I enjoyed the below Aperol Spritz for less than £3 equivalent!
I’ll be writing a blog post soon about all the things that you can do in Wroclaw, but in the mean time I’ll tell you that it’s 100% worth visiting just to look at the colourful buildings and go gnome hunting. It’s the perfect destination if you just have one weekend, as it’s not too big and can be enjoyed at your own pace. Here’s a guide to the best restaurants in Wroclaw if you’re planning a visit!
Finally, and one of my favourites for wine drinking, is Zagreb. With everyone banging on about Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split, I didn’t have high expectations for Zagreb – it just wasn’t getting the same publicity! I was proven wrong immediately and, although I haven’t been to the aforementioned Croatian destinations, I’m still going to recommend that you choose Zagreb.
I’ve mentioned that it’s good for wine drinking, and that’s because it’s surrounded by wine growing regions! It’s also only a couple of hours away from the Istrian region where the wine is fiiiiine! We drank some beautiful Croatian wines whilst in Zagreb, and there’s a fantastic winery and wine bar called Borstein to visit for wine tasting.
I will be writing a blog post soon about things to do in Zagreb, but if you’re reading this in the mean time, make sure you don’t miss the Upper Town, the Museum of Broken Relationship and the many events and festivals happening throughout the year. In the mean time, have a read of my review of Swanky Mint Hostel if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Zagreb. I’m not much of a hostel person, but the private rooms here were just like staying in a hotel, but much cheaper!
So there you have it, my top travel destinations for a cheap European city break! If you can’t decide where to go, I’ve put together an itinerary which covers Istanbul, Sofia, Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and Venice in just 17 days! And here’s what I learnt on that bumper trip through the Balkans. I’d love to hear where you’ve been that I need to visit and add to this list, so let me know in the comments or over in Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.