When it comes to popular European cities, Barcelona, Paris, and Rome grab all the headlines. And while these destinations have the cultural offerings that make their wallet-busting prices worthwhile, there are plenty of cheaper and, some might say, cooler alternatives for travelers looking to spend less money. Europe’s most expensive cities certainly have their own inimitable charm, but these equally exceptional options will both broaden your cultural horizons and go easier on your wallet.
Skip Barcelona and Visit Lisbon
Barcelona offers near-perfect weather, vibrant street life, tasty late-night eats, and invigorating cultural offerings (we’re still dreaming of those city views from the heights of Gaudi’s Park Guel). It even has a number of beautiful beaches. The one downside, however, is the high prices for hotels and restaurants here. Enter: Lisbon.
Despite being a genuine darling of the European city break circuit, Lisbon has remained relatively true to its rustic roots. Far from the polished tourist machine that Barcelona has become in the last decade or so, Lisbon’s narrow lanes, beautifully tiled buildings, intricate shop fronts, and cobbled streets ooze charm. Both the cost of hotels and eating out is cheaper here than in Barcelona, and the Portuguese city has more than enough style to compete with its Spanish alternative. A city of castles, ruins, and rambling streets that snake their way up hills, Lisbon is architecturally stunning. While visiting, eat pasteis de nata, tour UNESCO World Heritage sites like Torre de Belem, take a trip on the cable car to the top of town, and enjoy a 20-minute train ride to the beaches of Carcavelos.
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Skip Rome and Visit Palermo
Both Italian cities with plenty of ancient history, bountiful culture, buzzing culinary scenes, and red-hot summers, Rome and the Sicilian city of Palermo have a lot in common. A dream destination, thanks to its mix of contemporary life interspersed with centuries-old architecture, Rome is rightly regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful cities. From Vatican City to Piazza San Pietro, the boho delights of Trastevere to the shopping of Via del Corso, the city has it all. And that’s why come peak season, the city swarms with international visitors keen on throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, gazing upon the Pantheon, and queueing up for the Sistine Chapel. During this time, hotel rates, plus food and drink, are exceptionally high. That said, it might be worth swapping the crowds for a visit to Palermo instead.
One thing Palermo has that Rome lacks is beaches. Located on the island of Sicily, Palermo shares southern Italy’s economic realities -- something the cosmopolitan city of Rome is far more insulated from. Thus, you’ll find that the cost of transportation and eating and drinking are more affordable in Palermo. The price for cultural excursions are also more reasonable. For instance, a walking tour of Palermo’s markets and monuments will cost you roughly half of what you’d pay for a similar tour in Rome. Sicilian life is all about time spent out in the open -- on the streets and in the city’s squares -- which is perhaps why it’s home to such a thriving street food scene. Sample veal, arancini, deep-fried spleen, and Sicilian lemon gelato from the stalls at Mercato della Vucciria. It may not be home to the Pope, but Palermo has plenty of churches and cathedrals for those interested in religious monuments. Famed for its intricate mosaics, Cappella Palatina puts up stiff competition to the Sistine Chapel. Having battled historic Mafia links to relaunch the city as a tourist-friendly haven over the past decade, Palermo has reached cool status, thanks to its mix of ancient charm (see that UNESCO-recognized Norman-Arab architecture) and trendy street life.
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Skip Stockholm and Visit Berlin
Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, is one of Europe’s most expensive cities. However, if you can afford the pricey taxis, restaurants, and accommodations, then you can enjoy one of the coolest places in Europe. Great for shopping (try Drottninggatan, the longest shopping street in Sweden that’s filled with trendy stores), outdoor fun via parks and ferries to surrounding islands, and artisan coffee, it’s easy to see why the Swedes claim to be so content with life.
Berlin is more rough-and-ready than Stockholm -- a patchwork of post-war architecture -- but wholeheartedly deserves its reputation as Europe’s capital of cool. Plus, you won’t be paying $10 for a beer here. Slightly unusual for a capital city, Berlin is something of a bohemian destination renowned for its hip culture, close-knit creative communities, and affordable way of life. Since much of the city was destroyed in WWII, and was then dissected into East and West with the wall, Berlin’s shifting identity has somewhat settled in the last 20 years. It celebrates the melting pot of nationalities and cultures that call it home. For tourists, this means the city is a place where you can just as easily enjoy a Michelin-starred meal as you can a fish taco at a street market in the heart of Kreuzberg. From the Brandenburg Gate to Berghain (the world’s most iconic club), the Museum Fur Naturkunde to the Tempelhofer airport park, the city blends its history and constantly evolving creative energy. Looking to the past and future, it suits all tastes -- and budgets.
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Skip Paris and Visit Valencia
Paris may be one of the most romantic cities in the world, but it’s also one of the most expensive -- and understandably so. Combining beautiful art and architecture, top-notch shopping, and delicious food, the French capital ticks all the boxes for a memorable vacation. Attractions like the Louvre, Notre Dame, Montmartre, La Marais, and even the brasseries and boulangeries bars top many travelers’ bucket lists. From the scent of macarons at Laduree to the boho artistic vibe at Shakespeare and Company, you’ll pay handsomely to experience the sights and sensations of Paris. Those on a budget should consider Valencia instead.
At first, Valencia might not seem like it can match Paris, but the Spanish city comes with oodles of culture, superb cuisine, and amazing architecture. In fact, the only dramatic difference is Valencia’s climate -- and who’s going to argue with sunshine? Best of all, it’s more affordable than Paris when it comes to hotels, food and drink, and shopping. For art and culture, see the City of Arts and Science, a mammoth complex in the heart of the city that’s dedicated to music, art, and science (and home to the largest aquarium in Europe). History lovers should scope out the striking Valencia Cathedral, a beautiful building that dates back to the 13th century and happens to be the only place you can see a vessel claiming to be Christ’s Holy Grail (it has even been ratified by the Catholic Church). The birthplace of paella also knows good eating. Valencia’s Mercado Central is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful food markets in the world. Here, enjoy and Agua de Valencia cocktail (a potent mix of vodka, cava, and orange juice). Blessed with great weather for much of the year, Valencia also has plenty of outdoor activities. Head to the Turia Gardens, a park that runs along the now manicured bed of the city’s former river basin.
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