Europe: Best budget city breaks, Tirana among them

Various factors enable a great budget break in Europe. Flights — and not to an airport 50 miles away — shouldn’t break the bank, and nor should a good-quality hotel. You’ll want to dine without stressing out about finances, and to dine well at that, ideally trying authentic regional cooking at its best; and transport should be affordable. Moreover, free attractions or walking tours help no end, as does a non-euro currency that’s weak against the pound. Most crucially, you want genuine allure in Europe: beauty, culture, cool, even the odd beach. Combine all of that, and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bureau de change, The Times reports.

Istanbul, Turkey, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Ortakoy Mosque in Istanbul (Alamy)

1. Istanbul, Turkey

According to the Post Office’s latest Holiday Money Report, a 37 per cent price fall has seen Turkey become one of the world’s cheapest destinations. During a long weekend in its captivating capital, you can further economize via an Istanbulkart transit card. These discount evesry tram, metro, Bosphorus-crossing ferry or funicular ride as you tick off tourist attractions: multi-domed mosque Hagia Sophia, opulent Topkapi Palace and the vaulted Grand Bazaar’s pipe or pottery markets. In Europe, Istanbul is also one of most affordable dinner options. A meal for two people costs just £15 on average.  

Where to stay Wholly normal for hopelessly hip Karakoy, Sub is an anonymous 1980s block turned sharp design hotel — and has modest rates to boot.

Tirana, Albania, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Tirana’s New Bazaar area (Alamy)

2. Tirana, Albania

Each year, the Post Office also directly compares the specific costs — drinks, evening meals for two with wine, three-star accommodation, sightseeing and transport — on city breaks in 40 destinations in Europe. Currently providing the best value is Albania’s capital city. A real hidden gem, mountain-framed Tirana has interesting museums on former communist bunkers, mural-dotted boulevards and a good clubbing scene, while the Dajti Ekspres cable car (£5.50 return) ascends one of those peaks for breathtaking country views. You can eat filling Balkan cuisine for a song — a pound usually buys two triangular, cheese or beef-filled bureks — and sip cups of coffee for about 60p.

Where to stay Hotels are similarly economical, typified by the central, four-star Mondial and its rooftop swimming pool.

Krakow, Poland, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Krakow Old Town (Alamy)

3. Krakow, Poland

In normal times, Poland’s second city is perfect for a cheap city break in Europe filled with sightseeing. Among the many must-see spots are its Wawel Royal Castle, the world’s first Unesco world heritage site, and St Mary’s Basilica, where each hour is marked by a trumpet call. Try also to fit in time for people-watching on Market Square; even there, a plate of pierogi dumplings and pint of Pilsner should bring change for a tenner. Moreover, shuttle buses for sober day-trips to Auschwitz begin at €4 for a return; otherwise you could just wander past palaces and bars in the old, narrow-laned heart of Krakow.

Where to stay Typifying Krakow’s affordability, the classy Grand has 65 antique-filled rooms, a Viennese café and a piano restaurant. 

Lisbon, Portugal, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Cafe life in Lisbon (Getty Images)

4. Lisbon, Portugal

Occasionally, western Europe can be cheap too. In 2021 the Post Office surprisingly ranked sun-soaked Lisbon as its fourth-best value city, aided by the year-on-year fall in accommodation prices: a two-night stay will now typically set you back £73. Budget travellers can accomplish two things by eating petiscos (Portugal’s take on tapas) in taverns: not just saving dosh, but fuelling themselves for walks up the city’s seven hills to miradouros — azulejo-tiled viewpoints. Bouncing atop baroque cobbles, wooden trams are €3 per ride; 40-minute trains serve Cascais’s sandy beaches and free-to-roam Parque Marechal Carmona, where peacocks strut about.

Where to stay Allied with art exhibitions and regular live music, pistachio-green Brown’s Central Hotel has 84 cool, contemporary rooms.

Bucharest, Romania, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Bucharest city centre (Getty Images)

5. Bucharest, Romania

Considering both flights and accommodation, another recent study proclaimed Romania’s capital the cheapest city break in Europe. That’s good news for clubbers, creatives or hipsters bound for the “new Berlin”, as Bucharest is frequently tagged. Yes, it can sometimes be gritty and traffic-choked — but then comes a gorgeous green space, a vegan café serving perfect pizzas, a sky bar or a winsome old Orthodox church hiding in plain sight. You’ll also find the world’s second largest administrative building, with only America’s Pentagon outstripping the oh-so-communist Palace of the Parliament for unsubtle size. Dinners, routinely scoffed on garden or pavement terraces, are easily limited to £10 per person.

Where to stay The blindingly coloured, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” bedrooms at Vilacrosse Boutique Inn are available at reasonable rates.

Cathedral Square in Vilnius, Lithuania, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Cathedral Square in Vilnius (Alamy)

6. Vilnius, Lithuania

Low-cost flights from London almost seem an affront to Vilnius’s grand, flamboyant architecture. You’ll discover that in the walkable Old Town, which is on Unesco’s lists in Europe, but just as snap-worthy and suited to a romantic getaway is Trakai Island Castle, a fairytale fort with red, witch’s-hat turrets. Cool — think coffee bars and a strong street-art scene — and cosmopolitan, Lithuania’s capital is also a fascinating food destination as its Baltic cuisine combines fare typical of northeastern Europe with Nordic influences. Hence the tasting menus at funky fine-dining haunt Ertlio Namas, which should be far dearer. Also, eat there after wandering bohemian Uzupis, a self-declared “republic” in the city’s east.

Where to stay There are spacious, soft-hued rooms at the gorgeous 15th Avenue.

Barcelona, Spain, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Guadi’s Casa Batllo in Barcelona (Alamy)

7. Barcelona, Spain

Yes, in other words that’s Barcelona. Various factors render the avant-garde Catalonian capital and its Gaudi confections unexpectedly conducive to a parsimonious weekend. Firstly, multiple airlines fly direct from Britain, driving down flight prices. Secondly, metro lines connect to the airport and everything is within walking distance if you don’t mind a decent stride. Many museums open for free once a month. The sandy beach isn’t subdivided into clubs with entry fees. Also, numerous purse-friendly restaurants, from Asian tapas to brilliant bistros, dot the city; so too does a stellar line-up of well-priced hotels, spanning the chic&basic chain, independent stays in well-to-do Eixample or bigger, rooftop-pool affairs.

Where to stay In the latter category is Hotel Motel One, set beside Ciutadella park, not far from the Gothic Quarter.

Bratislava, Slovakia, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Bratislava’s Blue Church (Getty Images)

8. Bratislava, Slovakia

Common around the Slovak capital, zemiakove placky are fried, garlicky potato pancakes which are sold for just a euro or two. Also, goulash here is correspondingly reasonable, and a pound buys most pints of beer. Flights can be as cheap as £15; such stupendous value is wonderfully at odds with Bratislava’s grandeur. Draped along the Danube like a sleeping cat, its winding, patisserie-peppered old town and cheerfully hued Blue Church (officially the Church of St Elizabeth) seduce visitors below a rectangular castle complex. An equally good look-out point is the riverbank’s futuristic UFO Tower’ to whose 95m-high observation deck you can travel by speedy lift for roughly £5.

Where to stay Bratislava’s many permanently moored “botels” are terrific value. Especially, The Dunajsky Pivovar throws in a pool and private brewery for good measure.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia (Getty Images)

9. Sofia, Bulgaria

One of Europe’s oldest cities, Sofia is built on top of now-excavated Roman ruins. Despite the rotundas and arched streets, Bulgaria’s capital remains criminally underrated, even among eastern European city breaks. Those who do visit find a beguiling place where functional, sombre Soviet blocks overhang gilded golden churches, and where nodding your head means no while shaking it indicates yes. That’s near-impossible to remember after glasses of rakia, a fiery fruit brandy, which traditionally follow dinners. Talking of which, expect to spend no more than £10 each on three courses with wine, even if eating steps from gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral — one of the world’s biggest church buildings.

Where to stay Expect candles, exposed brick and imaginative lighting at the central R34 Boutique Hotel. 

Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, Hungary, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest (Alamy)

10. Budapest, Hungary

If its synthesis of classical architecture, great nightlife, glamorous cafés, glorious Danube bridges and thermal baths doesn’t already add up to a perfect city break, then Budapest has another ace to play: it’s easily done on a budget. Many sights in Hungary’s capital are free to visit: Fisherman’s Bastion and its river-facing terraces, the food-focused Great Market Hall or Heroes’ Square. Others, such as the scenic rooftop of St Stephen’s Basilica, cost a pittance. With hearty goulash lunches, forward-thinking dinners and late-night drinks making little additional dent on your finances, splashing out £14 to enter the Insta-famous Szechenyi Baths should be palatable.

Where to stay Below the main fortress, as its name suggests, lovely Hotel Castle Garden also has its own wellness centre. 

Sarajevo, Bosnia, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Sarajevo Old Town (Alamy)

11. Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo has emerged from its war-torn years looking remarkably good. That’s particularly true of an atmospheric, charming original centre, which hosts coppersmith workhouses and homely teahouses. Those, along with a mixture of churches and mosques, underline how multicultural Bosnia’s capital is — as does a local cuisine with Balkan, Turkish and Mediterranean elements. Engagingly small, the hilly city is constantly cobbled, making comfy shoes essential. The choicest hill is Vidikovac, a trudge up which should conclude in sunset-watching and dinner at the bargain namesake restaurant. Also, trams cost about a euro per ride and it’s only twice that for on-the-go lunches involving a cevapi, or Bosnian kebab.

Where to stay Inside a central, Austro-Hungarian-era building, the modern, minimal Hotel Colors Inn throws in free breakfasts.

Ljubljana, Slovenia, one of the best places for for budget city breaks in Europe
Ljubljana’s city centre (Getty Images)

12. Ljubljana, Slovenia

Summer’s the best time for a thrifty short break to the capital of Slovenia. It’s when ​​a number of free festivals are held on open-air streets stages — events such as the Ana Desetnica street-theatre festival from June’s end, a July jazz festival and Nights in Ljubljana Old Town in August. You’ll also find cafés set up on leafy riverside terraces, and parties in old sugar factories. Pretty, compact and car-free (save for electric taxis) — under its “Vision of Ljubljana 2025” project — the city is easy to stroll or cycle using free-to-hire bikes, though you’ll probably want to fork out €4 for a return funicular ride up to its lofty medieval castle.

Where to stay Behind its art deco exterior, Hotel Cubo serves great good next to the old town.

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