Turquoise waters lapping against rocky shorelines, majestic castles rising among verdant hills, old and new architecture in modern yet historic cities: These images and more spring to mind when daydreaming about a European holiday.
But what doesn’t enter our vacation fantasies? The reality of budget constraints. Luckily, there are a handful of amazing and affordable spots to visit, even in Europe.
Read on for the best budget-friendly European capitals to add to your bucket list.
1. Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade has been likened to Berlin for its extensive nightlife options, but it has so much more to offer travelers. From its vibrant coffee and cafe scene to its huge Zeleni Venac Farmers Market, this city, one of the oldest in Europe, won’t disappoint.
Be sure to try the local fruit spirits, sljivovica and rakija. Sljivovica is distinctly Serbian and uses local plums, while rakija is made all over the Balkans; both are inexpensive boozy options.
Visitors should also take time to stroll along the scenic shores of the Danube and Sava Rivers. After all, Belgrade is the only European capital located at the confluence of two major rivers.
Belgrade offers affordable lodging, dining, and attractions. Additionally, tipping is not expected and haggling is allowed at area flea markets.
2. San Marino, San Marino
The city of San Marino is the capital of one of the world’s smallest nations, also called San Marino. Completely landlocked by the northern Italian countryside, this burgeoning travel destination shouldn’t be missed, both for its low cost and pretty sights.
San Marino is the world’s oldest republic and the only surviving of the former Italian city-states. Travelers should check out the city center as well as nearby Monte Titano, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
San Marino is also tax-free, so shoppers should consider that money-saving fact. Additionally, it’s the least-visited country in Europe, which means you won’t be battling crowds like you would in many other cities on the continent.
3. Tallinn, Estonia
This dreamy city, the capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia, is a true hidden gem, combining modern elements with a medieval Old Town for a charming end result. Tallinn is also famous for its quality handicrafts, well-preserved city center, and delicious food and beverage scene.
Most of the highlights are within walking distance, which helps save on transport costs, and there’s a well-reviewed free walking tour available daily. Another cost-saving area initiative is the Tallinn Card, which when purchased allows free admission to more than 40 sites, discounts at area restaurants, and free public transit.
Travelers should be sure to enjoy the world-famous Tallinn Christmas Market if visiting during the off-season of November to January.
For more about the Estonian capital city, check out my article on how to spend a day there.
4. Bratislava, Slovakia
The right half of the former Czechoslovakia, the young nation of Slovakia is often overlooked in favor of its glitzier neighbors, Austria and the Czech Republic. But the beautiful capital city of Bratislava offers an affordable European getaway without all the usual tourist mobs.
Hotels are very reasonably priced in Bratislava, and you can easily get a heaping meal for less than 10 euros. Cost-conscious visitors should also consider purchasing a Bratislava Card, which provides access to free tours, free public transportation, free admission to 14 museums and galleries, and numerous discounts (up to 50 percent off at more than 100 spots).
5. Tirana, Albania
Albania’s capital city of Tirana, an up-and-coming hot spot, offers Mediterranean vibes without the usual price tag of more popular countries like Greece.
Travelers can snack on street food like souvlaki or a trilece for around 1 euro and enjoy a full meal at economical local restaurants for around 10 euros. Plus, three popular museums, the National Museum of History, the National Gallery of Arts, and Bunk’Art, can all be accessed for under 10 euros.
This funky, underrated city won’t stay this way for long, since it’s been getting more attention from international travelers and publications.
6. Ljubljana, Slovenia
People have become more and more eco-conscious at home, and they’re starting to focus on sustainability while traveling as well. Enter Slovenia, one of the world’s greenest countries, and its gorgeous capital city of Ljubljana. There are red roofs, cobblestone streets, and sweeping mountain views alongside affordable transit options like biking, walking, and public transportation.
If you happen to be in the city between March and October, check out the Open Kitchen food festival, where free live music and affordable gastronomic delights await. Also be sure to check out the famous (and free!) photo opportunity at the city’s gorgeous Triple Bridge, which spans the Ljubljanica River.
It’s clear that a European city break doesn't have to break the bank. With plenty of beautiful, affordable, and historic capitals to explore across the continent, you can start planning your next getaway as soon as possible. Why not consider the Baltic beauty of Tallinn, Tirana’s sea vistas, or Ljubljana’s sustainable allure?