European city breaks that won’t break the bank

Jill Starley-Grainger

Travel journalist and editor

Want to have your metaphorical travel cake and eat it, too? You can have a getaway with a dash of culture for less than you might expect in these gloriously affordable cities, vetted by former Which? Travel editor Jill Starley-Grainger.


Amex Travel AU Livraria Lello

Why go?
Slow down and ease into this city’s laid-back lifestyle, where you’ll spend more time sipping wine, people watching and gazing at the dreamy Douro River than ticking off tourist sights.

Things to do in Porto
The home of port wine, Portugal’s second largest city has long been a major harbour, shipping wine in and out of its pretty docks on the Douro River. The city sits primarily on the northern side of the Douro, made up of a hodgepodge of coloured buildings along the riverbank. Climb up through cobbled alleys and past the crumbling cream-stone houses of the Ribeira district, and you can imagine what Porto must have looked like in the Middle Ages.

Most of the action today happens further west in the Baixa area. Step inside the remarkable São Bento train station to marvel at its entrance hall, plastered on all four walls with vast blue-and-white-tiled friezes depicting important moments in Porto’s history. Then visit the ornate Porto Cathedral, the Sé, a historic landmark in Porto originally built in the 12th century. Beyond the awe-inspiring architecture, the Sé offers some of the best views of the city.

Head to the streets around the Clérigos Church, with its pretty Baroque bell tower, to sip port-tonics al fresco, a popular local beverage. Peek into Livraria Lello, a 1906 bookshop and favourite of JK Rowling, who lived in Porto in the early 1990s (pictured above). The shop is said to be the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop in Harry Potter.

Where to stay
With glamorous theatrical décor, a convenient location near São Bento and a breakfast buffet piled high with fresh pastries, scrambled eggs and bottles of bubbly, you’ll feel like a prima donna at the affordable-but-chic Hotel Teatro.

Money-saving tip
Instead of crossing the Douro to reach the city’s Gaia district where many port-wine tasting rooms are located, sample just as many excellent vintages in the city centre without having to pay a pricey wine-room mark-up on top.


Amex Travel AU Budapest
Photo: Dávid Szente, Gyermekvasút

Why go?
The Hungarian capital feels wonderfully optimistic, as if it’s on the cusp of greatness post-Soviet rule. Its citizens have reclaimed everything from abandoned buildings to old markets, where they’ve opened shops, bars and restaurants with a decidedly bohemian vibe.

Things to do in Budapest
Get your bearings on the glittering 19th century Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which spans the Danube River, where you can see the Buda side of the city rising on a hill to the west and the flat Pest side to the east. Schedule in a quick trip up to the ramparts of Buda Castle for views over the city, or take a truly unique journey on the Children’s Railway (pictured above). Operated by school-aged children (supervised by adults), this train stops at popular points throughout the capital, so you get transport, views and a cool story to share with your friends and family back home.

Beyond the Buda side, many of the sites on your itinerary will be found in Pest. Here, you can wander streets lined with crumbling Art Nouveau façades or pop into ‘ruin bars’, impromptu pubs in abandoned buildings. When you’ve exhausted your wandering legs, lounge in one of the dozen wallet-friendly public spas, such as the 19th century Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Although it’s slightly outside the centre, it’s worth a visit to Memento Park, an open-air museum where you can see dozens of communist-era statues relocated from the city centre and learn about the city’s Soviet past.

Where to stay
The city’s hotels are among the cheapest in Europe, so plump for the glamorous – but eminently affordable – Buddha-Bar Hotel, located in the heart of the action on the Pest side.

Money-saving tip
Consider purchasing a Budapest Card before you travel, which can be used toward transport throughout the city, and offers free and discounted entry for certain attractions, sights and dining.


Amex Travel AU Lille

Why go?
With its pretty Belle Epoque and Flemish architecture, abundant pavement cafés, antique shops and leafy streets, Lille has all the perks of a city, but with the warm, cosy feeling of a charming French village.

Things to do in Lille
Get lost in the charming Old Town, Vieux-Lille. Wander through cobbled streets lined with gabled brick and stone buildings, antique shops and al fresco cafés. Pause to scoff vanilla-filled waffles from Méert, a sweet treat to fuel your leisurely wandering.

Consider purchasing a Lille City Pass, which offers free and discounted entrance to more than 30 sites for a flat rate, such as the 15th century buildings of the Hospice Comtesse Museum, a hospital run by nuns for centuries, now a museum. Explore Lille’s militaristic beginnings at the Musée des Canonniers, with military artefacts on display – including the famous Gribeauval weapon gifted by Napoléon Bonaparte – a brisk 10-minute walk east from the Hospice Comtesse Museum.

Just north of the Old Town you can explore the house where Charles de Gaulle was born in 1890. It offers a brief look into the life of the former French general and statesman.

Once you’ve explored the historic streets to your heart’s content, get unparalleled, 360-degree views of the city from 104 metres up the Belfry of Lille, the highest municipal building in France (pictured above). Be sure you do leg stretches beforehand – there are 100 steps to ascend before reaching the lift that takes you the rest of the way up.

Where to stay
It’s not often you get spa facilities at a three-star hotel, but at the Urban Hotel & Spa, 2km from the Old Town, guests can use the on-site sauna and steam room free of charge, and rooms have a dash of vintage 1930s flair.

Money-saving tip
Bring an empty suitcase if you come in early September. That’s when Lille’s annual braderie takes place. The biggest flea market in Europe, you’re sure to find bargains galore.


Amex Travel AU Prague

Why go?
Whisk away your lover for a trip to one of Europe’s most romantic cities, where cobbled streets lead to stony medieval towers, and walks down hidden lanes open up to reveal Art Nouveau architectural masterpieces.

Things to do in Prague
Set your watch to arrive in the Old Town Square on the hour, when you can see the dials, figurines and planets of the world’s oldest operating astronomical clock, dating to 1410, whirl into action for a short show. After snapping photos of the impressive centuries’-old buildings that flank the square, walk to the beautiful Charles Bridge, completed in the 15th century and lined with 30 Baroque statues (pictured above).

While you’re wandering the Old Town, keep your eyes peeled for Czech art, including ‘Man Hanging Out’, a statue of Sigmund Freud suspended from the top of a building at the junction of Husova and Skorepka streets.

Climb up the hill to Prague Castle, a clutch of palace buildings, churches and gardens built from the 10th to 20th centuries. Explore gilded cathedrals, vast halls where knights once competed in indoor jousting competitions and a lane of medieval houses and shops. Afterwards, head back to the Old Town to stroll the streets, pacing yourself so you can climb one of the many publicly accessible medieval towers for sweeping city views.

Where to stay
A beautifully designed four-star hotel, right near the Old Town Square and Charles Bridge, with bargain rates, feature wallpaper and chandeliers, the Friday Hotel is a luxury-for-less winner.

Money-saving tip
Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Czechia, so be sure to exchange money for koruna before you travel to avoid high fees and charges. Additionally, check out whether your Prague museum of choice offers free admission opportunities. Many museums offer free entry on certain days of the week or during certain hours.


Amex Travel AU Berlin

Why go?
A magnet for Europe’s creative types, the mood of modern Berlin is youthful and fun, but bring your hankie – you’ll bump into its emotive 20th century past at almost every turn.

Things to do in Berlin
Hop on a budget-friendly bicycle at one of the dozens of nextbike pick-up/drop-off stations throughout the city centre, and cycle through the huge, leafy Tiergarten Park. You’ll coast past rivers, the presidential palace, boating lakes and beer gardens along this remarkably scenic route.

Drop off the bike at the eastern edge of the park, near the haunting Holocaust Memorial, for a few moments of solemn reflection. Meander through its huge, imposing plinths, visit the heartrending museum below, and then walk a few minutes north to the 18th century Brandenburg Gate (pictured above). A key spot in the separation of East and West Berlin, the gate has played host to many famous speeches, including those given by JFK and Obama. From here, you can gaze up at the Neo-Baroque façade and glass-domed roof of the impressive Reichstag parliament building.

Then, embrace 21st century Berlin and head to the pretty Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain areas to browse the shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars.

Where to stay
Budget-friendly hotel TRYP Berlin Mitte is central enough to walk to the Brandenburg Gate in half an hour, and has a smart red, black and white design that makes it feel more luxe than its price tag might suggest.

Money-saving tip
There’s no need to pay to go up the famous Fernsehturm TV tower to see the city from above. You can get sweeping views over central Berlin from the roof of the Reichstag – entirely free – but only if you book ahead.

Ready to plan your next wallet-friendy European excursion? Click ‘book your trip’ now to start your search.

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