August is the peak month for British holidaymakers – and for many travellers, it will be their first experience of Europe since sterling's precipitous fall in value in the final three months of last year. When sightseeing in a foreign capital, an excellent way to stretch your budget – or so it appears – is to buy a card that gives free or discounted admission to a range of attractions, and frequently public transport, too. The "city card" concept is becoming increasingly popular around the world – sometimes with schemes run by the tourist authorities, sometimes by a company. Once a city-card programme is set up, the income from sales is pooled between the participating attractions and providers in a complex calculation involving visitor numbers, normal admission prices and prevailing public-transport fares. City cards also often provide a range of promotional (and modest) discounts on specific shops and restaurants.
The concept appeals to both the tourist industry and the visitor. From the point of view of attraction providers, it encourages tourists to visit more venues than they might otherwise. Visitors enjoy (hopefully) a more intense and rounded experience while saving cash, and perhaps dodging queues.
Yet the value of these passes varies dramatically from one city to another. Some are bargains even for people who plan to see only a couple of top sights. But others can feel like swizzes that turn a profit for the tourist only when quality is sacrificed for quantity, with an absurd amounts of sightseeing concentrated in a limited time.
One of the few good things about the Barcelona Card – €26 for two days – is the 10 per cent discount for booking online at bcnshop.barcelonaturisme.com. Sure, the card bestows public transport, but the price of a normal unlimited-travel day pass – price €5.80 – is hardly excessive. And all you get at the vast majority of the city's attractions is a modest discount: 20 per cent at the Museo Picasso (saving a whacking €1.80), 9 per cent at the Sagrada Familia, and a measly 5 per cent at Barcelona FC's Camp Nou stadium (the museum tour, not a home match).
The basic Berlin WelcomeCard ( visitberlin.de/welcomecard) at least costs a modest €16.50 for two days, compared with €12.20 if you were to buy two one-day public transport passes. But again it offers only discounts rather than free admission: at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, for example, you save barely €3 on the normal entry price.
The Roma Pass ( romapass.it) is one of the better city cards. Costing €23 for three days, it covers all buses, trams, underground and suburban rail lines. It bestows free admission to the first two (of more than 40) museums and historic sites, with reduced entry thereafter. With standard admission to the Colosseum at €10, and to the Borghese Gallery at €8.50, you need to make only five public-transport journeys (normally €1 each) to show a profit. One drawback is that the Vatican Museums are not included, but this is understandable since the home of the Pope is in a separate country.
A similarly "stripped-down" pass is the Paris ComboPass Lite ( paris.conciergerie.com), costing €42 for two days' transport in the French capital, plus entry to the two leading museums, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. Normal admission to these sights is only €9 and €12 respectively, and unlimited travel is available with the Paris Visite card at €14.40 for two days; total, €35.40. But what makes this a worthwhile prospect is a one-hour cruise on the Seine, itself worth €10.
Culture-plus-cruise is also the offer in the Dutch capital. Amsterdam arguably has Europe's most intense concentration of art museums, but the strangely named "I amsterdam card" ( iamsterdam.com) is not much of a passport to the Golden Age. At €48 for two days it is one of Europe's most expensive city cards. While it covers city transport, the relatively short hop out to Schiphol airport is not included. (For comparison, a 48-hour public transport pass bought separately costs €11.50, but Amsterdam is the city above all others that is built for walking.) Normal admission to the much-depleted Rijksmuseum is currently €11 for the highlights in its annexe; the marvellous Van Gogh Museum makes an impression at €12.50; and the stylish new Hermitage Amsterdam is €15. Frankly, you risk cultural burn-out if you attempt more than this trio in two days. Again, the clincher could be the free canal cruise, normally €12, which provides a fresh perspective on the city. But consider also the Dutch Museum Card, which costs €39.95, covers all the obvious collections in Amsterdam, and is valid for 400 museums across Holland for a full year.
Last and most expensive: the London Pass ( londonpass.com), price £52 for two days, not counting public transport (an extra £7 per day). Yes, it gets you free entry to some major attractions, including the Tower of London and St Paul's Cathedral, but those two total just £28 (or less if you book them online). Another benefit is one day's hop-on-hop-off access to City Cruises vessels on the Thames – serving these and other attractions, and normally priced at £11.50. But since so many of the capital's great attractions, from the British Museum to the collections in South Kensington and the Tates Britain and Modern are free, you would need to go for a wide range of paying attractions to make the London Pass worthwhile. The one exception: at some free museums with temporary, paid exhibitions, the Pass secures free entry. So if you are a twice-a-year visitor to the capital, keen to keep up on the latest openings, then it is possibly worthwhile; otherwise, get yourself a pre-paid Oyster Card and celebrate all the great National Museums and other collections to which you and the rest of the world can get in for free.
Longer term, there is the happy prospect that the Mayor's office is working on a single card that will link transport and culture.
My favourite city card isn't marketed as such at all: it is the Swiss Pass ( swisstravelsystem.com), which offers excellent unlimited travel on the nation's extraordinary rail network – and throws in free admission to more than 400 museums in Switzerland, too. A four-day pass costs Sfr260 (£150).
Additional research by John Sannaee