7 of the best destinations in Eastern Europe for an affordable city break

Here are the region’s top budget cities, where you’ll find culture, romance and beautiful old towns for less

Natalie Wilson
Saturday 27 April 2024 21:17 BST
The skylines of Eastern Europe are filled with Gothic and Baroque architecture
The skylines of Eastern Europe are filled with Gothic and Baroque architecture (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Planning a European city break on a budget? It’s time to bypass the big hitters like Paris, Rome and Copenhagen in the west – your money stretches further in the cities of the east.

This fact might not be a new one, but as prices hike in the most beloved urban hubs, consistently low costs for transport, accommodation and meals in eastern destinations mean thrifty travellers should be taking short stays across the Balkans and Baltics more seriously.

With buzzing nightlife scenes, Soviet echoes in the fortified old towns and traditional–meets–modern restaurants serving regional delicacies, cost-effective cultural endeavours scatter the streets and there’s even the option for travel by climate-conscious sleeper trains.

From Bucharest to Belgrade, these cities are rich in sightseeing, history and active pursuits in every season. Here are some of Eastern Europe’s most affordable capitals for a cheap city break.

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Bucharest, Romania

Bathe in Europe’s biggest spa in bargain Bucharest
Bathe in Europe’s biggest spa in bargain Bucharest (Getty Images)

In the pre-communist era, the Romania’s capital was hailed as the ‘Paris of the East’ for its romantic French architecture, and bargain Bucharest certainly offers a different side of Romania than Transylvania’s verdant vampire valleys. Explore the old town, a hub of dining and energetic nightlife complete with busts of Vlad the Impaler, take in the sheer scale of the mammoth Palace of the Parliament – one of the largest buildings in the world – and attend orthodox mass complete with an acapella choir at the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral to see Bucharest at its best.

To truly soak in the city, Europe’s biggest spa Therme also welcomes visitors for the ultimate budget spa break – picture everything from themed saunas to clay mask and scrub rituals. A one-day pass with access to all areas costs just £29 between Monday to Thursday, and is well worth the pennies.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Save on travel with a trip to Sofia
Save on travel with a trip to Sofia (Getty Images)

Sofia, the spirited Bulgarian capital, makes for an economical city break – and it’s best explored on foot. Amid relics of the Communist era, including the green-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, red-brick Ottoman mosques and broad avenues, the Balkan nation has outstanding value for all things sightseeing and even skiing. The nearby peaks of Vitosha, rising to almost 2,300m, have been developed for bargain ski weekends on the slopes in winter and hiking holidays come spring.

With impressive prices on rakia, a type of traditional, homemade fruit brandy, in underground drinking dens built for cheap boozing and affordable accommodation even within the central maze of museums and galleries, the palatable capital is practically built for long weekends. The icing on the cake? Sofia is a great base for exploring the cultural treasure of Boyana and the ornate murals of the Unesco-listed Boyana Church.

Belgrade, Serbia

There’s cheap eats and a riot of festivals in Serbia’s capital
There’s cheap eats and a riot of festivals in Serbia’s capital (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

With a rough charm, bohemian quarters and a Habsburg influence, Belgrade, the Serbian capital, stands where the Danube meets the Sava River. Kalemegdan fortress and park is the historical heart of the city – think restaurants, museums, towers and gates from the Ottoman period – and the neo-Byzantine domes of Sveti Sava temple and art nouveau architecture dominate the Belgrade skyline.

Stari Grad old town is largely pedestrianised and it’s not hard to find budget bites in the grilled meat classics including roast suckling pig and Balkan-style burgers. Summertime in Usce brings pleasure boats to the Sava, Belgrade Beer Festival to the floating bars and restaurants known as splavovi and a huge Book Fair flips through the region in October. Head to the Hasburg suburb of Zemun for swimming pontoons, Austrian-style church spires and ochre cottages or climb to the top of Gardos Tower for Danbue views.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb is considerably cheaper than its Croatian counterparts
Zagreb is considerably cheaper than its Croatian counterparts (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

An underrated, compact city with early 20th-century grandeur – Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. Sat beneath Mount Medvednica, the upper town, Gornji Grad, is a maze of medieval cobbles spanning the two hills of Kaptol and Gradec accessible via a 66m funicular. If architecture’s your thing, the 108m twin spires of the Gothic Zagreb Cathedral, Lotrščak Tower, where the Gric cannon fires every day at noon, and the mustard Croatian National Theatre, host of ballet, opera and theatre performances, are sure to delight.

Eccentric exhibits fill the Museum of Illusions, Mushroom Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships while cheap boutiques, bars and restaurants dot Tkalčića Street and the famous Trznica Dolac farmers market is a hit for traditional treats. A trio of leafy parks nicknamed the Green Horseshoe and Lake Jarun south of the city are ideal for kicking back and cooling off for free in summer. Come at Christmas for Zagreb’s celebrated Advent market or indulge in the café culture of Zagreb’s lively districts for the ultimate caffeine fix.

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest meets the city break criteria with an emphasis on value for money
Budapest meets the city break criteria with an emphasis on value for money (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Hungarian capital has a recognised value for money when bedding down on a budget. Culturally quirky Budapest is a rainbow of pompous architectural splendours, grand concert halls and laid-back ‘ruin’ bars - derelict buildings turned hip aperitif haunts. With the crowded skyline of Pest to the east and romantic Buda castle district to the west, bridges crossing the River Danube – a dream for a boozy boat trip past the lit-up parliament (Orszghaz) – link the two.

Travel for cheap on trundling trams between the Royal Palace, home to the Hungarian National Gallery, mass at the neo-Gothic 13th century Matthias Church and Dohány Street Synagogue, Europe’s largest synagogue. The Budapest Card offers 48 hours of free public transport, guided walking tours, admission to St. Lukács Thermal Bath and free entry to the Pálinka Experience Museum from €49 (£42). Hungry for Hungarian dishes? There is affordable chicken paprikash, some serious schnitzel and sausage, or even bread and beer picnics on Margaret Island.

Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk is fairly priced and popular with Poles
Gdansk is fairly priced and popular with Poles (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A gem on Poland’s Baltic Coast, Gdansk should be as popular with international tourists as it is with domestic holidaymakers. The destination – alongside spa-scattered Sopot and Gdynia – is primed for visitors, with its golden-gated old town and marvellous marina. Buzzy cafe nightlife with extensive craft beer menus thrives in the tavernas ofUlica Piwna‘Beer Street’, and waterfront foodie tours feature fresh cod, pierogi dumplings and soup in bread bowls; something to look forward to after days shopping for amber jewellery from artisan shops on the Dluga main street.

The historic birthplace of the anti-communist Solidarity movement also has an unmissable Museum of the Second World War (the opening shots were fired here) and, with its own Globe Shakespeare Theatre, cost-effective culture is plenty.

Tallinn, Estonia

Budget Tallinn is beloved by digital nomads
Budget Tallinn is beloved by digital nomads (Getty Images)

Tallinn, the Estonian capital, with its preserved medieval centre and Soviet legacy is much more than a pocket-sized Prague and often, a far better price. With a palette of pastel cafes, the cheap city is a digital nomad hotspot come rain or shine, and active pursuits are in no short supply when a screen break is needed, from surfing off Pirita Beach to hiking the Jagala Waterfall.

Fortified inner city Toompea and Unesco-listed delights (including a Baroque palace, Lutheran spires and the onion domes of the orthodox Nevsky Cathedral) contribute to Tallinn’s fairy tale image. Head atop the city’s walls for the best panoramas and deploy a 48-hour ‘Tallinn Card’ to see all the main sights and museums for just €63 (£54). Aside from its historical pedigree, the buzzing student village Kalamaja is the place to go for delicious meals, and the Kalma Saun offers an authentic Baltic sauna experience for some Estonian relaxation.

Read more on the best hotels in Europe for a city break or beach retreat

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