10 Unforgettable European Vacations Under $400
Go slightly farther east than the typical tourist locations for incredible European destinations that won’t break the bank—but will introduce you to new cultures and stunning experiences.
Head to Europe for beauty and value
A European vacation isn’t the first thing that springs to mind for most people on a budget. But with flights to Europe at the lowest in a decade, you can look beyond Myrtle Beach and Cancun when planning your next trip. Go a bit beyond the popular stops of London and Paris and you’ll find the Adriatic—a region rich in culture, scenery, and local cuisine that won’t break the bank. For even more ways to save your extra euros for another glass of rosé, learn how to avoid being scammed when traveling.
Southern Croatia and Islands
The peak of the tourist high season in Croatia occurs in July and August. This time of year, the younger jet-set crew fills the cosmopolitan bars and clubs in Split and Dubrovnik and the golden beaches of Hvar island. But if you’re seeking a more idyllic escape, consider the shoulder season from late April to early June . Prices for a sea-view room can be as low as $28 a night on peaceful Brach—and don’t miss the ever-changing silhouette of the horn-shaped beach Zlatni Rat in Bol Town. Even the ferry prices in the low season from October to May can drop as much as 25 percent compared to the summer months. If you have enough time to take in more of mainland Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a blue and green wonderland of multi-tiered waterfalls, sparkling expanses of lakes in every imaginable shade from sapphire to bright aquamarine. Don’t miss these other 10 destinations that are cheaper (and better!) in the fall.
Just off the usual tourist radar, this country’s dramatic mountain scenery and welcoming locals will make you want to linger in this unique European destination. Don’t be surprised if you ask a stranger for directions and he or she walks you to your destination—Macedonians have a strong sense of hospitality toward tourists. While the bustling capital of Skopje is industrial, it boasts some striking Ottoman architecture, colorful fountains, and a 15th-century stone bridge. Just outside the city, you’ll find dreamlike countryside and mountains around every turn.
Surrounded by numerous species of colorful butterflies—not to mention a medieval monastery—the Matka Canyon and Lake Matka deliver some of the prettiest scenery in Eastern Europe. Matka lies just nine miles outside of the capital; the number 60 bus from Skopje’s main station is a cheap option for a day trip.
Macedonian cuisine is hearty, flavorful, and fresh. Local favorites like burek (a savory pastry stuffed typically with feta cheese and spinach, or meat and potatoes) and kebapi (Macedonia’s take on sausages, made with paprika and usually stuffed into freshly baked flatbread) can be found on almost every corner for just a couple of euros. A hostel bed in Skopje or the surrounding area will set you back less than $12 a night, while a simple private room can be found for less than $16.
Driving in Montenegro can be dangerous—mostly because the scenery is so gorgeous you’ll have a tough time watching the road. The geographic location contributes to the sovereign state’s wonderfully rich culture, architecture, and cuisine, melding Balkan tradition with the laid-back lifestyle and mild climate of the Mediterranean. With Byzantine, Slavic, and Christian civilizations influencing the diverse cultural heritage, Montenegro presents a fascinating dichotomy between old and new, and East and West. And despite the stunning vistas in every direction, this petite country is explorable on a tiny budget. You can get a room with a view in charming European vacation destination Budva for under $40 a night; a simple, fresh local dinner will only set you back about $12—including a glass of wine. These other 11 affordable travel destinations belong on your bucket list.
Overshadowed by its popular neighbors Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria is worth a visit on its own: The capital city of Sofia features gilded domes of magnificent cathedrals, a stunning skyline, and leafy courtyards of inviting outdoor cafes where you can sip the strong domestic coffee or a bracing little glass of rakia, the local brandy. Banitsa is a must for any shoestring traveler in Bulgaria: This decadent, buttery pastry is layered with savory fillings such as fresh local cheese, pumpkin, or mushrooms. It’s a filling breakfast or light lunch for less than the price of a latte in New York City. A private room in a good neighborhood can run you less than $25 a night—or if you’re really trying to save, nab a hostel bed for about $12 to $14. And despite being a contender for some of the best beaches in Europe, Bulgaria’s Black Sea coastline is still lined with affordable seaside resorts and B&Bs. For other lovely and affordable vacations, check out these other spring break European destinations.
Off-the-radar Greek islands
If you are looking for a Greek holiday minus the hefty price tags of Mykonos and Santorini, head for a lesser-visited isle such as Paros, Andros, or Folegandros. These islands will fulfill your blue water-and-white sand fantasies while retaining much of their historic character—partly because they’re not yet on cruise line itineraries. Andros has been aptly described by Lonely Planet as “an escapist’s dream,” thanks to its empty beaches and timeless charm. Folegandros, in the southern reaches of the Cyclades, is another perfect snapshot of a Greek island from the past that seems to have paused in its evolution somewhere between remote a fishing village and overrun tourist destination. Order an ouzo and a mezze at a traditional taverna (no printed menu) and eat lunch like a Greek by trying everything while you linger over the food for most of the afternoon. You won’t want to miss these other popular travel destinations in Eastern Europe.
Rhodes, Greece, and Marmaris, Turkey
If you have only a week and a small budget, you can easily take in two dramatically different experiences by combining trips to the Greek island of Rhodes and to Marmaris on the Turkish coast. Rhodes is quintessentially Greek: labyrinthine white-washed cobblestone streets lined with bougainvillea, fishermen in black clicking worry beads, and blue-roofed churches. Just a one-hour ferry ride away is the ancient port (and current favorite of the yachting crowd) of Marmaris. Aptly nicknamed the “Turquoise Coast,” the city of Marmaris delivers ancient wonders, plus stylish bars and cafes. Stay five nights on Rhodes in a simple room at a family-run guesthouse for less than $200 total; you can tack on two nights in Marmaris for less than $50. A roundtrip ferry ride between the two ports is only $80 or so in early May. Here are more of the best beaches to visit if you’re on a budget.
Labeled the “Tuscany of Croatia,” the peninsula of Istria boasts vineyard-covered hillsides and lush, silvery olive groves. The wineries are winning recognition worldwide—especially the medium-bodied citrusy white called Malvazija. When in Istria, the enchanting hilltop towns of Grožnjan, Bale, and Motovun reward travelers with narrow, mysterious alleyways containing art galleries, tiny cafes, and views that stretch across much of the verdant heart-shaped peninsula. Where else in Europe can you eat truffle risotto with a view of the Adriatic for less than $12 and rent an entire lighthouse for $132? It has two bedrooms and sleeps five guests, so grab another couple and your costs won’t be much more than a hostel in Amsterdam. Might as well add it to the 10 best solo vacations you should book alone.
Located nearly in the geographic center of continental Europe, Slovenia may be small, but the rest of the continent would be hard-pressed to match its natural beauty and cultural diversity. Sharing influences with Italy, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary (it’s bordered by all four), Slovenia has Gothic architecture, rich Italian-influenced Slavic cuisine, a stunning coastline, and incredible alpine vistas. The lovely capital city of Ljubljana sits on the bank of the Ljubljanica River and is a delight to explore on foot. Monasteries, a castle, and towering mountains surround Lake Bled—one of the most-photographed attractions in Slovenia. You can find a variety of accommodations, from standard hotels and hostels to camping (or “glamping”) and even tree houses (such as this one with access to a sauna). For a shorter trip, book one of these 22 mini family vacations that won’t break the bank.
With a stunning length of coastline across from Italy’s “boot” and a hidden cache of tiny mountain towns, Albania is making it onto the shortlist of travelers who love to hike, bike, or just explore the unique. The picturesque city Gjirokastër in the southern half of the country sits in the verdant crevice of the Drino valley; a 12th-century castle overlooking the town offers a taste of history along with sweeping views.
If it’s beach time you’re craving, lovely Ksamil, close to the Greek border, is one of the prettiest stretches of coastline in Albania. Swim out to one of the tiny offshore islands, and if it’s early enough in the season, you have a chance of finding a secluded cove to call your own for the day. Ksamil and other inviting seaside enclaves in Albania offer excellent value waterfront accommodation, and Albanian cuisine places an emphasis on fresh seafood and vegetables—minus fussy presentation or high prices.
From the excellent and inexpensive Bordeaux-style red wines of Villány to the delicious array of local and international street food available on the streets of Budapest, Hungary is a budget-conscious traveler’s delight. And reasonable prices are just the icing on the somloi galuska (a traditional layered sponge cake dessert topped with whipped cream) in this beautiful country: You also get gleaming lakes, sinuous rivers, and dramatic mountains. Budapest’s cathedrals have domes and spires of gold, jade, and garnet; the city is split by the shimmering Danube River, and the two sides are joined by a series of bridges. Add it all up and you have a photographer’s dream. All that and you can still find a private double room in the city center for less than $25 a night.
For an experience of old Hungary, check out the UNESCO-preserved village of Hollókő, about 60 miles northeast of Budapest. If you travel just before Easter, you can witness a centuries-old tradition: “the watering of the girls” in which men throw water on women in the name of cleansing and fertility. Check out these other 13 underrated European cities you need to visit.