However, sky-high hotel rates and rising consumer prices are fuelling intrigue in alternative destinations where the cost of living is lower.
The Post Office’s City Cost Barometer last autumn put Amsterdam, Venice, Copenhagen, Dublin and Paris in its top five most expensive destinations, while hotel revenue analyst OTA Insight counts Venice, Florence, Rome, London, Paris and Amsterdam among its 20 most expensive cities for hotel room rates last year – the average cost in Rome was £243 a night.
Cheaper alternatives, as well as a growing appetite for train travel are highlighting the appeal of “second” (or even third and fourth) cities, where spending money can often go further and crowds are thinner.
Forget Paris in the springtime or tulips in Amsterdam – these 15 city swaps should not only save money, but deliver a rewarding experience too.
Hotels in Belgium’s second (and largest) city are currently 11 per cent cheaper than those in the capital, Brussels, according to TripAdvisor. That is air-punchingly good news once you factor in the broad range of Antwerp’s attractions: a fabled diamond scene; some of Europe’s leading fashion shopping; Rubens artworks; terrific museums such as the printing-focused Plantin-Moretus; and leading breweries (inset). The port city sparkles in spring and summer, when you can admire Antwerp’s architectural might on a signposted 30km/16km bike tour, then reward your efforts with a sundowner at the Scheldt Quays. And arriving at the magnificent Centraal station by train is an experience in itself.
Trains from London St Pancras via Brussels-Midi take just over three hours. Doubles at Yust, in an emerging neighbourhood in the heart of Antwerp, from £82, yust.com
Just like Lisbon, Portugal’s second city is hilly, beautiful and close to sandy shores. Yet not only are Porto hotels 16 per cent cheaper, according to TripAdvisor, but this smaller, strollable settlement defies its size to proffer numerous top-notch port houses in the facing settlement of Vila Nova de Gaia. Also awaiting are a 20,000-tiled train station and the ornate Livraria Lello bookstore, which may well have inspired parts of Hogwarts. Ride the tram out to Foz do Douro for sandy beaches and fish restaurants, or simply a white port and tonic at sundown.
Ranked third-cheapest (behind Athens and Lisbon) in the Post Office Travel Money’s annual City Barometer, which compares typical holiday costs in 20 European centres, Krakow is not only wallet-friendly, but often considered Poland’s cultural capital. Between the mighty Wawel Royal Castle and the free-to-enter St Mary’s Basilica are a Jewish quarter, medieval core and a centuries-old cloth hall. Pierogi dumplings sell for pennies, as do pints of Pilsner. Easter is busy, but May and June are ideal both in terms of temperature and crowds. Moreover, the city’s tourist office highlights that accommodation can cost as little as €10 per night, and is on average 50 per cent cheaper than in London (visitkrakow.com).
Queen Boutique Hotel, near the Old Town, has doubles from £92 B&B, queenhotel.pl
A little east of Helsinki, Espoo offers a greener base than the capital and, calculates TripAdvisor, 30 per cent savings on hotel rates. You will be close to the huge Espoo Museum of Modern Art, plus Laajalahti Nature Reserve’s boardwalk hikes, or cycle to beaches along the 25-mile Espoo Waterfront Walkway. This is the ideal summer city break, with the Espoo archipelago sprinkled offshore and Nuuksio National Park just 20 minutes away (Helsinki is around the same distance by train).
Doubles at Scandic Espoo, in the business district, from £100 B&B, scandichotels.com
By dint of pasta restaurants and gelato stands, there is a faintly Italian vibe to Cluj in summer — yet the low costs are wholly Eastern European in character. Good for green spaces (try the botanical garden), clubbing (thanks to its sizeable student population) and Romanian wine, the small, Transylvanian capital is more laid-back and liveable than traffic-clogged Bucharest. Visitors will find an authentic city, with shops and restaurants aimed at residents rather than tourists. Meals are often half the price, too.
Doubles at The Square, in the heart of Old Town, from £72 B&B, hotelsquare.ro
Lithuania’s former capital (from 1919-39), almost slap-bang in the centre of the country, has a Unesco-listed hoard of Art Deco buildings to rival its successor, Vilnius, plus similarly liberal doses of street art, quirky museums and coffee bars in the walkable old-town centre. As one of last year’s European Capitals of Culture, it has ensured a legacy that continues into this year and beyond – an architectural project and floating gallery on the river Nemunas (nemuno7.lt),
Literature Week in May and summer electronic music festival (kaunas2022.eu). Dining and hotels are also cheaper here on average than in Vilnius. The one thing this elegant city lacks? Pleasingly, stag and hen groups.
Kaunas Hotel, near the main cultural attractions, has doubles from £72, kaunashotel.lt
With tilting Gothic townhouses cheek by jowl above canals, cobbled streets and bicycle-busy bridges, Utrecht – only 35 minutes south by train from Amsterdam – does an excellent impression of the capital. Utrecht is walkable and has a selection of free attractions, including the Gothic cathedral (domkerk.nl) and a variety of markets – from flower to farmers (utrecht.nl). Hotels are on average £99 per night, compared with £193 in Amsterdam. A university city, Utrecht is at once lively and laid-back, and is also home to national treasure Miffy – the little rabbit even has her own colourful museum (nijntjemuseum.nl). Trains from London St Pancras via Rotterdam take around four-and-a-half hours. Doubles at the hip Bunk hotel , in a converted church, from €144 (£127), bunkhotels.com/utrecht
In this underrated Ligurian maritime city (inset), Renaissance-era palazzi line the streets as Art Nouveau funiculars ascend to hillside quarters. Hole-in-the-wall cafés hawk Italy’s best street food near a striped cathedral, while Van Dycks and Tintorettos headline art galleries. You can even visit Christopher Columbus’s childhood home. Meals cost less on average here than in Rome, Milan, Florence or Rome – and with homegrown delights from pesto to foccacia and farinata, it’s hard to hold back.
Doubles at Le Nuvole Residenza d’Epoca, a medieval townhouse now a boutique hotel five minutes from the harbour, from £105, hotellenuvole.it
Opt for Graz over higher-profile Vienna, TripAdvisor suggests, and you will pay a third less for hotels. The same grand, cake-serving coffee houses and photogenic medieval architecture — best seen from beside Schlossberg hill’s clock tower — await here, too, as does an art gallery on a par with the capital’s Kunsthistorisches; inside its undulating waterfront confection, the Kunsthaus Graz (known as the “Friendly Alien” for its dragonfruit-like shell, museum-joanneum.at/en/kunsthaus-graz) specialises in modern works. Hidden amid the city’s historic splendour is another modern surprise –Murinsel is a glass island in the River Mur built during Graz’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2003. Designed by the late American artist Vito Acconci, it now hosts a café and shop selling Styrian delicacies, as well as concerts and events (murinselgraz.at).
Doubles at B&B Graz-Hbf, in the central Gries district, from £70, hotel-bb.com
Artier, mellower and more stereotypically Irish than Dublin (right down to its nearby Jameson whiskey distillery), pocket-sized Cork is a friendly southern port where antique shops line Victorian lanes near a covered, 240-year-old food market. An opera house and October jazz festival strike high-brow notes, but hotel rates are 18 per cent lower than in Dublin, according to TripAdvisor. Fastnet sails direct from Swansea.
Doubles at Hotel Isaacs, in the lively, city-centre Victorian Quarter, from £110, hotelisaacscork.com
With cobbled streets, the tree-shaded shopping boulevard of Königsallee and park-lined banks of the Rhine, Düsseldorf provides a more refined riff on Berlin. Even so, there is still some excellent clubbing here, while the Kunstsammlung has earned an international reputation for its 20th-century art collection, with major works from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Klee. Its derelict harbour has been transformed into MedienHafen, a district designed by starchitects including Frank Gehry and David Chipperfield. And in the Altstadt , the high concentration of brew-pubs and bars have given it the nickname “the longest bar in the world”. Flights to the city flights are 13 per cent cheaper this spring than those to Germany’s capital, according to the price-comparison travel app Hopper. Doubles at Hotel Indigo, a fashion-inspired boutique located in the entertainment district, from £95 B&B, indigoduesseldorf.com
Pilsen, Czech Republic
There is so much more to this country than Prague. Courtesy of its Pilsner Urquell brand, Pilsen – in the west – is well known for beer (brewery tours are popular, and there is an on-site restaurant serving produce from farms local to the region). But there is plenty more besides, be it romantic views from the Cathedral of St Bartholomew’s rooftop, an interactive puppet museum, farmers’ markets, parks and gardens, as well as a busy calender of events. Compared with Prague (75 minutes away by train), the planning website Budget Your Trip reckons you will pay a few pounds less for hotels. Doubles at Rango, located next to Pilsen’s main square and a five-minute walk from the Brewery Museum, from £78 B&B, rango.cz
Paris might lure glamour pusses, but Toulouse is the French city of your garlicky Gallic dreams. Flanked by vineyards and fed by the Garonne River, it features festivals galore, a rabbit-warren old quarter and distinctively pink-hued buildings. Better yet, the large student populace encourages reasonable prices, even when you’re quaffing fine wines near Place du Capitole, the historic centre of the city. OTA Insight highlights the city as one of the least expensive in Europe for hotels, with rooms costing on average £82 a night. Toulouse is also served by the low-cost train operator Ouigo from Paris, with fares as low as €19 (£16.75) (ouigo.com). Doubles at Hotel des Arts, a former Augustinian convent located by Capitole, from £61, hoteldesartstoulouse.fr
Estonia’s oldest city shares similarities with modern-day capital Tallinn (which is easily visited on day trips): both have café-laden old towns and a host of eclectic museums. But southerly Tartu also has an intellectual air courtesy of its university, while timbered buildings instil a homelier vibe, street art adds contemporary colour and meals for two cost €10 (£8.75) less. Doubles at Pallas, on the edge of Old Town, from £80 B&B, pallas.tartuhotels.ee
The capital, Bratislava, is hardly expensive, yet meals out in Slovakia’s next-biggest city tend to be still more affordable. Also great-value is Hotel Múza, whose art gallery’s collection of original Andy Warhol prints typifies Kosice’s quirkiness (his parents emigrated from Miková in the north-west). You will also find Art Nouveau architecture, Gothic towers, pulsating bars and guided tours in retro cars to a Communist-era magnesite factory near the Hungarian border. Another former European Capital of Culture (k13.sk), its attractions now include the Kasarne Kulturpark, which hosts events and festivals Doubles at Hotel Múza from £57, hotelmuza.sk