Money-Saving Tips in 15 Expensive European Cities
Happily, life is full of choices...and travelers have plenty. It’s part of what makes a journey such great fun. Why not uncover clever ways to save money in pricey — but unmissable — European cities rather than skipping them altogether? After all, these places are famous for good reasons.
Naturally, the basic travel pointers like avoiding high season, shunning high-end hotels and touristy restaurants are obvious to a budget-minded traveler. But there are lots more ways to save and it all adds up. No worries, as you’ll be eating well, enjoying concerts, exploring top sites and embarking on wonderful adventures while economizing in major destinations such as London, Paris, Stockholm, Venice and Barcelona.
Best of all, the built-in benefits of urban cost-saving measures often mean taking a deeper dive into the authentic local scene.
To fall in love with parts of the city that tourists overlook, book your accommodation at a hostel, a homestay apartment or at a bed and breakfast inn. That action alone will both save money and get you out of the tourist core to discover the distinctive neighborhoods that define the genuine pulse of a place.
To taste the food that residents place on their own tables everyday, head for the outdoor food market or pop into the largest grocery store you can find to prepare a picnic lunch or a dinner at “home.” Avoid fancy food halls, expensive delis and convenient corner shops — European supermarkets and open air market days are a cultural touchpoint, a photo magnet and enormous fun.
Walk everywhere you possibly can. Oh, and bring your most comfortable walking shoes because .. .well, cobblestones.
In this sprawling capital city, access to extraordinary treasures is free. See Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Know which of London’s national museums are admission-free? (Hint: all of them!)
Visit vast permanent collections in the British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Natural History Museum, National Gallery, Science Museum, Tate Modern and Tate Britain, among others. The no admission policy introduced in 2001 has nearly tripled attendance, so expect crowds. The intimate Wallace Collection with its interior courtyard café in Manchester Square behind Selfridge’s Oxford Street store is a quieter find.
Fee-charging admission is still in force in private museums, historic houses and royal museums, gardens and palaces. So, you’ll ante up for the Tower of London, Kew Gardens, King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court, to take a spin on the London Eye or to stand on the Prime Meridien at Greenwich’s Royal Observatory.
Free Paris museum days are rare, but two famous cemeteries are free and provide extraordinary historical insights to those who wander their green interiors.
Leafy Père Lachaise is the final resting place of guitarist Jim Morrison, whose grave attracts millions of people to the world’s most visited cemetery. The expansive grounds cover more than 100 acres in the 20th arrondissement, a district near the trendy Belleville neighborhood. Other famous tombstones include Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Camille Pissarro, Frédéric Chopin, Colette, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Montparnasse is an oasis of calm in a bustling quarter steps from the busy 14th arrondissement train station. Burial ground for well-known literary figures and artists, graves include writer Jean-Paul Sartre who is buried with companion Simone de Beauvoir. Also, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Beckett, Serge Gainsbourg, Brancusi, Hector Berlioz, Frédéric Bartholdi (sculptor of the Statue of Liberty), plus American writer Susan Sontag and actress Jean Seberg.
Skip the Vatican Museums and visit the spectacular Pantheon for free. The large crowds and lengthy queues in St. Peter’s Square that build from daybreak may be enough to convince you about the merits of this alternative.
Due to Rome’s surfeit of cultural draws, the ancient Pantheon is one of Europe’s most under-appreciated sites. Yet, the former Greek temple built for Emperor Hadrian in about 125 AD stands as the best preserved ancient Roman building. Nearly as old as the Colosseum, yet still perfect in every detail, the Pantheon is the only structure of its age and size to survive intact with all its splendor. Topped by the world’s largest unsupported dome, it surpasses the dome of St. Peter’s basilica.
Open daily and conveniently located in Piazza della Rotunda, the church is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Trevi Fountain.
Venice is all about the water, of course. If you’re eager to experience the magical city from a boat, don’t be tempted by Venetian gondoliers. The vessels are lovely to look at, but ridiculously expense to board. Instead, tour the city by vaparetto, spending under $2 for a 75-minute ride or $16 for 10 rides.
Nineteen scheduled waterbus routes ply the Grand Canal, the main canals and nearby islands such as Murano, Burano, and the Lido. Catch the “big show” No. 1 vaporetto to go up and down the Grand Canal, stopping briefly in each of the six sestiere, or neighborhoods, where you can disembark or carry on full circle. Travel by night on the vaparetto (Route N) for magnificent views of Venetian palazzos lining the Guidecca and for peeks at occasional interiors sparkling under priceless crystal chandeliers.
P.S. Don’t take a seat at the Caffè Florian or Gran Caffè Quadri overlooking Piazza San Marco unless you want to blow the budget on a cup of Joe.
Learn how to reserve a free guided walking tour in this friendly, open city filled with excellent English speaking residents. An enthusiastic, genuine Amsterdammer is pleased to show you around on a pay-what-you-like basis. Reserve ahead (there could be a small booking fee of about $2 per person) to secure a place and cancel up to 24 hours in advance without penalty.
Choose from four or five tour companies. Classic walking tours are two to three hours, beginning in easy-to-find Dam Square at the National Monument. Visit the Red Light District, go past the Anne Frank House, spot the museums to return later, check out the narrowest house in Europe and the city’s widest canal bridge.
Alternatively, book a fee-paying tour to take a deeper look at coffee shop culture, canal houses, Dutch art, Amsterdam by night, touring on a boat or by bike.
Scandinavian capital cities are notoriously attractive...and pricey. Local currency is linked to the euro, but visitors still need Danish krone in their pockets.
Beer is a way of life in Denmark, said to have more breweries per person than any other nation. If you’d like to try some Tuborg, Carlsberg or Mikkeller, there are much cheaper places than in the Copenhagen bars, cafés and restaurants where prices are typically very high.
Because there aren’t any civic ordinances prohibiting drinking in a public place, your best bet is to buy a six pack at the grocery store and enjoy some pilsner al fresco in a park or perched on a waterfront bench. Be sure to dispose of the beer cans with care. If it’s too cold to be outdoors, look for a “kro,” which is a Copenhagen pub.
Arlanda Airport is a good long way out of town, so the first challenge is getting into town at a reasonable cost. Avoid the Arlanda Express train and take Flygbussarna bus at less than half the price.
Stockholm is small enough to be walkable except in bone-chilling wintery weather. To get to Gamla Stan, the lovely Old Town, simply walk over one of the bridges. Or, use the bike public system that provides a card (for under $20) giving access to free unlimited use for three days for journeys up to three hours at a time.
With the money saved, you may want to splurge on a $15 entry ticket to Vasa Museum in Djurgården. Take the ferry or walk 20 minutes from city center. The main attraction is a well-preserved warship dating from 1628, wrecked for 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm Bay.
The United Nations reports that Norway is among the happiest nations on earth, but no one could be pleased about paying the price of beer or museum entry in Norwegian krone (NOK for short).
Since Oslo is manageable for pedestrians, avoid buying the Oslo Pass. While it offers free entry to 30 museums and attractions, plus travel on all public transport, it costs a hefty $50 for 24 hours.
Better yet, visit Oslo’s Botanical Garden on foot. Stroll the lovely grounds that contain a palm house, greenhouse, manor house, scent garden and sculpture garden. Stop for a bite in a garden adorned with ornamental flowers. Next to the Natural History Museum, it’s open mid-March through late September. Easy to walk to, it’s completely free.
Landlocked, mountainous and surrounded on all sides by EU member nations, Switzerland has its own reasons for scoring high marks on lists of the most expensive cities. With its island-like situation and non-euro currency status, clearly the Swiss must pay more for just about everything brought in from beyond its borders.
Nonetheless, outstanding views are free. Zürich’s own mountain, Uetliberg, isn’t impressive on an Alpine scale. But at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, it offers hikers panoramic city vistas that reach as far as the Alps from an urban summit above the fog.
Switzerland is spectacular looking, so get more free views. The Polyterrasse beside the Federal Institute of Technology has special views of Old Town’s spires. And across the Limmat River, Lindenhof hill is an old Roman fortification with storybook views of Lake Zurich.
When a gust of wind picks up across Lake Geneva, passersby get gently sprayed by the world’s tallest water jet spout. The famous jet d’eau situated mid-lake is the city’s best known landmark.
Get up close and personal with the picturesque lake encircled by Mont Blanc and more impressive snow capped mountains when taking a ride across the water on the public transit yellow boat. The journey is free with a Geneva Transport Card provided by each of the city’s hotels and hostels. If you’re staying at Airbnb-type accommodation instead, Geneva Pass can be purchased online for a 10 percent discount to cover boat rides, the Mont Saléve cable car and museum entries.
Did you know that an adult ticket for an escorted tour of the United Nations at the Palais des Nations in Geneva is $10 less than a UN tour in New York City? So, at half price, consider this a good deal to get an inside look.
Rich in culture, history and musical heritage, Vienna can also be rather rich for a budget traveler’s taste.
To save money, skip the guided bus tours of the great palaces and take a self-guided tour on foot instead. Starting at the main train station, Wien Hauptbahnhof, walk northwest to Belvedere Palace. Stroll the formal gardens and stately fountains taking in views of the capital city. Turn left left toward the Schwarzenberg palaces, head across Ringstrasse and on into Old Town.
You can finish at the famous 14th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral where Haydn sang as a choir boy. See the catacombs beneath the North Tower where Habsburg royals are laid to rest in the Imperial Burial Vault. Climb 343 tight spiral steps up its tower for the best sweeping views across Vienna. Total cost? Zero.
There’s no need to skip Madrid’s Prado National Museum where one of the world’s greatest collections of art is housed. Think Titian, El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and hundreds more Spanish, Italian and Flemish masterpieces lining the walls.
But instead of paying $17.50 per person for admission, plan your day to arrive at the lovely 200-year-old stately castle in Central Madrid during a daily two-hour free entry slot. Under 26? Admission is always free. Age 65 and over? Admission is half price.
Madrid is a late night town. So, every evening there’s an opportunity to take advantage of the Prado’s free admission policy 6-8 p.m. (Sundays and holidays 5-7 p.m). If you’re short on time, take the one hour tour of 15 highlights.
Poor beautiful Barcelona; as popular as the Spanish seaside city has become, overtourism is the buzzword on everyone’s lips. Keep your wallet or purse quite safe from pickpockets in busy places when you pre-purchase a discounted transport pass that means no ticket purchase is required before boarding.
To get around, including the beach, buy a T10 ticket which allows 10 trips on public transport for even less than half price. It also allows multi-person usage. For a longer stay of up to five days, buy the Barcelona Card issued by the tourism board. It’s a discount single-person usage for unlimited travel in Zone 1 on metro, tram and bus, including free roundtrip transfers on the RENFE train between BCN international airport and city center. Prices start at about $21 for a two-day Barcelona Card.
The Irish city on River Liffey has elegant Georgian architecture and a distinguished designation as a UNESCO City of Literature, yet say “Dublin” and many visitors think “Guinness.”
Introduced in 1759, the famous Irish dry stout originated in the brewery at St. James's Gate. Tickets for the Storehouse tour start at $21.50, including a creamy head pint of Guinness made right on the spot. But if you’re looking to save some money, take a pass on the tour and drink the stuff elsewhere. Skip the crowds at O’Donoghues and Mulligan’s, go instead to Neary’s where they’ve been pouring a proper pint of the black stuff since 1887.
Or step into Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, site of a former coach house dating back to 1198. There’s live music every night, so you’ll be saving a bob or two on entertainment.
True, Iceland’s capital is ultra clean, safe and green. But nobody would call Reykjavik inexpensive. Not long ago, travelers returned with tales of $15 hamburgers, but those days are gone since McDonald’s folded their unaffordable Iceland operation.
So, forget burgers but remember that Icelanders love hot dogs (and ice cream.) This national obsession dictates that any trip to a geothermal pool or natural spring should be followed by a visit to a nearby hotdog stand. Considering the high price of food, it’s lucky that an Icelandic hot dog is truly a meal.
Served warm, it comes on a steamed bun topped with raw white onions and crispy fried onions, ketchup and pylsusinnep, a sweet brown mustard, plus remoulade, a sauce made with mayonnaise, capers, mustard and herbs. Call it dinner and head for an ice cream parlor.