8 Cheaper Alternatives to Popular European Destinations
Rome, Munich, the French Riviera -- all European bucket list spots renowned for their history, their culture, and their affinity for chain smoking and tiny cars. But you know else they're known for? Overpriced everything. And hoards of visitors blocking your view of tired tourist traps with their iPads.
Sure, you'll want to visit them eventually -- just to say you did -- but why not make your next vacation about avoiding those crowds and saving money at the same time? To that end, we mapped out eight under-the-radar alternatives to popular European destinations, based on the kind of activity you're looking for. Adventure sports, wine tastings, the beach!?!? These secondary spots are equally as awesome, just a whole lot cheaper.
Instead of: Munich, Germany
You're hitting: Prague, Czech Republic
Thanks to Oktoberfest and its many medieval breweries, Munich is synonymous with beer. Prague is poised to knock it off its suds-soaked throne, however, not just because of its illustrious brewing history (the original Budweiser, called Budvar -- from Prague), but also because this city loves it some brew: it boasts the highest consumption of beer per capita in the world, at 39 gallons per person. Meanwhile, nearby Plzen (where they invented Pilsner, mind you) is home to Pilsner Urquell and throws a massive two-day festival celebrating the stuff.
Plus, the point of this entire exercise: beer in the Czech Republic is literally CHEAPER THAN WATER (at least a bottle of Fiji) at less than $2 per half-liter. Czech it out at U Fleku, a brewpub that's been around since 1499, or the annual 17-day Czech Beer Festival.
Instead of: Italy
You're hitting: Croatia
Just across the Adriatic Sea from the Big Boot, Croatia features miles and miles of similar crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches, as well as dozens of little isles like the beautiful Paklinski Islands near Hvar. And you can visit it all on the cheap, too: an average day in Croatia, including hotels and meals, will set you back around $65, compared to around $105 in Italy.
While you're here, check out Yacht Week -- a series of wild, week-long parties on rented boats.
Instead of: Ibiza, Spain
You're hitting: Riga, Latvia
Riga might not boast Ibiza’s beaches, but the Latvian capital is fast becoming famous for having the best club scene and most debaucherous parties in all of Europe. Plus, with cheap booze, Eastern European beauties, 20-hour summer days, and parties that basically never end, you'll be converting to Latvian Orthodox before you know it. Also, there are lasers.
The Old Town is packed with pubs, clubs, and bars -- all lubricated by the notorious Riga Black Balsam, a Latvian herbal liquor often mixed with vodka or schnapps. On average, a local beer here will set you back between $1 and $3, a cocktail between $2 and $5.
For Adventure Sports
Instead of: Interlaken, Switzerland
You're hitting: Bovec, Slovenia
Due to a strong Swiss Franc, Switzerland is consistently an expensive vacation destination. For an adrenaline rush that doesn’t come when you get the check, though, visit Bovec (Eastern Europe’s adventure capital) and the surrounding Triglav National Park. Where a white-water rafting trip will set you back upwards of $110 in Interlaken, it'll only cost you $40 in Slovenia.
Not only that, the Soča River beckons with kayaking and hydrospeeding, and the nearby Alpine mountains are prime for canyoning, rappelling, rock climbing, hiking, and biking. Oh yea, and skiing in the winter. Cementing itself as a well-rounded adventure town, there’s also paragliding, bungee jumping, and ziplining. All at a fraction of the cost of visiting Switzerland.
Instead of: Rome, Italy
You're hitting: Ephesus, Turkey
The Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum -- you can't throw a stone in Rome without hitting, well, some really old stones. Ephesus is similarly packed with ruins, but with far fewer tourists defaming them with graffiti. Plus, many of the ruins are free to visit; you can spend a very comfortable vacation in Turkey for around $50 a day. That's not happening in the Roman capital.
Now, for some history: Ephesus’ abundance of Roman ruins (because, of course, it was an ancient Roman city) is legendary -- archeologists have been excavating it for over 150 years and have only unearthed about 18% -- and much has been restored to replicate what the port city looked like 2,000 years ago when it was a bustling metropolis of 300,000 people. Highlights include the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Great Theatre, a 25,000-seat amphitheater where they still put on concerts, the Library of Celsius, and the Temple of Hadrian. There's even an old brothel, and what's believed to be an ad for it (carved in marble, naturally).
For Old-World Opulence... And Schnitzel
Instead of: Vienna, Austria
You're hitting: Budapest, Hungary
Vienna is famed for its grandeur -- its wide boulevards, opulent architecture, and history. Budapest, one of the largest and most beautiful cities in Central Europe, is similarly majestic and boasts the same regal Danube River, grand old theaters, churches and operas (the Budapest Opera House, Royal Palace, and Matthias Church are three must-hits), and vast museums lining wide, leafy avenues. Also, thermal baths and wild spa ragers! All without breaking the bank.
Despite being in the EU, Hungary doesn’t use the Euro; which means a lot of Hungarian forints for your dollar (275 to be precise). Lunch can cost as little as $2, and museum admission runs about $5.
Instead of: Tuscany, Italy, or Bordeaux, France
You're hitting: Istria, Croatia
Yep, we're giving Croatia a double nod on this list. On the borders of Italy and Slovenia, Istria is a 267mi-long stretch with over 110 wineries (!!). Famous for its fertile ground -- and tumultuous history, as it’s been part of Austria, Italy, and Yugoslavia -- its winemaking tradition dates back to Ancient Greece. Istria's most well-known and increasingly popular grapes are the locally grown white malvasia and malmsey.
For comparison sake, you can take a multi-day wine-tasting and bike tour (there're tons of biking trails on the peninsula) in Croatia for around $680; in France and Italy, you're talking four times that. Bottles run around $6, tastings under $10, and as we already mentioned, you can easily get by on $65 a day.
Instead of: The Alps
You're hitting: Bulgaria
Admittedly a little out of season at this point, but in case you're doing some early planning, Eastern Europe is an under-the-radar ski destination to be reckoned with. In particular, Bulgaria's Bansko, the country's biggest ski resort on a not-too-shabby 9,000ft peak, offers solid runs and a recently renovated lift system. A recent TripAdvisor study found that skiing Bulgaria costs about a third as much as skiing at some of the most expensive resorts in the Alps; day passes at Bankso run only $25, compared to almost $80 at other European mountains.
Sophie-Claire Hoeller is Thrillist's associate travel editor, and is convinced she did something bad in a previous life that's cursed her to always fly within three rows of a screaming child. Follow her @Sohostyle