Europe offers so many beautiful destinations that it means being spoilt for choice when planning a city break, but the obvious tourist traps can be very crowded and expensive if you don’t know where to look. Here are my personal favourite 7 little gems that should make the city break list of any intrepid traveller on a shoestring budget…
Arezzo is the third biggest city in Tuscany after Florence and Sienna and, in my humble opinion the best of the three! It’s relatively unknown to tourists from outside of Italy so therefore you get a really authentic Italian experience! Set high up on a hill the city has plenty of Florentine architecture and beautiful Piazza’s opening off from narrow medieval streets. Piazza Grande in the centre of town is a visual feast of colour as the buildings that flank it are decorated with the coats of arms of all the important families of the day. It’s really a delight to sit in the shade of the arches for tapas and a Campari and just watch the world go by. It is not unusual for a choir or band to be busking out in the square providing a lovely soundtrack to your afternoon.
There are many beautiful churches scattered through the city, the most famous being The Church of San Francesco where you can see an impressive early renaissance fresco cycle by Piero Della Francesca which depicts the Legend of the True Cross. Arezzo sits atop a hill at the meeting of four valleys and if you wend your way to the top of the city you will find yourself in a beautiful park with spectacular panoramic views of the Tuscan countryside. As with the rest of Tuscany July is festival season and this is when Arezzo’s artsy alternative community really come in to play, with live music, arts and crafts stalls and shows to suit everyone. On my first visit here I had the pleasure of seeing a punk band playing on the mezzanine of a Pizza al Taglio joint, amazing! There are plenty of comfy clean B&B’s from around £20 a night and lots of very reasonable places to eat and drink thanks to it’s under the radar appeal. Truly Tuscany’s best-kept secret!
If you want to explore a truly stunning Eastern European gem forget Prague and Budapest and head to Riga. The medieval old town is packed full of wonderful wooden architecture and dominated by the Gothic spires of the cathedral but it’s the flamboyant art nouveau district that I will never forget! Wonderful facades depicting plants, animals, gods and goddesses line the street of Alberta Ieila, and peering inside you will see winding staircases with intricate iron banisters and high bright ceilings lending the great rooms a feeling of light and air. Get a closer look at this wonderful era in The Riga Art Nouveau Museum which is set in the apartments of Konstantīns Peksens, one of the city’s finest architects of the time.
A visit to the enormous Riga Central Market in the old military aircraft hangers is an absolute must and you can pick up delicious local delicacies at really reasonable prices too. The Museum of The Occupation is an essential visit for anyone interested in the country’s turbulent past, but take a hanky – it’s heartbreaking! A black mojito at The Black Magic Bar on Kalku is a culinary must, made with delicious Black Balsam, this alcoholic infusion of herbs that has been brewed here for more than 250 years is a treat not to be missed! For food we loved the extremely reasonable LIDO buffet where you select your own traditional dishes and beers for a hearty no frills lunch or dinner. To top it all off you can find comfortable hostel accommodation here for as little as £4.10 a night… literally, whats stopping you?
The ancient fortified city of Avignon in Provence is one of my favourite places in the world and an excellent option for a traveller on a budget! Well deserving of its name the city of ‘Air’ is perched high above the river Rhone, its ramparts visible for miles and the spires and turrets of the buildings within them beckoning anyone who loves to explore. For many years the city was the centre of Christendom and the papal seat for almost 7 decades in the 1300’s. The resulting Palais dei Papas remains one of the largest Gothic medieval buildings in Europe and along with the historical centre is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To amble through the ancient streets of the city centre is pure joy and there are many little secluded squares and alcoves that are perfect for people watching.
The best time to visit is the last two weeks of July when the city hosts OFF, a fringe theatre festival that rivals Edinburgh and brings the streets alive with music, street theatre and costumed performers selling their shows. The best place to take it all in is with a delicious and inexpensive Tartine (posh cheese on toast) at the quirky Ginette et Marcel in Place Des Corps Sants. The city has a real laid back alternative vibe and even outside of July is a hot spot for artists and creative thinkers. This is reflected in the cool little shops, book markets and independent record shops that occupy many of the narrow cobbled streets in the centre of town. There are many budget hotels in the city and camping just 10 minutes outside the walls. Why not try the eco-friendly design hostel ‘Pop’ in the heart of the city which offers dorm beds from £13.95 a night? If you visit during OFF then I recommend acquiring a festival pass from the official website and booking accommodation well in advance!
Long gone are the days when this city was just an industrial eyesore in decline, Liverpool is booming and you don’t need much in your wallet to enjoy it! From the regenerated Albert Docks to the ultra-hip Ropewalks, the city has something for everyone. On a rainy day, you have a choice several free museums, the newest being the Museum of Liverpool Life in its impressive modern building with wonderful views out across the docks. The Picton Reading Room in Liverpool Central Library is well worth a visit too and whilst there take a lift up to roof terrace for great views over the city. History lovers should also take some time to walk through the grand Georgian architecture of the business district and sup a pint of real ale in The Ship and Mitre.
Hip has hit Liverpool in a big way too with Bold Street, Ropewalks and Jamaica Street becoming a haven for foodies and hipsters who love to explore its extensive independent shops, bars and café’s and then dance the night away at the cooperative owned 24 Kitchen Street or the cavernous Camp and Furnace.
For a peaceful afternoon that could stretch out into the small hours head for a stroll in Sefton Park and check out the fully restored Victorian palm house, then wander down lark lane for a bite to eat or a glass of wine in one of the quaint shabby chic establishments, still a regular haunt for artists, musicians and amateur philosophers with a bit of time on their hands! As if this isn’t enough the city has a thriving theatre scene with cheap ticket nights at all of the main venues and smaller venues such as The Unity pioneering experimental theatre for a very reasonable price! So, let go of all those silly preconceptions and visit this wonderful, friendly city. You won’t regret it and neither will your bank balance!
Too often overshadowed by nearby Venice, Verona is an underrated gem of a city. Deservingly referred to as ‘the city of love’ thanks to its connection to Romeo and Juliet as well as several other Shakespeare greats, it is easy to see why the playwright was so inspired. Nestled between the river Adige and Lake Garda the city has a rich and visible history dating back to the Romans and beyond. Winding your way through the narrow streets you will stumble across magnificent examples spanning over a thousand years of architecture, from grand palaces and piazza’s such as the neoclassical Palazzo Barbieri to the perfectly intact Roman amphitheatre. Visit Pisanello’s famous fresco of ‘S Giorgio e la Principessa’ inside the Gothic church of Santa Anastasia or wander down the elegant Via Mazzini and visit the ivy clad Juliet’s Balcony adjoining the 14th Century Casa di Giuliette.
Cheap eats can be found just off the main squares, look out for Osteria’s or Trattoria’s as these will invariably be cheaper than restaurants. Try Osteria Sottoriva under the arches of the ancient Sottoriva district or a delicious salad or pasta in the friendly family run Enocibus. There are numerous cheap hotels and pensione’s available but I recommend Hostel Protezione which offers comfortable, clean and friendly accommodation right in the heart of the old town for as little as £17 a night!
I know the temptation is always to head straight to Amsterdam but where there are crowds there are people cashing in, instead try the gorgeous medieval city of Utrecht, just 20 mins away by train. It’s a wonderful compact little city with cobbled streets and a complicated split level canal network which is now lined with vibrant coffee shops and bars. Like the rest of Holland the best way to explore is on a bike and the wide cycle paths and little stone bridges make for a wonderful ride. Utrecht has been the religious centre of The Netherlands since the 8th century and relics of this long history can be seen everywhere. Perhaps the most impressive is the 14th Century Domtoren, towering over the city it is all that remains of the original cathedral. It holds 50 bells and those who can tackle the 465 steps to the top of the Dom will be treated too seriously breathtaking views over the city, on a clear day you can see all the way to Amsterdam!
There are numerous churches and museums to visit but of course they all come with a charge, the markets, however, are free! Every Saturday from 8 until 1 textile fanatics can peruse the extensive wares of the 400-year-old fabric market on the Breedstrat. Also on Saturdays from 7 ’til 5 Janskerkhof Plaza is transformed into the Bloemenmarkt, possibly the best and biggest flower market in the country. Aside from the markets Utrecht is great for shopping, wandering through the old streets you will find everything from boutique chic to high street bargains and plenty of vintage charm. There is a lively bar scene and plenty of great places to eat. For something cheap and delicious head to one of the many falafel vendors, I have never forgotten the falafel I ate in Utrecht! There are also plenty of hostels starting from around £15 a night, or if you want to go mid-range try the quirky Houseboat Harmony on the canal which starts at £36.
You’ve undoubtedly heard it mentioned in many a fine folk tune (and The Fairytale of New York!) but have you ever been? Galway is a beautiful compact harbour city on Ireland’s west coast, known for its vibrant music scene. The charming medieval streets and squares are flanked with fantastic boutiques, art galleries and café’s and you are never far from a fiddle player! The hub of the city is Eyre Square, an excellent place to find traditional live music and folk sessions aplenty. Wander on to the medieval Latin Quarter for café’s, bars, boutiques and bohemians! Try Taaffes for live music day and night or the quirky Tigh Fox for storytelling and impromptu music jams.
Food is in great supply and you can even combine excellent locally-sourced street food with all night dancing at The Bite Club in the city centre! There are festivals all year round taking in everything from art to racing. In July you can enjoy creative offerings from new local talent at The Galway Fringe and September sees the city hosting an Oscar Wilde Festival. Later on in September the annual Galway International Oyster Fest draws gourmet foodies from all over the globe! When you’re tired of the beer and the craic you can take a scenic drive out to the wild and wonderful waterfalls of Connemara or take in the unique beauty of The Cliffs of Moher which have been used in numerous films, most iconically The Princess Bride and Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince. Despite being a popular destination Galway has managed to maintain all it’s character and is a little cheaper than its expensive rival, Dublin! There are numerous hostels to choose from starting around £10 a night and plenty of atmosphere that can be soaked up for free!
Hopefully this little list will inspire you to take the road less travelled …. have fun exploring our secret 7!
We also have a post on the best cities in Europe to enjoy cheap beer