Alternative Europe: The Great - and Cheap - Cities You Need to Know

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You have seen the headlines proclaiming that the weak euro makes Europe the must visit place this summer, but you yawn: I’ve been to Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Stockholm, Vienna...so count me out.

Listen up: Europe is filled with paired, alternative cities that - in many cases - are just as enticing as the better known destinations and in every case are cheaper to visit. They will also be a lot less crowded and know that the European capitals will be stuffed come July with bargain hunting Americans.


Where to go instead? Consider Dublin, Ireland’s capital and a perennial tourist favorite. A problem with Dublin (population) 525,000 people is that it’s a perfect starter foreign city. But how many times do you want to go? Head up the road two hours to Belfast (population 280,000) and, yes, it’s a different country (Northern Ireland, which is on the British pound, not the euro, but bargains abound). The draft Guinness is every bit as good (drink at the Crown Liquor Saloon, a gem of a Victorian gin joint). Queens is as lovely a university campus as there is. Eat at Michael Deanes Love Fish - the haddock and chips and crushed peas ($17) may be the ultimate fish and chips. Walk down the Falls Road, see the Irish Republic Army murals, detour into the Shankill and see the Protestant paramilitary murals (the two sides have been at peace for over ten years).

Even better: Belfast is cheaper. According to Hotels.com’s Hotel Price Index, the average rate in Dublin is $169. In Belfast it is $143, a full 15% cheaper.

Next up: Paris and, no, there is no more exquisitely European city with great art, better food, wonderful architecture. But give Lyon a try, is advice from travel writer Andrew Walton, who blogs at AJWalton. He elaborated: “Paris may be the most popular tourist destination on Earth, but Lyon is no slouch when it comes to attractions and activities. The Musée des Beaux-Arts is second only to the Louvre, Old Town is full of character streets and, finally, there are some well-preserved Roman ruins - the oldest in France, including two amphitheaters.”

Lyon, by the way, notches the fourth largest number of Michelin starred restaurants among European cities (only Paris, London and Brussels have more). It is home to the culinary temple Paul Bocuse.

Roughly four hours south of Paris (population 2.2 million), Lyon (population 475.000) is a stunning bargain according to the Hotel Price Index. Paris logs in at a pricey $251, but HPI pegged Lyon at $163.


Up north, Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, beckons especially in the summer, and of course fans of Swedish noir fiction and Scandinavian design are drawn to this town of 790,000. But when you’ve done Stockholm, you’ve only just begun to explore Sweden. Head to Gothenburg. Steve Vickers, founder of RoutesNorth, a Swedish travel guide, told of the Gothenburg allure: “Gritty, pretty and as cool as a midwinter’s morning: Gothenburg is having a bit of a moment." 

“The west coast’s biggest city spent centuries playing second fiddle to Stockholm," he added "but is now emerging as a world-class destination in its own right, with glorious parks, a thriving arts scene and some of Europe’s best seafood.”  

Population 492,000, Gothenburg is about five hours distant from Stockholm. It also is cheaper. The HPI says Stockholm runs $198 per night. Gothenburg is $175.


Berlin - who hasn’t done it and, yes, a good question is how many currywursts does a person want to eat, especially surrounded by European and U.S. hipsters with nary a local in sight despite a claimed population of 3.5 million? Exit to Leipzig (531,000 population), about two hours southwest. As far back as late 2012, Der Spiegel ran a story headlined, “Calling All Hipsters: Leipzig Is the New Berlin.” The story’s pitch: rising housing costs coupled with relentless gentrification have turned Berlin into just another Euro capital - but Leipzig, said Der Spiegel, “is experiencing its golden age.”

Leipzig, incidentally, is home to Auerbachs Keller (founded in 1525), made famous in Goethe’s Faust. Go for the beer, or perhaps a little wine, and of course the old-time German food.

You are also saving money. Berlin’s average cost for a hotel room is $142, according to the Hotel Price Index. Leipzig comes in at $129.


After you’ve done Vienna - then what? Austria’s capital (1.7 million) is a highly polished gem stuffed with palaces, waltz, Sachertorte (a chocolate cake that has to be eaten, ideally sitting outside of a bustling cafe, with a cup of Viennese coffee), good beer, decent food and also lots of tourists.

Head east to Budapest for a different look at the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Budapest was in fact a capital (along with Vienna) of the Habsburg Empire, a once mighty force that effectively ceased to be at the close of World War I.

What’s the appeal of Budapest (also 1.7 million), about two hours east of Vienna? For one thing, where Vienna has been a western city, Budapest was part of eastern Europe, largely closed to the west and run by Russia from 1945 to around 1990.

For another thing: it just is not awash in Vienna’s riches and therein is a kind of charm, said Elizabeth Avery, founder of SoloTrekker4U. She added: “When I visited there, it was combined with a few days between Prague and Vienna in late November, a raw and damp time of year. The latter two were very overtly glamorous. Budapest had a greater subtlety although it has been described less kindly as faded grandeur. Many buildings there were not freshly renovated but showed a recognition of the passage of time."

Still , Budapest, as one expects in Europe, doesn’t disappoint with the picturesque Buda Castle, the Hungarian State Opera House and St. Stephen's Basilica.

"Most impressive for me was the Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament," said Avery. "Beyond its spectacular architecture, it is also a top tourist venue as it houses the Hungarian Crown Jewels.”

And in Budapest you will enjoy a great bargain. Vienna hotel nights run $161, according to the Hotel Price Index. In Budapest, the tab is $128.

Scout out the alternatives for repeat visits to Europe. Save money. But know that these are places well worth a visit for their own charms.

Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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