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Ten underpriced and on-the-rise European cities

You’ve done London, Paris, and Rome. You’ve been to “up-and-coming” Prague and Budapest. Think you’ve seen the best of Europe? Think again.

While even Prague is pricey and crowded these days, there remain many affordable European cities rarely visited by American tourists. Here are our picks for the 10 cities that should make your “must-visit” list.

Tallinn, Estonia

“One-third Moscow, one-third Helsinki, and one-third Minas Tirith,” says Harvard Law student Mike Bern of Tallinn, an “up-and-coming city with a beautiful history.” Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is less than two decades removed from Communist rule. Yet the casual visitor touring the city’s old town would be hard-pressed to find evidence of that era. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city center is one of the few remaining fully walled and intact cities in Europe. Winding cobblestone streets, stone churches, and private residences from the 13th to 15th centuries are among the many architectural highlights—not the ubiquitous gray block housing found in other former Soviet cities.

Tallinn also reflects its Tsarist and Soviet past in other ways. Peter the Great captured the city in 1710 and it remained under Tsarist Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. You can visit Peter the Great’s cottage, where he stayed before he built his palace, and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which was built in 1900 and features icons and mosaics from this time period. Soviet times are not remembered with fondness in Estonia, but some fascinating relics remain, including the city’s infamous KGB headquarters and the Soviet Soldier Monument. Those interested in learning more about Tallinn’s Soviet history should also check out the recently opened Museum of Occupation and Fight for Freedom.

Tallinn is not quite a dirt-cheap destination, but it remains more affordable than most other European cities. To put it in perspective, Bern says “it’s less expensive than London or Paris, but more expensive than Poland or the Czech Republic.” Accommodations range in price from affordable ($18) to expensive ($185 or more). A comprehensive listing of accredited accommodations can be found on the city’s official tourism website.

Getting to Tallinn from New York costs about $400 to $1,000, before taxes and fees, depending on the time of year. Generally, flying in the summer is most expensive while the colder months bring lower prices. For more information about visiting Tallinn, go to the city’s tourism portal.

NEXT >> Krakow, Poland

Krakow, Poland

Krakow shares many similarities with Prague—lavish churches, outdoor cafes, and hearty food for starters—but it’s also much more accessible. The old town, or glowny rynek, is easily walkable (no need for a car, let alone public transportation). On a nice day, it’s possible to walk from the central square to Wawel Castle to the river, then to the old Jewish quarter and back again without breaking a sweat. Yet somehow, it’s surprisingly “undiscovered.” Says Cassio da Cunha, who visited in March 2005, “The most unique aspect of the trip for me was going to a place relatively un-touristed by Americans.”

Admission prices at Krakow’s top tourist spots are reasonable. Tickets to the aforementioned Wawel Castle vary depending on which part of the complex you tour, but generally are around $4. Sundays bring free admission to several parts of the castle. You can also tour many of the city’s other attractions for free, such as the ancient stone gates or old merchant’s guild.

Expect to pay about $25 per person per night in an apartment, and upwards of $100 a night in a hotel. The same goes for food, although you’ll likely be able to get by on about $20 for dinner at any of the Italian, Indian, Georgian, or Polish restaurants in the square. Inexpensive cafes fill in the gaps, where you can grab a quick kebab. If giant skewers of meat aren’t your thing, try a plate of Poland’s specialty: pierogies (similar to ravioli, but stuffed with cheese or potato) for about $3.

Many major airlines fly to Krakow. From New York, fares hover around $600 in the winter and $1,000 in the summer, plus taxes and fees. For more trip-planning help, try the city’s official tourism site or Krakow-info.com.

NEXT >> Dubrovnik, Croatia

Dubrovnik, Croatia

A former hot-spot for vacationing Europeans in the ’80s, Dubrovnik is beginning to shine again after the wars that tore apart the Balkans in the ’90s. While still visibly scarred in places, Dubrovnik truly remains, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “heaven on earth.”

The sea along the Adriatic coast has some of the most perfectly blue water in the world. Children make sport of jumping from rock outcroppings, propelling themselves from perilous heights, and topless sunbathing is the norm—not the exception.

The city itself is set directly beside the water. Thick, 13th-century walls surround it, wide enough that you can walk them in their entirety. The two-kilometer walk is more than worth the $2 admission charge. Red roofs grace the tops of stone buildings, cobblestone streets wind into tiny alleyways, and white laundry swings in the breeze. Wafting through it all is the scent of the sea.

Some of the most popular (and cheapest) places to stay in Dubrovnik are private homes. There are tons of rooms to be found in the city center, but they also tend to be small and pricey. Walk 10 minutes from the center, and you’ll save a bundle.

Dubrovnik Online is a good place to start your accommodations search, though you can also arrive without a place to stay and be assured of finding a room. Many rentals require a deposit via wire transfer, but this shouldn’t make you nervous. The tourist industry keeps the area afloat, and most properties are well managed. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per night, depending on location, for a quality one-bedroom unit.

From New York, airfares average between $700 and $1,200 before taxes and fees, depending on the season. Summer offers the best weather but also the highest prices, so if you’re looking for a deal, consider visiting in the spring or fall. Dubrovnik does have an airport, albeit a small one; most international flights terminate in the capital of Zagreb. From there it’s easy to arrange a transfer by air, land, or sea to Dubrovnik. The $30 ferry along the coast is an excellent way to soak up the scenery. Croatia’s daily bus services also journey along the coastal highway.

For more information on Dubrovnik, visit the official tourist site.

NEXT >> Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

“Puffing on an apple-flavored hookah, sipping delicious tea, and dipping the most gorgeous bread in the world into hummus, all to the soundtrack of Istanbul—now that’s a vacation,” says Columbia graduate student Liz Mendenhall, who traveled to Istanbul in August 2005. “More Americans should check it out. All of the Turks I met think Americans are scared to travel to a Muslim country after September 11. That has got to change.”

Istanbul is one of the most dynamic cities in the Mediterranean. It’s a sensory overload, a collision of Eastern and Western civilizations. The streets teem with people, restaurateurs call out to passerbys in a staggering number of languages, and the smell of spices fills the air.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of activity in the city. Visitors can choose from major historical sights such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, as well as Topkapi Palace. Tickets for the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are pricey, with admission now costing about $10 to $30, depending on how much you want to see. However, the Blue Mosque only asks for a voluntary donation. You can also see plenty for free just by walking the city on your own. For example, you could easily spend an entire day exploring the fascinating and sometimes overwhelming Grand Bazaar, where shopkeepers tout their wares as if their lives depended on it.

Turkish food is an interesting blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Think melt-in-your-mouth lamb, fresh eggplant, olive oil, piping hot breads, and yogurt—all at economic prices. Kebabs are seldom more than $2. Turks even have their own version of pizza, (or pide), without tomato sauce. Turkish beers and wines are good, but alcohol prices can be inflated in tourist areas.

Most tourists stay in or around Sultanahmet, the historical center of Istanbul. Lodgings vary from inexpensive hostels to world-class resorts. The Four Seasons, for example, converted an old prison into a four-star hotel and now charges at least $340 a night. Expect to pay $20 to $50 per person per night for simpler accommodations in this area. Further out in the city, rates can be as low as $15 to $30 per night.

Getting to Istanbul is simple enough, with frequent flights from New York and other major cities. Costs vary between $650 and $1,100, depending on the season. Summer is the top tourist season, so expect to pay the most from June through August. Once you arrive at the airport, taxis queue to take tourists to the city center for about $20. A more economical option is to take the newly expanded Light Rail into the center for a fraction of the cost.

For more information, start with Istanbul’s official tourism website.

NEXT >> Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Heralded by many as the next Prague, this small capital in what was once communist Yugoslavia is situated by the river on which the mythological Argonauts carried the Golden Fleece. According to legend, it was founded by Jason of the Argonauts, who slew the Ljubljana dragon there. Fast-forward to the break up of the communist states and 1990 referendum when the Slovenians voted for independence; in 1991, Ljubljana was named the capital of a free Slovenia.

Although Slovenia is new member of the European Union, prices are not yet out of reach for tourists. Year-round, many of Ljubljana’s museums charge little or no admission fees. And to help soften the costs of those that do, visitors can purchase a $16 Tourist Card that gives discounted admission to city attractions.

Ljubljana Castle sits high upon a hill, overlooking the city center, offering views of the nearby Julian Alps. Castle admission costs about $4. Active travelers who want to get out into the mountains might consider a rafting or kayak trip. Ljubljana Card holders are entitled to a 10-percent discount with Skok Sport, which offers rafting trips down the Sava River for about $30.

Accommodations are reasonable with most prices well below $100 a night. The region is well known for its white wines, as well as its regional dishes. To sample the best, be sure to stop for dinner at a gostilna. These traditional family-operated establishments serve at least three regional dishes paired with local wines for as little as $10. Although more prevalent in the countryside, a few can be found in the capital.

Getting to Slovenia is fairly expensive year-round. Late fall, winter, and early-spring flights from New York cost at least $700 plus taxes and fees, while peak-season flights can cost up to $1,200 before taxes and fees. Thankfully, eating, sleeping, and playing in the city isn’t nearly so pricey.

For more travel information, visit Slovenia-Tourism.si.

NEXT >> Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv, Ukraine

Perched on a hill above the Dneiper River, the gold-domed city of Kyiv (Kiev is the Russian spelling) is still reeling from the Orange Revolution in 2004. However, Kyivans are equipped with a can-do attitude, having successfully protested a bogus election, and it’s starting to show in the local tourist industry. Due to the lingering Soviet mindset in some establishments, don’t be surprised by less-than-stellar service from some public employees, but at the same time, you can expect some of the most genuine hospitality in the world from everyday people. It is truly a city at a crossroads.

A trip to Kyiv would be incomplete without a visit to one of Christian Orthodoxy’s most important sites, the Percherska Lavra. Expect to spend a least a few hours exploring its 10th- and 11th-century churches and their underground catacombs that hold the mummified remains of early monks. To get a sense of modern Kyiv, take a leisurely stroll along Khreshchatyk, the city’s main avenue. Perfect for shopping, grabbing a snack, or watching street performers, it’s also famous for its part as the center of the Orange Revolution.

One of the best and most economical options for accommodations in the city is renting a private apartment. Former Peace Corps volunteer (and this reporter’s husband) Nick Stokes, who spent two years living in Ukraine, rented apartments when visiting the city with friends. “Whenever we needed a break from our villages, we all met in Kyiv. More than once, a large group of us rented a three-bedroom apartment, complete with a Jacuzzi and sauna, just steps from Khrystchatyk, for about $75 a night.” There are countless ads in the English language newspaper, the Kyiv Post, as well as on the Internet. You can even arrange for a room at the local train station by approaching any of the old women holding signs (they may not speak English, however). Most rental agents are reputable—if you’re at all wary, just ask to see the place before you commit.

Ukrainian food is cheap, and what it lacks in price is makes up for in taste—if you like starches, fats, and meats, that is. If you’re not counting carbs or fat grams, you should make sure to have at least one lengthy sit-down traditional Ukrainian meal. This will cost about $10 for two people at a touristy restaurant in the city center. However, at a local cafes away from the tourist attractions, expect to pay no more than $3 for everything. Don’t forget to wash it all down with a shot of Ukrainian vodka, which you can buy by the bottle for less than $2 (although paying a little extra for higher quality spirits is definitely worth it).

Before taxes and fees, flights from New York usually go for about $600 in the winter low season and $1,100 during the summer. Cheaper deals can sometimes be found with Aerosvit Airlines, the country’s national carrier. Besides paying less, flying with Aerosvit has an additional benefit—or danger, depending on how you look at it: “While domestic carriers will now charge you for your vodka, Aerosvit will treat you to a litre of your own for free,” says Stokes.

For more information, go straight to Kyiv in Your Pocket or UA Zone.

NEXT >> Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

With a city center on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, the seaside city of Bruges is as ancient as it is beautiful. The town center teems with monuments, churches, gardens, and statues, and the air is permeated by the rich scents of waffles, chocolate, and beer.

A heaven for foodies, Bruges offers endless opportunities to be gluttonous. You can sample chocolates, sit at outdoor cafes and sip tea, or stop by one of the waffle carts that line the cobblestone alleys. The city has dozens of proper waffle shops, but the ones fresh from street vendors tend to be sweeter, crunchier, and more sinfully delicious.

No trip to Belgium, let alone Bruges, would be complete, however, without sampling some of the country’s famous beers. Numbering more than 450 varieties, Belgian beer has a reputation for being the best in the world. A good place to sample a few brews is the ‘t Brugs Beertje pub, which offers more than 250 choices. Options include Trappist-brewed ales, every type of Hoegaarden imaginable, cherry beers, white beers, and dark ales.

Before all this food and drink starts to affect your waistline, it might be time to tackle the bell tower. The 272-foot tall Belfry Tower, home to 47 bells and a centuries-old clock, offers spectacular views of the city to those willing to climb its 366 steps. Other excursions include visiting the Benguine Convent, or touring nearby Flanders Field, the site of one of World War I’s most famous battles.

Quality accommodations in Bruges are not hard to find. This is still Western Europe, so prices are more expensive than some of the other cities featured here, but cheaper options do exist. Beds in backpacker-type hostels cost less than $20, rooms in three-star hotels are generally about $75, and luxury hotels charge upwards of $200 a night. On the upside, travel to and from Bruges is comparatively cheaper. Flights to Brussels can be had for under $500 in the winter, and under $900 in the summer, before taxes and fees. And the train from Brussels to Bruges is only about $14.

For more travel information, visit BrugesInfo.com.

NEXT >> Kosice, Slovakia

Kosice, Slovakia

Kosice, in eastern Slovakia, is an unassuming town in an unassuming country. With a population of just around 250,000, it’s small and welcoming. It’s also almost completely undiscovered by Americans says another former Peace Corps volunteer, Jordan McCarron, who visited three times between 2004 and 2005 while he lived in Eastern Europe. “I didn’t see any other Americans, [except for] the ones I was traveling with. Americans should come for just that reason.”

“Kosice is far enough east in Europe that you’ll find many shops without an English-speaking clerk,” adds McCarron. “This will make your stay in Kosice more of an adventure—you might have to get creative in communicating with people. I think it’s refreshing to visit places not overrun by English signs and the English language. But, everyone is very friendly and polite and patient, so you’ll get what you need.”

So what does Kosice offer, besides the opportunity to use hand gestures? For starters, it has a compact city center paved with cobblestones, outdoor cafes, and restaurants. It’s the perfect city for strolling. It’s also ancient and filled with important architectural monuments. St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral towers over them all. Built between 1378 and 1508, this structure is a gothic masterpiece and a definite must-see. Then again, you can’t miss it, as it’s the tallest building in the area.

Accommodations in Kosice tend to be small and locally run. Expect to pay between $25 and $70 per person for mid- to high-level properties, less for a budget hotel. For example, the popular budget hotel K2 charges only $15 per person per night.

Quality three-course meals at touristy restaurants in the center go for no more than $10 per person. The food is decidedly Eastern European, meaning meat and potatoes, but this region is also well known for its spicy paprika. For nightlife, a little searching will lead you to trendy underground lounges, funky pubs, and even wine bars. Tasty local brews and even killer Long Island iced teas can be had for as little as $1.

The easiest way to reach Kosice is by flying into Bratislava, which can run between $700 in the winter and $1,200 in the summer from New York, before taxes or fees. From there, it is possible to hire a car, or to travel by bus or train to Kosice. Local transportation is cheap and reliable, but the 250-mile journey from Bratislava takes five or more hours due to poorly maintained roads outside the city.

For more information visit Kosice.info.

NEXT >> Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia

“Sarajevo is a city balancing a grave past with resolute determination for the future,” says Jay Treloar, who visited in the summer of 2005. “Pedestrians walk past war-scarred sidewalks to Western clothing retailers; burnished skyscrapers rise next to the city’s gutted twin governmental towers. The city is in a state of flux but brimming with optimism. The people I met were approachable, proud, and positive. They realize the city’s future is theirs to dictate.” In short, if you want to see a historic post-war city in the process of bouncing back to its former self, visit Sarajevo now.

Sarajevo has had a rich history since it was founded by the Ottomans in 1461, but it’s the city’s more recent years that most Americans fixate on. According to a July 11, 2005, article in Newsweek, Sarajevo and in fact all of Bosnia, are still very unstable. The U.S. State Department backs up such claims with a warning about the potential dangers of traveling to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Treloar, however, says: “I felt safe during my entire stay.”

Sarajevo is a city to be approached with care and respect. However, if you’re open-minded and love an adventure, it has much to offer. Besides “war tours,” which can be arranged with local guides upon arrival, the area offers caves for exploring, outdoor recreation, and architectural monuments that have withstood the test of time. To get the real feel of the city, going with a local tour guide is recommended, especially if you’re interested in learning about the Balkan wars.

Like many other up-and-coming cities, you can snag an apartment from a local at the bus station. Or you can check the official listing of hotels, motels, guest houses, pensions, and hostels on the Sarajevo Tourism website.

The city’s most famous place to rest your feet is undoubtedly the Holiday Inn, which served as a home base for many journalists during the war. Rest assured, however, that the renovated hotel is now sniper-free. Per-night rates there start at about $115. Private accommodations in local establishments can be had much cheaper, starting around $40 a night.

Reaching Sarajevo is not cheap. Peak-season summer flights from New York start at about $1,400 before taxes and fees. The early spring, late fall, and winter off-seasons are more affordable, however, with flights from around $700, plus taxes and fees. You can also get to Sarajevo via train from many European cities; just be prepared to show your documents many times.

To learn more, visit the Sarajevo Tourism website.

NEXT >> Gdansk, Poland

Gdansk, Poland

“This city is the nucleus of two important 20th-century events: World War II and Solidarity,” says Kasper Teichman, a Polish-American currently living in Europe. Gdansk offers much to see besides history, too. “The main town was lovingly reconstructed after the war, and a walking tour gives you a notion of what it must have been like to walk down a busy European street in the 1600s.”

Situated on the Baltic Sea, Gdansk has long been important in Poland’s economic and political growth. The city thrived in medieval times, even hosting traveling Shakespearean plays during the 16th century. Plans are underway to rebuild that theater on its original site. Unfortunately, rebuilding is something the people of Gdansk know a lot about. The city, along with most of Poland, was destroyed in World War II.

Highlights on any visitor’s trip should include a stroll down Long Street and Market Street, which together form the Royal Route. The Hall of the Main City is another must-see. Built between 1379 and 1492, the hall is more than 260 feet high. Nearby, St. Mary’s Street is known as one of the city’s most picturesque, partly because it’s home to St. Mary’s Church, the largest brick church in the world. Venturing into the church, you’ll be treated to displays of Medieval and Baroque art.

The city is also known for its clean and well-maintained beaches. There is a 427-foot-long pier in Brzezno, which in the height of the summer season is is packed with sunbathers. Besides people-watching, it offers up sun and water recreation of all kinds.

Gdansk has a varied dining scene with options for all budgets, says Teichman. “If you’re a street diner or a savvy shopper, you can duck into one of the tucked-away restaurants to enjoy a meal that will rarely be more expensive than $10. For the more discriminating diner, one can find delicious seafood restaurants plying the catch of the day in addition to expensive traditional Polish fare in Old Town.”

Accommodations are also easy to find, and most are easy on the wallet. On the low end, several hostels have sprung up offering clean, safe rooms for about $10 a night. Double-occupancy rates for higher-end accommodations range from $40 to $275 a night.

Getting to Gdansk generally requires a transatlantic flight to Warsaw, then a short train ride. Summer flights from New York usually cost about $1,000 before taxes and fees, while in the late fall or winter prices drop to about $600.

For more information on planning a trip to Gdansk, visit the city’s tourist website.

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