When it comes to cheap city breaks, Europe has its fair share. Good rail links and budget airlines bring many continental European destinations within easy reach. Once there, you'll find that many cities have some incredible things to see and do for free, from free walking tours to free entry to major attractions. Read on to see where your next budget break can take you....
Easily one of Europe's most beautiful destinations, Budapest is actually formed from three unified cities: Buda, Óbuda and Pest. Orientate yourself at the start of your visit with a ride on tram number 2. It promises a magnificent view of Strauss' "blue Danube", plus Castle Hill and the Hungarian Parliament. Don't miss buying a Budapest Card; it gets you free public transport plus free entry into many museums and one of Budapest's famous spas, the Lukács Baths. Get up close and personal with the Danube with a walk along the Danube Promenade. Running between the Elizabeth Bridge and the Chain Bridge, it's a great way to see more of the sights, including Szechenyi Istvan Square and the Liberty Statue.
Perhaps Valencia makes you think of great weather, great beaches and great paella – and you wouldn't be wrong. However, a trip here also means the magnificent City of Arts and Sciences and the Gothic cathedral. For a beguiling juxtaposition of the old and the new, walk through the narrow lanes of the El Carmen neighbourhood where you'll find medieval architecture alongside modern street murals. Elsewhere, Plaza de la Reina offers a magnificent view of the cathedral and, for a couple of euros, you can even climb the 207 steps of the bell tower to take in the whole city. The cobbled streets of the Old City district are a picturesque and practical place to look for accommodation, especially if you want to take advantage of its speedy public transport links to the beach.
A trip to Porto doesn't need to break the bank. Public transport is decently-priced while travelling between October and April often means lower hotel costs. Pack good walking shoes for your trip as the hilly cobblestoned streets are perfect for on-foot exploring. Don't miss crossing the cast-iron bridge over the river and, wherever you wander, keep an eye out for the stunning tile art (tip: some of the best is inside the São Bento railway station). If all that walking makes you hungry, enjoy the prato do dia at one of the city's many restaurants in the popular Ribeira neighbourhood. These ‘daily specials’ are generally discounted. Afterwards, why not walk off your meal with a stroll up to one of the miradouros (look-out points)? Passeio das Virtudes is a lovely one, with fabulous views along the Douro river. It's also a great spot to admire the sunset and enjoy a drink at one of the cafes on the terrace.
Thessaloniki is fantastic for budget travellers. And, as a major student city, it's particularly good for eating out and nightlife. Walking is a great way to see Thessaloniki, and multi-entry tickets make it affordable and straightforward to see inside many of its main attractions. To get an initial feel for the city, head for Ladadika District, an historic area that really comes alive at dusk, thanks to its tavernas and restaurants. And don't miss walking through the original old town, Ano Polis, which survived a devastating fire in 1917 and is packed with Ottoman architecture, including the Alaca Imaret, a 15th-century mosque. Then, of course, there's the White Tower. Once a Byzantine fort, it's now a museum - with the bonus of panoramic sea views from its top. For a modern-day contrast, enjoy a glass of local wine in the rotating Skyline Café-Bar in the OTE Tower!
For a dose of fairytale magic, it's hard to beat Krakow. Visiting Krakow outside the main summer season cuts the cost of visiting. So, too, can embracing the city's tram network – and travel cards are the cheapest way to make more than a couple of journeys. That said, the Old Town is very walkable and great for the step count! The city's heart since the Middle Ages, Market Square in the Old Town is a great place to start. Its landmarks include the Renaissance-era Cloth Hall but the cafes and cellar bars are equally enticing. Elsewhere, Wawel Castle is a must-see - and a must-photograph, while Florianska Street is great for souvenir-shopping, people-watching and perhaps the occasional vodka-sampling. Everywhere, street food is plentiful, filling, cheap and tasty. Look for poppy or sesame seed bagels, Polish sausage such as kielbasa, and zapiekanka, a sort of pizza. For more cultural sightseeing, take advantage of the savings offered by multi-venue tickets that will get you into the likes of Krakow National Museum.
Like most of the destinations in this list, Riga's Old Town, with its cobbled streets and squares, is best appreciated on foot. It costs nothing to admire its best-known sights, such as the Three Brothers (the city's oldest houses) and the House of the Black Heads (actually a replica of the original medieval building, which was bombed during the Second World War). You'll also find that the Old Town has its fair share of Riga's famed art nouveau buildings but head to Elizabetes Iela for the most awe-inspiring examples. Look out for buffet-style eateries, which are are great for budget-conscious meals, and don't miss out on Mārtiņa Beķereja, Riga's oldest bakery, where prices for delicious cakes and pastries start at less than a euro.
A fabulous "off the beaten track" destination, Bologna is nonetheless an easy train trip from Florence, Milan or Rome. For €25, a Bologna Welcome Card gives you a two-hour walking tour, discounts at various shops and restaurants, and entry into most of the city's top attractions. An evening la passeggiata through the Piazza Maggiore will take you past many of the sights, including the Palazzo d’Accursio and the Basilica di San Petronio - and you might even be lucky enough to catch an al fresco concert. The Archaeological Museum is also well worth a visit if you want to learn more about the city's history (and the Bologna Welcome Card provides free entry). However, as well as sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine ought to be high on your agenda, especially an authentic tagliatelle ragù alla Bolognese.
Get to know Scotland's second city with a walking tour. A free downloadable guide is the perfect companion, especially if it's one that also highlights the city's amazing street art. What's more, many of the best-known attractions, including the cathedral and adjacent Victorian necropolis, are free to visit. Thanks to its large student population, Glasgow has plenty of affordable eating options, such as Cafe Sono near Glasgow Central Station and Paesano, which serves delicious neapolitan pizza. The latter is only a two minute walk from the Gallery of Modern Art, another attraction that is free to enter, and a must for art lovers.
Where Europe meets Asia, Istanbul offers an almost simultaneous experience of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. Exploring the city by foot is a good way of slowing down enough to absorb what you're seeing - and luckily, many of the key tourist areas, including Sultanahmet (the old city), are very walkable. However, buying a city pass saves both money and time when it comes to visiting the main attractions. There are several options, including the Istanbul Welcome Deluxe that provides fast-track entry to 10 museums and a ticket for a must-do Bosphorus cruise. For tasty food, look for places called Esnaf Lokantasi, a sort of working men and women's cafe, where you can enjoy a genuinely local culinary experience.
Prague's popularity hasn't pushed it beyond the reach of budget travellers. With the likes of the Astronomical Clock, Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, Prague has no shortage of eye candy. Then there's the beer – and, whether you want to enjoy it at a bar or a microbrewery, you'll be spoiled for choice. Head to somewhere like Žižkov for a nice balance between reasonable prices and plenty of atmosphere. Much of Prague is nicest to explore on foot, including Staré Město (Old Town) and Malá Strana (Little Quarter). However, it's worth taking a ride on the Petřín Funicular Railway for the gardens and view at the top. For food, why not take advantage of the denní menu (daily menu) offered at lunchtime by many restaurants, and look out for local classics like the Chlebíčky open sandwich and Trdelník (chimney cake).
Sofia is another city that offers free walking tours – just remember to tip your guide after they've shown you sights like the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Saint Nikolas Russian. Shopping might not be on your agenda, especially if it involves designer boutiques, but the elegant Vitosha Boulevard is well worth a wander if only for its Art Nouveau buildings and the incomparable views of Vitosha Mountain. When it comes to food, local restaurants give you the chance to try delicacies such as shopska salata (a salad made with white cheese) and tarator (a cold yoghurt soup made with dill, walnuts and cucumber). Out on the street, look out for food vendors selling the tasty and affordable banitsa (a popular and filling cheese pastry).
Bucharest's architecture tells its story. Exploring Centru Vechi (the Old Centre) on foot you'll find gems such as the one-time court of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula), although you'll need to go to Carol Park to visit Bucharest's replica of his famous Poenari Castle. Then, in Sector 5, in the centre of the city, you'll find the Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of the Parliament), a palatial, communist-era edifice that's the world's second largest administrative building. You'll also find plenty of inexpensive eating and drinking options, and a range of cuisines. For real Romanian fare, try Sarmale (cabbage or vine leaf rolls) and don't miss buying fresh cherries from one of the markets.