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Top 10 European Cities for Smart Splurges

By: Gisela Williams

Laurent Vella/Courtesy Relais & ChateauxA nighttime view of Lyon, France – a smart splurge compared to more expensive European cities – from the Villa Florentine

While the dollar may be enjoying a reprieve from historic highs against the pound and euro, European capitals like London and Paris still hit American wallets hard, especially on the luxe end of the spectrum. Never fear – we’ve rounded up 10 European cities for smart splurges that offer affordable luxuries and countless treasures, from the best of contemporary art and fashion to historic grandeur and vibrant local culture. Whether it’s a foodie haven in southern France, a Hamptons-esque Spanish isle with a royal seal of approval, or a Middle Eastern gateway that straddles two continents, these cosmopolitan hot spots allow you to live like a 19th-century aristocrat without blowing the family fortune. So dig up your passport, pack your traveling trunk, and get ready to say Bonjour! Guten tag! Merhaba! to these fantastically enticing European cities.


Antwerp, Belgium

THE DRAW Despite having the fashion clout of Paris and the charm of Amsterdam, Antwerp draws far fewer tourists than other European cities and is intimate enough to explore in a weekend.

DON’T MISS The city’s latest lifestyle shops: Ra (www.ra13.be) is the new hangout of choice for the city’s young fashion and art set, while Graanmarkt 13 (www.graanmarkt13.be) appeals to a more tailored crowd.

WHEN TO GO Travel in spring and fall for the city’s famous stock sales, when design houses sell last year’s merchandise at a discount. Local dandy and personal shopper Tanguy Ottomer (www.tanguyottomer.com) can help travelers get first dibs.

WHERE TO STAY Designers prefer the Boulevard Leopold (www.boulevard-leopold.be), a fashionable B&B run by a couple that’s friendly with several local designers. Smack in the heart of the city’s old town is the Hotel Matelote (www.matelote-antwerpen.be), a designer hotel with a cozy atmosphere and excellent service.

COMBINE WITH A quick train trip to Brussels to discover more Belgian designers from other European cities, like Annemie Verbeke and Jessie Lecomte.

See our Antwerp Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Antwerp. 

Berlin

THE DRAW Unlike some European cities, the economic crisis hasn’t caused Berlin to pause for a minute. After all, this is the city whose mayor proudly claimed, “We’re poor but sexy.” And while the city still has major edge – artist collectives performing in old swimming pools, techno-ready fashion, a thriving underground club scene – now visitors can also find more indulgent picks: luxury boutique hotels, rooftop spas, and upscale clothing boutiques.

DON’T MISS The recently reopened Neues Museum (www.neues-museum.de), which is once again showing treasures like the iconic bust of Nefertiti. The new Topography of Terror Documentation Center (www.topographie.de) presents an exhibition and library on the site Hitler chose as the headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo.

WHEN TO GO Visit in late spring through early fall.

WHERE TO STAY A new hotel seems to pop up every month near Mitte’s Rosenthaler Platz. The latest is the glamorous Soho House (www.sohohouseberlin.com). Quartering here is a smart splurge in the summer, when one can plunge into the open-air rooftop pool. One of the best deals is the stylish Hotel Amano (www.hotel-amano.com), with rooms and apartments.

COMBINE WITH A trip to the Baltic Sea. One of Europe’s longest and most pristine coastlines is less than a 3-hour drive from Berlin. The island of Usedom has beaches lined with villas and bike trails.

See our Berlin Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Berlin. 

Bolzano, Italy

THE DRAW Among European cities, this little-known town in Italy’s Dolomites is an insider destination for savvy nature and food lovers. Surrounded by picturesque mountains, tiny traditional farms, small vineyards, and apple orchards, Bolzano is the area’s greenest corner, with fresh mountain air and almost 300 days of sun. The region surrounding Bolzano is also one of Italy’s most affordable; the price of a weeklong vacation in Tuscany will buy two weeks of vacation here.

DON’T MISS The area’s top-notch small vineyards; some are located within the city’s limits. One of the cult winemakers in Bolzano, Josephus Mayr, produces an extremely sought-after red called Lamarein.

WHEN TO GO Travel from April (when the apple trees start to bloom) through October (for the wine harvest festival).

WHERE TO STAY Bolzano’s first and only modern boutique hotel, Hotel Greif (www.greif.it), offers 33 unique designer rooms with wood floors, Persian carpets, and contemporary art. The location, just off the town’s main square, Piazza Walther, makes a stay there a smart splurge. Not far away is the cozy Hotel Figl (www.figl.net). A stay in the top-floor apartment, a two-room suite with a small kitchenette, is a great value.

COMBINE WITH A day at Terme Merano (www.termemerano.it) – a traditional spa stunningly redesigned by native son and famous architect Matteo Thun – located in the nearby historic spa town of Merano.

See our Italy Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Bolzano. 

Edinburgh

THE DRAW Take advantage of the dollar’s increasing strength against the pound to visit this usually expensive city.

DON’T MISS Edinburgh’s dynamic performing arts scene. Everyone knows about the Fringe Festival, but few Americans have heard of the three-week Edinburgh International Festival (www.eif.co.uk), which starts on August 13. This year it will host a roster of world-renowned theater groups (like the Wooster Group), dance troupes (such as Grupo Corpo from Brazil), and musicians, from soprano Magdalena Kozena to violinist Midori.

WHEN TO GO High season, June through September, is pricey, so those looking for value should visit in late May or early October instead.

WHERE TO STAY One of the most talked-about new hotels in any European city is the Hotel Missoni (www. hotelmissoni.com), the first property from the luxury Italian fashion house. Before the Missoni came to town, the Tigerlily (www.tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk) was the most design-conscious place to stay (its interiors are loaded with glass and pale wood surfaces), and its bar and restaurant are still buzzing.

COMBINE WITH A weekend of luxe camping at Lochhouses Farm (www.featherdown.co.uk), near the sand dunes of John Muir Country Park, about a half-hour drive from Edinburgh.

See our Scotland Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Edinburgh.

 

Istanbul

THE DRAW Istanbul, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire, presents a dazzling mix of attractions, including buzzing nightlife, dramatic ancient architecture, and great food. The city is celebrating its designation as this year’s European Capital of Culture with a nonstop series of concerts, screenings, and exhibitions. While Istanbul is by no means cheaper than most European cities, Americans can get a bit more here for the dollar. Plus, many museums offer free entry.

DON’T MISS The newly opened Deniz Palas, reinvented as the headquarters of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (www.iksv.org), houses a smartly edited shop of Turkish designers and X, a chic modern restaurant with impressive views of the city’s historic neighborhoods.

WHEN TO GO Visit anytime between spring and fall, but skip August, when it’s too hot to walk very far.

WHERE TO STAY First timers in Istanbul are usually surprised by how expensive a decent room can be, which makes the new hotel Witt Istanbul Suites (www.wittistanbul.com) that much more of a find. Its spacious rooms, designed by the local studio Autoban, are a funky mélange of wood and mirrored and marble surfaces. The suites combine all the best characteristics of an apartment with those of a hotel. Tomtom Suites (www.tomtomsuites.com), a conceptually similar hotel, is in the buzzing Galata neighborhood, home to some of the city’s trendiest restaurants and bars.

COMBINE WITH A trip to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes Islands, a tiny archipelago about an hour’s ferry voyage from Istanbul’s center. The new Museum of the Princes Islands opens in July.

See our Istanbul Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Istanbul.

Krakow, Poland

THE DRAW Europeans seeking a weekend of fun and culture head to Krakow, which draws comparisons to Prague in the 1990s and has hotels and restaurants that are decidedly more affordable than those in other European cities. The city’s main square, Rynek Glowny, with its grand pastel-colored buildings, is one of Europe’s largest and most picturesque medieval market squares.

DON’T MISS Exploring the city’s Jewish heritage. Visit the Galicia Jewish Museum (www.galiciajewishmuseum.org), and if it’s the end of June or early July, the 20th annual Jewish Culture Festival (www.jewishfestival.pl), with more than 100 events, including Hasidic dance, Yiddish film, klezmer music, and theater.

WHEN TO GO Summer is great but crowded with students. The best months weatherwise are May and
September.

WHERE TO STAY Regal but intimate, with eight rooms and seven apartments, the Bonerowski Palace (www.palacbonerowski.com) is located on the main square. Equally stylish and well situated is the Hotel Grodek (www.hotelgrodek.com), with a winter garden and a restaurant helmed by an esteemed chef.

COMBINE WITH A trip to the Holocaust site Auschwitz, a 90-minute train ride from Krakow.

Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Krakow.

Lyon, France

THE DRAW The 2,000-year-old, food-obsessed city of Lyon can serve as a base to explore the best of French cuisine and the vineyards of nearby Burgundy and Beaujolais. One can dine just as well as in Paris or other European cities but at a fraction of the cost.

DON’T MISS Eating the meal of a lifetime at the three-Michelin-starred Auberge du Pont de Collonges (www.bocuse.fr), the signature restaurant of one of the world’s most famous chefs, Paul Bocuse. If $287 a person is too much to pay for a classic seven-course meal, head to one of his four brasseries or to his fast food joint, Ouest Express (www.ouestexpress.com), where the menu of the day costs at most $17.

WHEN TO GO Late summer and early fall offer the finest in the region’s seasonal fare.

WHERE TO STAY Splurge on a hotel in the city’s historic center, a warren of streets lined with Renaissance architecture. At the stylish Cour des Loges (www.courdesloges.com), the design is a mix of honey-colored wood, contemporary furniture, and whimsical murals. A more affordable option is the Villa Florentine (www.villaflorentine.com), a converted convent with 28 rooms and a Michelin-starred restaurant.

COMBINE WITH A one-day wine class at the University of Wine (www.universite-du-vin.com) in the town of Suze-la-Rousse.

See our Lyon Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Lyon.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

THE DRAW For wealthy Spaniards, the island of Mallorca is the Hamptons of Spain: the place to spend the summer months. King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía keep a residence there; the Almudaina Palace in the main city of Palma is their official summer office. But despite its royal connections, Palma is still a relative bargain for travelers when compared with Spanish destinations like Barcelona. Even compared to other European cities, Palma has one of the largest and most impressive old towns on the continent, an atmospheric maze of Gothic architecture and narrow Moorish alleyways, topped by a majestic cathedral that Antoni Gaudí helped redesign.

DON’T MISS The burgeoning contemporary art scene. Mallorca has become an island of artists, and Palma is its showcase. Not to miss are galleries like ABA Art (www.abaart.com) and Galeria Maior (www.galeriamaior.com) as well as the Es Baluard Museu d’Art Modern (www.esbaluard.org), which will display its new acquisitions this summer.

WHEN TO GO In late spring to early fall. But avoid August, when the island is crowded with vacationing Europeans and prices are at their highest.

WHERE TO STAY The 12-room Palacio Ca Sa Galesa (www.palaciocasagalesa.com), hidden in the narrow passageways of Palma’s old town, feels like the well-kept mansion of an ancient family. The Santa Clara (www.santaclarahotel.es), a stylish 20-room hotel with historic-meets-contemporary interiors, is also well located in the city’s traditional heart.

COMBINE WITH A day trip to the port of Sóller on the historic Sóller Railway. The trip through the mountains on the vintage wooden train takes about an hour.

See our Spain Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Palma de Mallorca.

Porto, Portugal

THE DRAW Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, does not attract tourist traffic like Lisbon, but it does offer as much exquisite food and significant architecture, and prices tend to be lower for just about everything than in other European cities. Unesco designated the city’s historic center a World Heritage site in 1996, and over the last decade new, iconic buildings have joined the landscape, such as the Rem Koolhaas-designed concert hall, Casa da Música (www.casadamusica.com), and the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art (www.serralves.pt), designed by the country’s most celebrated architect, Álvaro Siza.

DON’T MISS The fashionable Foz do Douro neighborhood, where the Douro River meets the Atlantic and great shopping meets the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. After dining at Foz Velha (www.fozvelha.com), one can do some late-night browsing; stores stay open until midnight.

WHEN TO GO In summer, towns in northern Portugal like Porto stay cooler than, say, Lisbon. The São João Festival, on June 23, is the country’s liveliest street party.

WHERE TO STAY Overnighting at the newly renovated 18th-century Palacio do Freixo (www.pousadas.pt) is a smart splurge, especially for those who appreciate opulent architecture, modern-day amenities, and excellent views. The former palace is a new member of the Pousadas of Portugal association of state-run hotels in historic buildings. Many of its 87 rooms and suites overlook the Douro River. An alternative is the riverside Pestana Porto (www.pestana.com), located in the historic city center.

COMBINE WITH A cruise along the river to the Alto Douro wine region, which is known for its port and considered one of the oldest wine regions in the world, on a traditional flat-bottomed rabelo sailboat (www.dourocruises.com).

See our Porto Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Porto.

Vienna, Austria

THE DRAW Venturing a bit off the main tourist drag in Vienna to up-and-coming neighborhoods like the Neubau yields intriguing design shops, cutting-edge art, and lower price tags than both the city center and other European cities.

DON’T MISS Shopping at old-is-new-again imperial manufacturers like the glass company Lobmeyr (www.lobmeyr.at) and the porcelain producer Augarten (www.augarten.at). Buying their classic designs in Austria works out to be a better deal than purchasing them in the United States. Both companies have recently hired dynamic contemporary designers.

WHEN TO GO Vienna is best experienced during warmer months, when travelers can sit outside, or during the festive weeks leading up to Christmas.

WHERE TO STAY The Ring (www.theringhotel.com) does understated luxury extremely well. The lobby’s cream- and chocolate-colored couches are perfect for curling up by the fireplace and people-watching: The hotel draws a chic, creative crowd. A more affordable option is the Altstadt (www.altstadt.at), a stylish boutique hotel in the city’s historic heart.

COMBINE WITH A trip to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, about an hour’s train ride to the east, where one can stroll the city’s main avenues, lined with brightly painted baroque palaces.

See our Vienna Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to save up to 70 percent off flight, hotel, cruise, and package deals to Vienna. 

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