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Paris, Rome, and London are all classic first-time Eurotrip destinations. But for savvy or returning travelers, Eastern European cities — think: Prague, Budapest, and Tallinn, among offers — offer just as much beauty and history, but at cheaper prices and in fewer crowds. Although communism clothed much of the area a few decades ago, the region has largely shed that attire and now welcomes travelers with eclectic mixes of medieval architecture and preserved fortresses alongside Soviet era blocks and 21st century designs. With so many nations to discover, here’s where to start:

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In Europe, when temperatures drop, so do the prices. Traveling to Europe outside of the summer season almost always guarantees savings — but this year you can get an even earlier start by jumping on this special offer from Lufthansa. The respected airline, a member of the Star Alliance, is offering low rates starting at $532 round-trip between the United States and a number of European cities, including Istanbul, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and even Moscow. Read more

bregenz festival - seebuhne - austria - 2014 - anja kohler - 620What’s better than getting cultured with a round of opera in Europe? Doing it en plein air. Whether you prefer soaking up some sun during the day or catching the sunset in the cool evening, summertime brings a boon of theater and music festivals all over the region. Here, four open-air celebrations worth battling the crowds and heat.

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Paris and London are dazzling places to visit, but these popular European cities can drain a bank account as assuredly as they can entertain. If you’re willing to travel a bit further afield, and step away from the comfort of the dollar-like Euro, a more affordable Europe still exists – in Budapest. This city teems with attractions and culture, and at a fraction of the cost of its more populous European sisters. Here’s a peek into what you can see and do in this Eastern European mainstay, and for very little money.

1_Budapest_CathedralVisit the cathedral: Budapest’s largest church is free to visit and offers opulent interiors, as well as an eye-popping relic: the withered hand of the church’s namesake, St. Stephen, inside a gold box. You’ll need to pay a small donation to light it up so it’s visible, but for the photo op, it’s worth it. You can also climb the dome for views of the city for about $2.

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Flickr/Adam Jones, Ph.D.Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus suddenly have a new reason to be at the top of travelers’ bucket lists – especially those with an interest in Jewish historical sites. Earlier this month, it was announced that a new EU-funded project will create a virtual passage through 60 Jewish towns along the Poland-Ukraine and Poland-Belarus borders that existed before World War II. Dubbed the “Shtetl Route,” visitors will be able to make use of guidebooks, dedicated tour guides, and an interactive website starting in 2015. Until then, here are a few important Jewish historical sites worth checking out… Read more

TOUCHEDTel-Aviv-El-AlEast-bound Europeans will be happy about the launch of El Al’s new low-cost carrier, UP. Based out of Tel Aviv, the offshoot airline will directly compete with Europe’s budget airlines like EasyJet, which offers service to Israel for as low as 68 EUR (about $93) each way. That’s more expensive than the fares offered on UP, which will start at just $69 each way.

Beyond price, frequency of service is a key part of UP’s strategy: a total of 50 flights per week will shuttle between Tel Aviv and Berlin, Kiev, Prague, Budapest, and Larnaca, some of Europe’s most popular hubs.

And here’s our favorite part: A new low-cost carrier in Europe can mean cheaper flight options for U.S. travelers heading to the region. Opting for a layover in Europe, and a switch to a budget carrier once you get there, can really save. And the difference in price can far outweigh the inconvenience of connecting in another airport. As El Al’s new low-cost carrier augments service to Tel Aviv, we’re wondering: could UP offer a new solution for U.S. travelers trying to get to Israel more affordably? Read more

New Train Routes to TehranIran doesn’t have the best reputation for welcoming foreign tourists, yet signs point to that changing – slowly. From 2004 to 2010 tourism to the country grew by 12.7 percent, and while most of these visits were for reasons of religious pilgrimage, a good number made the trip to see Iran’s ancient sites, to hike and ski in the Alborz mountains, and to paraglide (like these unlucky Slovak tourists who have just been released after charges of spying).

The case of the Slovak paragliders suggests that Iran still has a way to go if it wants to shake off foreign travelers’ negative perceptions of its touristic potential, but a brand new private train service may help. Read more

Madeira Lava PoolsIs the summer heat getting to you yet? There’s relief to be found at one of these public pools in Europe. Whether it’s panoramic views of the Mediterranean, or a 295-foot-high bungee jump you’re after, these 10 municipal water parks are guaranteed to add a little excitement to your summer getaway.

1. Lava Pools, Madeira, Portugal

Naturally-occurring volcanic rock has formed a series of tiny, stunningly beautiful pools on the northwestern coast of Madeira in Portugal. These ocean-filled ‘lava pools’ are the main attraction in the village of Porto Moniz, located about an hour north of Madeira’s capital, Funchal. Despite the wild geography, the area around the pools contains tourist-friendly amenities like changing rooms, lockers, showers, a restaurant, and a team of lifeguards. Entrance fee: $2.60. Read more

Hawaiian Airlines StopoverLike anyone else, we love the idea of a free trip. And that’s just what major airlines are offering when they advertise a “free” stopover in one of their home cities — essentially a bonus side trip to another city while en route to your final destination.

Not to be confused with a layover (a few hours in the airport while waiting for your connecting flight), a stopover is any stay longer than 24 hours in which travelers leave the airport and go explore the surrounding city. The length of a stopover is entirely up to the traveler, and since there is often no extra cost added to the original ticket, the stopover is considered free. (In airline speak, this is known as a “dual destination vacation.”)

But how exactly does one go about booking a stopover? And is it a better deal in the long run?

First off, it is important to understand why certain airlines provide free stopovers. In almost every case, these are major international carriers based in major hubs (Emirates/Dubai; Singapore Airlines/Singapore; Japan Airlines/Tokyo; etc.) that want to lure more tourists to their destination. Enticing travelers with a “free” stopover leads to hotel bookings, restaurant meals, and other tourism dollars that otherwise wouldn’t have been spent.

To book a stopover, select “multi-destination” or “multi-city” on the airline’s website and plug in the specific dates for your desired stopover. As long as your stopover is in the airline’s home city, chances are it will cost the same price as a ticket without a stopover.

For example, if I’m looking up flights from New York to Budapest in October, Kayak tells me that Aeroflot offers the cheapest route for $808, with a 3.5 hour layover in Moscow. If I then go to Aeroflot’s website and type in a multi-destination trip that includes two days of sightseeing in Moscow, the flight is the exact same price: $808.

Here are some more examples:  Read more

Great European Train TripsEurostar recently tested service between London and Aix-en-Provence. Later this year, the TGV will begin running a direct service between Paris and Barcelona, and, starting in 2016, a new Deutsche Bahn route through the Channel Tunnel will link London to Amsterdam, Cologne, and Frankfurt. Ditching Europe’s budget airlines in favor of its railways is beginning to look more attractive. Not only is rail travel throughout Europe often as quick as, if not quicker than flying, it also has the bonus of spectacular scenery along the way.

Our favorite European rail journeys are not necessarily the fastest, but they are some of the most memorable.

The Bergen Line: Bergen to Oslo, Norway

Traveling along the 231-mile-long highest mainline railway line in Northern Europe offers you a front row seat for some of Norway’s most spectacular landscapes; think dramatic fjords, lush forests, and crystalline waterfalls. If you have the time, take the branch line that runs from Myrdal to Flåm, a village at the inner end of Aurlansfjord, an arm of Sognefjord, Norway’s biggest fjord. This 12-mile route takes around one hour and climbs more than 2,838 feet making it the steepest standard-gauge railway in Europe. Read more

A Good Day to Die HardConfession: I’ve never watched any of the Die Hard films. It’s understandable as the movies are in no way marketed to me (or my gender, for that matter). Sure, every once in a while I’m as game as any guy is for a high-adrenaline action film, but I’ve never felt compelled to watch them. But, with the newest installment, A Good Day to Die Hard, the allure of having it set in Russia (a place I’m eager to visit), and filmed in Budapest, Hungary (a city I’ve heard amazing things about), makes me think twice about catching the film. Below, three reasons I’m reconsidering skipping the action-packed flick. Read more

Budapest delivers all that you’d expect from Europe’s best big cities: beautiful monuments, busy museums, bustling nightlife, break-worthy bathhouses. Wait a minute, back up: bathhouses?! That’s right – Budapest is a straight-up spa city, bubbling over with more than a hundred natural underground hot springs that have been luring visitors since Roman times. With some 15 perfectly affordable bathhouses set right in the city, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to indulge in some budget-friendly R&R, where you can channel your inner “Buda” without those “pesty” bills piling up (and also wash away the cringe factor at having had to read that wordplay).

Just back from a rejuvenating rest in Budapest, here are two of my top bathhouse picks. While they aren’t necessarily the cheapest in town, they definitely bring out the best of Budapest’s bathing culture. Read more

As far as 2012 travel trends go, river cruising is right up there, so there’s no surprise that the gays are all over it. And although it may be one of seven LGBT tour operators chartering groups aboard European riverboats this summer, newly founded Brand g is the only one that wants you to experience it for free. Contest time!

Launched just in time for Valentine’s Day, as well as the heartening strides made for gay marriage in Washington State and the repeal of Prop 8 in California, the “Share The Love” contest is encouraging adventurers to share their same-sex love story, or for friends to nominate their favorite LGBT couples, for the chance to win two spots on its 10-day Danube River Cruise, which includes a 2-night stay in Prague and port calls in Nuremberg, the Bavarian forest, Salzburg, Linz, Melk, Vienna, Slovakia, and Budapest. Read more

Rokusfalvy wineryMany people have heard of Hungary’s Tokaj wine region – famous for its sweet wines – but did you know there are a total of 22 wine regions in the country? For an easy day trip from Budapest, head to Etyek, just over 30 minutes west of the city. Etyek is one of Hungary’s youngest wine regions, with a viniculture that dates back to the 18th century. Originally, Etyek produced sparkling wines, and it wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that wineries began making the switch to other varieties.

Today there are about 30-35 wineries in Etyek. Many are small operations whose vintages rarely leave the region, let alone wind up exported to the U.S. On my recent trip to Budapest, I visited the Rókusfalvy winery (www.rokusfalvypince.hu). The winery – with just 13.5 acres of vineyards – started as a hobby for its owner in 1999 but expanded production in 2006. The majority of grapes grown are whites, including Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot gris.

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Kempinski Hotel CorvinusAfter jetting to Budapest on new non-stop service on American Airlines from New York’s JFK last month, I checked into the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus on the city’s trendier Pest side.  A five-star property and member of the Leading Hotels of the World, the Kempinski is located within walking distance to the legendary Gerbeaud café, the Great Synagogue (the second-largest synagogue in the world), and the eastern bank of the Danube.

The hotel has 335 rooms and 31 suites; standard accommodations are roomy but not remarkable, though bathrooms feature glass-enclosed showers and separate soaking tubs, and high-tech perks include free Wi-Fi – a rarity at luxury brands.

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