Yes, it's true: Europe airfare prices are outrageous this summer and the dollar is being beaten to a pulp by the euro. Fortunately, there are still a few places that offer American travelers good value. After crunching the numbers on airfare, hotel, and activity prices, I've come up with a list of five places that are both fascinating and reasonably affordable if not (dare I say) cheap.
(Editor's Note: Most prices quoted in this article are in euros. At press time, the conversion rate was 1 euro to $1.55.)
Quick—which European country 1) is the continent's oldest state, 2) is the birthplace of a sophisticated ancient society that produced some of antiquity's finest gold artifacts and the gladiator Spartacus, 3) has topography ranging from white-sand beaches to snow-capped mountains, and 4) has a colorful culture that blends the ancient with the modern?
Nope, it's not Greece, Turkey, or any place on the Mediterranean—it's Bulgaria. The E.U.'s newest member (along with Romania) is now a post-communist country that's working hard to catch up with Western Europe. For tourists, this transitional period means that while things don't always work as they should (some service industry workers don't practice the best customer service and infrastructure is poor in rural areas), you can enjoy things like great food (sort of a blend of Greek and Middle Eastern), stunning scenery, and seaside resorts for far less than you'd pay in other countries.
Although only about the size of Tennessee, you could easily spend several weeks exploring Bulgaria. Kristine Dimitrova, a Boston lawyer who was born in Bulgaria and visits every few years, recommends starting in the capital of Sofia, then visiting one of the mountain regions like the Rhodope and the ancient city of Plovdiv, and finishing up with a few days at the Black Sea resort of Varna.
"Sofia is like a combination of New York, London, and Italy—it has ultra modern stores, phenomenal food, and lively entertainment," says Dimitrova. Aside from its many elaborate churches, Sofia is a fairly modern city, so you'll have to go out into the countryside to discover traditional Bulgaria. In Rhodope, a few hours' drive from Sofia, you can wander between mountain villages where you'll witness locals still using traditional farming and craft-making methods, and be warmly welcomed in country guesthouses.
Next, head to Plovdiv, a 6,000-year-old (or older) city known as the cultural capital of Bulgaria and the jumping-off point for visiting the Valley of the Thracian Kings, a site of about 1,500 burial mounds. "Plovdiv is a really place to get a sense of ancient Bulgaria," says Dimitrova. "In the Old Town, you'll see lots of Greek and Roman ruins, including a large Greek amphitheater, as well as a good sample of period Bulgarian villas."
Finally, go east to the Black Sea for some relaxation time in Varna. "Varna is essentially a major destination beach resort for all of Western Europe," says Dimitrova. "It has natural hot mineral springs and modern spas with all the amenities and treatments you'd find in other places, but for a lot less." It also has an excellent Archaeological Museum (about $3) which displays artifacts like intricately made Thracian gold jewelry from the 4th century B.C. and 100,000-year-old stone tools.
Trip planning:The bigger cities in Bulgaria have many western hotel brands, but you can usually save by staying at an apartment hotel. Try the centrally located Niky Hotel in Sofia and Antonio's Apartments in Varna, both of which start at 40 euros per night. In the mountains, you can stay in a guest house such as Kapsazov's Guest House (from 30 euros per night) in the village of Kovachevitsa, which is known for its owner's spectacular home-cooked meals. You'll easily be able to afford the nicest hotel in Plovdiv, the Hotel Hebros, a grand 19th century Renaissance house where rates start at 89 euros per night.
Late August flights from New York to Sofia start at $1,036 round-trip, including taxes and fees, from Airfare.com. It's best to rent a car to get around; you can rent economy models at the Sofia airport for about $35 a day. Dimitrova says the main roads are modern and lightly traveled, while the country roads may be worn and harder to navigate, so be alert.
To learn more about the country, visit the Bulgaria State Tourism Agency website.
Berlin is Europe's butterfly—albeit a funky one—having metamorphosed from the epicenter of Hitler's Third Reich to the symbol of the Iron Curtain to finally, in the last 20 years, a mecca for artists, hipsters, and cultural alchemists. It's sort like Greenwich Village 20 years ago mixed with some of Tokyo's modernism, and punctuated by reminders of the past, both the darker days and the more splendid imperial era.
"The city is dynamic—it's always changing and there is always something new to discover," says Heather Ellis, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in Berlin. "Berlin is literally alive with history in a way that no other city in Europe is. It's young because of its students, full of culture because of its artists, and a bit unpolished because of its past, which makes it seem like the visitor has stumbled onto something truly special. It is also much cheaper than any other major Western European city."
With literally hundreds of museums and galleries and thousands of restaurants, shops, and nightclubs, there's no shortage of things to see and do in the city. Be sure to pick up a Berlin WelcomeCard, (16.50 euros for 48 hours, 21.50 euros for 72 hours) which offers free public transportation and half-price admission to more than 130 attractions. Some must-see museums include the Gemaldegalerie (8 euros), which houses some of Europe's top collections of 13th to 18th century art and the Pergamonmuseum (8 euros), which displays Greek and Roman antiquities and Islamic art. Sarah Steinberg, an engineer from Boston who studied in Berlin, highly recommends the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (Berlin Wall Museum; 9.50 euros) and the Judisches Museum (5 euros), a sobering and powerful museum focusing on Jewish history in Germany. "It is seriously amazing and one of my favorite museums in all Europe," says Steinberg.
You should take some time to walk around the city and explore its different neighborhoods. "If you're here on a Sunday, I would say do as the Berliners do: Have lazy brunch in Prenzlauerberg (a pretty neighborhood with lots of cafes and shops) and then spend the afternoon at the Mauerpark Flea Market (one of several weekend markets in Berlin where you pick up some real bargains)," says Ellis.
Many Berliners treat clubbing almost as a second job, so, for tourists, going to night clubs is a great way to experience the city's latest music, trends, and fashion on full display. Since clubs come and go almost overnight, it's hard to make specific recommendations, but if you pick up a copy of the English-language Ex-Berliner, you'll find listings for the latest hot spots.
Trip planning:While in other major European capitals you may struggle to find affordable accommodations that aren't either shabby or on the outskirts of town, Berlin has quality, good-value hotels across the price spectrum. For luxury, try the sleek Swissotel Berlin on the Kurfurstendamm (the 5th Avenue of Berlin), the number two best-value hotel in the world according to a Budget Travel-TripAdvisor study. Rates in August start around 124 euros per night. Nearby, the Hotel Otto, a boutique family-run property, offers modern, unpretentious rooms from 80 euros per night. For cheaper, homier lodging, there's the friendly B&B Hotel-Pension Bregenz, also near the Kurfurstendamm, where prices start at 40 euros. Berlin's top-rated budget accommodation on HostelWorld.com, The Circus Hostel, promises hip, spotless digs near Prenzlauerberg and rates as low as 18 euros per person per night.
Early September flights from New York to Berlin start at $604 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on Hotwire.com.
For more trip planning resources, go to the Berlin Tourism Marketing website.
Turquoise Coast, Turkey
You may be priced out of a vacation on the Italian Riviera or the Greek islands, and costs for stays along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast are rising rapidly. However, you can still find bargains along Turkey's Turquoise Coast, a stunning 1,000-mile shoreline that rivals its Mediterranean neighbors for beauty and ancient history, but not for costs.
"The Turkish Mediterranean is one of my favorite places in the world," says RaeJean Stokes, a Program Officer at American Councils for International Education in Washington, D.C, (and former SmarterTravel.com editor) who last visited the region in 2005. "It's laid-back and gorgeous—think azure blue waters and ancient ruins, plus great food, culture, and music. In terms of value for money, Turkey is a no-brainer. It's a steal compared to Western Europe, and even some cities in Eastern Europe." Stokes says the region also differs from other parts of the Mediterranean in terms of cuisine and culture. "Turkish food is like a gift from heaven, in my opinion—it's fresh, local, heavy on eggplant and lamb (two of my favorites) and resplendent with olive oil. And turkey in general offers up a more laid-back vacation due to the country's social and religious mores."
The most interesting part of the coast lies between the cities of Antalya and Dalaman, which both receive regular air and bus service from Istanbul during the summer months. Traveling either East to West or vice versa, you can drive, take buses, or, ideally, sail between the seaside resorts and ancient towns along the coast. Stokes and her husband opted for a four-day gullet sailing cruise between Fethiye (near Dalaman airport) and Olimpos (near Antalya) booked through Fez Travel. Starting at a mere $269 per person today, this all-inclusive trip is a real steal. "Each day we visited a different port, sailing briskly along the lush but rocky Turkish coast and summarily stopping for dips in the clear azure waters," says Stokes.
You can also drive (if you have good reflexes and nerves) or take buses. Start in Antalya, a busy resort town where you can get an overview of the area's history from the Stone Age to the Ottoman period at the local archeology museum (Antalya Museum, about $12). Then, head down to the ancient city of Olimpos, where you hike to the Chimera, a series of natural eternal flames which in ancient times inspired myths about a fire-breathing monster. Further west is Kas, a fishing village turned beach resort where you can base yourself for explorations of nearby ruins like Demre, where St. Nicholas (Santa!) lived, and Ucagiz, an old village where you can see 2,000-year-old Lycian tombs. Before ending your tour in Dalaman, be sure to visit Oludeniz, home to what many think is Turkey's most beautiful beach, and Fethiye, where you can see remnants of the ancient Telmessos.
Trip planning:To book a sailing trip, go to the Fez Travel website. For landlubbers, the website Turkey Travel Planner has lots of good hotel recommendations. In Antalya, try the small Ottoman-style La Paloma Pansion (from 30 euros per night) in the Kaleici historic quarter. Olimpos is famed for its tree houses, including Kadir's Tree Houses (from about $20 a night), which can arrange all kinds of tours and activities for pretty good rates. In Kas, summertime rates for doubles at the seaside B&B Hideaway Hotel start at 48 euros, and in Fethiye, you can stay at the Villa Daffodil (from 40 euros per night), a quiet guesthouse away from the main town.
Early September flights from New York to Istanbul start at $902 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on Hotwire.com. In Turkey, plan to fly from Istanbul to Antalya and then from Dalaman back to Istanbul. Flights on Turkish Airlines start around $40 each-way plus taxes.
For more trip planning ideas, go to Turkey Travel Planner.
For many Americans, Transylvania conjures up images of an Eastern European backwater that produced one of the world's most frightening characters, Count Dracula. While it may be rough-around-the-edges, Transylvania (now part of modern-day Romania) is also a beguiling place to see, promising a chance to experience one of Europe's wildest landscapes and a proud culture that still practices many old traditions.
"As we traveled through the country side, I remember seeing women leading broad-horned cows by rope and farmers using scythes to harvest hay," says Anna Rudberg, an Arizona native who traveled through Transylvania with her brother Eric in 2006. "It seemed like we were witnessing an older way of life that doesn't exist anymore in other parts of Europe. The people seemed to very connected to their heritage and were very proud of it. The landscape is jagged mountains covered with ancient-looking forests and then farmland with medieval villages and castles. It really felt mysterious—you could understand how the land could breed myths like the Dracula stories."
Start your tour in Brasov, a pretty medieval city where you can spend a day exploring its historic churches and fortifications and take a cable car to the top of Mount Tampa (about $3) for a great view of the city and surrounding mountains. Then, head to nearby Bran to visit Bran Castle (about $5), which is also known as Dracula's Castle. This restored site fits the Hollywood ideal of what a vampire's castle should look like, and has even been used in the filming of several Dracula movies.
Another important site for Dracula fans is the birthplace of Vlad Dracula (the bloodthirsty warlord who spawned Dracula myths) in the Saxon town of Sighisoara, one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. "Sighisoara is the most beautiful town we visited in Romania," says Rudberg. "It almost looks like a little Prague." You should also visit the town of Sibiu, another medieval Saxon city that was honored as a "European City of Culture" in 2007. While in the area, if you are fit and have a few days, you should try climbing the country's highest mountain, Mt. Moldeveanu. The hike is nontechnical and you can stay in mountain huts along the way. For details about the hike, go to SummitPost.org.
Trip planning: Traveling around Romania by yourself requires a lot of patience and improvisation as English isn't widely spoken and the tourism infrastructure can be poor to nonexistent. If you're not up for the hassles, consider signing up for a guided tour. The U.K.-based active travel company Explore runs eight-day Land of Dracula tours from $1,140 per person, which covers accommodations, ground transportation, some meals, activities, and a tour guide.
If you're more adventurous, try going on your own. Rudberg favored a "fly-by-the seat-of-your-pants" travel style, arranging to stay in guesthouses along the way and talking the local proprietors into driving her around to the various sights. If you'd feel more comfortable arranging accommodations in advance, you certainly can. Some affordable, recommended lodgings include the Casa Cristina B&B (from about $52 per night) in Brasov, The Casa Legenda (from 33 euros) in Sighisoara, which is housed within an ancient building where Vlad Dracula is said to have kept a mistress, and the elegant little La Maison Francaise (from 55 euros) in Sibiu.
If you'd like to live like a count for a few days, stay at Count Kalnoky's Estate in the village of Miklosvar near Brasov, where you can stay in recently renovated aristocratic guest houses and be treated to freshly prepared Transylvanian meals and a daily schedule of activities and cultural experiences (spend a day learning about shepherding, explore nearby caves, hike to remote Saxon villages). All-inclusive rates start at 320 euros for three-night packages.
Mid-August flights from New York to Bucharest start at $1,177 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on Delta. From Bucharest you can catch trains to Brasov and other destinations within Transylvania. RailEurope sells five-day first-class Romania rail passes for $202. You'll likely pay less if you buy second-class seats when you get there.
To learn more about Transylvania tourism, visit the Romania tourism website.
Moravia, Czech Republic
Want to go on a European wine-country ramble, biking or driving between vineyards and villages and sampling wines and the sights along the way? If you can't afford to shell out for a trip to a traditional wine region like Provence or Tuscany, consider a vacation to the Czech Republic's little-known Moravia region. There you can stay in friendly inns for as little as $60 a night and sample as many of the area's prized white and ice wines as you like, for about the same price as a single bottle of ho-hum Napa Chardonnay.
Located to the south of Bohemia (where Prague is), Moravia is a more traditional, rural part of the Czech Republic, that is well set up for inn-to-inn touring. "There's a great deal to see if you're driving or biking," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations, who went on a cycling tour through Moravia last fall. "Some people have compared Moravia to the wine districts of France, with its rolling hills covered with vineyards, 300- to 400-year-old architecture, and little villages with the traditional town square and colorful houses. It hasn't been gentrified the way other wine regions in Europe have been (although it's starting), so it's a lot cheaper."
You could easily spend a week hopping from one town to the next, visiting boutique wineries, castles, monasteries, and other sites. "One fantastic place to visit is the National Wine Centre, which is in the cellar of a castle in this beautiful town called Valtice," says Leffel. "For less than $25 you can try any of the 100 best wines in the country. Most people have never heard of these brands, but they are surprisingly good."
Other area highlights include the towns of Telc and Znojmo. Telc has one of Europe's few unreconstructed 16th-century town centers, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Znojmo is home to one of region's largest wineries, Znovin Znojmo, which offers tastings and tours of its cellars and vineyards.
Trip planning:Moravia has a well-maintained biking and walking network, which is part of the extensive Prague-Vienna Greenway. "Most of the routes are either on bike trails or on country roads without much traffic. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and wineries are biker-friendly and have signs indicating they have places to lock up your bike," says Leffel. The Friends of Czech Greenways website publishes detailed maps and biking guides of Moravia, which make it easy to plan an itinerary and arrange for bike rentals or tours. You can book a pre-arranged tour (starting at 1,090 euros for eight days), but Leffel says it's cheaper and not all that difficult to do a self-guided tour through an established bike rental company.
Most Moravia accommodations are cheap, simple, family-run establishments. Leffel recommends the Hotel Drnholec, an inn and pub housed in a 18th-century manor house that's run by a British-Czech couple and located in a small town by the same name near Mikulov. "At around $60 a night for a room and breakfast, it's a great deal," says Leffel. He also likes the B&B Hotel Templ in Mikulov (near Znojmo), which starts at about $80 per night. In Telc, try the Hotel Telc, the town's highest-rated hotel on TripAdvisor, where nightly rates for doubles start at 45 euros.
Early September flights from New York to Prague, the nearest major international airport, start at $779 round-trip, including taxes and fees, on Hotwire.com. From the main train station in Prague, it's about a three-hour ride ($10 one-way) to Brno, the biggest city in Moravia.
Go to the Czech Tourism website for more trip-planning resources.
SmarterTravel.com features expert travel advice and unbiased coverage of travel deals.