Big cities can be a double-edged sword for travellers looking for a budget getaway. They often boast the big sights, but big names like London, Paris, and Sydney can also empty your wallet faster than most destinations thanks to higher hotel and restaurant bills, to say nothing of the big ticket attractions you want to see. On the flipside, that heightened demand can also keep things quite competitive, and you’ll have freedom to explore on your own that you might not enjoy in smaller centres.
These cities are my personal budget-friendly favourites that combine must-see sights with endless opportunities for urban exploration. All offer fantastic value to the traveller, but remember, while things might seem cheap for you, make sure you’re paying a fair price without either driving local businesspeople into the ground, or encouraging badly inflated prices that ultimately hurt/drive out the locals and rob these cities of everything that makes them great. Be informed and respectful, and these cities will show you a terrific time.
Krakow’s a little out of the way of most Europe vacations, but it’s worth the trip. Poland’s cultural capital embodies the country at its most romantic, even with its melancholy history. The city is your most likely base for visiting Auschwitz, after all, and a visit to the former Schindler Factory is a must. Alongside those sobering sights, you’ll find plenty to smile about in the city’s old town (including the fascinating underground), Wawel Castle, and the eye-popping Wiecliczka Salt Mine. Then toast over delicious Polish comfort food with cocktails in the Jewish Quarter – all at some of Europe’s lowest prices.
Excluding Hong Kong and Macau, space-age Shanghai is China’s most expensive city, but it’s still a bargain by global standards, with loads of great sights and experiences. Admire dazzling architecture along the Bund, dive into China’s national museum (within the world’s biggest dumpling steamer), find a moment’s serenity at the Jade Buddha Temple, or roam the cutting edge galleries of the French Concession or M50 Creative Park. Beijing might boast the big ticket attractions, but Shanghai’s a joy to explore at your own, very affordable pace.
Stereotypes cast Tokyo as one of the most expensive cities on earth, but Tokyoites are also masters of wringing fine sake living out of a green tea budget. That means you can travel on any budget here, provided you’re willing to swap hip, high end restaurants and clubs for tiny local establishments frequented by locals. Nearly all of Tokyo’s best attractions are extremely affordable or free, and there are cheap options for those special experiences like a kabuki performance too. A top-notch public transit system helps you save even more. Prepare to splurge if you want a spacious hotel room however, and don’t count on your credit card being widely accepted. In high tech Japan, cash is still king.
No list of great budget destinations would be complete without Bangkok! If you can handle the chaotic traffic here, you’ll have a ball in the big city. Shopping and eating are major pastimes, both of which can be done at a bargain price. But Bangkok’s rich history has also dotted it with beautiful palaces and temples, a fascinating floating market, spectacular ruins in nearby Ayutthaya, and cheap options for a soothing massage on every corner. Don’t miss the street food either. Even with a recent tightening of regulations, this is still an essential part of the Bangkok experience, and a great way to feast on the cheap while on your Thailand vacation.
Prague was “the place to go” for budget travellers 20 years ago, so it’s impressive that the city has managed to keep things so affordable in the face of tourist crowds on par with Amsterdam or Barcelona. Things in the Old Town and Castle Quarter are unsurprisingly inflated, but you don’t have to go far beyond these districts for prices to tumble. Major attractions including Prague Castle and the Jewish Museum are also extremely reasonable. The price of beer has skyrocketed since the 90s, but the quality to cost ratio is arguably the best in the world. Endure the crowds and Prague is still one of Europe’s best value cities.
People used to call Budapest “the next Prague,” which is both reductive and misleading. Hungary’s capital is much larger (and so feels less crowded), every bit as beautiful, and boasts a culture unlike anything the neighbours have to offer. For my money, it’s also the best value city break in Europe. With its fascinating Magyar history, chilling stories of the turbulent 20th century, delicious cuisine, and an insatiable appetite for fun that manifests in both the city’s famous thermal baths and ruin pubs, Budapest is a city that time and again rewards visitors willing to fold back its many layers on their budget getaway.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio isn’t an expensive city, but it’s a tricky one to navigate on a budget. Getting around on public transit can be difficult, and safety is a factor too, so you’ll want to take cabs or Uber after dark. The summits of the Corcovado and Sugarloaf aren’t cheap tickets either. The good news is the rest of Rio’s star attractions are either extremely cheap or free. Taking in Ipanema’s jaw-dropping sunset over Dois Irmaos won’t cost you a thing. Nor will spending a day on Copacabana Beach, visiting Selaron’s Steps, or hopping through the boutique galleries of Santa Teresa. Take advantage of Brazil’s pay-by-weight smorgasbords to drive costs down even further in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Let’s be honest. You’re really in Siem Reap for the Angkor temples, and that’s perfectly fine. The town itself however is one of Southeast Asia’s most delightful, with some of the friendliest locals I’ve encountered anywhere. Even the local markets offer a more relaxed pace than in the big cities, so it’s a pleasure to return here in your downtime while on your Cambodia vacation. A thriving tourist infrastructure means competition among restaurants and bars is fierce, with plenty of very affordable options to escape the backpacker crowds and preserve all that’s appealing about Siem Reap.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires isn’t as cheap as some expect, particularly when you start looking at day trips and experiences priced in USD. On the ground however, you’ll be using the peso, and while Buenos Aires has gentrified rapidly in recent years, it still offers superb value throughout most of the city. The virtues of Argentine barbecue have not been exaggerated, and if you do need a break from all that delicious meat and wine, you’ll be able to enjoy the finest pizza and ice cream to be found outside of Italy. After dark, consider picking up discount tickets for a show, or testing your tango skills at a local milonga.
It’s a big call to say Hanoi is the world’s best value city break for a budget getaway, but a delicious bowl of pho and steaming hot coffee sweetened Vietnamese style with some condensed milk is a pretty great way to start a sightseeing day. Follow it up with a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake watching locals at their morning exercises, a serene visit to the Temple of Literature, and an afternoon lunch and Old Quarter shopping spree before relaxing with a bia hoi in the afternoon, and you’ll have a close to perfect – and extremely affordable – Hanoi day in Vietnam.