Flights, a stylish hotel and two days full of eating, drinking and culture, all for less than £200 per person. Here’s how it’s done.
Day one You’re here, you’re curious — you’re hungry. Watch the morning canal traffic thread by while tucking into pillowy pannenkoeken (Dutch pancakes) at Koffiehuis de Hoek: a generous stack with coffee is £6 and sure to set you up for the day (Prinsengracht 341). Then take to the waters yourself for an idling city tour, skipping the big boats with blaring commentary — most first-timers’ mistake — in favour of something more intimate. The Blue Boat Company’s open-boat tours, with a maximum of 10 passengers, are a good bet. The 75-minute rides depart from Stadhouderskade 30 and cost £12pp when booked online (blueboat.nl).
You’ll want to get to the famous sandwich joint Singel 404, near Amsterdam Museum, before noon to nab a table. Here, it’s all about the melting brie and smoked chicken on rye (sandwiches about £6; Singel 404). This lands you a five-minute walk — or a shorter cycle ride (it’s the best way to see the city) from the historic Begijnhof square, lined with some of the city’s oldest houses. Next, cycle the scenic route to the Rijksmuseum’s knee-weakening collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers (£14; rijksmuseum.nl/en). For a slap-up Dutch dinner, nearby Zaza’s is rumoured to be in the running for a Michelin star. Two courses with wine still rack up at less than £30 a head (zazas.nl).
Day two Set off from your B&B to the Southern Canal Belt for the Bloemenmarkt, a stunning floating flower market (Singel, between Muntplein and Koningsplein). Refuel at the quaint Toastable Koningsplein, where the clue’s in the name: build-your-own toasties with Dutch cheese. Have the £6 three-deck “legend” if you dare (toastable.nl). Head on to the buzzy thoroughfare of Leidsestraat for Amsterdam’s most hassle-free shopping: boutiques jostling with old-world tobacco stores. Pick up a stinky souvenir at Henri Willig (henriwillig.com), a temple to Dutch cheese, or rock-chick swimwear at Juliette pour Romeo. Keep £15 or so for coffees and cakes at one of the city’s 150 coffee shops, there whenever you need a pit stop. Just watch out for those space cakes (see coffeeshopsiberie.nl).
Stay Decorated with madcap objets d’art, the Between Art and Kitsch B&B is a characterful treat. Pack light, though — rooms are on the third floor and the climb is a killer (doubles from £73, B&B; between-art-and-kitsch.com).
Get there EasyJet flies from several UK airports from £33.50 return. Trains from Schiphol airport to the city centre take 18 minutes and cost £4.20 each way. Once there, walk or hire a bike for an average day rate of £12 (a-bike.eu).
Penny-pincher’s tip Buy cut-price gig tickets online at lastminuteticketshop.nl from 10am onwards for events that day.
Do the maths Flight £33.50; hotel £36.50; train £8.40; bike hire £12; tours and sights £26; breakfast £6; lunches £12; dinner £30; coffee and cake £15; allow £10 for drinks
Day one For that ultimate skyline snap, you’ll want the Eiffel Tower in shot — and you won’t get it at the monument itself. Instead, go to the Tour Montparnasse’s 56th-floor observation deck, from where steely rooftops peak and trough their way to the tower’s filigree girders (£12; tourmontparnasse56.com). From here it’s a pleasant walk to a bargain lunch on Rue d’Odessa and Rue du Montparnasse, where every door seemingly opens onto a quaint, inexpensive Breton crêperie — try Crêperie de Josselin, thick with kitsch furniture and wall hangings (mains about £7; 67 Rue du Montparnasse). The lanes between Montparnasse and the Left Bank are glorious to explore on foot, and just a bridge away from the Louvre (£12; louvre.fr). A 10-minute walk from here, Rue Sainte-Anne (aka Little Tokyo) is the city’s greatest foodie secret, lined with steam-filled Japanese canteens such as Higuma, where giant bowls of pork- and squid-filled soup cost about £6 (higuma.fr).
Day two After your hotel breakfast, let the Métro whisk you to the Marais, where shops are open on Sundays. Amid palatial mansions and winding streets, a free culture fix is on offer at the Musée Carnavalet, with exhibits about Paris and a recreation of Proust’s cork-lined bedroom (carnavalet.paris.fr). For lunch, let your nose be led by the scent of falafel sandwiches on Rue des Rosiers — they’re delicious and filling at L’As du Fallafel (about £5; 34 Rue des Rosiers). A potter around the nearby vintage stores, and already you’ll be thinking of dinner. Barav is a cave-à-manger (wine bar with food), where a crisp sauvignon aperitif quickly turns into a wine-addled feast of charcuterie, cheese and baguette (aperitif £3, platters about £10; lebarav.fr). An after-dinner stroll along Rue des Archives to Paris’s islands costs you rien — though you might indulge in a glass of bubbly (£8.80) on the terrace of Le Flore en L’Ile; its river views are a stirring last sight before a late flight (lefloreenlile.fr).
Stay Snuggle down in one of Solar Hotel’s bright, streamlined rooms (those on the upper floor have balconies for no extra charge), and wake up to an organic breakfast in the bird-filled courtyard. Want to pack more in? Grab one of their free bikes — first come, first served —
for speedier sightseeing from this Montparnasse spot (doubles from £63.50, B&B; solarhotel.fr).
Get there Eurostar has London-Paris tickets from £58 return, but easyJet flies from Gatwick to Paris CDG from £51.50 return, so check both. The fastest way into town from the airport is RER B train (£8 one way). Once you’re there, the city centre is walkable. A single Métro ride is £1.37 if you need to go a further quickly.
Penny-pincher’s tip Take milk in your coffee? Cheaper than a café crème (£3) is an allongé noisette — espresso with hot milk and water (£1.80). It tastes almost the same but will save you about £1.20.
Do the maths Flight £51.50; hotel £31.75; travel £18.74; sights £24; lunches £12; dinners £16; allow £21.80 for drinks
Day one Start near your hotel with that marvel of ancient engineering, the Pantheon (free), then hop on the No 492 bus north from the nearest main road, Corso del Rinascimento. This whisks you to the Vatican Museums, where entry is £13 if you book online (mv.vatican.va) — pricy, but the Pope’s pad does offer value for money: 54 magnificent galleries to amble through, ending with the sublime Sistine Chapel. Afterwards, listen to your rumbling stomach and, dodging the omnipresent tourist menus, prepare to spend a little more for homemade pasta and divine tiramisu at the family-run and more simpatico Arlu, a 10-minute walk away (two courses about £15; www.ristorantearlu.it), before tackling the Renaissance marvel that is St Peter’s Basilica (free). In the early evening, stroll south along the Tiber for aperitivi in vibrant Trastevere’s liveliest bar, Freni e Frizioni (drinks about £6; www.freniefrizioni.com), before crossing the river to the Pizzeria da Remo, in Testaccio, for a superb Roman-style thin-crust pizza served by wise-cracking waiters (pizza with wine about £11; Piazza di Santa Maria Liberatrice 44). Most people visit the icons in the daytime, but if you take a postprandial wander around the Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, you’ll see them beautifully illuminated.
Day two Charge your batteries with the city’s best coffee and pastries close to your hotel, at the popular Sant’Eustachio (£4; santeustachioilcaffe.it). Then catch the No 117 bus from Via del Corso (a 10-minute walk), or take a taxi for about £7, to Rome’s other biggie, the Colosseum — it’s free on the first Sunday of the month; otherwise it’s £9.60 (coopculture.it). Grab a juicy porchetta-packed sandwich just around the corner at Pane & Vino (£5; Via Ostilia 8). Then, if you have time, take bus No 118 from the Colosseum for a 30-minute ride beyond the ancient walls to stroll along the monument-lined (and, on Sundays, traffic-free) Via Appia Antica, a slice of the city almost unchanged since the days of Spartacus. And that last supper before you fly? Savour those Italian flavours at the superb but affordable Osteria del Pegno, back towards your hotel — try the heavenly black rice and prawns (two courses with wine about £22; Vicolo di Montevecchio 8).
Stay Although there are cheaper joints on Rome’s outskirts and near Termini station, it’s worth paying a bit more to be in the centro storico. And elegant, Liberty-style Hotel Pantheon is only 66ft from its namesake (doubles from £88, B&B; hotelpantheon.com).
Get there Ryanair has flights from Stansted to Rome Ciampino from £51 return. Book the Terravision airport shuttle bus from Ciampino to Termini station online at terravision.eu, where a return costs £6 (instead of £8 bought on the day). Much of central Rome is doable on foot, but for those city-fringe visits, consider a one-day Metro and bus pass for £5.60.
Penny-pincher’s tip Always drink at the bar. Sitting down doubles the price, while a table on the terrace can triple it.
Do the Maths Flight £51; hotel £44; travel £11.60; sights £22.60; lunches £20; dinners £33; coffee and pastry £4; aperitivo £6
Day one Take advantage of your just-touched-down energy to see the wild imaginings of Gaudi and the Modernistas, plus a shimmering, city-sea view, at Park Guell (£5.60; parkguell.cat). Then jump on the Metro to Sagrada Familia for Gaudi’s wacky masterpiece — save a few quid with the £17.70 unguided pass and instead make use of the fantastic audio guide (sagradafamilia.org). With two big-hitters down, lunch is beckoning, along with the attractions of downtown Barcelona. The Gothic Quarter is the place to eat — it’s a 30-minute walk away, but the potato and black sausage pie at buzzy Lluis de les Moles is worth crossing town for, as evidenced by the customers snaking down the street (three-course lunch menu £15; lluisdelesmoles.com/en). Lose yourself in the charm and cobbled streets of the barrio, picking up a pistachio ice cream from locals’ favourite, Gelaaati! di Marco, just past the cathedral (£3; gelaaati.com). On to the neighbouring Raval district, where the stark white MACBA contemporary art museum has exhibits from the brilliant to the baffling — it’ll get you up to speed with Barcelona’s enduring creativity (£8; macba.cat). Later on, forget newfangled “gastro” tapas and seek out the real deal at Barceloneta’s Maians restaurant: silky plates of arroz negro (black rice) and juicy, shell-on gambas at £3 a dish, manzanilla sherry and a warm Andalusian welcome from the owners (dinner with drinks about £20; Carrer de Sant Carles 28).
Day two After an early wander along Las Ramblas (before the boulevard is overrun by tourists), treat yourself to a second breakfast — and the most traditional sugar rush: strong coffee and crispy churros, just £2.20 at Cafe & Te (Las Ramblas 80). That should fuel you all the way up Montjuic, where, in the strollable grounds of Montjuic Castle (£4; ajuntament.barcelona.cat/castelldemontjuic/ca), you’ll be rewarded with eye-popping city views, and the breezy garden museum of that other quintessentially Barcelonian artist, Joan Miro (£9.65; fmirobcn.org); there’s no better farewell to the surrealists’ city. Recharge before the journey back downhill with a generous bocadillo (sandwich) from the castle cafe (about £5).
Stay A hop-skip from Las Ramblas, Hotel Curious is an uncommon find. The decor — photographic wall prints and polished wooden floors — and banquet of a breakfast take second billing to the welcome, with 24-hour concierge Mateo offering free walking routes and a steer away from the tourists (doubles from £65, B&B; hotelcurious.com).
Get there Ryanair has return flights from Stansted from £46. The key attractions are walkable, but the Metro costs only £1.70 a journey — budget for about five in town, plus
£4 each way for the Renfe train from the airport to central Passeig de Gracia station.
Penny-pincher’s tip Forget the Ramblas tat. The huge Encants Vells flea market is your spot to find a souvenir treasure for a snip (9am-8pm, Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat; encantsbcn.com).
Do the maths Flight £46; hotel £32.50; travel £16.50; breakfast £2.20; lunch £20; dinner £20; sights £44.95; ice cream £3; allow £10 for drinks
Day one So much of Denmark’s style capital can be seen for free — well, the cost of hiring a bike — so you won’t need to pay for a cab all weekend. Start off with a light lunch: the city’s finest avocado toast — our favourite comes sprinkled with lemon juice and cayenne pepper at light, airy Atelier September on busy Gothersgade (£9; atelierseptember.dk). It’s a five-minute cycle from here to the fortress-like Danish parliament, familiar to fans of The Killing and Borgen. Here you can climb the Tarnet tower for free (taarnet.dk) — on a clear day you can see Sweden. Spend the rest of your first day outdoors, pedalling past the brightly painted houses of Nyhavn and the helter-skelter spire of the Church of Our Saviour, and along tree-lined boulevards to Dronning Louises Bro, the bridge where locals like to catch some rays in summer. Then weave on to Assistens Cemetery, the final resting place of Hans Christian Andersen. Wind up at this end of town in the early evening and you won’t have far to go for dinner at Manfreds, on trendy Jaegersborggade. This cosy restaurant is run by Christian Puglisi, an alumnus of the city’s most coveted restaurant, Noma. You’ll be sampling his inventive dishes in a fantastic £29.70, seven-course menu. Factor in £25 for a bottle of wine (manfreds.dk).
Day two Rise late and brunch like the locals at the hip, glass-and-steel Torvehallerne Market. Crispy fishcakes with rye and mayo (£4) from Boutique Fisk are a fine start, and a head-spinning espresso from Coffee Collective (£2.15) is the proper way to finish (10am–7pm; torvehallernekbh.dk). Then gorge on some culture. You can see dreamlike works by Monet and Degas at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (£10; glyptoteket.dk), but if you want only one stop, it should be the Design Museum, to see the city’s history told in a series of beautifully carved chairs (£10.80; designmuseum.dk). You should still have a few krone left. Use them up on a rickety rollercoaster ride at the retro Tivoli pleasure gardens (£6, entry £10.80; tivoli.dk/en), and a sour cherry lager at nearby Mikkeller Bar in laid-back Vesterbro (about £6 a pint; mikkeller.dk) — in that order.
Stay Copenhagen isn’t bursting with cheap options, so Urban House hostel is a real find. It has a great location in Vesterbro, and the vibe is hipster-chic rather than student digs (private ensuite doubles from £70; urbanhouse.me).
Get there Norwegian has returns from Gatwick from £52. The Metro whizzes you from airport to town
in 13 minutes (£3.70 one way); once there, you can rent a bike for £10 a day from Copenhagen Bikes, just off Vesterbrogade (copenhagenbikes.dk).
Penny-pincher’s tip Take a dip, if it’s warm enough: the nearby beaches and harbour have loads of free swimming facilities. The loveliest spot is arty-looking Kastrup Sea Bath (free; Amager Strandvej 301).
Do the maths Flight £26.50; hotel £35; travel £7.40; bike hire £20; sights £37.60; brunch £6.15; lunch £9; dinner £42.20; allow £16 for drinks
Day one Set yourself up for the day the way naughtier Lisboetas do: with a plateful of pasteis de nata (custard tarts) at the famous Pasteis de Belem bakery (£6 with coffee; pasteisdebelem.pt). Now you’re ready to get up close with the city’s notable crenellations. Entrance to both the eerie Belem Tower and Hogwartian Jeronimos Monastery costs £9.70 with a twin ticket (torrebelem.pt). Half an hour before you’re peckish, jump on the No 15 tram along the waterfront to the shiny new food court at Mercado da Ribeira. Roll up your sleeves for saucers of marinated mackerel and rich, tangy Azeitao sheep’s cheese (about £20 for three tapas with drinks; 5am-2pm, Avenida 24 de Julho 50). Walk 15 minutes east along Rua do Arsenal to the Santa Justa Lift, an engineering marvel from the start of the 19th century that rewards you with fine views of terracotta rooftops tumbling down to the sea as it clanks to the summit (£4). Come back down to earth for a classic Portuguese aperitif of port and tonic at the bohemian A Brasileira (£3; Rua Garrett 120). Later, for the sort of candlelit feast you dream of, head to the Portuguese-Brazilian Salsa Rosa Bistro for smoked-pork sausage and fine vinho verde (two courses with wine about £28; Avenida Conde Valbom 61A). It’s then a short stumble back to your base.
Day two Start the day, while it’s peaceful, at the Gulbenkian Museum, home to ancient Greek pottery and Lalique jewellery, as well as rolling gardens and a great cafe (£12; museu.gulbenkian. pt). Next, breathe in the briny air and ambition of 21st-century Lisbon at the futuristic Parque das Nacoes. You will find a cooling mist in the water garden and beautiful young things parading along the bayside promenade (free; portaldasnacoes.pt). Pause for a beer at on-site Republica da Cerveja (£3.50), but no more than a stiffener. You’ll need your appetite for a final meal of fresh-off-the-boat fish at Senhor Peixe (main with a drink about £10; Rua Pimenta 35).
Stay Don’t be put off by the bland exterior: Hotel Principe Lisboa socks it to most mid-range hotels. It’s a short stroll to two Metro stations, which can take you north to the airport or anywhere in the city in less than 20 minutes. The wi-fi is zippy, rooms are spotless, if not spacious, and balconies with a view are no extra charge (doubles from £57, B&B; hotelprincipelisboa.com).
Get there EasyJet flies to Lisbon from Gatwick, Luton, Edinburgh and Liverpool, from £51.50 return. The red Metro line connects the airport to the central Saldanha station in about 15 minutes and costs £1.50. Or, if you’re planning to take a few buses or trams, load £12 onto a Viva Viagem Zapping card (like London’s Oyster). This should see you through your trip, including airport transfers.
Penny-pincher’s tip Watch out for higher-charging cabs from other cities — look for the city sign.
Do the maths Flight £51.50; hotel £28.50; travel £12; sights £25.70; coffee and pasteis £6; lunches £30; dinner £28; allow £6.50 for drinks
Day one For breakfast, it’s hemenex (what Czechs call ham and eggs) at the buzzy, grandiose Cafe Louvre, where Kafka and Einstein once knocked about (breakfast with coffee £5; cafelouvre.cz). Then take the best (nearly free) rolling tour in town, aboard tram No 22. Glide past the more famous, but pricier, Cafe Slavia, then across the Vltava River to Prague Castle, a mash-up of gothic and romanesque details, flanked by Renaissance towers. The grounds are free to wander, but the short tour gets you into crypts, towers and spooky tombs. Don’t bother with the full-day tour, which mainly leads you to old castle kitchenware (short tour £7.50; hrad.cz). Lunch with savvy locals at the nearby art bar U Zavesenyho Kafe. Eat a classic Bohemian roast and wash it down with a liquid-gold Pilsner (main with a beer about £6; Uvoz 169/6). Back downhill to the river island of Slovansky Ostrov to hire a rowing boat. It’s by far the best way to soak up those swirling art nouveau facades in the afternoon light (£5.40; slovanka.net). You’ve spent peanuts so far, so why not splash out on an A-list dinner? A stroll through the old town takes you to warm, intimate Divinis, where the wild boar in mustard sauce and Tuscan chiantis are popular with visiting film stars (three courses, with wine, about £40; divinis.cz). Top things off with a negroni nightcap at the trendy Tretter’s nearby (£4; www.tretters.cz).
Day two After your breakfast buffet and bottomless coffee at your hotel, head to Old Town Square to catch a ritual dating back to 1410: every hour, on the hour, from 8am to 8pm, the Astronomical Clock strikes, complete with a parade of saints and rattling allegorical figures. Then meet your guide in the same spot for the sobering Communism Walk, which explores the city’s darkest Soviet-era secrets and scars; it’s our pick of the Prague Walks (£11.30; praguewalks.com). After a mile and a half, you’ll end up at restaurant-laden Narodni Street, but your classic Czech lunch of beer-basted beef awaits around the corner at U Medvidku, a labyrinthine beer hall that pours the finest Budvar in town (main, with a beer, about £6; umedvidku.cz). This working-class nosh leaves you dosh to spare for souvenirs — handcrafted herbal soaps or a toy Krtek, a 1950s cartoon mole, at Manufaktura’s airport shop (£5; prg.aero).
Stay Mosaic House is a hostel, but a stylish one, with private doubles that surpass many hotel rooms for comfort. The optional £5.60 breakfast buffet seals the deal (doubles from £50; mosaichouse.com).
Get there Wizz Air flies to Prague from Luton, from £43 return. Ride into town on the No 119 bus (95p), which stops right outside the terminal, for a 10-minute trip to Nadrazi Veleslavin Metro stop, where a machine will spit out your 24-hour transport pass for just £3.30 (dpp.cz).
Penny-pincher’s tip Set-lunch menus at popular spots downtown, such as Jama (jamapub.cz), will cut costs significantly; expect to get your fill for less than £3.
Do the maths Flight £43; hotel £25; travel £7.55; breakfast £10.60; lunch £12; dinner £40; cocktail £4; tours and sights £24.20; souvenir £5
A version of this feature originally appeared in last month’s Sunday Times Travel Magazine, our glossy sister publication. The May issue is out now, priced £3.90, and features, among much else, a 25-page Total Guide to Japan. Get the next six issues for just £6 (UK direct debit only) by calling 01795 414827, or visiting sttmsub.co.uk. Quote ‘STOFFER29’ and see the website for full terms and conditions.