Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine July 2008 Issue
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Freelance Work on the Riviera

Five Ideas for Budget Sightseeing in Europe

Avoid the Tour Buses and Enjoy Art and History at Your Own Pace

Rome on a Budget: Piazza Navona
A casual stroll on a beautiful Italian piazza like the Piazza Navona in Rome—always full of life and immersed in history and art—costs nothing. You might be tempted to buy a gelato, though. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

Sightseeing is often a Europe travel expense people forget or underestimate, but you can quickly rack up charges in the realm of even hundreds of euros in no time with tours and pricy attraction tickets. You don’t want to miss out on the sightseeing, of course. That’s a major reason you’re visiting Europe. Just sight see smartly, and you can protect your wallet from a major hit in these times of a high euro exchange rate.

There is also a nice bonus in pursuing budget options for sightseeing in Europe. Even well-to-do Europeans are much more frugal and conscientious of spending than, say, your typical American tourist. So if you follow the methods locals use, you are much more likely to encounter locals along the way and have a more authentic experience.

Budget Europe Sightseeing Idea #1: People Watching

There are few things in life better than simply people-watching in Europe. You can do this for free by finding a nice bench or spot in a busy plaza, square or thoroughfare. Or you can pop some change for a cup of coffee and do it with some style: people watch from a sidewalk café.

Nice on a Budget
People watching from an sidewalk café in old Nice, France is not only relaxing, but light on the budget. Buy a drink and hang out for hours watching the theater created by local poseurs and exhausted tourists. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

Budget Europe Sightseeing Idea #2: Wander Aimlessly

One of my personal favorite things to do in Europe is a very specific plan to do nothing in particular. When arriving in a new city, I tuck a local map in my back pocket and just go, usually in no direction in particular. This is the best way to make discoveries and, so long as you avoid bad neighborhoods, is a splendid way to discover a city.

The best part is you will probably find some amazing city neighborhood tucked away, teeming with friendly locals, and unknown by most tourists.

Nice on a Budget
Spend a day in one of the greatest walking cities in the world—Rome—and catch the sunset passing over a bridge on the way to the lively Trastevere neighborhood. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

Budget Europe Sightseeing Idea #3: Look for Free Museum Days or Nights

Most major European cities, and even some countries, feature free museum or attraction days of the month. Some also feature evenings that are free. Check to see when the free day is at the destination you will visit, and plan accordingly.

One word of warning here is that free days tend to attract the hordes. Expect long lines, and an experience that may not be so pleasant. For pricy attractions, it may be worth it. Personally, this is one area where I typically splurge and decide it just isn’t worth the savings. I would prefer to enjoy a museum or attraction without the crowds. But this is a nice option for those who don’t mind crowds.

You can also find attraction passes, and sometimes these even pair local transportation passes with museum entries. Be careful with this option as well, however, and study the comparison of paying individually. These passes are often expensive per day. Unless you plan to visit many attractions and heavily use transportation, you could be spending more getting the pass than it’s worth.

Budget Europe Sightseeing Idea #4: Be Your Own Tour Guide

This sort of follows along similar lines as suggestion #2, but with a slightly different spin. One of the biggest budget drains when it comes to sightseeing is organized tours, which can sometimes run even a few hundred euros per person. Instead, go it on your own. Find a good map, a good brochure or guidebook that mentions the destinations you want to see, or even use Google maps to build some sort of an itinerary. Then set out, either on foot or on public transport. Podcast tours are also a very inexpensive alternative to a live human tour guide.

The nice benefit here is that you aren’t tied to a strict itinerary, and you can linger as long as you like at one stop while rushing the next stop if it’s boring.

Wander through the Gianicolo gardens above Trastevere in Rome and get away from the hordes and tours—and hang out where many Romans come to relax. Photo by Gregory Hubbs.

Budget Europe Sightseeing Idea #5: Use Local Transportation

Local transportation options in Europe are quite extensive, even surprisingly available in many small cities and villages. Hopping a city bus, a metro or commuter line, or even a regional train can cost nothing more than change, and provide you a nice tour of the city or the area.

In many destinations, you will find hop on, hop off tour buses, for example, that cost 25 euros and up per person. Then, a block later, you will find the local transport with an all-day pass for maybe 3 euros. Are you really getting a value worth eight times that of the local transportation? It’s doubtful. One tip, however, is that local transportation systems can be confusing to visitors. Ask your hotel’s front desk for help or a bus map or schedule, or visit the local tourism office for some assistance.