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October 17, 2017

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The Art-Nouveau-style Café en Seine is just off Dublin’s main shopping street.

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Europe’s best bargains

Tough times overseas mean a boon for visitors. Here’s where your buck goes farthest

Unless you genuinely enjoy paying more than you have to, there is no need to break the bank on a European trip this spring. Some cities, particularly in the continent’s eastern reaches, have always been affordable but improved infrastructure and amenities now make them increasingly attractive. Others are suddenly on sale due to the current euro crisis. Visiting them is a win-win proposition: you get deep discounts, while the tourism industry gets a much-needed boost. Since there’s a plethora of places to pick from, we’ve done the number crunching for you. For six of this season’s top urban options, read on.

Amsterdam

Always colourful, the Dutch capital is at its best and brightest in spring when riotous blooms pop up in gardens citywide. Of course, that’s only the beginning. You can ogle works by Rembrandt and other Dutch Masters when the Rijksmuseum (1 Museumstraat; rijksmuseum.nl) emerges from a decade-long makeover in mid-April. Then, in early May, you can go gaga over Van Gogh (7 Paulus Potterstraat; vangoghmuseum.nl) when his eponymous museum reopens after its own overhaul. And the famed Concertgebouw (10 Concertgebouwplein; concertgebouw.nl), which turns 125 this year, hosts free lunch concerts on Wednesdays.

Amsterdam’s real draw is that it offers excellent value overall for a city of this stature. According to a recent TripAdvisor.com survey, a four-star double room in Paris is 55 percent pricier than one here. Similarly, a 48-hour I Amsterdam City Card (available through the tourism board) is less than half the cost of a Paris Pass, although both include a cruise, public transit, museum admissions, plus reductions on shopping and dining. iamsterdam.com.

BONUS: Ypres (aka Iper), in Belgium, is 220 kilometres southwest of Amsterdam, and by going there now you’ll beat the crowds expected to flock to the Flanders (visitflanders.com) region next year to honour the centennial of WWI (greatwarcentenary.be). Fashion-forward Antwerp (a fine choice in its own right) is even closer.

Athens

Some destinations seem to transcend time, and the birthplace of democracy is one of them. Beyond being a bucket list locale for archeology buffs, the Greek capital is a favourite of frugal types. That’s understandable considering a $16 pass (odysseus.culture.gr) admits you to 10 classic attractions, the Acropolis and Agora among them. (By contrast, entry to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is $24 alone.) Connecting the dots on your itinerary is equally economical: public transit tickets (oasa.gr), valid for 90 minutes on buses, trolleys, trams, the metro and suburban rail cost $1.90. Perhaps the biggest savings are seen in the hotel sector, where prices have plummeted since the recession hit in 2008. Back then, according to Trivago.com (the world’s leading hotel comparison site) the average double here went for $149: now it’s down to $91, making Athens the fourth cheapest of 50 European cities surveyed. As an added bonus, visiting in spring means you avoid the heat, humidity and smog that descend in summer. breathtakingathens.com.

BONUS: If you’ve dreamed about an island idyll, this is your chance. Booking.com lists load of well-reviewed hotels on easy-to-access Mykonos that are less than $100 a night. Roundtrip ferry tickets (greekferries.gr) from Athens will set you back $92. Corfu, where hotel rates dropped 20 percent last year, is a bit harder to reach, yet reasonable flights are available through Aegean (en.aegeanair.com).

Dublin

The once roaring Celtic Tiger is today a tired pussy cat — and though that’s bad news for the Irish people, it is good news for vacationers heading to Dublin. You can cross the Atlantic relatively cheaply on Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), the Dublin-based national airline; and lodging deals abound. Thanks to a surplus of hotels built during the boom years, supply exceeds demand, thereby pushing room rates down. Sightseeing deals are plentiful, too. The National Botanical Gardens (158 Botanic Road; botanicgardens.ie), which is especially lovely in spring, is free, as are all federal museums, including the National Gallery (Merrion Square West; nationalgallery.ie). Moreover, the civic tourism office has developed a series of free podcasts for do-it-yourself iWalks that are themed around subjects such as Georgian architecture or James Joyce’s novels. Prefer guided tours? New Dublin Tours (newdublintours.com) offers informative outings on a tips-only basis. Oh, and if your feet begin to ache, you can purchase a three-day subscription to Dublin Bikes (dublinbikes.ie) for just $2.75; then enjoy free half-hour cycle rides around town. visitdublin.com.

BONUS: You can tack virtually any European city onto your itinerary since Ryanair (ryanair.com), the pioneering low-cost carrier, is headquartered here. The tourist board is also giving visitors an extra incentive by hosting The Gathering (thegatheringireland.com), a yearlong celebration of all things Irish with promotions country-wide.

Istanbul

Perhaps no city delivers more bang for the buck than undeniably exotic Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire’s one-time capital spans 25 centuries of civilization and bridges the gap between Europe and Asia — literally. Mosques, palaces and other age-old sites are densely packed in the Sultanahmet district, where each nook and cranny tells a tale. Turkey’s largest metropolis makes bargain-hungry foodies drool and cost-conscious shoppers swoon. The former can feast on mezes and all manner of kebaps for pocket change at evocative little eateries; the latter can haggle at the Grand Bazaar, scooping up anything from kilim rugs and killer jewellery to designer knock-offs. Cinephiles will be dazzled, too: the starring role Istanbul played in Skyfall — the latest James Bond blockbuster — helps give it added appeal this year. If you hope to retrace 007’s route, just do so on foot. Careening through in a car (as Bond did), is not recommended. icvb.org.

BONUS: Turkey still isn’t a member of the European Union; but it did become a member of the Eurail (eurail.com) train-pass network, which multiplies the onward options for pass holders. Pegasus (flypgs.com), Turkey’s budget airline, lets you hopscotch between domestic destinations. If you plan several weeks ahead, you can snap up roundtrip tickets to Dalaman (gateway to the Turquoise Riviera) for about $45.

Kraków

The PriceofTravel.com annually ranks Europe’s most affordable locales and this year the top slots are again filled by former Soviet Bloc cities. Places like Bucharest or Sofia may be of marginal interest unless you’re big on backpacking. But Kraków, coming in at number three, is an exception to the rule.

For nightlife-loving Europeans, Poland’s prettiest city is Party Central: a title that was held by Prague (which it visually evokes) until the Czech capital’s popularity soared and prices followed. The open-air establishments rimming Rynek Glówny (Europe’s largest medieval square) are good spots to down a pint of legendary Zywiec beer on warm spring evenings, while dance-til-dawn clubs occupy Old Town’s vaulted cellars.

Kraków looks pretty impressive once the sun rises as well. For starters, the 1000-year-old city scores high on the “history scale.” Having miraculously survived WWII intact, it is still brimming with heritage buildings. In particular Wawel Hill, with its castle and cathedral, and the atmospheric Jewish Quarter beg to be explored. krakow.pl.

BONUS: For a sobering experience, paying tribute to Oskar Schindler (4 ul. Lipowa; mhk.pl) at his old enamel factory, now a museum houses exhibits detailing the Nazi era. Afterwards, continue 60 kilometres west by public bus to the heart-wrenching Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial (20 Więźniów Oświęcimia, Oświęcim; en.auschwitz.org). Admission to the museum is $4.90; entrance to the concentration camp site is free.

Porto

Fado, Portugal’s answer to the blues, provides this city’s typical soundtrack. But while locals are enamoured of the music, those working in the tourism trade are singing a happier tune because their hometown has made the New York Times’ list of “46 Places to See in 2013” list, where it is called one of “Western Europe’s great bargains.” Porto’s UNESCO-designated historic core merits special mention, as does the fortified wine which is its main claim to fame.

Plus it promises luxury for less. This spring, you can order a three-course lunch, complete with wine, any weekday at the Michelin-starred Yeatman Restaurant (Rua do Choupelo; the-yeatman-hotel.com) for $51; then sleep at the five-star Infante de Sagres Hotel (62 Praça D. Filipa de Lencastre; hotelinfantesagres.pt), part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, for $136.

Penny-pinchers can tuck into a francesinha (Porto’s signature sandwich) and a Super Bock beer for $10 before bedding down in a private ensuite room at the stylish Gallery Hostel (gallery-hostel.com) for $67. Either way, you can sightsee by land on a vintage tram for $3.50 or by water on an old-school rabelo boat for $13.50. www.portoturismo.pt.

BONUS: A little over 300 kilometres south, compact yet cosmopolitan Lisbon (visitlisboa.com), Portugal’s chronically under-appreciated capital, is draped over seven hills and boasts beautiful neighborhoods, from Baixa, with its broad boulevards, to the hilly village-like Bairro Alto.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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