Traveling to Europe is often the adventure of a lifetime. While the costs can be high, they don’t have to be. In fact, you can visit Europe on a budget without backpacks or hostels.

Luckily for those of us who’ve always dreamed of knights and castles, the Backpacker Index is a great way to help plan a European itinerary. It publishes two lists annually. The first rates the cheapest 56 cities for backpackers, and the second ranks the top 56 picks for 3-star travelers.

While we’ve never been the backpacker variety of travelers, we’ve learned that compromises on costs don’t have to lessen the experience. We recently spent nearly three weeks in Europe hitting four capital cities and one additional city. And I can guarantee the Backpacker Ratings were right on target with the costs: Amsterdam (52), Berlin (31), Warsaw (11), Krakow (2), and finally, Stockholm (53).

The great thing we found was that not only was Krakow the least expensive, it was also our favorite city!

Krakow Old Town

Krakow Old Town

What Makes Krakow Budget Friendly?

I booked all of our hotels using TripAdvisor, Expedia.ca (it had few in Europe) and Hotels.com, although I used Hotels.com for all of my research. Why? Well, their website has a feature that lets you search by Distance from all kinds of places, while Expedia’s is just distance from downtown. See the screen capture below.

Screen capture of Distance search on Hotels.com.

Screen capture of Distance search on Hotels.com.

We’ve always found the least expensive way to visit a destination is to stay where you want to be. Not only do you not have to pay for taxis (which can be outrageous in some countries — like Sweden) back to hotels, but you don’t waste any of that valuable vacation time waiting in traffic.

So, I did some initial research to determine the high points I wanted to hit. In Krakow, it was Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum (out of the city) and Old Town. Since I was arriving on the high-speed EIP train from Warsaw at the Krakow-Glowny Station that was also a consideration. Ideally, I wanted a reasonably priced hotel close to both.

By cross-referencing the info from Hotels.com and checking prices for ideal hotels I identified, I came up with Maly Krakow Aparthotel. We loved the small apartment style room with its tiny kitchen. The only drawback? No air conditioning. However, we were near lots of dining options, just minutes from a huge shopping mall, Galeria Krakowska, plus close to the train station and Old Town.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp outside Krakow, Poland, Photo

Auschwitz Concentration Camp outside Krakow, Poland.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp outside Krakow, Poland.

Exploring a European City on a Budget

The great thing about visiting Europe is that for the first few trips at least, everything is just so different that you don’t need to spend a lot on attractions! We spend most of our time on the ground, exploring, slipping into shops to see what’s inside, and finding quaint little bars to relax and sample the local brews.

Here are some of our experiences:

And if you’d like an idea of the amazing free sites, check out the interior of the Gothic 15th century St. Barbara’s Church below.

Photo of St. Barbara’s Church in Krakow

Inside St. Barbara’s Church in Krakow, Poland.

What Makes Krakow Such a Good City to Visit Europe on a Budget?

Dating back to the seventh century, Krakow provides the perfect European combo of history and culture. One of its main advantages to visitors though, is that it mainly escaped the bombing raids of WWII that destroyed so much of other European cities. You can still walk through buildings and churches that are centuries old — and for the greater part, the view is free.

Old town, the merchant center of Krakow from the 1200s, has Europe’s largest market square. This historic center was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. Wawel Royal Castle is part of the site. You can tour the inside as well, although there are daily traffic limits and tickets have a fee.

If you want to see more castles — or perhaps even sleep in one — there are various options in Poland.

The trains into Krakow are easy to navigate and can get you out on all kinds of day trips. While we signed up for a tour that included bus pickup for Auschwitz-Birkenau, you can get there by train and walk the remaining 1.5 km or take a local bus. This state museum is visited by nearly two million people a year, so it can definitely be an advantage to do it on your own as the tours all arrive near the same time.

Over a million visitors also visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine, located in the town of Wieliczka. It’s also a UNESCO site that preserves centuries of Polish history.

Not only does Krakow have lots to do that’s either free or low-priced, but food and drinks are also cheap. Check out this basket of drinks (soft drinks, shandy, cider, and vodka) and snacks (cheeses, meats, crackers) I purchased for $20 in Canadian funds! It cost easily only 1/3 of what it would in Saskatchewan.

$20 CDN worth of groceries in Krakow!

$20 CDN worth of groceries in Krakow!

And if you love nightlife, Krakow is known as one of the best places to party in Europe.

Planning Your Visit to Europe on a Budget

Air tickets are about the same price to fly directly into Krakow or Poland’s capital, Warsaw. Since we were traveling across Europe by train, we arrived in Krakow (via Warsaw) by train, then flew to Stockholm. Taking the train is a big part of seeing Europe though, so you’ll want to take a day trip out into the country if you fly directly into Krakow.

Rural Poland between Krakow and Warsaw.

Rural Poland between Krakow and Warsaw.

If you want to check out other countries in Europe on the same trip, the best airline to book is through Ryanair, which has very low cost flights between many cities. However, make sure you’re traveling light as heavy luggage will cost you.

We only purchased one set of train tickets in advance (the Polorail high-speed train which must be pre-purchased), thinking we’d get better deals and have more flexibility buying in-person when we needed them. However, that wasn’t the case. We still had to buy tickets as tourists and ended up with time options.

Do you have any tips to share on the sights in Krakow? Let us know in the comments below.

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