For the urban travel aficionado, the world’s biggest, baddest and most expensive cities have unmatched allure. Places like New York City, Tokyo and London are certainly some of the coolest, busiest and most energy-packed places on earth, but just a couple nights spent in any of those destinations can leave your bank accounts quickly drained. Luckily, the world is a big place, and many of the world’s most expensive cities for tourists have alternatives that are not only cheaper, but often rival their more coveted cousins when it comes to all things trendy and cool. While we understand that certain destinations offer cultural riches that can’t be had elsewhere, our alternatives offer some of what you’d find in their more expensive counterparts, without the heavy toll on your finances. What’s more? They have plenty of awesome culture to explore all on their own. Read on for some of the world’s coolest, budget-friendly cities that you need to visit now.
SKIP TOKYO AND VISIT SEOUL
Japan and Korea are 100 percent not the same place and there are major cultural differences to keep in mind when comparing the two. However, Tokyo and Seoul have enough in common to make them worthy compatriots for travelers who are seeking a frenetic, East Asian urban experience. As one of the world’s largest cities, Tokyo is packed with almost too many cool neighborhoods to count and is world-famous for its springtime cherry blossoms. Nightlife is wild, and the neon dazzle of the city is not to be underestimated. And that’s to say nothing of the city’s love of a good theme — from maid and cat cafes to the infamous Robot Restaurant (where pricey Japanese cuisine comes with a brightly-lit, scantily-clad, live-action battle between robots).
Tokyo, however, is also one of the world’s most expensive destinations. Mid-range and upscale hotel rooms hover somewhere between $150 and $300 per night outside of the city’s peak seasons — those rates soar during cherry blossom season — and everything from meals to transportation don’t come cheaply. Expect to spend around $25 — at least — each for dinner, unless you’re opting for fast food, noodle stalls, or curry houses. Additionally, the JR Pass that most travelers will purchase before heading to Japan costs over $250 per person for just one week (unfortunately, it doesn’t work on all of the Tokyo’s subway lines).
We are here to tell you that Seoul is one of the most magnetic, charismatic and vibrant places waiting to be explored. Sure, the culinary traditions, language, style and cultures between Japan and Korea are completely different, but Seoul still has enough blaring mega-city insanity, making it a fine substitute for Tokyo. That starts with a wildly efficient public transit system, a population that’s better versed in English than they are in Tokyo, frenetic markets, K-Pop culture, tantalizing Korean barbecue, amazing street food and historic temples. And with neighborhoods like Hongdae, Gangnam and Hapjeongdong giving Shinjuku, Harajuku and Roppongi a run for their money when it comes to trendsetting, Seoul has more than enough to keep visitors busy. What’s more? Flights to Seoul from major U.S. cities are often cheaper than those to Tokyo, and hotels can be up to 50 percent cheaper.
Seoul hotel pick: Metro
SKIP NEW YORK CITY AND VISIT TORONTO
New York City is the stuff of legend — and for good reason. It’s home to Broadway, television and movie studios, famous actors and actresses, food from every nation on earth, some of the world’s tallest buildings, instantly recognizable landmarks and neighborhoods that have launched everything from worldwide trends to social movements (see: Williamsburg and the Greenwich Village Stonewall riots, respectively, for proof of both). But as we’ve already told you, just a weekend in New York City as a tourist can do major damage to your wallet.
Thankfully, the United States has a neighbor to the north that’s good for everything from reasonably priced health care to poutine. For those reasons alone, we love you, Canada. But it’s Canada’s largest city that’s a fitting, yet often overlooked, rival to New York. No, Toronto is nowhere near as large as New York, and the winters there are even longer and more brutal than those found in NYC. However, when it comes to cultural diversity, the capital of Ontario is actually on par with its far larger neighbor to the south. The city is home to citizens who speak around 200 languages, and over half of the city’s population come from minority groups. That includes a massive population of South Asians, Chinese and Filipino immigrants and citizens. Diversity like this helps create fascinating and culturally rich urban fabrics that are awesome to explore. It also means amazing eats.
As such, Toronto includes trendy neighborhoods like West Queen West, the Distillery District and Yorkville, as well as places like Chinatown and Kensington Market, where the city’s cross-cultural vibe is on full display. Toronto also has a clean and efficient public transit system, a skyline that’s one of the world’s most recognizable, and a vibrant arts and theater scene. While hotels in Toronto aren’t cheap, transportation, food and entertainment are all significantly less expensive than what you’ll find in New York. As an added bonus, the city has plenty of Gotham-like appeal — a lot of TV shows that are set in NYC are actually filmed on Toronto’s streets.
Toronto hotel pick: Bond Place Hotel
SKIP GENEVA AND VISIT SALZBURG, AUSTRIA
Despite their linguistic differences (French will be most often heard in Geneva, while German is the lingua franca in Salzburg), there’s good reason to swap Switzerland’s beautiful Alpine jewel with this western Austrian city. Switzerland as a whole is something of a dream, with its towering mountains, glimmering lakes, fantastic quality of life and clean air. Along with all of that prosperity and tranquility, however, comes incredibly high prices for nearly everything. It doesn’t help that the country uses its own currency, rather than the euro, which makes it even pricier. Yes, Geneva is picture-perfect, but for many travelers, the cost of a beer — which averages nearly $9, according to a 2016 GoEuro survey — is enough to give them pause.
Tucked amid the northeastern fringes of the Alps is Salzburg, Austria — a romantic and beautiful city that’s worthy of more attention than it often gets. Want cultural offerings? Salzburg has them in spades and was the birthplace of Mozart. Looking to aimlessly wander a beautiful old city? Head to Salzburg’s Altstadt, which clings to the side of the Salzach River, under the imposing Hohensalzburg Castle. Have a sweet tooth that needs fixing? Salzburg’s numerous bakeries and cafes are the perfect fit, particularly after a day touring majestic baroque scenery and lovely gardens. And for outdoor enthusiasts, the city is within 45 minutes to two hours of countless major ski resorts, rivaling Geneva’s mountain-clad setting. Even if you’re not in Salzburg during the winter, the city has plenty of outdoor pursuits.
All of those amazing attributes aside, Salzburg also has a burgeoning arts scene that gives it just a slight edge over mannered and expensive Geneva. The city is also far cheaper to visit for tourists. The average price for a hotel can be at least 50 percent cheaper in Salzburg than Vienna, and everything from meals to entertainment cost anywhere from 50 to 80 percent cheaper than Geneva, based on data compiled by Expatistan.
Salzburg hotel pick: Altstadthotel Kasererbraeu
SKIP HONG KONG AND VISIT BANGKOK
There are some things about Hong Kong that simply can’t be found anywhere else. From it’s dense forest of skyscrapers to its tangled history, vibrant street life and mountainside setting, the city has been fascinating travelers for decades. And despite all of its surface-level clamor and chaos, Hong Kong remains one of the most well-organized and user-friendly cities in China. It has a massive and efficient metro system, a large expat population, cosmopolitan flair and an arts scene that’s taking off. It can also be the kind of place where your money doesn’t exactly go as far as you might think. If you’re planning on visiting in October or November, when the city’s normally sticky weather is the driest and most tolerable, hotels will cost around $200 a night on average. And while you can score relatively cheap eats in the city’s street markets, a sit-down meal can cost as much as it would in New York or any other world capital.
With that in mind, Bangkok might have just what you’re after with a far lower price tag. To be clear, it’s not the same culturally diverse melee that you’ll find in Hong Kong, and the city decidedly lacks the same electric razzle-dazzle that Hong Kong possesses. But there’s a lot of dizzying culture to be found throughout this sprawling, chaotic place. Bangkok is all contrasts, from its posh malls to frenetic contraband markets; from exclusive rooftop restaurants to street food; and fancy nightclubs to red-light districts. It’s also home to some of Thailand’s most important sights, including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha. Hotel rates for peak seasons in Bangkok are more than 50 percent lower than what you’ll find in Hong Kong, and even a meal in a sit-down restaurant is unlikely to cost you more than $10 to $15 per person. Street food? That only costs a few dollars each.
But what’s best about Bangkok, and why it’s comparable to Hong Kong, is its street life, which seemingly never stops. Whether you need a sweet Thai iced coffee in the early morning hours, want to visit a local temple or shrine, grab a beer at the night market or party until the late-night hours, the city has nearly every facet of life covered. It also packs in trendy neighborhoods like Thong Lo, where designer boutiques still offer wares cheaper than you’ll find in most major cities. But if shopping is what you’re after, make a beeline for Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you can find everything from vintage leather jackets to awesome home goods and indie designer threads for no more than a few dollars.
Bangkok hotel pick: Galleria 10 Hotel
SKIP LONDON AND VISIT BERLIN
What is it about London that makes it so magical? Well, that depends on why you’re visiting. Whether it’s an affinity for the city’s wealth of historic sights, its buzzing arts and theater scene or its trendsetting neighborhoods, London occupies center stage in the world’s cultural consciousness. This sprawling metropolis — the largest in Europe — is a massive patchwork of neighborhoods that range from tony Kensington to raffish Camden Town and hipster-packed Shoreditch. And the nightlife scene in London is as varied as the city’s population, which — aside from its British citizens — includes representatives from across North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia (as well as a vibrant mix of expats from continental Europe).
Of course part of London’s draw is that this cosmopolitan dreamscape is wrapped in an equally majestic package filled with grand Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and peppered with some of the world’s finest cultural institutions, like the Tate Modern, British Museum and The Old Vic. But as a much-admired destination — and a world financial center — London has also become one of the most expensive destinations to visit. The average nightly price of an upscale hotel room is over $200 a night, and even mid-range properties will cost around $150 a night — and that isn’t going to get you much beyond a bed and a bathroom (and also may find you sleeping quite far from any major landmarks).
If you’ve spent any time in Europe, you’ve probably heard whispers and shouts about its actual capital of cool: Berlin. No, Berlin isn’t a postcard-pretty classic gem like London, as much of the city was destroyed and had to be rebuilt in the wake of both WWII and reunification. However, Berlin is made up of a similarly massive network of neighborhoods and is a multicultural hotbed. It has museums in spades, plus tons of independent art galleries, as well as the open-air, free-to-access East Side Gallery — a curated portion of the Berlin Wall that’s a street-art lover’s must-see. Berlin also puts London to shame when it comes to hedonistic and unbridled nightlife, particularly for LGBTQ travelers. Look up Berghain for proof (though even cooler spots are to be found by tapping into the word-of-mouth party scene once you’re on the ground). You can score a mid-range hotel room for around $100 a night, and food, transportation and entertainment also all cost significantly less than in London.
Berlin hotel pick: Michelberger Hotel
SKIP PARIS AND VISIT MADRID
We get it: Paris is the vacation of a lifetime. Like London, the city’s reputation precedes it — and is mostly deserved. It’s romantic atmosphere is not to be underestimated, and nearly every block holds some beautiful or historic sight or quaint cafe. It’s packed with landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame, and its museums are some of the most famous in the world. However, like London, Paris is one of the most expensive destinations in Europe, precisely because it’s always in demand. Average nightly hotel rates in the late summer — before official peak season has even started — can hover around $170, and meals in many of the city’s hottest neighborhoods cost a pretty penny. You will also have to shell out for tickets into major attractions — tickets to the Louvre cost nearly $18, and it’s $30 to reach the top of the Eiffel Tower.
While some travelers may scoff at what we are about to tell you, hear us out. In many ways, Madrid has everything that Paris has, in an equally pretty, often friendlier, and generally more manageable package. That’s because the city — the third largest in continental Europe — is more condensed, making navigating it on foot not only an option, but an efficient pleasure. Many of the city’s buildings hail from the 15th and 16th centuries, and its history is just as long and complex as Paris’. From gorgeous Retiro Park to the ornate and opulent Palacio Real, there’s almost too much beauty to take in here. Madrid is also home to two of the world’s most famous museums — the Reina Sofia and the Prado — and one of its most famous paintings: Picasso’s “Guernica.” The city’s neighborhoods are woven together in a tightly packed warren of narrow lanes and busy thoroughfares where there almost always seems to be a buzz. And that’s to say nothing of its nightlife, which goes well beyond dawn.
Even better, Madrid is cheaper to visit than most other Western European capitals. Hotel rates in the early summer are generally around $50 less per night than you’ll find in Paris. Additionally, a meal in Madrid, even in one of its fancier restaurants, is far less expensive than one in Paris. Beer can cost as little as a euro or two, and if you’re in one of the city’s tapas bars — which you’ll find in hot spots like Huertas and Malasaña — you’ll likely get free tapas along with your drink.
Madrid hotel pick: Artistic B&
SKIP MIAMI AND VISIT CARTAGENA
Wild parties, pretty beaches, Art Deco style and an art scene that’s exploding: Miami has it all. It also happens to be one of the most expensive major cities for travelers to visit in the United States. While you can definitely score deals during the city’s hot and sticky summer months — from roughly Memorial Day through September — it’s rapidly becoming a year-round destination. However, average hotel prices for a night in high season can hover around $200. When you add pricey drinks, expensive see-and-be-seen restaurants and having to rely on cabs to get around, a few days in South Beach can add up. So what’s a traveler in need of some tropical heat to do? Head farther south.
Cartagena — along Colombia’s northern coast — is nothing short of magical. We will admit, the Caribbean beaches here aren’t quite as nice as the shores of South Beach, but they’re still a lively and local-feeling place to post up under the sun for a day or two. And when you’ve had enough of catching rays and sipping beers on the sand in high-rise lined Bocagrande, it’s Cartagena’s cultural side that makes it a must-visit. Hotel rates can average just under $100 per night during high season, and consumer costs can be as much as 70 percent lower for food, drinks, and entertainment, according to data compiled by Numbeo.com at the time of publishing.
Cartagena’s trump card is its UNESCO-designated crown jewel: the Walled City. Here, narrow streets sit between colorful buildings that have stood for centuries. You’ll find almost limitless cafes and restaurants here, and the sunsets from the area’s western side are unrivaled. It’s enchanting for sure, but can get a little touristy, so if you’re looking for something that captures the buzz of Miami’s Wynwood District and Art Basel scene, head to Getsemani, which is a bit of Brooklyn by way of the Caribbean.
Cartagena hotel pick: Casa Canabal Hotel Boutique
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