15 cheaper, quieter European fort cities to visit instead of Dubrovnik

2023 was a statement year for tourism in Dubrovnik. According to eVisitor, the Croatian visitor insight system, the fortified city recorded 1,244,159 tourist arrivals, excluding nautical data, marking a 20 per cent increase on the previous year.

In peak season, and especially when cruise ships are in port, there can be shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in the narrow streets of this red-roofed, walled city. Prices are swollen too, with a three-course meal in a mid-range restaurant costing an average of €70 (£59.70) compared to €55 in the country’s capital Zagreb (according to cost of living database Numbeo).

For a similar city experience, there are plenty of other options to try throughout Europe. In the majority of these fortified, often Unesco-listed, destinations, the cost of a night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment averages less than €100, compared to Dubrovnik’s €138 (based on data from short-term rental analytics company Airdna) – and the streets are less bloated, too.

Carcassonne, France

Carcasonne has a medieval castle, and restaurants with cost-effective menus (Photo: Getty)

Curtained by almost two miles (three kilometres) of city walls, Unesco-listed Carcassonne is the largest walled city in Europe. Tourist prices aren’t especially steep – entry to the Medieval Château Comtal castle is €8 for example – yet visitors can save extra money by picking up the €6 Carca’Pass, which offers discounts on more than 60 sights, and keeping an eye out for set lunch menus (4 Temps offers three courses for €24.50).

Return Ryanair flights to nearby Toulouse are available from £62 and tickets for the onward train journey can be found for just 90p. Accommodation, meanwhile, averages just £56 a night.

Segovia, Spain

Ancient architecture on blue sky background of Spanish Segovia city during sunny summer day. Castile and Le??n. Spain
Walk the city walls in Segovia (Photo: Getty)

Everything in Segovia is supersized, except for the prices. Taking in the 167-arch aqueduct, exploring the Unesco-listed Old Town, and walking the almost ten-yard-tall (nine metre) walls that engulf the city are all free. Visiting the hilltop Palace of Kings fortress costs €10, and tickets to the Gothic cathedral with its cloud-kissing bell tower are just €4.

Ryanair offers return flights to nearby Madrid from £52, the onward direct train journey is priced from £12.50 one way, and one-bed apartments average £79 a night.

Tallinn, Estonia

Oleviste Church in the middle of the photo was once the tallest architecture in the world. On the wall it says
Tallinn’s old town is well-preserved (Photo: Getty)

Built in the 13th century, the city walls of Unesco-listed Tallinn were once part of one of the largest defence systems in northern Europe. Roughly 1.1 miles of them remain today and visitors have the chance to walk on them between the Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala towers (admission €4, or free with the Tallinn Card, which includes unlimited public transport and free admission to other major sights, such as the KGB prison cells).

Budget flights are available to the city from just over £100 with both Wizz Air and Ryanair, and the average cost of a night in a one-bedroom apartment is £54.

Rhodes, Greece

View across Kolona Harbour to the city walls and Marine Gate, Rhodes Town, Rhodes, Dodecanese Islands, South Aegean, Greece, Europe. The Medieval City of Rhodes was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988.
Rhodes is the island’s principal city (Photo: Getty)

Protected by a crescent of walls, gates, defensive towers and forts, waterside Rhodes is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and listed as a Unesco World Heritage site as a result. Many of the city’s highlights, such as the Old Town with its 650-yard-long Street of the Knights, acropolis, and Mandraki Harbour, where the Colossus of Rhodes – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – used to stand, are free to see, and cheap eats are easy to find thanks to the abundance of pita and gyros cafes.

Ryanair, easyJet and Jet2 all offer reasonably priced flights to Rhodes island and one-bedroom accommodation costs an average of £70 a night.

Kotor, Montenegro

Perast lies beneath steep hills on the northern shore of the Bay of Kotor (Boka Kotorska). A small but charming town boasting no fewer than sixteen churches and seventeen former palazzi, Perast reached its zenith in the 18th century as part of the Venetian Republic. Most prominent of the town's architectural landmarks is the campanile of the Church of St Nicholas (Sveti Nikola, Crkva Svetog Nikole). The Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.
Go to this Unesco-listed city for views of the red-roofed Old Town and the Bay of Kotor (Photo: Getty)

Walking the city walls and braving the 1,350-step climb to the San Giovanni fortress, which serves up grandstand views over the red-roofed Old Town and the Bay of Kotor beyond, top the to-do list in this Unesco World Heritage city on the Adriatic Coast of Montenegro. Budget-savvy travellers will find that both activities can be enjoyed for less than €10.

Flights and accommodation are also affordable in Kotor. Flights to nearby Tivat are available for under £100 with easyJet and a night’s accommodation in a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £60.

Split, Croatia

Split is a town on Croatia???s Dalmatian Coast, is known for its beaches and the fortresslike complex at its center, Diocletian's Palace, erected by the Roman emperor in the 4th century. In this picture, the Bell Tower and Green Market were reflected in the water. Tourists wandering around the colorful Green Market, which brims with stalls selling everything from fruits to flowers and local products.
Diocletian’s Palace was built by the Roman emperor in the 4th century (Photo: Sasipa Muennuch/Getty)

A 7.5-acre walled military palace belonging to Roman Emperor Diocletian once occupied the territory of modern-day Split and the remains of this mega structure can still be seen in the Unesco-protected part of the city today. Areas such as the Peristyle, once a fortress courtyard, and the city gates can be viewed for free while tickets to the underground palace cellars are €8.

Flights to Split can be snapped up from just £65 with Wizz Air, while one-bedroom apartment accommodation costs an average of £83 a night. As word has spread about Split in recent years, the city has become busier, but those who visit in the shoulder seasons should escape the crowds.

Belgrade, Serbia

Sunset over Belgrade and ships in the harbor. HDR image
Plan riverside walks in Belgrade (Photo: Getty)

With roots that bury back into the 3rd century BC, Belgrade’s Fortress overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers. And, as well as being a Monument of Exceptional Importance, it’s also a prime sunset-watching spot. Free to visit, it’s one of the most popular parts of the Serbian capital, alongside the sculpture spotted Kalemegdan Park and the quirky cobbled Skadarlija street where you can pick up glasses of locally made rakija for a couple of pounds and platters of pita, kajmak, ajvar, and local cheese for less than £7.

Wizz Air offers direct flights to the city for as little as £50 return while a night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment averages just £43.

Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain old town city skyline.
Toledo is crowned by the Alcázar Fortress (Photo: Getty)

Just an hour’s train journey south of Madrid, the hilltop city of Toldeo is crowned by the Alcázar Fortress, an imposing tower-framed palace that now serves as the city’s Army Museum (admission €5). If military history isn’t your thing, there’s a 350,000-book library with a café in one of the towers where you can take in views of the city for the cost of a coffee. Elsewhere, Toledo woos visitors with a Unesco-listed Old Town, a Gothic cathedral, and a clutch of cloistered monasteries and convents.

One-bedroom apartments in Toldeo cost an average of £74.50 a night.

Valletta, Malta

Stroll down tightly-packed streets of Valetta (Photo: Getty)

The sturdy walls of this Unesco-listed city wrap a protective arm around more than 320 monuments, including the gilded St John’s Cathedral and the 16th century Fort St Elmo. Admission to the latter two does add up, at €15 and €10 respectively. However, weaving a few of the city’s free and cheaper sights – including the €1-a-ride glass elevator, the free-to-see Upper Barrakka Gardens, and the Dgħajsa boats that take passengers across the harbour for €2 a time – will ensure budgets stretch a little further. As will switching up the odd sit-down lunch for a bag of bakery-bought pastizzi pastries.

Budget flights are readily available with Ryanair and one-bedroom apartments can be booked for an average of £99 a night.

Krakow, Poland

Aerial view of Krakow landmark - Wawel Castle with Wawel Cathedral.
In the 14th century, more than two miles of defensive walls guarded Krakow (Photo: spooh/Getty/E+)

In the 14th century, more than two miles of defensive walls guarded the southern Polish city of Krakow and visitors can still see the remnants of the city’s fortifications in areas such as The Barbican on the edge of the Unesco-listed Old Town (entry 6PLN or free with the Krakow Card) and at the hilltop Wawel Royal Castle, where there are multiple paid-for areas to explore (priced from £4 or some are free on Mondays), from the State Rooms to the Crown Treasury.

Other must-sees in the city include the Cloth Hall market and the yawning Market Square. Flights to Krakow can be picked up for under £100 with both Wizz Air and Ryanair and one-bedroom rental accommodation averages £39 a night.

Grenada, Spain

Andalusien, Spanien | Andalusia, Spain
The Alhambra is a monument of Islamic architecture (Photo: Peter Schickert/Getty)

Set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in southern Spain, Grenada’s headline sight is the Unesco-listed Alhambra, a 169,830 square yard Islamic palace and fortress that was founded in the 13th century. At €19, admission isn’t exactly cheap, but visitors can save money by investing in a 48-hour Grenada City Card, which includes general admission to the landmark as well as eight other sights and nine city bus trips.

Those who want to rein in the budget a little more can take advantage of Grenada’s free sights, such as the mooch-worthy Barrio Realejo quarter, and they can lower food costs somewhat by seeking out the tapas bars near the city’s cathedral. These establishments serve small plates of free cheeses, breads and meats alongside drinks.

Flights to nearby Malaga can be found for just over £100 with easyJet, and rooms are available for an average of £72 a night.

Siena, Italy

Siena's Piazza del Campo with the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.
Take in the central Piazza del Campo (Photo: Getty)

More than four miles of protective walls halo the Tuscan city of Siena and visitors can follow a 1.2-mile city wall walk for free. Taking in the city’s eye-widening central Piazza del Campo and ambling around the backstreets of the Unesco-protected Historic Centre also costs nothing, freeing up some space in the budget for a €20 ticket to Siena’s grand Gothic cathedral with its library, ornate mosaic floor, and rooftop viewing platform.

Budget flights to nearby Florence are available for just over £100 with Vueling and tickets for the onward two-hour train journey can be bought for as little as £9. The average cost of a night in a one-bedroom apartment, meanwhile, is £91.

Saint-Malo, France

High stone embankment and beach at low tide, in beautiful Saint-Malo, Brittany, France
There are plenty of free activities in this Breton city (Photo: Getty)

The average cost of a night in a one-bedroom apartment is just £71 in this walled city on France’s north-west coast and a return journey on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth costs from just £103 with Brittany Ferries. Walking the city wall loop (around 1.2 miles), padding out to the tidal island topped with the 17th century Fort National at low tide, and ambling around the cobbled streets of the Intra Muros old town are all free in this Breton city.

Meanwhile, visitors can rein in food budgets by seeking out the creperies, where generously filled savoury galettes and sweet crepes can be picked up for less than €8 at both lunch and dinner times.

Luxembourg, Luxembourg

Luxembourg City The bridge of Adolf Panoramic image the bridge of Adolf during beautiful sunset..
Luxembourg was the site of one of the largest fortresses in Europe (Photo: Getty)

The city of Luxembourg was the site of one of the largest fortresses in Europe. Today, Unesco recognises the remains of this structure and the city’s Old Quarter as a World Heritage site. Following the Wenzel Circular Walk, which takes in a section of city walls that was once 950 yards long, is free for visitors, while exploring the city’s trademark Casemates – a warren of subterranean defence tunnels – is also free when using the Luxembourg Card.

Of course, Luxembourg isn’t best known for being a budget destination, but it is possible to find accommodation for less than £100 a night in the city, especially if you book well in advance. Flights from Stansted, meanwhile, are available for less than £50 return with Ryanair.

Trogir, Croatia

Croatia, Dalmatia, Trogir, Unesco world Heritage site
Trogir is a dead-ringer for Dubrovnik (Photo: Tuul and Bruno Morandi/Getty)

Although not technically a city, with its red-roofed, limestone-walled buildings and crookedly cobbled streets, Trogir is a dead-ringer for the more southern Dubrovnik. Most of the original walls of this Unesco World Heritage site have vanished over the years, but visitors can still duck through city gates, see the Venetian towers and small castles that were built to defend Trogir during the 15th century, and walk the ramparts of Kamerlengo Fort, where admission is just €4 instead of the €23 it costs to access Dubrovnik’s city walls.

Flights to nearby Split are available from £52 with Wizz Air, while a night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £72.