15 cheaper, quieter European seaside cities to visit instead of Barcelona

15 cheaper, quieter European seaside cities to visit instead of Barcelona

Almost 10 million people visited Barcelona in 2022, which was a quiet year. It is a long-standing victim of overtourism. Looking out to the Mediterranean Sea, with memorable architecture and cuisine, it is clear why the capital of Catalonia is so popular. Yet overcrowding has led the city to restrict short-term private rentals, curb the number of cruise passenger daytrippers and impose, and increase, a tourist tax.

Indeed, Barcelona can be expensive to visit. Holiday accommodation in a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £128.70 a night, according to research by rental analytics company AirDNA. Restaurant prices are higher than in several other Spanish cities, based on figures from cost-of-living comparison site Numbeo, including Tarragona (Barcelona’s are 23.9 per cent more, on average), Seville (26.1 per cent) and San Sebastián (12.8 per cent). And, some of Barcelona’s major attractions come with an entry fee, such as the Sagrada Família (€26 for a standard ticket), Casa Batlló (from €31) and the Picasso Museum (€14).

For people seeking sun, beaches and a distinct culture, there are many other European seaside cities to consider for a short break – or a longer holiday.

Tarragona, Spain

Entry fees are low in this Catalonian city, an hour’s drive from busier Barcelona. It costs just €5 each to get into the 2nd-century amphitheatre, the Roman Circus chariot racecourse, and the Roman Forum. Many other landmarks, including the kilometre-long Rambla Nova walkway and Mediterranean Balcony viewpoint, are free. Room rates and flights follow the low-cost suit. A one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £68 a night, according to AirDNA, and flights on EasyJet’s newly released routes to Reus are priced from £65 return.

Sarandë, Albania

Beautiful sandy Ksamil beach with wooden walkway with shower in Albania. Idyllic little island surrounded by incredible turquoise lonian sea in the background.
Head to nearby Ksamil for clear water and white sand (Photo: Vale_T/Getty)

Wandering the seaside Hasan Tahsini Boulevard, hiking up to the Forty Saints Monastery (entrance £1.65), and catching the bus (tickets 80p) to the beachside Ksamil, known as the European Maldives, tops the list of free or nearly free things to do in this Albanian Riviera city, which is best accessed via ferry from Corfu. The strength of the pound against the Albanian Lek means eating out in Sarandë is also affordable; a generous portion of fresh fish in a waterside restaurant like Bagaron will set you back less than £12. A one-bedroom apartment, meanwhile, costs an average of £43 a night.

Batumi, Georgia

A red and white Ferris wheel and a white lighthouse against the background of mountains on a sunny morning
Try the Ferris wheel in Batumi (Photo: Getty)

This western Georgian city, where skyscrapers sidle up to the sand, was crowned “Europe’s Leading Emerging Tourism Destination” at the 2023 World Travel Awards. The city deserves commendation for its affordability, too. A night in a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of just £30 while major sights such as the seven-kilometre Batumi Boulevard, with its Dancing Fountains, and the moving Ali and Nino sculpture are free to see. For further savings, there’s the Batumi Card which costs around £4.50 and includes 10 free rides on public transport and discounts of up to 40 per cent on paid-for sights.

A Coruña, Spain

Lighthouse and museum, Cabo Vilan, Galicia, Spain, Europe
Climb to the Unesco-protected lighthouse for views along the coast (Photo: Getty)

Tucked away on Spain’s northeast coast, A Coruña pairs two Blue Flag beaches with an Old City that’s home to free-to-see sights, including the Unesco-protected Tower of Hercules Roman lighthouse (there’s free admission on Mondays and other days; €3 for general admission at other times). Budget airline Vueling offers flights from Gatwick from just £36 return, the average cost of a night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment is £71, and the bounty of churro cafes and tapas joints makes it easy to eat out on the cheap. Even a meal at the Michelin star Árbore da Veira is modestly priced as far as Michelin is concerned, at €65 for five courses.

Tavira, Portugal

Charming architecture of Tavira with boats on Gilao river, Algarve, Portugal
Stroll the cobbled streets of Tavira (Photo: Getty)

The whitewashed houses and cobbled streets of Tavira, on Portugal’s south coast, give way to sweeping stretches of soft white sand, including the seven-kilometre Cabanas Beach. Sightseeing can be done on a shoestring in this easy-going town. It costs nothing to explore the castle-crowned Old Town while a boat ride into the Ria Formosa National Park for flamingo spotting can be booked for an affordable £26. A night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £83 and flights to nearby Faro are priced at around £100 with Wizz Air.

Bari, Italy

night view of the small fishing port of Bari in Puglia region in Italy.
Many of the best things to do in Bari are free (Photo: SalvatorBarki/Getty)

From strolling the waterside promenade and ambling around the Old Town to sunbathing on the cannoli-coloured sands of Pane Pomodoro beach, some of the best things to do in this southeast Italian city are free. The profusion of bakeries and street food stands selling dishes like sgagliozze (polenta squares) make eating in Bari inexpensive, while one-bed apartments go for an average of £77 a night. Affordable flights are a little trickier to track down, but they are out there (from £155 with Ryanair), if you can be flexible on dates.

Zadar, Croatia

Zadar waterfront view from the sea, Dalmatia, Croatia
Zadar’s sunsets were admired by Hitchcock (Photo: Getty)

Alfred Hitchcock once described the sunsets in Zadar, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, as “the most beautiful in the world” and they’re completely free to watch from the Riva promenade near the Old Town. The Sea Organ, which is “played” by the lapping waves of the sea, the disco floor-style Greeting to the Sun light installation, and the Roman Forum also cost nothing to experience. Direct flights, meanwhile, start at just £50 from London with Ryanair and a night’s one-bedroom apartment rental costs an average of £75.

Kavala, Greece

Panoramic view of Kavala in the northern part of Greece, coastline, stone houses, dramatic sunset, clear blue water and cloudy blue sky.
Kavala is a beach-bookended city (Photo: Getty)

One-bedroom apartments cost an average of £49 a night in this beach-bookended city on the northeast coast of Greece. Flights are a little pricier, at around £300 return (including baggage, with Tui), but this expense is somewhat offset by the pocket-friendliness of sightseeing – highlights like the pastel-painted Old Town, the Ottoman aqueduct, and the 19th-century tobacco industry buildings are free to explore, while the hilltop Acropolis costs just €4.50 to enter.

Bodrum, Turkey

Turkey, Mugla, Bodrum
Visit the castle in Bodrum (Photo: Lonely Planet Images/Getty)

Despite being nicknamed The Saint Tropez of Turkey, Bodrum, on the country’s Aegean coast, is a budget-friendly place, not least because of the strength of the pound against the Turkish Lira. Return flights can be found for around £100 outside of school holidays, and the average price of a one-bedroom apartment is £67 a night. Yacht-spotting in the marina and exploring the whitewashed Old Town is free while entrance to the 15th-century Bodrum Castle and Underwater Archaeology Museum costs less than a pound.

Agrigento, Sicily, Italy

The Valley of the Temples is a must-see attraction in the area (Photo: Getty)

This hilltop city, with its cobbled Old Town, is just a few kilometres from the unpopulated beaches of Sicily’s south coast, and getting between the two is cost-effective thanks to local buses. Also accessible by bus, the Unesco-listed Valley of the Temples is another must-see in the area. Visit on the first Sunday of the month to get in for free (normal admission €12). Getting to the city involves a flight to Palermo (priced around £130 with EasyJet) and an onward train journey (from £20 return). A night’s stay in a one-bedroom apartment in the city, meanwhile, costs an average of £66.

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor is an old town in Montenegro. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy is a Roman Catholic church, belonging to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kotor. The church is perched on the slope of the St. John Mountain. The Church of Our Lady of Remedy dates from 1518.
Enjoy the Unesco-listed old town of Kotor (Photo: Getty)

Walking the city walls, exploring the Unesco-listed Old Town, browsing the stalls of the city market, relaxing on the bay-side beaches, and climbing the Ladder of Cattaro walking trail for panoramic views are all free in Kotor. Elsewhere in the town, paid-for sights are reasonably priced. A three-hour boat trip around the bay costs from £33 with GetYourGuide, for example. EasyJet offers flights to nearby Tivat for under £100, while a night’s accommodation in a one-bed apartment costs just £61.

Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux. France.
Wander along the river, then sample Bordeaux’s wines (Photo: Getty)

An hour’s (€11) train ride from France’s southwest coast with its lengthy beaches and Europe’s largest sand dune nearby, Bordeaux makes it easy to combine city and seaside time. Both EasyJet and Ryanair offer return flights for around £100 and the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment averages £79. Visitors who want to sample the Bordeaux region’s famous wines on a budget should head to Bar a Vin, where glasses start at €2. For cheap eats, meanwhile, there are the Capucins and Les Halles Bacalan food markets.

Lisbon, Portugal

Alfama is among the pretty neighbourhoods of Lisbon (Photo: Alexandr Spatari/Getty)

Ranked as one of the most affordable cities in western Europe, Lisbon is an obvious choice for a budget city break close to the sea. Wizz Air, TAP Air Portugal and EasyJet all offer budget flights from the UK, and the average nightly rate for a one-bedroom apartment is £90 in the city. Cheap but satisfying lunches can be found in the family-run “tascas”, a glass of local cherry liqueur costs from just €1.50 in a ginjinha bar, and sights like the “miradouros” lookout points, the cathedral, and iconic tram are free, or cost a few euros, to experience.

Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy

Cagliari offers a winding-alleyed Old Town (Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images LLC/Getty)

Peering into the Mediterranean Sea on the south coast of Sardinia, Cagliari offers a winding-alleyed Old Town, a hilltop castle, a 13th-century cathedral, and a suite of white sand beaches that can all be experienced for free. Cheap meals in this seven-hilled city take the form of pizzettas (a puff pastry calzone that costs a couple of euros) or, if you’re going self-catering, affordable fresh produce can be found at San Benedetto Market, one of the largest covered markets in Italy. Ryanair offers return flights to Cagliari for less than £100 and a one-bedroom apartment costs an average of £83 a night.

Thessaloniki, Greece

Thessaloniki is a prime option for a budget break (Photo: Getty)

With one-bedroom apartments averaging just £48 a night and flights costing just over £100 with Ryanair, Thessaloniki, on the northwest corner of the Aegean Sea, is a top option for a budget city break. Visitors can make further savings by taking advantage of the free walking tours, getting about using the Thessbike bike rental scheme, seeking out restaurants in the Rotunda area where the city’s price-savvy students go to eat and drink, and picking up the “special ticket” hat includes entry to four major attractions for €15, instead of €25.