Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined. Others will surprise, with their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture. Whether you're planning to see it all or explore the hidden corners of the continent, these are our top 15 tips for backpacking through Europe.
The information in this article is inspired by the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget - your essential guide for visiting Europe.
For fewer crowds during the summer season, you could consider heading east. The Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best.
Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.
Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass.
Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere.
Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering.
If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.
There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance.
Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include:
You'll come across some of the world's greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn't be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you'll find plenty of foodie experiences that won't break the bank.
Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.
Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket.
Look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We've got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Lisbon and Berlin to get you started.
It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you'd be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces. From horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to skiing in Norway. Or, watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.
One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little "flashpacking" guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you're mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.
Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you'll be following in some famous footsteps.
Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé. Sip a pint in one of Oxford's historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis's old haunt.
Clubbed and pubbed out? It's time to hit the beach. If you're looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.
If you're looking for Europe's charm without the crowds, you'll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with fewer people and more charm (and cobblestones). OR Berat — a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.
Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times.
Exercise caution in hostels and on trains. Padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.
When travelling around Europe, don't get hung up on restaurants and cafés; almost every major city has an amazing street food scene.
Also, keep in mind that 90 per cent of the time street food will cost you less than in a restaurant, and often it can be even better than restaurant food. For example, the latest trend in London is gourmet street food, with food trucks popping up all over the capital selling everything from pork sandwiches to custard cakes.
Although longer backpacking trips through Europe seem more expensive than shorter trips, there are a number of advantages to long trips, and it's quite feasible to spend 1-2 weeks in Europe without breaking the budget.
On longer trips, you have the chance to fully experience and explore several cities or even countries in Europe. In addition, your travel itinerary becomes more flexible and allows you to edit your plan using, for instance, advice from travellers you meet during your trip.
Europe is, for the most part, a year-round destination. However, backpacking through Europe imposes certain restrictions in terms of the number of things you can take with you.
Depending on your chosen destination and the season, you should approach your travel essentials wisely. Especially when travelling in colder seasons or to countries like Norway or Switzerland, make sure you take warm clothes and boots with you, even in summer, to help you explore the snowy mountains.
Feel inspired? Check out our Rough Guides books and start planning your perfect trip.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
We may earn commission from some of the external websites linked in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.
Top image © RossHelen/Shutterstock