Quite literally one of the most inexpensive forms of travel, urban backpacking offers vagabond adventurers challenges and opportunities they wouldn’t find on a more traditional journey. It involves meticulous planning, extended budget travel, and possibly working or volunteering on the road. Most importantly, though, as the name implies, backpacking requires packing lightly enough to fit everything you need into a single bag. Taking their namesake from the large, strappy rucksacks they lug around from city to city, backpackers cut costs wherever they can, taking advantage of dormitory-style hostels, homestays, and public transportation.
Because of this, Europe is a sweet spot for backpackers around the world. With well-connected cities, reliable public transportation systems, and locals who are accustomed to visitors, the continent is an excellent choice for the beginning backpacker. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of backpacker-friendly routes across Europe.
Prague, Czech Republic > Česky Krumlov, Czech Republic
After an early wake-up for a sunrise photo at the Charles Bridge, take a FlixBus from Praha Florenc station to the medieval Czech village of Česky Krumlov and admire the rolling countryside along the way. Once there, visit the 13th-century Gothic-style Česky Krumlov Castle, which overlooks the Vltava River. With Versailles-esque gardens and expansive views of the city’s Old Town, the round bell tower will have you feeling like you’re part of a Renaissance-era performance. A day trip to this village will suffice, hop back on a bus to Prague in the afternoon, and upon your return, check out the city’s infamous nightlife — with a world-renowned Czech radler in hand, of course.
Vienna, Austria > Lake Bled, Slovenia
From Prague, Vienna is also an incredibly accessible destination. The FlixBus from Prague’s central station connects the two cities via express line, and the ride itself cuts through picturesque scenery, so keep your eyes wide and your camera handy. While in Austria’s imperial city, be sure to visit a heurigen, a biergarten-like wine tavern dating back to the 18th century.
Once you’ve enjoyed your fill of the city, continue on to Slovenia’s breathtaking Lake Bled via Graz, a city that occupies Austria’s southeast corner. Once there, enjoy the views of the Julian Alps in the Upper Carniola region of the countryside. You can also experience Slovenia’s village culture, which offers a nice escape from the bustle of the big cities.
Split, Croatia > Dubrovnik, Croatia
Getting from Slovenia to Split involves a train stop in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. Take advantage of this layover and explore the city known for its university culture and multitude of green spaces before catching a bus to Split. Once in Croatia’s second-largest city, you can stay busy by exploring Diocletian’s Palace (a regal residence built in 305 AD), St. Domnius Cathedral, and the entire Old Town area. At the end of the day, continue on the same FlixBus route toward Dubrovnik to walk along the city streets immortalized by “Game of Thrones.”
Paris, France > Interlaken, Switzerland
Paris is a romantic getaway known for its culture, cuisine, and fashion. And with its incredible metro system, this massive city can feel both inviting and accessible. While cheap flights can be found in and out of the French capital, a plethora of bus and train routes also connect visitors to this region. From Paris’s Gare de Lyon station, catch the Lyria 9219 train toward Zurich, Switzerland, from which the connecting trains toward the storybook-worthy villages of Interlaken and Grindelwald promise to be plentiful, comfortable, and simple. These Swiss havens welcome visitors from all over the world, thanks in part to their traditional raclette cheese, Älplermagronen gratin, and decadent chocolates. No matter how you spend your time in the valley, be sure to finish off your day by taking in the views of the snow-capped mountains and warming up with a beer.
Zurich, Switzerland > Milan, Italy and South
The well-developed Swiss train system is fully intertwined with that of Italy. Train lines connecting cities between the two nations are frequent and affordable. In fact, it is often faster and cheaper to travel by train within this region than by air — even considering the low prices of budget carriers like RyanAir. From Switzerland, a comprehensive north-to-south Italian train adventure is incredibly simple. On a single train line, visitors can make stops in Venice, Milan, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, Naples, and Capri. This all-encompassing route will let you relax and admire the changing landscape of the country as you travel south.
St. Petersburg, Russia > Helsinki, Finland
As Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg is in constant metamorphosis. Yet, for all of the name changes and identity crises the city has experienced in the past few centuries, its sense of magic has remained intact. The city’s main attraction is its Hermitage Museum — or, Winter Palace — known for opera, ballet, and contemporary art. Though St. Petersburg isn’t a typical hotspot for backpackers, it does offer many affordable hostels to choose from. To get to Helsinki from this Russian metropolis, you’ll have to catch a fast train and an overnight ferry that will take you across the Baltic Sea — an exciting adventure that is incomparable to any other backpacking experience! Once in Helsinki, check out one of the city’s many markets, hop in a traditional Finnish sauna, or see if you can catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Tallinn, Estonia > Tartu, Estonia
Located on Estonia’s northernmost tip, Tallinn is a hilltop capital city perched over the dark Baltic Sea. Just a short ferry ride from Helsinki, Tallinn’s Old Town is home to an astonishing number of Gothic cathedrals and a cobblestoned main square. The city also boasts exciting nightlife, cheap bars, and a melting pot of cultures. Additionally, because of its rich legacy, Tallinn is a top destination for history buffs, so be sure to check out Freedom Square and St. Olaf’s Church. Once you’ve admired all that the city has to offer, take the Tallinna bussijaam bus toward Tartu, a charming, yet vibrant village in southern Estonia that is packed with young travelers. This city of burgeoning intellectuals is a surprisingly popular spot for backpackers in the region.
Riga, Latvia > Vilnius, Lithuania
Riga’s bustling Old Town and nightlife rival even that of Tallinn. Situated at the mouth of the River Daugava, the Latvian capital is a cultural mecca, full of museums and concert halls. The streets of the city’s pedestrian-only Old Town are lined with countless shops and restaurants, all surrounding the buzzing Livu Square. You can easily connect the Latvian and Lithuanian capitals either by bus or train. Once in Vilnius, a city known for its dark, baroque architecture, head straight for the medieval Old Town. Similar to that of its Baltic neighbor to the north, the area boasts Gothic buildings and 16th-century churches that tower over the town, giving it a somewhat eerie aura. But don’t be mistaken — this city boasts a lively and diverse community, as a large percentage of the population immigrated from Poland, Russia, and Belarus. The rich history can also be felt in the Jewish districts and cemeteries sprinkled throughout, so be sure to explore them as well.
General tip: Check out Eurail passes for the most affordable train options between cities and be sure to research visa requirements before setting off. As an added bonus, many urban centers and municipalities in the EU offer hefty discounts if you present a valid student ID.
Remember, there are no wrong choices! No matter where your next backpacking adventure leads you, strap on your pack, grab your pack towel, and get ready for the adventure of a lifetime!