How to Have the Vacation of a Lifetime (For Less)

Of all the questions I get as a travel journalist, where to go that’s chic and not too expensive tops the list.

It’s the holy grail, where taste trumps cost, and bragging rights shift to hidden, totally affordable gems. There are plenty of these under-the-radar stays on the fringes of places associated with haute holidays, sometimes even hidden in plain sight (The Italian Lakes and The Balaerics, for example).

So here’s a guide for those who live life on a budget without compromising on style. From stylish, contemporary-classic abodes in Baroque Sicilian towns to Como alternatives, here are eight ways to have the European vacation of a lifetime… for less.

    (the DARBIA)

(the DARBIA)

Lago d’Orta, the Italian lakes

Lake Orta is essentially what Maggiore and Como used to be—minus the selfie sticks and Clooneys. It’s calm, wildly beautiful, and sorely underrated, with the pastel-hued town of Orta San Giulio serving up just the right amount of culture. The glassy blue lake is laced with the tiny island of Isola San Giulio, with its Brothers Grimm-esque turrets, monastery, and houses that seem to tumble into the water. Days under Orta’s spell usually begin with a bracing swim, coffee on a terrace, and reading to the faint hum of a motorboat breaking the still water.

In the afternoon, explore Orta San Giulio’s many galleries and boutiques, sample Piedmont’s bounty at Pan & Vino, or perhaps visit the contemporary collection at Fondazione Calderara in Vacciago di Ameno. Gardening enthusiasts will want to wander the gardens of Villa Motta, while hikers can ascend a series of chapels and trace the life of Francesco d’Assisi to Sacro Monte di Orta, perched on a promontory overlooking the lake. In the evening, head to the open-air Osteria Speranza Omegna for modestly priced dishes such as mushroom gnocchi or shrimp ravioli.

Where to stay

La Darbia is living proof that the refined shores and natural splendor of Italy’s lakes are not just the domain of movie stars and wealthy Americans. This is a stylish lakeside retreat that doesn’t break the bank. Modern rooms have their own kitchenettes and terraces, with views across vineyards that stretch down to the shoreline. Guests can also soak in the heated saltwater pool. It’s worth staying at least once to cook, after scouring the local towns and villages for the superior produce of Piedmont (cheese, truffles, wine).

From £250 per night,

Garden House, The Sicilian Escape from £149 per night (Airbnb)Garden House, The Sicilian Escape from £149 per night (Airbnb)

Garden House, The Sicilian Escape from £149 per night (Airbnb)

Modica and Scicli, Sicily

Ever since The White Lotus begged Netflix audiences to head straight to Noto (and since Mario Testino, Mick Jagger and the like started buying up their hilltop homes), the baroque city and surrounding prairie-like countryside have been raising hotel prices. Modica will follow suit, eventually. But for now, the hilly baroque city, filled with ornate churches set against a backdrop of the Hyblean Mountains and famous for its chocolate, is gloriously affordable. You’ll find crumbly, cold-pressed chocolate at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Sicily’s oldest chocolate factory).

There’s also an art and design movement here, fueled by the low rents and the sheer beauty of the place. Works by emerging artists adorn the walls of Galleria Lo Magno. In nearby Scicli, crumbling aristocratic palazzi (such as Palazzo Beneventano) remain eerily quiet and fantastical inside. Stroll along Via Francesco Mormina Penna for its Baroque beauty, then order the raviolini at Verace (near San Giovanni). Sampieri’s blond sands, bars and fresh seafood are a five-minute drive away

Where to stay

A design-savvy duo have preserved the striking character of this handsome Modica building, preserving the original 18th-century stone floor but adding subtle contemporary layers for a stylish stay. Outside, a terrace offers sweeping views of Modica’s honey-baked mishmash of Baroque buildings. In Scicli, San Bartolomeo Casa e Putia is the guest house where you can leave your bags. Minimalist rooms with concrete floors overlook the hotel’s eponymous church, their balconies lined with Sicilian tiles (and pastries for breakfast).

The Sicilian Escape from £149 per night,; San Bartolomeo Casa e Putia from £95 per night,

    (Villa Lofoten)    (Villa Lofoten)

(Villa Lofoten)

The Lofoten Islands, Norway

The Lofoten Islands can be reached by connecting flight from any of Norway’s major cities. Once in Narvik, it’s worth hiring a car and taking the famously scenic E10. Along the way, Leknes, Reine and Moskenes await you, where hikes are richly rewarded with dramatic landscapes and small falu-red houses hugging the shores of archipelagos.

Best of all, all this natural beauty is free: load up on cheese and charcuterie picnics in the big cities, then head to pristine beaches like Unstad and Haukland, or clamber up Offersøykammen to gaze at the vibrant, dappled waters and rugged landscape from above. Try to book in advance for Polarhagen’s foodie nights, which chronicle the lives of an Oslo couple living in the Arctic Circle and feature their home-grown produce on the menu. And instead of the pricey Holmen Lofoten, spend an afternoon at Hov Farm, where you can ride horses through the film-set landscape.

Where to stay

Not far from the sleepy Lofoten hamlet of Kvalnes lies a cluster of gently restored fishermen’s cottages. The style is spare and traditional, with wooden, precariously rendered interiors evoking the simple life — warmed by a wood-burning stove and embroidered cushions. Five cozy, self-catering cabins, sleeping 2-6, are sheltered behind the harbor wall. From this hygge hideaway, guests can kayak into the cool, glassy waters, hike to nearby mountain lakes, or drive to the white beaches of Kvalvika and Skagsanden.

From £160 per night,

Quinta de la Rosa (Alamy Stock Photo)Quinta de la Rosa (Alamy Stock Photo)

Quinta de la Rosa (Alamy Stock Photo)

Douro Valley, Portugal

The budget-conscious avoid wine regions like the plague, but the beauty of Portugal’s Douro Valley is that some of the most intriguing family-run wineries and boutique hotels don’t come cheap. Budget wine-tasting tours to book include Quinta da Pacheca, Quinta de la Rosa and Quinta do Tedo, with its panoramic river views. For a foodie-filled walk, head from Pinhão via D’Origem to the Miradouro of Casal de Loivos for its olive oil and, at the top, to the family-run Quinta do Jalloto for its superior port and honey. It’s worth stocking up on cheese, meat and bread for picnics in Pinhão’s delis and markets, although open roadside restaurants such as Sais da Foz serve classic Portuguese dishes at more than modest prices.

Where to stay

Saved from decay by winemaker Philippe Austrey, Quinta da Côrte is the kind of elusive hideaway that couples spend days searching the internet for, only to discover through a friend of a friend. People return year after year for the gentle rhythms, shared dinners and the simple pleasure of a book by the pool.

From £170 per night,

The Perianth Hotel, Athens (The Perianth Hotel)The Perianth Hotel, Athens (The Perianth Hotel)

The Perianth Hotel, Athens (The Perianth Hotel)

Athens with Folegandros

For an affordable, unforgettable European vacation, Greece is the word for it. Just make sure you book slightly off-season for milder temperatures and cheaper flights. One of Europe’s most underrated cities, Athens has an infectious, creative, and slightly chaotic energy.

Sure, there’s the Acropolis with the Parthenon on top, but the real joy of modern Athens is the scene that fills its ancient bones. Creative types flock here for the cheap post-crash rents and the artistic communities that form — you’ll find it at The Breeder (a reimagined Metaxourgio ice cream factory showcasing work by Greek artists), or in hip Themistokleous, where small restaurants like Frater & Soror buzz with young energy.

Most of the trendy spots are completely affordable, like Mnisikleous Street in Plaka, where cafes line the steps. The best way, after a few days of wandering the photogenic streets, is to take a trip to the Greek islands. Folegandros is the freckled and shy Greek cousin, an introvert who stands apart from the rest of the family and would rather read a book in the shade of an olive tree than go to a beach party any day.

Where to stay

The Perianth Hotel in Athens is a neomodernist, five-star oasis, tucked away in plain sight on Agias Eirinis Square, close to all the popular attractions yet off the beaten track. The vibe is endemic to Athens’ emerging creative scene, with guests booking yoga and meditation sessions at the Zen Center Athens (they share the same space) and walls covered in contemporary Greek artists.

Once you drop anchor in Folegandros, you’ll ride an Mamma Mia-style minibus from Anemomilos Boutique Hotel up the dizzying cliffs, where simple blue-and-white rooms open out onto balconies overlooking the Aegean Sea.

The Perianth Hotel from £173 per night,; Anemomilos Boutique Hotel from £195 per night,

Hotel Masseria Cervarolo (Hotel Masseria Cervarolo)Masseria Cervarolo Hotel (Masseria Cervarolo Hotel)

Hotel Masseria Cervarolo (Hotel Masseria Cervarolo)

Apulia, Italy

Beyond its raw edges and unfiltered coastal light, Puglia’s transcendent beauty lies in its simplicity. Its towns and villages like Ostuni are a soothing, coffee-scented maze of affordable artisan boutiques, galleries (visit Orizzonti Arte Contemporanea) and bake-it-yourself restaurants (try La Pastasciutta for affordable pasta and Il Vizio del Conte for mouthwatering takeaway pizza). First-time visitors are blown away by the town’s panoramic views that tug at heartstrings in every direction, with the Adriatic Sea winking before them and some of Puglia’s most enchanting beaches less than a 10-minute drive away.

Where to stay

Masseria Cervarolo feels deeply rooted in the sun-drenched countryside, with its 16th-century architecture and conical trulli. The old farmhouse is surrounded by surprisingly green countryside for Puglia. Inside, the vaulted-arch main house feels like home — where the lack of bells and whistles in the design has spared the building its character. Much has been repurposed, such as the old farmhouse doors (now headboards) and the wood has been repurposed as towel rails. At its centre is a lagoon-like swimming pool, though the beating heart (true to Puglian style) is the restaurant, where guests can peer into the tiled, open kitchen for the ever-changing menu.

From £179 per night,

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