European sightseeing doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. In fact, sometimes it doesn't have to cost anything at all – even in popular urban centers. Here's a quick sampling of continental attractions and activities that are, quite literally, priceless.
Hit the Museums
Europe's grand public spaces are crammed with art. Prague's Charles Bridge, for one, is a veritable statute gallery; and Barcelona's famed pedestrian strip, the Ramblas, is dotted with museum-worthy mosaics. Nevertheless you shouldn't ignore bricks-and-mortar buidlings, especially when they're free. For example, all Ireland's national museums and many of Norway's waive entry fees.
In Paris state-owned treasure troves like the Louvre are mostly free for the under-18 crowd and they welcome adults at no cost the first Sunday of the month. Plus there are over a dozen civic museums that offer free entrance to permanent collections daily. That means you can peruse paintings at Musée D'Art Moderne, tour Victor Hugo's home, then brush up on Parisian history at Musée Carnavalet without spending a cent.
London, meanwhile, gives free admission to more than 100 museums and galleries. Since the tally includes the British Museum, National Gallery, Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, you could while away days prowling their halls and taking advantage of the free tours, talks and workshops they schedule.
Go to Church
You can easily get your fill of divine sites because sanctuaries on the continent typically don't charge (though you may have to fork over a few euros to descend into crypts or ascend steeples). Better yet, there is a seemingly endless supply to pick from. Rome alone boasts 900-odd with St. Peter's Basilica, "the most magnificent church in Christendom," leading the list.
St. Peter's is as long as two football fields and crammed with artwork. If seeing it alone seems too daunting, join one of the free seminarian-led tours that depart daily from the Vatican Tourist Office. Anyone eager to see the Pope might catch a glimpse at a Wednesday Papal Audience or Sunday Blessing, assuming they snagged complimentary tickets. The Basilica's website has info on all these options.
Hear Some Music
Since music is an integral part of any church service, it's no surprise that religious venues offer music lovers an ear full. Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral is a case in point. It not only puts out the welcome map for penny pinchers, it pulls out the stops with Sunday afternoon organ recitals and 10 am masses featuring Gregorian chants.
An alternative is to attend a free classical concert like those staged September through June at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw: lunchtime shows go Wednesdays at 12.30 pm. Muziektheater, home to Holland's national opera and ballet companies, has a similar deal on Tuesdays. In both, performances often spotlight acts that will appear that evening in front of a ticket-buying audience.
Walk this Way
Numerous municipal tourism boards provide online itineraries for self-guided tours. Dublin goes a step further by adding audio components. Its iWalk initiative bundles no-cost podcasts with pdf brochures. Fresh air fans can also exercise their options in Austria. Vienna, for instance, isn't only for waltzers: it is ideal for hikers thanks to an urban trail system called the Stadtwanderwege.
Marked trails bisect the city and wind around the outskirts, giving free access to vineyards, farmlands and the fabled Vienna Woods. In Innsbruck, freebies are aimed at the upwardly mobile. In summer, hotel guests are automatically issued a Club Innsbruck Card entitling them to guided outings that range from lantern-lit hikes to mountain treks.
Imagine being able to grab a bike off the street without being charged by a rental company... or the police. An increasing number of destinations let you do exactly that courtesy of bicycle-borrowing schemes: among them, Vienna, Copenhagen, Brussels and Dublin. With some a subscription fee is required. With others you simply a pay deposit and peddle off for a set period of time.
Switzerland solidifies its outdoorsy image by making free bikes available in top cities through Suisse Roule. Parsimonious parents will also be happy to hear the Swiss Travel System – which covers trains, buses, boats and most public transit – doesn't charge kids under 16 who are accompanied by a parent. Furthermore, travelers above that age get free entrance to 450 attractions when they buy a STS Pass.
Another must-do activity for frugal types is surfing – web surfing that is – because tourism board websites are a goldmine of information. Take Britain's official site, which identifies fab freebies throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To locate similar sites, scroll through the country list at www.towd.com. On a final note, remember even free sites frequently accept contributions. So unless you're truly cash-strapped, dropping something in the donation box is a nice thing to do.
Photo credits: (1) Parc Guell, Barcelona: istock/Chris Hepburn (2) Notre Dame, Paris: istock/penfold