5 Budget-Friendly Alternatives to a Big Apple Vacation

You won't need a Wall Street paycheck to find big-city thrills in these urban escapes.

By Kyle McCarthy, ContributorJan. 10, 2018
By Kyle McCarthy, ContributorJan. 10, 2018, at 10:13 a.m.
U.S. News & World Report

5 Budget-Friendly Alternatives to a Big Apple Vacation

18 Street Bridge, St. Charles Air Line Bridge, Chicago, Illinois.

Plan a wallet-friendly city break in a vibrant metropolis without bursting your budget.(Getty Images)

With more than 60 million visitors in 2017 alone, it's no secret that New York City is one of the world's most popular destinations, despite its sky-high attraction, meal and accommodation costs. Though there are many ways to trim travel expenses, NYC isn't a bargain-friendly destination for dedicated penny-pinchers. For example, a CityPass discounted attraction booklet costs $122 per adult for access to six popular Big Apple sights, yet only $98 per adult for entry to five popular attractions in Chicago. While no other North American metropolis can compete with New York City's nightlife, noise or traffic, these five often-overlooked big-city escapes offer world-class art, architecture, culture, cuisine, entertainment and hotels – at lower prices. Read on to plot your next city break.

Chicago

With two baseball teams, one of the world's most extensive public art collections and a bevy of Michelin-starred restaurants, Chicago is often compared to New York City. The streets are easily walkable, with a scenic path along the Chicago River that shows off the stunning skyline and landscaped jogging and bike trails along the Lake Michigan waterfront. As for shopping, take your pick from the elegant Magnificent Mile to funky boutiques in Southside. Shopping aside, live theater and fine dining experiences are much cheaper in the Windy City than Manhattan. According to the vacation planning site BudgetYourTrip.com, while travelers to New York spend an average of $72 per person in the entertainment category, Chicago's world-class Art Institute, Field Museum, Broadway road shows and the famous Second City comedy club can be enjoyed for an average cost of $32 per person per day.

Pittsburgh

Following a successful evolution from a Rust Belt mainstay to an exciting, environmentally sustainable center for the arts and medical sciences, Pittsburgh's lively culture, dining and entertainment scenes and hipster hot spots closely resemble New York City – for a fraction of the cost. This city has more than 90 distinct neighborhoods, including ethnically diverse Lawrenceville, whose hipster LoLa section is often touted as the the city's Williamsburg, plus small-town charm and easily walkable streets. Downtown, the Pittsburgh Light Rail acts as a subway under the three rivers that meet at Golden Triangle, home to one of the country's top urban parks.

And that's not all Pittsburg has going for it. Pittsburgh's industrial philanthropists support five theaters in the Cultural District, world-famous learning institutions, including the Carnegie Science Center, the Heinz Field sports stadium, universities and art collections. Plus, Andy Warhol's eponymous museum is not be to be missed. After embracing the city's flourishing art scene, enjoy top-notch dining at the old working-class market, The Strip, where Primanti Brothers has served French fries in sandwiches since the Great Depression and myriad craft breweries offer farm-to-table German fare.

Cincinnati

If it wasn't often used as the set for 1950s-era movies, visitors might not realize how much Cincinnati looks like New York City. The city's downtown area is compact enough to explore on foot, by bike-share, trolley or a streetcar that crosses the Ohio River into neighboring Kentucky. Attractions include classic art deco skyscrapers, horse-drawn carriage rides, public squares hosting free events and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Other highlights include the Carew Tower Observation Deck and the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, built by the same engineer as the Brooklyn Bridge, but earlier.

Over-the-Rhine, once a neighborhood of German immigrants and beer breweries, resembles the Brooklyn of low-rise brick tenements, with its funky cafes, urban graffiti, artisanal donut shops, quaint clothing shops, art galleries and a public park with free dance classes. The Union Terminal station now houses shops, restaurants and several museums and Eden Park, the city's central green space, is home to 67,000 works at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Best of all, summer visitors can go to Coney Island, an outdoor water park, for a hot dog and a swim.

Montreal

With roots dating back nearly 400 years, visitors like to walk around the French colonial Vieux-Montréal and the Vieux Port, where tiny shops, patisseries, churches and rentals line the cobblestone streets. While its Francophone culture may remind visitors of Paris, the edgy arts scene and urban grittiness resembles New York City, yet the cost of living (and visiting) is lower. To see the best of Montreal, take the Société de transport de Montréal to any of the city's 68 métro stations and explore.

Among the city's many top museums, Pointe-à-Callière is notable for its glass floor built atop an archaeological site, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for its Canadian collection. Families enjoy the many interactive facets of the Montreal Biodome, whose five climate zones illustrate the earth's flora and fauna. Plus, visiting fashionistas will appreciate people-watching Montreal's creative and stylish residents. Tiny streets like Rue St. Denis or the offbeat Plateau neighborhood boasts boutiques carrying pieces from local designers. What's more, there's a thriving entertainment district, the headquarters of Cirque du Soleil and other innovative troupes. Stay up to date with openings and get membership discounts by joining one of the many English language arts clubs or stopping in at La Vitrine, the city's hub for information and last-minute discounted theater tickets. Best of all, the dining scene in Montreal is superb.

Mexico City

Mexico City has a population of 8.8 million that gives it a palpable energy. The walkable Centro Histórico is a UNESCO-designated neighborhood that includes the Templo Mayor, a palatial government center with Diego Rivera murals to rival those in Rockefeller Center, and cobblestone lanes brimming with small shops, traditional restaurants and street vendors.

The 140-mile Mexico City metro helps visitors get to sights like the world-class Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, but should be avoided at rush hour. Safer yet are the authorized taxis to the newer neighborhoods like Condesa, Roma and Polanco, which are home to boutique hotels and upscale international restaurants. Bargain shopping ranges from high-rise designer malls to the Instagrammable produce at La Merced to the handcrafts and street food in Coyoacán, near the Frida Kahlo Museum. Don't skip checking out the Colonia Juarez neighborhood, which is awash with hip bars, celebrity chefs and contemporary mixed-use buildings like the Milan 44 food hall.


10 Bucket-List Destinations That Don't Cost a Fortune

10 Bucket-List Destinations That Don't Cost a Fortune

Happy tourist sightseeing city with map.

Kyle McCarthy, Contributor

Kyle McCarthy is the author of a dozen Frommer guidebooks, contributor to many publications, ...  Read more

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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