Penguins walk on Boulders Beach in Cape Town, South Africa, in this June 2007 file photo.
With amazing food, glorious public spaces, and unparalleled museums, theme parks, and beaches, the only thing “budget” about these world-class vacation spots is the price tag.
Conditions are perfect for visiting these near- and far-flung, culture-rich locales: Price-wise, 2014 is their year. Dipping hotel rates, new attractions, and some perennially affordable sights and eats make these 10 cities ideal to consider for your travel itinerary this year.
Slideshow: See the best budget destinations for 2014
The country that Nelson Mandela changed forever will change you, too.
Why in 2014: Take your pick of locales to visit in South Africa this year: Hotel rates are down 8 percent across the country. Put wildlife at the top of your agenda, whether you're looking to see the big five on a safari or just want to hang out with the free-roaming penguins on Boulders Beach in Cape Town (careful, they bite). For a less risk-fraught animal excursion, Kruger National Park is one of the best on the continent. For an entrance fee of about $20, you can take in the South African landscape and keep your eyes peeled for both the big five and the little five (buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion, and rhino beetle). Beach lovers will flip for Cape Town's beaches, at the intersection of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Go Atlantic (the western side) for sunbathing and watercolor sunsets; hit the Indian (the eastern side) for swimming and surfing. Many of the eastern beaches have lifeguards. Soweto township in Johannesburg offers numerous opportunities to absorb the city's prominent history, such as the Nelson Mandela Museum and the Apartheid Museum. When you're hungry, visit the restaurants on Vilikazi Street; the indigenous local food menus include tripe, morogo (boiled wild spinach), and ting ting (sour porridge).
Where to stay: In Cape Town, the Parliament Hotel's helpful staff, free breakfast, and safe location next to a police station are key basic reasons to book your stay. Nearby, you'll find Company's Gardens, where you can marvel at an aviary and scope out the oldest pear tree in Africa, and the Slave Lodge Museum, which educates visitors about South Africa's history of oppression. (parliamenthotel.co.za, from $67)
Yes, Venice! Hit the enchanting city of canals while hotel rates are down.
Why in 2014: Put "floating down picturesque Venetian canals in a gondola" on your 2014 itinerary. Spending time in Venice is now more affordable than ever — hotel rates are down 7 percent from last year. Along with the iconic gondola trip, visiting the Piazza San Marco is a must: The Sansovino Library and the Ducal Palace stand at either side. You can't miss the two large granite columns from the 13th century that are topped with two symbols: the Lion of Saint Mark and a statue of Saint Theodore. Soak in the work of Venetian masters such as Vittore Carpaccio, Tiziano Vecelli, and Giorgione at Gallerie dell'Accademia, then follow it up with a dose of modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim museum, which showcases works from her personal collection by big names including Picasso, Dali, and Pollock. Ask your hotel's concierge about water transportation to Murano, where you can see traditional glass blowing on a small tour. Be aware that there's a hard sell at the end of the tour. They really want you to buy fancy glass.
Where to stay: For opulent Venetian atmosphere, consider Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo. Nice touches like Murano glass chandeliers and exposed beams add to the 1700s feel. (alpontemocenigo.com, from $115)
Affordable all-inclusive resorts put this island paradise within reach.
Why in 2014: Growing more popular by the day, the DR is a go-to 2014 beach destination if you've been priced out of vacation spots like Cabo or aren't up for sharing sand with the fashion crowd in Tulum. The five-star all-inclusive Majestic Colonial Beach Resort in Punta Cana is surprisingly affordable, at about $212 per night for two people. For a more rustic trip, up-and-coming Las Terrenas, a little-known former fishing village in the Samaná province, is easy on the purse strings and heavy on pristine beaches. To get your nature fix, pay a visit to Los Haitises National Park, a protected virgin forest informally known as Caño Hondo. Rent a kayak for $3 (plus a licensed guide) and glide through lagoons and mangrove canals to spy on wildlife like brown pelicans and endangered leatherback turtles.
Where to stay: The private and affordable Eva Luna, in Las Terrenas, has five Mexican-style villas, each with a kitchen. (villa-evaluna.com, from $100)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
The "Paris of South America" invites you to tango, shop, eat — and then tango some more.
Why in 2014: Dubbed the "Paris of South America," Buenos Aires has a cosmopolitan feel and is heavy on museums, historical sites, and nightlife. Go this year: Hotel rates are 8 percent lower than they were in 2013. In the evening, make a stop at busy Corrientes Avenue for everything from a slice at an all-night pizzeria to rare books to dance clubs where you can brush up on your tango skills—the street is rich in tango history. If it's been a while since you've watched "Evita," re-educate yourself on the life of Eva Perón at the Evita Museum, which spotlights Eva's clothing, items from her charity work, and videos of her speeches. Afterward, view Argentinean culture through the eyes of its artists at the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires, where works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and more reside. Follow Santa Fe Avenue to arrive at the affluent Recoleta neighborhood, famous for its high-end shopping, but also noteworthy for Recoleta Cemetery, a mecca of 18th and 19th century design and the final resting place of well-to-do Argentineans and famous statesmen, politicians, and military heroes — including Eva Perón's tomb. More than 100 years old, Teatro Colon, in downtown Buenos Aires, houses opera and ballet performances, and concerts by the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra among other classical concerts by musicians from around the world. Tickets are reasonable (about $9), or take a guided tour of the theater (about $10). To seize the moment after you've celebrated the past, the Río de la Plata is ideal for sailing, motorboating, and waterskiing.
Where to stay: Situated in a residential area outside the city center but two blocks from the subway, the Hotel Boutique Racó de Buenos Aires is a boutique hotel that's high on style and comfort—there's even an outdoor courtyard where you can enjoy breakfast. (racodebuenosaires.com.ar, from $66)
The "big three" — Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld — are just the beginning.
Why in 2014: If you've been planning to hit Orlando and its theme parks eventually but haven't booked your tickets yet, do it in 2014: Hotel rates are down 7 percent. To sweeten the deal, the "big three" theme parks all have brand-new elements, including Universal Studios' Transformers: The Ride 3D; the ever-expanding Fantasyland at Disney World, including the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, scheduled to open in 2014; and Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, SeaWorld's biggest attraction to date, which drops temps to 30 degrees — colder than it ever gets in Florida. If eating well appeals to you after your foray into action-adventure, hit up downtown Orlando: The recently opened Rusty Spoon restaurant sources local fare from Florida farmers, like butter-poached wild clams and slow-braised Jamison farm lamb collar.
Where to stay: Rosen Inn International is the newest addition to Rosen's roster of family-friendly, value-conscious Orlando hotels. Parents, take note: Free shuttle rides to SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and Wet 'n' Wild are provided, and children under 9 eat free in the hotel's buffet restaurant. (roseninn7600.com, from $61)
Friendly locals offer amazing seafood and rich history.
Why in 2014: Head up north next year to take advantage of Atlantic Canada's always-low prices and to see an UNESCO World Heritage Site on the cheap. Composed of four provinces — New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador — Atlantic Canada is well known for its amazing seafood and rich history. Old Town Lunenburg, a heritage site in Nova Scotia, is 260 years old, but it looks almost the same as it did back in the 1700s. The original grid pattern is still in use, and the brightly colored wood-framed houses haven't changed much, as Lunenburg's citizens take preserving the past very seriously. Buy a $10 ticket to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic and its wharves to behold floating replicas of famous trawlers and schooners.
Where to stay: Quaint and cozy, the Smugglers Cove Inn is right by the docks. For $5 a night, you can even rent a Beta fish, which the hotel calls "a free 'therapy' session to help you relax." (smugglerscoveinn.ca, from $99)
Beyond the Liberty Bell, an art- and food-lover's capital beckons.
Why in 2014: Philadelphia's arts scene has never been bigger or shinier than it is now. The legendary Barnes Foundation art collection has moved from the 'burbs to a new downtown home, and a building boom has given rise to new state-of-the-art buildings for a slew of institutions including the National Constitution Center, the Please Touch Museum, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company. That's handy if you're looking to embrace the city of Brotherly Love in 2014, because Philly has long been an affordable travel destination. Seeing the Avenue of the Arts (a.k.a. Broad Street) is a must: Museums such as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts line the avenue, but so do restaurants and watering holes like Jet Wine Bar, which serves up small bites alongside international vinos (starting at $6) from its "Global Vineyard." That's not to mention all the usual Philly suspects, like finding your inner Rocky on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, visiting Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776), and viewing the Liberty Bell, which you can visit for free. Judge for yourself who has the best cheesesteak in town: Pat's King of Steaks or Geno's Steaks, longtime competitors who are across the street from each other and, more importantly, both open 24/7.
Where to stay: The Alexander Inn is a small but well-appointed boutique hotel in Center City within walking distance of both Independence Hall and the Avenue of the Arts. (alexanderinn.com, from $119)
The tastiest, most vibrant European history lesson you've ever had.
Why in 2014: Calling all history buffs: Deep discounts abound in Warsaw in 2014. Hotel stays cost a full 20 percent less this year. Visiting the capital of Poland is like taking the best European history lesson you've ever had. The verdant Lazienki Park, a.k.a. Royal Baths Park, is home to both architecture and gardens. Perhaps its most famous resident, the Palace on the Island, was built in the 1600s for a Polish noble, but eventually became the home of Poland's last king in the 18th century. If you visit Warsaw in the summer, take in the free piano concert held next to the park's statue of Chopin every Saturday and Sunday, a tradition that has lasted 50 years. The oldest and most historic part of the city, Old Town, was almost completely demolished during WWII, but restoration efforts have earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. Today, Old Town is teeming with cafés, galleries, and restaurants including Pierogarnia na Bednarskiej, a local joint that dishes out dirt-cheap traditional pierogies (less than $4.50 for seven).
Where to stay: Ibis Budget Warszawa Reduta's rooms are teensy but outfitted with bright, contemporary furnishings — and you can't beat the price. (accorhotels.com, from $49)
Seoul, South Korea
From K Pop to palaces, the South Korean capital delights with whiplash-inducing cultural diversity.
Why in 2014: Travel Gangnam style by visiting Korea in 2014. It's a fashionable time to experience au courant "K Pop" music in the place that invented it, and conveniently, hotel rates are down 9 percent this year. Obviously, there's more history here than the trajectory of pop star Psy. Fourteenth-century Geongbok Palace, in northern Seoul, has been destroyed and rebuilt twice. Efforts to restore the Joseon Dynasty buildings are ongoing, but some features are finished and available for viewing, including the Imperial Throne Hall, where coronation ceremonies were held, and the palace gate. Head to the gate between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to see a colorful changing of the guard reenactment held every day. While you're at the palace, you can learn more about the dynasty at the National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum, both of which are right on the grounds. Traditional Joseon Dynasty houses called hanoks, built from soil, timber, and rock, are still alive and well in Bukchon Hanok Village, where citizens of Seoul still live. Respect the Seoulites by keeping your voice down as you walk the streets, and duck into the relatively new Han Sangsu Embroidery museum, built into a remodeled hanok. Try your hand at the craft at one of the museum's two-hour classes for visitors — but brush up on your foreign-language skills beforehand: They're taught in Korean. For a bit of exercise in an awe-inspiring environment, hike the Bugaksan Mountain trails, which take you along the Fortress Wall of Seoul. Your reward at the top is a clear view of the city. (Bring your passport, though — everyone has to register in order to climb the granite peak.)
Where to stay: If you're up for trying one of Seoul's many "love hotels" (small motels designed to give amorous couples privacy), Hotel Amare is well situated, in central Seoul. The lack of storage space is a tradeoff for perks like sleek, modern décor and a free non-alcoholic mini bar. (amarehotel.co.kr, from $74)
See this European Capital of Culture before everyone else gets hip to it.
Why in 2014: Now is the time to immerse yourself in culture in Riga, Latvia, where theater thrives and Art Nouveau buildings are abundant. In 2014, the European Union will officially dub the city the European Capital of Culture. It's a well-earned title: The city's Art Nouveau buildings, concentrated in the city's center, have garnered Riga UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Old Riga is ideal for architecture-scouting: The spires of numerous churches reach into the sky, such as the landmark medieval Riga Cathedral (famous for its 6,718-pipe organ) and St. Peter's Church, which combines Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque styles. Consider popping into the Latvian National Opera building for a ballet, choral performance, or, yes, an opera. For something totally different, spend time on the white quartz sand beaches — Riga is right on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
Where to stay: Named after the Livonian poet who aided Goethe in starting the Sturm und Drang movement, Guesthouse Jakob Lenz isn't exactly centrally located (it's a 15-minute walk to Old Town), but the price is right and the furnishings are streamlined and tidy. Ensure you don't book a "basic" room unless you don't mind sharing a bathroom with other guests. (guesthouselenz.lv, from $34)
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First published January 2 2014, 9:23 AM