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With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, TPG Contributor Lori Zaino shares three European cities perfect for an affordable escape. (Room rates quoted below are priced for Valentine’s Day weekend. All photos are by the author unless specified.)
Famous cities of love like Paris and Venice are obvious choices when it comes to Valentine’s Day getaways, but other European cities offer more affordable — and equally romantic — escapes. The three destinations below are worth visiting all year round, but their beautiful scenery make them especially great for a jaunt with your S.O. Read on for details on where to stay and how to get there using points and miles.
1. Verona, Italy
Verona may just be the most seductive city in the world, especially as the official home of Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet. The entire city goes absolutely gaga around Valentine’s Day with its Verona In Love Festival from February 11-14. Celebrations include contests for the most romantic love letter to Juliet, parades, live music in plazas all around the city, art exhibitions, poetry slams and plenty of restaurants offering wine tastings and romantic dinner specials.
Walking around Verona’s city center decorated with the “Lights of Love” glowing red hearts display is a delightful activity in itself. Stop by Casa di Giulietta (Juliet’s House) or enjoy a sunset stroll through the the Roman amphitheater, Arena di Verona, which dates back to the first century — for a real treat, check out one of the orchestral concerts inside the Arena during Valentine’s Day weekend. Palazzo Giusti and its surrounding classical gardens are also worth a visit.
Save: Sample full-bodied Italian wines at Signorvino, a wine shop and bar where you can snack on traditional Italian tapas like salami, Prosciutto di Parma and Barolo cheese. There aren’t many points hotels in Verona, but you can use miles from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard to wipe travel charges off your statement. For example, book a few nights at the centrally located Hotel Giulietta e Romeo, which offers complimentary Wi-Fi among other perks, and use miles to erase the charge. Room rates start at about 129 euros (~$140) per night.
Splurge: Enjoy a romantic candlelit dinner at Osteria La Fontanina surrounded by antique art and statues. The ivy-covered patio is a charming place to dine, weather permitting. The glamorous and intimate Grand Relais Gentleman of Verona Guest House offers true opulence with its on-site Turkish hammam and spa with classical art and antiques lining the hotel walls. If you decide to splurge, use the Citi Prestige‘s 4th Night Free hotel benefit to lower your bill. Room rates here start at about $494 per night.
Getting There: One option is to use American AAdvantage miles to arrive in Milan (MXP) from a number of US cities — you can expect to use 20,000 to 30,000 American AAdvantage miles to fly in economy, 50,000 in business class and 62,500 in first class, each way. Note that some of these rates may vary starting March 22, 2016, when the AAdvantage program’s latest changes go into effect. From Milan, there are plenty of bus, train and car rental options available get you the last 98 miles to Verona.
2. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is considerably less touristy but just as incredible as its sister city, Prague. I visited Budapest on a whim with TPG a few years ago and we were both amazed at how much we fell in love with the city. While our trip wasn’t a romantic one, Budapest feels like it’s made for couples, with its gorgeous cruises down the Danube and a plethora of thermal baths and spas. The city even made TPG’s list of best-value destinations for 2015.
For a quirky but romantic date, try a Segway tour — don’t knock it until you try it! — which takes you over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, allowing you to explore both the Buda and Pest sides of the river. Enjoy the brisk weather and hold hands while ice skating at the rink in City Park behind Vajdahunyad Castle, then warm up with dip in the (supposedly) healing waters at the Gellért or Széchenyi Medicinal Baths.
Save: For amazing views of the Danube River and Hungarian Parliament Building, stay at the Hilton Budapest, where room rates start at just 105 euros (~$114) or 30,000 Hilton HHonors points per night. Budapest is also a great spot for wining and dining affordably — sample Hungarian wines at Bock Bistro or grab some cold brews at the Szimpla Kert beer garden.
Splurge: The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace is located directly in front of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, and it’s part of the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program, offered to all holders of the Platinum Card from American Express. If you book directly through Amex, you’ll get a $100 food and beverage credit to be used during your stay in addition to other perks like late check-out — use this credit for Valentine’s Day dinner at Kollázs Brasserie & Bar in the hotel, which offers creative international cuisine. Room rates at The Four Seasons start at about 320 euros (~$348) per night.
Getting There: Unfortunately, you can’t fly nonstop from the US to Budapest. On Star Alliance carrier Lufthansa, you can connect through Frankfurt, Munich or Dusseldorf, then use low-cost carrier Ryanair to get to Budapest — just be sure to read the fine print in order to avoid extra fees. For Star Alliance partner awards, you’ll need 30,000 United MileagePlus miles to fly one-way in economy, 57,500 in business class and 170,000 in first class.
3. Seville, Spain
Southern Spain’s cobblestone streets, gypsy vibes and warm sunshine make it a magical spot to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Wandering Seville’s trendy Triana district across the river, with its many family-owned bars and small shops, is a wonderful way to pass a leisurely afternoon with your sweetheart — don’t forget to visit the Mercado de Triana for authentic Andalusian tapas like crispy boquerones (sardines) or rabo de toro (oxtail). The gardens of the Real Alcázar Palace are beautiful even in winter thanks to intricate tiling, fountains and monumental statues located throughout the massive green space.
And no visit to Seville is complete without a walk around the Plaza de España (also known as the “Venice of Seville”), one of Europe’s most magnificent squares featuring a 1,640-foot canal, four foot bridges, towers and 48 tiled alcoves, one for each of Spain’s provinces.
Save: You can stay at an Airbnb property for as low as $56 per night in the center of Seville if you’re really hoping to cut costs. Indulge in creative gourmet tapas at La Brunilda, a trendy spot offering excellent food for reasonable prices.
Splurge: Perhaps the most luxurious hotel in all of Seville is the Starwood Hotel Alfonso XIII, with its strong Sevillana vibes and use of beautiful Moorish, Castillian and Andalusian decor. This SPG Category 6 hotel starts at about 295 euros (~$321) or 20,000 Starpoints per night. Celebrate with a special Basque-Andalusian dinner at Restaurante Oriza, where you can sample the chef specialty of venison with pralines and a delicate cream of pear sauce.
Getting There: United Airlines flies nonstop to Madrid (MAD) from Newark (EWR), requiring the following United MileagePlus redemptions each way: 30,000 (economy), 57,500 (business) or 80,000 (first). If you’re using American AAdvantage miles, you’ll need 20,000 (economy) or 50,000 (business) to fly American one-way from various US cities to MAD. Once in Madrid, catch the high-speed AVE train to Seville (about 2.5 hours).
A Final Tip
Credit cards such as Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Prestige don’t charge foreign transaction fees, making them ideal to use on vacations in foreign countries like Italy, Hungary and Spain. Check out this article about the top credit cards with no foreign transaction fees for more ways to help you save.
What’s your favorite romantic European City?
While Citi announced some negative changes to this card back in July — including a lower sign-up bonus, the elimination of Admirals Club access and the end of the free rounds of golf benefit — one of its most valuable perks still remains, which is the 4th Night Free perk. This benefit alone can save you thousands of dollars a year if you use it to its full advantage.