Most people’s idea of a European trip is strolling the sunny boulevards of Paris, or dining in an outdoor café in Rome. But these are mostly summer pursuits, and Europe is open 12 months of the year: is it worth going there in winter?
I wasn’t quite sure myself when I booked my recent trip, which took me to both northern and southern Europe in the early weeks of winter. But after spending two and a half weeks touring some of Europe’s major cities, my answer is yes — with reservations.
For me at least, cost is a major consideration on a trip like this. Europe is not cheap, so anything I can do to contain the damage is a help. And what you’ve heard is true: once the summer tourist season is over, prices come down considerably, starting with air fares. As I wrote about in this post, my travel agent at Flight Centre helped me get a multi-leg flight in late November for about $400 less than I paid for a simple round-trip to Copenhagen the previous summer.
The Mediterranean cruise that was the core of the trip was bargain-priced because of the season, too. (Some of my fellow cruisers got truly outrageous prices by booking last-minute.) And lodgings were reasonably priced: I got a very decent hotel an easy tram ride from Vienna’s historic centre for about $65 a night, hard to imagine in summer.
And meanwhile, pretty much all the sights I came to see were open for business. I toured Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, Mozart’s house, Olympia, the acropolis, the beautiful city of Bruges, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and grand bazaar — I even took a comfortable boat ride on the Bosphorus in the early days of December.
It was all as good as I expected, and there were some benefits to visiting Europe in winter, too. Wandering through the Christmas markets of old Vienna made my visit even more enjoyable, and the winter setting resulted in one of my most memorable travel pictures (you can see it here).
And I think the medieval city of Bruges was all the more dramatic with a chill in the air and the Christmas lights shining in the darkening streets. What could be better than warming your insides with a fresh Belgian waffle and a cup of piping hot coffee (or hot chocolate, if that’s your taste)? One of my Twitter friends recently mused about spending Christmas there — what a wonderful thought!
Then there are the crowds — or lack of them. There are a lot of people at the most popular sites even in winter, but not nearly as many as there must be in mid-summer, with the tourist season in full swing. Peering over people’s shoulders to see the exhibits in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, I shuddered to think of the crowds and lineups there in July.
Of course, it’s not all good news. In northern Europe at least, it can be pretty uncomfortable when the weather is cold and damp. I spent a fair bit of my time in Vienna looking for a place to get warm — there aren’t many indoor malls in Europe’s old inner cities. And there are some things that are just better done in summer, like viewing historic gardens and bicycling through the countryside.
But I can truly say that I enjoyed pretty much every day of my trip, and didn’t feel cheated by not being there in summer. In fact, once I left Vienna, the weather was pretty mild throughout my Mediterranean cruise — not exactly warm, but comfortable if you were properly dressed. I even had some moussaka in an open-air restaurant in Greece. And if it rained now and then, well, that’s what umbrellas are for.
I guess it’s all about your idea of a great European vacation: if the things you dream about are the ones that require balmy weather and flowers in bloom, a winter trip might not be for you. But if you’re going to Europe to see the major sights and don’t mind a little weather, there’s no reason not to go in the off-season. You’ll see a different side of Europe, for sure, but it will still be the real thing.