Europe in winter: is it worth the trip?

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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 simpleHofburg Palace Vienna 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 Athens squaremust 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.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

13 Comments

  1. Good summary, Paul. I agree with all your points. On balance, a “winter” trip shouldn’t be your first trip to Europe. I would vote for either spring or fall. But once you’re comfortable with the idea of Europe, and have some concept of what you’re going to be seeing, then a colder-weather trip makes a lot of sense. Cheers and Happy New Year!

  2. I went to England in February a few years ago and for some strange reason I expected balmy weather.( The English don’t consider themselves part of Europe but weatherwise their to close to not be.) I guess, to me flying from Canada to anywhere else in the world in the winter is synonomous with going on vacation in a warmer country no matter where your plane lands. However once I got used to the idea that I was not in the tropics I began to see England for what it was. There is so much history there that I realized that I was actually there at a good time of year because the crowds of summer tourist weren’t there to hinder any sightseeing that I wanted to do. You just need to dress accordingly and believe it or not I didn’t even need an umbrella.

    • Good observation, Dennis — Canadians do expect everywhere else to be warmer than here. The thing about England, though, is that you’re not assured good weather no matter when you land. The Brits I know describe English summer as one week of sunshine. Wow, you visited in February and didn’t need an umbrella — that must be some kind of record.

  3. We travelled to England in December and the weather was a bit colder than in Canada but we were prepared for the weather and were lucky to enjoy the Christmas market and a short but good visit with friends. We took the train to Paris and that was very cool. Paris weather was cool but we grinned and continued on the open air travel hop on of bus until we were too still and jumped off to warmer places and took in a lot of the museums and loved every bit of it. I agree that there would be more crowds in the summer months but noticing that there were quite a lot of folks thinking the same thing to travel off season and beat some of the crowds was a good idea. I think I could make a book on the washrooms in Paris clean/not and paid and not. Since that was the biggest change for me is to pay for a washroom break. The trip to the artists area in Momart and the many stairs to travel up and the Irish pub half way up the steep steps was worth it. I never laughed so much. I just loved Paris, would recommend everyone try it in the winter. The Christmas market was champs elysees, so beautiful and the mulled wine was a must to keep warm and enjoy the booths. I miss it already.

  4. There´s nothing like cozy cafe culture and Christmas spirit of winter Europe. Germany, Austria and other Central European nations have the best Christmas markets — stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells, the lights, a glass of warming gluhwein in your hand and plenty of good cheer. It doesn´t get better than that! Lucerne, in particular, is stunning in winter.

    • Lucerne — there’s a place I never thought of, Adam. I imagine the cities with the most picturesque settings are the most beautiful in winter, too. You make me want to go back again.

    • I think a lot of people would agree with you about the heat, Amy. Still, looking at other people’s sunny photos of places I visited on cold, grey winter days, I’m kind of envious that I wasn’t there in good weather.

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