As winter falls in Europe, the temperature drops and the weather can get downright nasty, but that doesn’t mean all those winding cobblestone alleys and charming plazas disappear along with the summer crowds. In fact, Paris’ cafes can feel even cozier when it’s raining, and Rome may be even better when it’s chilly because that means no sweltering in line under the hot sun.
For an added bonus, the number of overnight stays in Europe plummets in winter to less than a third of peak summer season of July and August. That means you get much cheaper hotel rates and empty cultural attractions, such as museums where you’ll feel comfortable lingering.
As long as you have the right mindset and prepare yourself, traveling to Europe in winter has more benefits than you might realize. Here’s how to get the most out of that off-season trip:
Be realistic about your needs
During January and February throughout most of northern Europe, the days can be incredibly short, particularly if the sky is overcast. The sun will start to go down in mid-afternoon, so, if you’re the type that needs a sunny day to motivate you, winter in Europe might not be for you.
But if you ready yourself for some gloomy, dreary days, the clear ones will just be a bonus. “You have to be prepared for it to get darker earlier, and you’re going to need to travel with more clothing,” said Laurence Norah, who began blogging at FindingtheUniverse.com seven years ago.
He recommends traveling with lots of extra layers, including long underwear just in case. And make sure to bring a raincoat and extra pairs of socks so you can still wander around on those inevitable soggy and chilly days. But unless you’re headed to the Arctic Circle or Scandinavia, where the temperature can linger dangerously below zero, don’t expect anything all that different from the cities in the American northeast.
Scout the right location
Winter can be a really good idea, but it all depends on what you want from your trip, Norah says. If budget is the biggest concern, southern Europe is generally more affordable all year round, but it’s considerably cheaper in winter even though the weather is much nicer around the Mediterranean.
In Greece, southern Italy and Spain, for instance, the sun will be out on most winter days and temperatures can easily reach into the 60s. “It’s certainly a lot less crowded,” Norah said. “It’s not insanely hot and all the sights are still there.”
You also might consider the kind of places that have a lot of indoor attractions, like Amsterdam, Paris or Rome. “They have all the sorts of things you will want to do anyway, and there aren’t a million people on the same holiday as you,” he said.
Take advantage of holiday markets
If you have the opportunity to get away around the holidays, Europe’s Christmas markets are enchanting destinations filled with local crafts, unusual gifts and warm drinks, and often there will be bonfires, live music and cultural performances. They generally are open from the beginning of December through much of January in town squares scattered throughout Germany, parts of France, and much of eastern and central Europe.
Christmas markets are just one reason why some destinations can be even better in winter, says Betsy Wuebker, who blogs with her husband at PassingThru.com.
She said they fell hard for the central European capitals of Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, where the graceful bridges and vintage architecture stood out “against frosty backgrounds” during a recent winter trip.
“We recognized the milky winter light that medieval and Renaissance painters used to such great advantage,” Wuebker said. “Visiting these fabled cities in winter might spoil you. It’s a completely different and more authentic experience.”
Europe in the winter allows you to absorb more local flavor
Wuebker says the lack of crowds translates into something tangible — more attention from the people who actually live there.
“Locals look forward to your business and have more time to interact,” Wuebker said. “Winter travel in Europe feels more genuine. You’re not just there as a tourist on a lighthearted summer holiday, you’re mingling with those who live and work there all year long.”
That means you can feel more comfortable hanging out with a warm drink in a cafe without feeling rushed by the staff. Besides, some of the best food the continent has to offer tastes better in winter, like Budapest’s steamy bowls of aromatic Hungarian goulash. Just imagine trudging around a French village all day at peak summer, and then tucking into a sweaty dinner of red wine and beef Bourgogne.
The cultural calendar also heats up in most European cities in winter, when orchestras, theater companies, and big museums put on their best offerings for the year. Cities like Vienna might not be considered a winter hotspot, but if you’re into classical music, that’s peak season for choirs and orchestras that return in autumn after a long summer break.
So, book that trip and bundle up. The memories will keep you warm all year.
Have you visited Europe in winter? Tell us all about your trip in the comments below!