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8 Great Reasons for Off-Season Travel in Europe

Combine Budget Travel with Cultural Immersion

Nimes, France off-season ruins
Beautiful towns in the South of France, such as Nimes, are full of locals eating very well outside as late as November (when not taking a siesta) in front of intact ancient Roman ruins. Photo ©Gregory Hubbs.

Most travelers choose the warm summer months to visit Europe, and there are indeed many advantages: The days are longer and the weather is warm and dry, allowing for a variety of outdoor activities. A plethora of cultural, music, and art festivals take place all over the continent. On the other hand, traveling during high season also has many substantial drawbacks: Airline tickets are far more expensive, trains are crowded, hotels fill up quickly, and the cost for room and board is much higher. In addition, regardless of your destination, there will be large crowds everywhere; travel off-the-beaten-path in Europe during high season has become more and more difficult over the years. You are likely to encounter tourists and even tourists buses at locations you thought had not yet been explored. If you are seeking a less crowded and more affordable trip to Europe, you might want to consider a visit during off-seasons such as spring or fall. Some refer to this period as the "shoulder season," as there remain a few tourists, but most have returned to their home country. You will be able to take advantage of lower prices, fewer tourists, and you will almost certainly enjoy a more intimate travel experience which includes more contact with local people, culture, and their unique daily rituals.

1) With Proper Planning, Off-Season Travel is a More Intimate Experience

First things first, of course. Determining when a travel destination is off-season depends on a variety of factors. Weather plays an huge role in determining the main tourist season. Summer is the main tourist season throughout most of Europe, but quiet mountain villages in the summer burst with activity during the winter ski season. With the exception of beach resorts along the Mediterranean, few travel destinations in Europe close down entirely during off-season. Local weather conditions make some destinations attractive much deeper into fall than you might expect. This is certainly true for the southern rim of the Alps in Italy, where mild weather persists throughout October, attracting many travelers to activities such as hiking, culinary tours including truffle hunting, wine tasting, and just plain relaxing. On the other hand, tourist facilities in some destinations remain closed until the beginning of summer. If you are considering a trip to Europe during the winter months, research whether some key attractions are open and make sure the local weather and average temperatures are amenable to you in order to ensure a pleasant experience.

Piemonte, Italy truffle season and wine
Off-season travel in the Piemonte region of Northern Italy in October, when the grapes have just been picked for the finest wines. White and black truffle season is in full swing. Here you will find endless rolling hills covered with grape vines, and the Italian and Swiss Alps in the background. Photo ©Gregory Hubbs.

But do keep in mind that even during off-season there are many festivities and holidays popular with European tourists; among them are Christmas, New Year’s, Mardi Gras, and Easter—and this is only to mention the most common holidays. During these holidays prices are likely to go up at hotels. Trains, buses, and airplanes will fill up quickly, and many cities and regions are once again crowded with tourists. A few years back I spent Holy Week in Paris and found myself surrounded by Italian tourists nearly everywhere I went. To get away from the crowds, I took a train to nearby Chartres to visit the famous Gothic cathedral—which turned out to be practically deserted. Similarly, popular destinations in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy are crowded with central European tourists over Easter, eager to get away from the rainy springtime at home and enjoy a pleasant sunny week. Regional holidays may surprise unsuspecting visitors expecting low prices and plenty of hotel vacancies. December is certainly off-season in Portugal, but over the weekend of December 8, Lisbon suddenly fills up with vacationers from neighboring Spain. I only found out later that the holiday of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 is a 3-day weekend for Spaniards, and many decide to spend it in Lisbon. To make sure that you are not unexpectedly bumping into a major local festival, holiday, or event held during off-season, it is important to do some research before you go. Check your guidebook for festivals and holidays, visit festival and holiday websites listing them, or contact the local tourist office to find out the details.

Fall at the Gianiculo park in Rome above the Trastevere neighborhood.
Fall at the Gianiculo park in Rome above the Trastevere neighborhood.
Photo © Gregory Hubbs

2) Small Local Festivals in Europe

The season for big European summer festivals ends around mid-September. Starting in late September things become a bit quiet, but if you travel to the countryside or small towns you can still find many small festivals worth attending. There are many local wine and harvest festivals, small cultural and historic festivals dedicated to local history, music, art, handicrafts, food, and traditions—secular, pagan, monotheistic, and often an interesting and unique combination. Since these events are mostly attended by the resident population, it is a great opportunity to meet the locals, interact with them in their own language if you can, and learn more about their culture and way of life. You often find yourself transported back into history by the re-enacted rituals. 

Small local festivals in Europe
Small local festivals, often harvest festivals, are among the main attractions for off-season travel.

3) Local Fairs and Markets

Fairs and markets are among my favorite events to visit and in which to participate. If you have visited a farmer’s market in Provence, France, during the summer, you certainly know that there are more tourists than local shoppers. If you shop at the same market in spring or fall, there will be mostly locals. It is fun to watch the local townsfolk descend upon the nearby town on market day to buy their groceries and chat with vegetable farmers, butchers, bakers, and cheese vendors. Visiting art fairs and flea markets during the off-season also offers a pleasant experience of the local atmosphere, and great deals as well.

4) More Pleasant Sightseeing During the Off-Season

For most travelers, a trip to Europe includes famous landmarks, museums, and other popular tourist destinations, but if you visit these places during high season large crowds can often spoil the atmosphere. If you travel during the off-season you will be able to explore important historic sites and landmarks much more intimately without being distracted by the usual tourist crowds, so your visit will be much more rewarding. A few years ago, in northern Italy a museum curator took an hour of his own time to talk to me in depth about Gothic art. I was the only visitor there at the time, and I gained a much deeper appreciation of medieval art from a man who was excited to share his knowledge.

The Roman Forum during the off-season if often almost tourist-free.
The Roman Forum during the off-season is often almost tourist-free, as opposed to the huge crowds in oppressive heat during the peak months. Photo © Gregory Hubbs

5) Much Cheaper Lodging

During high season, hotels often fill up early in the day, leaving late-arriving travelers scrambling for rooms. During the off-season it is usually not a problem to find an economic and pleasant hotel even late in the day. In small towns you can expect locals to approach you at a railway or bus station and invite you to stay at their pension, guesthouse, or bed and breakfast. With fewer guests, you can also expect friendlier and more attentive service at hotels and restaurants. Since prices for lodging are lower, it is also quite easy to find an affordable hotel in the town or city center you might not be able to afford in the summer. Staying in a historic center is a great experience, since it is much easier to get around on foot and explore the surrounding attractions.

Off-season hotels in Rome
Off-season hotels in Rome in the fall are often relatively cheaper and vacant. Photo © Gregory Hubbs

6) Less Crowded Transportation

The summer vacation months are high season for public transportation in Europe. Kids and university students are out of school, and everybody travels. One of the drawbacks of spontaneous and unplanned travel in Europe during the summer is the fact that trains and buses are often full. I remember taking an overnight train from Austria to Italy a few years back, when even the corridors of the railroad cars were crammed with travelers who couldn’t get a seat. I ended up sleeping in the narrow luggage rack high above the travelers crouching on the floor! This is why spring and fall are much more pleasant seasons to travel by train or bus. During the off-season you won’t have any problems finding a seat, even on trains that don’t require a seat reservation.

7) More Contact with the Locals

I grew up in one of Europe’s top tourist destinations (Salzburg, Austria), and I know from my own experience that locals avoid areas frequented by thousands of tourists every day. By traveling off-season, you have the opportunity to mingle with the locals in their daily activities and it is much easier to have contact with them, especially in smaller cities and towns. I went to a flamenco bar in Seville in January a few years back, and there were only locals and a few international students. I had many lively conversations with the local crowd and reveled with them deep into the early morning hours.

Off-season festivals in Europe
In fall, wine harvest and wine-tasting festivals attract visitors to small towns all over Europe.

8) A Chance to Explore Your Favorite Destinations

Based upon my own experiences over the years I have compiled a short list of my favorite off-season destinations in Europe that can be managed on a smart budget: 

Amsterdam in April

Enjoy the Queen’s Birthday Celebration (Koninginnedag), a large street festival held all over the city on April 30th.

The Alps in October

For those travelers who enjoy being in the mountains and hiking, the most pleasant weather in the Alps lies in early fall. Kids are back in school at that time, and you will share the magnificent mountains only with local hikers.

The Greek Islands in May

Early spring is a great time to enjoy Greece without the crowds. The weather is pleasant, beaches are empty, and you will only find friendly locals on the islands that are usually crowded with tourists.

Provence in September

Provence in southern France is one of the country’s most charming regions, but it gets crowded in the summer. Beginning in the fall, local life begins to return to normal, and visitors can take it slow while enjoying a more quiet and authentic experience of the local culture and natural beauty. Food and accommodations are available for those on a budget due to off-season rates.

September view of St. Paul de Vence in Provence.
September view of St. Paul de Vence in Provence.
Photo © Gregory Hubbs

Tuscany in Spring

Once Easter is over, there are fewer visitors in Tuscany until the summer season picks up. This is a great time to travel: The landscape is lush and green, trees and flowers are in blossom, the shops and markets are bustling with foods affordable for almost any budget traveler, and you can experience the charm of cities and towns without the usual crowds wandering around looking lost and completely out of place. Not exactly the bella figura in which Italians take so much pride

Small street in Tuscan village
Small Etruscan-era path in a Tuscan village in the fall.
Photo © Gregory Hubbs

Algarve in February

Portugal’s southernmost province is best known as a beach destination, but for those interested in the magnificent scenery and culture, late winter and early spring is a great time to visit. Almond trees are in flower, and the region’s historic towns and monuments are free from tourists. During the winter, busy tourist destinations take on again their traditional character as small fishing villages, and the locals go about their business and daily rituals as they always have and hopefully always will.

Portugal's southern coast gets few visitors in the winter.
Portugal's southern coast gets few visitors in the winter.

Andalusia in Winter

Southern Spain experiences cold spells from time to time, but the weather is usually quite pleasant in the winter. This is a great time to visit the region’s immense cultural treasures such as the Alhambra in Granada, the Alcázar palace in Seville, and the historic center of Córdoba. Andalusia is one of the most enchanted regions in Europe year-round, and tapas and local wine are a great budget treat.

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