Off-Season Travel in Europe
Save Money and Meet the Europeans
Each summer Europe greets a stampede of sightseers and shoppers with eager cash registers. Before jumping into the peak-season pig pile, consider an off-season trip.
The advantages of off-season traveling are many. Airfares are often hundreds of dollars less. With fewer crowds in Europe, you’ll sleep cheaper. Many fine hotels drop their prices, and budget hotels have plenty of vacancies. I used to lead an 18-day autumn tour of Germany, Italy, and France with 22 people and no room reservations. We’d amble into town around 5 p.m. and always found 22 beds well within our budget.
To save some money on hotels in the off-season, arrive late, notice how many empty rooms they have (keys on the rack), let them know you’re a hosteler (student, senior, artist, or whatever) with a particular price limit, and bargain from there. The opposite is true of big-city business centers (especially Berlin, Brussels, and the Scandinavian capitals), which are busiest and most expensive off-season.
For many, "shoulder season"—April, May, early June and September and early October—offers the best mix of peak-season and off-season pros and cons. In shoulder season you’ll enjoy decent weather, long days, fewer crowds, and a local tourist industry that is still eager to please and entertain.
Outside of peak season, adventurers loiter all alone through Leonardo’s home, ponder unpestered in Rome’s forum, and chat with laid-back guards by log fires in French châteaux. In winter- time Venice you can be alone atop St. Mark’s bell tower, watching the clouds of your breath roll over the Byzantine domes of the church to a horizon of cut-glass Alps. Below, on St. Mark’s Square, pigeons fidget and wonder, "Where are the tourists?"
Without the crowds, you can enjoy step-right-up service at banks and tourist offices and experience a more European Europe. Although many popular tourist-oriented parks, shows, and tours will be closed, off-season is in-season for the high culture: plays and operas are in their crowd-pleasing glory, particularly in Vienna.
Dealing with the Drawbacks
Winter travel has its drawbacks. Because much of Europe is in Canadian latitudes, the days are short. It’s dark by 5 p.m. The weather can be miserable—cold, windy, and drizzly—and then turn worse. But just as summer can be wet and grey, winter can be crisp and blue, and even into mid-November hillsides blaze with colorful leaves.
To thrive in the winter you’ll need to get the most out of your limited daylight hours. Start early and eat a quick lunch. Tourist offices close early, so call ahead to double-check hours and confirm your plans. Pack for the cold and wet—layers, rainproof parka, gloves, wool hat, long johns, waterproof shoes, and an umbrella. Cold weather is colder when you’re outdoors all day long. And cheap hotels are not always adequately heated in the off-season.
Off-season hours are limited. Tourist information offices normally stay open year-round but have shorter hours in the winter. Some sights close down entirely, and most operate on shorter schedules (such as 10 a.m.–5 p.m. rather than 9 a.m.–7 p.m.), with darkness often determining the closing time. Winter sightseeing is fine in big cities, which bustle year-round, but it’s more frustrating in small tourist towns, which often shut down entirely. In December many beach resorts are shut up as tight as canned hams.
While Europe’s wonderful outdoor evening ambience survives year-round in the south, wintertime streets are often empty in the north after dark. English-language tours, common in the summer, are rare during the off-season, when most visitors are natives. Another disadvantage of winter travel is loneliness. The solo traveler won’t have the built-in camaraderie of other travelers that he or she would find in peak season. Still, this can be a plus, since it encourages you to really connect with the locals you traveled halfway around the world to meet.
Regardless of when you go, if your objective is to "meet the people," you’ll find Europe filled with them 365 days a year.
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Where to Go in Winter. Europe’s major cities crackle with energy in winter. Here of some of my favorite spots to plug into the off-season buzz.
• London: Spend your days ogling the Tower’s Crown Jewels and poking around the British Museum, British Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, and on and on. By night, settle into a cozy pub or soak up some world-class theater.
• Vienna: In Austria’s elegant capital city, winter means the Boys’ Choir is back from summer holidays and the opera season’s in full tilt. Book your evening concerts, then make yourself at home at Schönbrunn Palace, watch the Lipizzaner Stallions perfect their moves, or ponder the Hapsburgs’ art collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
• Paris: The City of Light sparkles in winter. Linger over coffee in a characteristic café, get face-to-face with Mona Lisa at the Louvre, and get the scoop on spring fashions.
• Florence: Take in Europe’s cultural capital without the crowds. Put in some quality time with David in the Accademia and take your time studying the Renaissance paintings at the Uffizi Gallery. Warm up in the evenings with a bottle of robust red wine and a sumptuous Florentine spread.
• Nürnberg: Head to this historic German city for some enchanted holiday shopping. Nürnberg’s market square hosts the biggest Christmas market in all of Germany, Christkindlmarkt, when over two million visitors flood the city. If Europe seems a little lonely in the bleak mid-winter, Nürnberg is the place for tinsel and togetherness.
RICK STEVES (www.ricksteves.com) is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of 30 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door, all published by Avalon Travel Publishing.