As the northern summer comes to a close, you might find yourself thinking “Next summer, I’m taking that trip to Europe.” Maybe you wanted to go this year and things didn’t quite work out. Maybe another opportunity came up, or maybe you’re just waiting for the perfect time to go. Here’s the thing. There’s no “perfect time” to take a Europe vacation.
With so much variation in climate, culture, and crowds, from Iceland to Istanbul, a plan that works brilliantly in one country might leave you feeling frustrated and uncomfortable in another. The flipside to there being no perfect time to “see Europe” is that there’s no bad time to take a Europe vacation either. Even in the middle of winter.
Winter is certainly prime time for sunny vacations in the south, but those vacations also come at a premium price. Don’t dismiss our neighbours across the Atlantic when you’re planning that winter escape. They might not offer you sun and surf, but most of them enjoy a milder winter than many parts of the US and Canada. Even Iceland, with its shortened days, rarely sees winter temperatures drop much below -5°C/23°F. Fly on down to Portugal’s Algarve, and say hello to a January that hovers around 12°C/54°F. While that’s not quite beach weather, it’s a lot more comfortable than freezing at home. A winter Europe vacation can also offer an immersion and insight into your destination that just isn’t possible in the crowded peak season. Plus, you’ll enjoy thinner crowds and lower prices.
Let’s start with the first of those obvious benefits. Europe’s top attractions are usually well worth the wait. Still, some travellers are tempted to wing it in summer, asking “How bad can it be?” Run a Google image search for “Vatican museum queue” to answer that question! We can’t stress enough the wonderful, crowd-thinning powers of winter. These even help in popular cities like London, Rome, and the object of one of my favourite winter trips, Paris.
A Different Side of the World’s Most Visited Cities
While it’s only our personal experience, my travel companion and I loved visiting Paris in winter. We gained access within minutes to The Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, the Paris Catacombs, and Sainte-Chappelle, each of which can keep visitors waiting an hour or more during peak season. Full disclosure, we also had the Paris Museum Pass in hand, which offers queue-skipping privileges. Most queues however moved fairly fast, even for visitors without the pass. Our only real delay was at the Towers of Notre Dame, where space is at a premium. If you have at least two days at leisure in Paris, I heartily recommend picking up the Paris Museum Pass. You’ll probably be spending a good amount of your winter Paris vacation inside, and this little wonder opens up dozens of top notch museums, galleries, and other attractions for you to explore.
One more subtle benefit to visiting Paris in winter smashes an infamous stereotype. We didn’t doubt that stories of Parisian rudeness had been exaggerated. Nonetheless, we’d braced for “tourist fatigue” and a certain brusqueness from the locals. Our experience couldn’t have been more different. Paris is not a city of false courtesy, but it is one that values patience, politeness, and visitors who make an attempt to blend in. We found Parisians to be courteous to a fault. Perhaps by December, tempers frayed by the annual descent of over 15 million visitors have had time to mend. Locals no longer feel like they’re fighting for space in their own city, and the approaching holiday season puts everyone in a better mood. It’s a nice opportunity to see this magical city through the eyes of its residents, free from legions of selfie-snappers.
Cities Decked Out in Holiday Finery
While you can find plenty of festive decorations at home, there’s something about the way Europe does Christmas that simply transports you, echoing centuries of traditions unique to each country in the shadow of a unified continent focused on the future. Most every major city in Europe will offer some sort of Christmas market, but those in Austria, Switzerland, and southern Germany go all out. Vienna, Nuremberg, and other cities make the most of their snowy, Alpine locales and architecture to create a vision of winter that feels like something out of a fantasy story. Even cities like Cologne, where the architecture is more modern, find their own ways to get into the Christmas spirit (not hard when you’re Germany’s go-to destination for chocolate, fragrances, and other ideal last minute gifts).
Winter is a terrific time to connect a number of these cities on a Central Europe tour by land. But another way to experience this region during the holidays is on a Christmas Cruise. If a cruise on the Danube or Rhine has been your dream Europe vacation for years, few options beat combining it with the magic of the Christmas season in this part of the world.
Ice, Snow, Santa Claus, and the Greatest Light Show on Earth
An Iceland, Lapland, or Scandinavia vacation is a great choice in winter, and no, I’m not crazy. Even in the Nordic countries, winters can feel mild compared to a lot of North America. True, the days are shorter, but Northern Europeans know how to make the most of their natural conditions and wild seasonal changes. These countries offer a number of experiences you won’t find anywhere else.
Chief among these is The Northern Lights, a phenomenon you’ll only be able to see in winter, and only if you venture outside the big cities. In Iceland, a trip to see the lights is pretty straightforward. Excursions leave more or less nightly from Reykjavik, making the Northern Lights an easy addition to your Iceland vacation, even if it’s just a quick stopover.
Rug Up and Fly! Why Winter is Prime Time for an Iceland Vacation
There is however, another way to see them, staying in accommodation you’ll be talking about for years to come. A glass-domed igloo in the Lapland region of Finland gives you the ultimate view of the northern sky’s most spectacular show. What could be better than relaxing in a warm bed to enjoy it, knowing the snowy forest is right outside?
If you’re taking a family vacation in Europe (or you just want to be a big kid), Lapland also lays a pretty good claim to being the home of Santa Claus. You can even stay in Santa’s Village over Christmas Eve! It’s located right on the Arctic Circle, close to Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi. Rug up, though. This is one Europe destination where winters do average below -10°C/15°F. But then, what would be the fun of visiting Santa without snow?
Snowbirding the European Way
Alright, so the magic of the holiday season has passed, you’ve rung in the New Year (with the resolution to travel more, of course) and now you’re just trying to get through those long, dreary months of January and February. You could take off to Florida or Arizona and pay premium rates with most of the snowbirds, or take advantage of the mild spring-like weather and off-season bargains available on the beaches of Southern Europe. Most of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean are great winter vacation spots, but some stand out in particular.
We’re going to go out on a limb and guess that at least one of your friends has been to Portugal in the past year. These days, it seems everyone in North America is talking about this small but hugely influential country as if it’s only just arrived. But Portugal has been enchanting Europeans for a very long time, nowhere more so than in its Algarve region. The beaches here are almost peerless, but if you’re coming in winter, you’ll have the chance to enjoy more of a cultural getaway, exploring the small villages that dot the region, delicious Portuguese cuisine, and a hopping year-round nightlife if you’re so inclined. Golfers will love it too, since the Algarve is famous for its links.
Consider a Portugal Vacation for Your Winter Getaway
Just across the border lies Spain’s Costa del Sol, a 150 kilometre stretch of gorgeous coast between Gibraltar and the city of Malaga. It’s crammed with sun-seeking Europeans in the summer, but in the winter months, it’s a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of southern Spain without feeling the tourist crush. Staying for a month or more, on this Europe vacation, also gives you a terrific jumping off point for day or overnight trips throughout the region. Granada, Cordoba, and even Seville are all within day tripping distance, and you’ll find it much easier to get tickets for popular attractions like the Alhambra.
If you’d like to spend the winter months somewhere completely different, where the crowds are relatively thin even in summer, Malta might just be your ideal Mediterranean hideaway. English is understood by most everyone, and the island’s tiny size makes getting around and exploring relatively easy. History buffs and culture vultures will also love the unique intersection between European and Arabic cultures here.
Whether you’re looking to escape the cold or dive right into all the season has to offer, Europe is a winter destination you can’t afford to dismiss.