Tourism season in Europe is, without a doubt, summer. From the south of France to the Italian coast and the countless Mediterranean islands and wonderful Eastern gems, summer in Europe is something everyone should experience. But what about winter?
Aside from the Alps, which are packed in winter, the rest of Europe is often overlooked. If I’m honest, as a European I think winter is the best time to visit.
If you’re looking for some inspiration, read on to get the lowdown on the best European winter destinations and make the most of your trip.
Tips for visiting Europe in winter
Europe during the winter months is very different from Europe during the summer.
With fewer tourists, you can cut through the crowds straight to the best parts; there are no queues for major attractions, locals are usually friendlier and more willing to chat, and things like shows are designed more for locals. Overall, it’s just even easier to get an authentic experience.
Why visit Europe in winter
The only exception to this is the Alps. Europe’s most popular and most prominent mountain range crosses 8 countries and attracts its fair share of visitors in winter.
However, winter is the perfect time to visit most of the rest of Europe.
- No tourists means no time wasted in queues
- Get closer to big attractions without crowds
- Enjoy the best restaurants that aren’t fully booked
- Prices are lower
- The Christmas build-up is unmatched!
- Public transport isn’t packed
That being said, winter in Europe isn’t totally without problems. If you are planning a trip during this period, there are some things you should know.
Tips for a European winter
A European winter does have some drawbacks, so to help you enjoy your trip, here are a few things to remember.
- Pack a rain jacket: Wherever you are in mainland Europe, rain is a possibility
- Have layers: Even in winter, Europe gets some warmth compared to Canada, so have layers to take on and off
- Check what’s closed in advance: While most attractions are still open, some close the off-season, so it’s best to check in advance
- Have cash: Particularly in the countryside, card machines aren’t always an option, and winter storms can interrupt signals, so some places only take cash
- Take more time: Europe isn’t as prepared for winter as Canada is. Some things take time, especially public transport, so you’ll want to allow more time to get around
- Get insurance: With cancellations due to bad weather a possibility, insurance for flights, activities, and expenses is a very good idea (credit cards have free coverage for many things)
- Be prepared for snowy roads: Since much of Europe isn’t prepared for snow, roads are often covered in snow, so be ready to drive in icy, snowy conditions
- Make the most of short days: Since much of Europe is at the same latitude as Canada, don’t expect long evenings; it’s dark by 5 PM, and many things close at this time
- Check opening hours: In several countries, some restaurants and shops close on Sundays and Mondays, and this is even more true when it’s not the peak tourist season
- Be prepared to see a lot of renovations: Some attractions take advantage of low tourist crowds to renovate and get ready for summer
- Learn some key phrases: Many tourist workers leave Europe in winter, and those left behind may not speak English. Be prepared to have to communicate in the native language or download Google Translate
Best European winter destinations
Now that you know what you’re getting into, check out some of Europe’s best winter destinations.
Paris is an excellent destination at any time of year, and it is still busy during winter because it’s magical all year round.
“The City of Light” is a frosty paradise during winter. Locals are much more welcoming and willing to chat, and you can visit all the famous sites with excited and passionate tour guides.
Prices are lower, and museums are quieter, so you can get up close to the art. And the restaurants aren’t packed. You can enjoy the real Paris without interruptions.
Winter is easily the best time to visit Venice. Aside from the fact that there are fewer tourists, so you’ll actually have the chance to explore freely, Venice is so peaceful in winter. Furthermore, in summer, the heat can cause an unpleasant odor coming from the canal water.
But Venice isn’t calm all winter. If you want to enjoy the unique culture of the floating town, visit in February when Venice Carnival is in full swing. Masquerades and balls happen every night, with shows and performances in the streets during the day.
It’s a more popular time to visit because the carnival is so spectacular, but it’s still quieter than the hectic summers, so it’s the best of both worlds. It’s truly magical.
To really avoid the crowds, move away from the big city destinations to the smaller but equally wonderful ones like Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. This beautiful walled city is surrounded by stunning landscape, so wherever you look is incredibly picturesque.
The people of Tallinn have some amazing Christmas traditions and fun markets. The bars are always busy, and the locals are happy to chat with visitors and talk about Estonian culture. If you’ve never been to Eastern Europe, winter is an epic time to go.
If you want to visit Europe in winter, you have to experience a Christmas market in Germany, and Nuremberg is one of the best.
The old town has so much history and without all the noise and crowds, you can really appreciate what the city would have been like hundreds of years ago. There are lots of activities and super low prices. It’s a more traditional and authentic experience.
What’s a trip to Europe in winter without visiting Lapland?
This northern part of Finland is actually in peak season during the winter months. It’s the official home of Santa Claus (though you Canadians may disagree), and even through October and November, you’ll find plenty of Christmas events and activities. It’s not the cheapest place to be in winter, but it’s one of the most exciting.
For a truly magical experience, Rovaniemi is the only place to be. It’s a natural paradise with ancient forests, sprawling stretches of snow, and the most beautiful night skies. If you are lucky, you can even see the Northern Lights!
Spending time in Europe in winter doesn’t necessarily mean cold weather! Sitting near the coast of Africa, the Canary Islands (a Spanish autonomous community) are a great blend of African and European cultures.
There, enjoy long stretches of golden sand, sunbathe under the warm winter sun, and wander through quaint stone villages while admiring the scenery.
While the other Mediterranean islands shut down in winter, the Canary Islands are open for business and give you the same experiences as in summer without the oppressive heat and crowds. Flytrippers’ co-founders have been there close to winter, in late November, and enjoyed this place very much.
Unlike many cities in Europe, winter is the peak season for Salzburg. This city comes alive under the snow and looks like a magical wonderland or even a film set. It was actually the decor for the Hollywood classic, The Sound of Music.
If you can visit in the run-up to Christmas, you’ll be able to experience some of the best Christmas markets in the world, while classical music drifts in the air.
Even outside of the Christmas period, there are folk performances, circuses, carnivals, and traditional celebrations. It’s the perfect time to enjoy and appreciate Austrian culture.
Visiting Prague in winter feels like stepping back in time. The city’s famous architecture is more beautiful with a dusting of snow, and the streets look like a fairytale. With fewer tourists, it’s easier to explore the city on foot at your own pace.
Locals enjoy the bars and clubs more, and the drinks are cheaper, so it’s a really upbeat, fun, and exciting place to be during the cold months.
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Featured image: Prague, Czechia (photo credit: Julius Silver)