Planning a winter vacation? Try Europe instead of the sun

Midlife European winter vacation

This is the time of year people in cool climates start thinking about their ‘escape-to-the-sun’ winter get-aways.  But here’s a suggestion you may not have considered – maybe you should think about a European vacation this winter. Yes, much of Europe can be cold, or at least cool, in winter. I know that.  And in the midst of February, you may want nothing more than to be lying on a tropical beach somewhere. I get that.

But hear me out.

Winter is a good time for museum hopping in Europe

If you have any dreams of seeing the renowned sites of some of Europe’s greatest cities, winter may actually be one of the best times of the year to do so.  Especially if you’re drawn to some of the fabulous museums, art galleries, palaces and theatres Europe is known for.  After all, those are all indoor activities, so who cares what the weather is doing outside?  A European winter vacation may be a better idea than you might think.

But the biggest reason for thinking about seeing them in winter is because seeing those sights during the height of summer is becoming more and more of a hassle.  The secret you may not yet have heard is that Europe is getting swamped by tourists in the summer.

Europe is getting swamped by tourists in the summer

The fact is, Europe has seen unprecedented growth in the number of visitors over the past decade – and most of them arrive in the peak season, roughly June through August.  Europe gets about half of all the world’s international visitors every year, and visitors to the EU increased 8% in 2017 alone.  Think of that, over 500 million tourists in a place spanning just 3% of the world’s land surface.

Many factors impact these results including the strength of the US dollar (meaning more Americans think Europe affordable), an increase in the number of cruise ships operating in Europe, and the burgeoning middle classes in Asia (especially China), many of whom are drawn to travel like their counterparts in the West have been doing for years.

Five of the top 10 visited countries are in Europe

France has long been the most visited country in the world, but four other EU countries are included in the top 10 most visited countries: Spain, Italy, the UK and Germany.  (Note: Switzerland is not in the EU but is easily visited from the EU countries surrounding it.  As I’ve noted before, it is one of my favourite European destinations.)

In fact, things are now getting so bad in some of the major cities, their civic leaders are trying to impose restrictions on tourist access to parts of the cities in response to complaints from residents – Barcelona and Venice in particular, as noted in this Time magazine article: “Europe is now turning tourists away”.

Europe in summer – crowded, expensive and hot

So, all of this means that if you still insist on seeing the major European cities in the height of summer, prepare for jostling crowds, long line-ups and big prices.  Just how long are these line-ups?  Well, two or more hours at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is not unheard of – in summer.

And, it’s hot!  This past summer saw heat and drought records across Europe – and air conditioning is still not as common as in North America.  So you’ll need to try to stay hydrated while enduring those line-ups.  Not a fun prospect.

But again, those are problems that occur only during peak season.  Off season – roughly November to March – means no crowds and low prices (except at ski resorts).  However, it can also mean some things will be closed altogether or very limited opening hours.  But the major tourist attractions should all be available and enjoyable without crowds.  A good guidebook can be invaluable for planning your itinerary.

Want to take time to stand in front of the ‘Mona Lisa‘ or ‘David‘ to contemplate their beauty without being jostled by crowds?  Go in the off-season.

Many other cultural events are only in full swing during the off-season.  Opera houses, ballet and symphonies have their main seasons during the fall, winter and spring.

What off-season is not good for

This advice doesn’t work for everything Europe offers.  In particular, for seeing the natural highlights of the European outdoors, especially in the more northern countries.  If that is your thing rather than art and culture, by all means go during peak season.  Usually the crowds won’t be as bad outside the big cities.

Also, some of the most northerly countries really should be seen in the warmer and drier months – Scandinavia, the rest of the Baltics, Germany and the UK (other than the biggest cities).

Or, if you like a bit of both the outdoor sights and the indoor sights, consider going in shoulder season (April-May and September-October).  Crowds will be thinning out, some prices may start to improve and accommodations may be available without weeks-ahead reservations.  And the weather can be warm in the southern countries.

Europe – good at all times of year

Whenever you decide to go, a good guidebook, like those I recommend here, will help you make the most of your time and money on a vacation to Europe.  And whenever you go, travel light – it will let you enjoy Europe the most.

So, Europe this winter instead of the tropics?


A writer, actor, singer, private pilot and keen traveller. Formerly in banking industry in various head office roles including data analytics and risk management. Love music, art, theatre, film, food and experiencing new places.

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