1. Fewer tourists
When my family took a vacation to Europe, it was in summer. It was summer again three years later when I returned for a Eurail-powered backpacking trip.
I know I’m not alone in equating European travel with the June-August high season. Guaranteed a good chunk of the 460 million international visitors in 2009 landed in summer.
This, to me, is the best reason to break out and choose winter.
2. Cheaper rates
A natural consequence of reason 1, and it applies to everything from the airfare over to hotels and rail tickets on the ground (though probably not around Christmas/New Year).
According to Rick Steves, discounts are largest in small towns and areas highly dependent on tourism (assuming they haven’t shut down completely). Metropolises with healthy commercial centers don’t have to try as hard to attract clientele.
Check out the post 5 travel deals for Fall and Winter travel to Europe for some ideas on how to save.
3. Markets and festivals
Last year we published a piece on Where to Find the Best Christmas Markets in Europe. These street markets are set up all over the continent during December in a tradition that goes back to the 1400s, and they’re well known among local and regional tourists.
Other annual events held in the cold include Carnival (late February), the Dublin International Film Festival (late February), and the Kiruna Snow Festival (late January).
Being from south Texas, I appreciate the magic a real winter has in it. I’d love to see Europe through that lens.
5. Winter sports
Several of our Top 10 International Ski Mountains to Hit in 2010 were in Europe.
The continent gave names to both alpine and Nordic ski disciplines. Snowboarding is less popular than in the States but well established (my brother-in-law is riding Saint Sorlin D’Arves as I write this).
Check out Ski Europe for mountain package deals.
6. Indoor attractions
Europe is rich in “indoor culture” (museums, art galleries, palaces, cathedrals). These heated, well-lit spaces are pretty appealing when the sun sets at 3 and temperatures hover around freezing (though hours may be curtailed off-season). Theaters and concert halls tend to put on more performances during winter as well.
7. The aurora
Darker days mean more opportunities to see the Northern Lights. You’ll need to be in northern Scandinavia to have a fair shot, though Scotland gets hit with relative frequency too.
Check out The Northern Lights: Best Places to See Them in Europe, Canada & Alaska for more info.
8. The temperate south
For example, Athens sees 50- and 60-degree days Dec-Feb, whereas summer easily pushes over 100. Maybe a little chilly for a swim, but there’s no worry of heatstroke at the Acropolis.
9. Ice hotels
Every winter in northern Scandinavia, a handful of tourist accommodations are built up from the ice. Everything from buildings to beds to shot glasses are carefully carved from the frozen blocks.
The result is something unique, and you can see shots in Igloos, Castles, Sewage Pipes, and Survival Pods: The World’s 9 Weirdest Hotels.
Matador Goods editor Lola Akinmade shares what she knows about ice hotels in Discovering the Real Scandinavia Off-Season.
10. Winter cuisine
The realities of life during northern-latitude winters have spawned a number of traditional cold-weather dishes throughout Europe.
In Switzerland and parts of France, there’s raclette and fondue, both of which are based around warmed cheese. Germans like to break out the venison when it gets cold, and roasted chestnuts are a vendor staple at Christmas markets.