A summer vacation, for many, is the highlight of their year. Heading to sunnier climes, enjoying the beach or an ice cream in the shade of a beautiful cathedral: it is the definition of what traveling is about.
But for others, the best time to travel is in the off-season. You'll hear seasoned travelers extolling the virtues of September-May travel so often you probably know them by heart: fewer tourists, greater cultural options and mingling opportunities with the locals, more relaxed atmosphere, cheaper airfares and hotel rates, and the lack of that summer swelter.
Though there are benefits to high season in Europe: it rains less, there's maximum daylight, it's easy packing light, and there are abundant tourist resources, off-season travel still trumps high-season travel in my book.
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Places to Go - Choosing an Off-Season Destination
First, let's define some commonly agreed upon off-season and shoulder-season dates:
- High Season: (Peak Season): Summer, Mid June-August
- Shoulder Season: April through May, some say through mid-June, September through October.
- Off Season: November through March
See also: Spring in Europe
Seasoned travelers base their destinations on seasonal considerations. For example, I don't particularly fancy eating the traditional tourist favorites of Germany, Switzerland or Austria in summer; the food is too heavy for the heat.
But give me a crisp fall day to walk the black forest or cruise the Rhine, then let me return to my hotel, take a hot bath, and go downstairs to a medieval wood-beamed room with roaring fire and I'll happily eat mounds of sausages and spaetzle while drinking lustily from a flask of homemade Riesling.
Suggestions for Where to Go in Europe in the Off Season
Here are a few tips for some experiences that are unique to the quieter months.
Truffles - the Sexy Fungus
Truffles give off the sexiest odor on the planet, according to some people, including your host. Why not go root some out yourself? I'd go to Italy's Piemonte to sample the fabulous food and hunt myself out some of my own tubers at La Casa del Trifulau:
Or, if you just wanted to stay at a truffle hunter's B&B, plan a November trip to Tra Arte & Querce and have a truffle breakfast each morning (and more for dinner if you wish).
If you're in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, you can participate in a fall truffle hunt in October-November at Al Vecchio Convento, which also features a very fine restaurant, cooking classes, and a once a week dinner buffet with traditional dancing to local Romagna music.
If just buying and eating truffles interests you: Go to a truffle market in France that welcomes visitors. This is best done when you have rented an apartment so you can enjoy the experience of slicing your truffle over your morning scrambled eggs.
(See: Self Catering in Europe)
Go to a Wine Festival in Tuscany
Yes, people in Europe make a big deal over wine, especially after harvest is over. People tend to dress in medieval costumes and celebrate like they have since way before the advent of television and other frivolous, time-frittering, endeavors.
Live a life of Art
And, if you really want to get into the lifestyle, you could take a course in Ancient Painting Techniques or Etching, and live in Italy for a bit. Falling over Florence? Try L’Accademia D’Arte.
For the Contrarian - the Polar Circle and Iceland
Why not go against the grain and choose a tour that doesn't promise to warm the cockles of your vacationing heart? Say, a tour of Denmark and Greenland where you can choose between a wide variety of Winter pastimes as early as early November, Like a Dog Sledge Experience or a Reindeer Safari, not to mention an overnight in an Igloo?
Besides, when people ask where you went on vacation you can say "Kangerlussuaq" (or maybe you can't).
Or why not visit Iceland in the Autumn? You could take in Iceland by the light of the Aurora Borealis in October.
For the cool traveler: Greenland is nice.
Ardor and Armor....
Autumn is turtle mating season on the Greek island of Kos. You may well ask, "so what?" but the truth is: a decent recounting of the spectacle is one of those things that'll make you a hit at parties for years to come, especially if you can imitate the sound the male makes (let's just say "a passionate hissing") as he clunks against the female's almost impenetrable armor.
Rain and Reduced Sunlight: A Deal Breaker for Off-Season Travel ?
For Mediterranean countries, fall starts the rainy season. Over the ages, many cities have found ways to deal with the inconvenience of a daylight rain. The Italian city of Bologna features a huge network of arcaded streets. You can walk from one side of town to the other without getting wet. Medieval Europe featured houses with overhangs, it's one of the ways you can tell the older parts of a city. Old towns also offer seductive cafes. Pop in and nurse a coffee, soda, or warming snifter of brandy while waiting for the rain to taper off. Or use your railpass to take a scenic train ride.
And, yes, the off-season in Europe is marked by fewer hours of sunlight. This doesn't bother me at all, because I find moonlight strolls more seductive than daylight ones. If you shudder at the thought of walking "downtown" in a city after dark, consider that European city centers are quite a bit safer than most American ones at these hours, because European culture favors convivial meetings in public places along with moderate alcohol consumption.
Packing Tips for the Off-Season in Europe
- Pack light Easy when your daily wear is shorts and a shirt. Things get tricky when the weather cools. The key is layering. I wear a light undershirt, long sleeved shirt, sweater if it's going to be cold, light windbreaker/rain jacket for the rainy days.
- Use compressor bags Eagle Creek makes some I use and recommend (review) ( check prices). You'll find that you can squeeze 40-50 percent of bulk out of a sweater with these bags.