It's great fun hanging out under the August sun slurping spaghetti at an outdoor cafe in Rome, but winter travel has a charm of its own. During the colder months, the destinations are no longer swarming with summer crowds and you can finally get into the best restaurants in town without having to wait. Traveling through Europe in winter will probably be easier on your budget, too.
There's plenty to see and do during the off-season: skiing and snowboarding, going to the opera, seeing the Mona Lisa without having to battle a hundred people, and the like. The reasons for traveling through Europe during the winter are near endless.
First off—the most practical reason for traveling in the off-season—it's cheaper. Airline prices tend to be at least half the price (if not more) of summer flights and hotels usually offer discounts as well.
In colder weather, look for hotels with cozy, charming restaurants so you won't have to leave the premises in bad weather. In France, when you're not sure where to go, look for the Logis de France designation for family-run hotel restaurants. These usually offer a good value and locally-sourced cuisine.
While winter is doubtless the cheapest season, the holidays are an exception. People travel by the masses during Christmas and New Year's (especially to Germany, birthplace of Christmas markets).
It's Carnival Season
Carnival is a festival of rebirth, a time of discovery and chaos. Many places around the world celebrate this pre-lent season (such as New Orleans, with its annual Mardi Gras celebration) with bright colors, costumes, parades, and revelries and Europe is the mother of them all.
Although the Venice Carnival is one of the most popular in the continent, it has become by most accounts a rather commercial affair, lacking the spontaneity of earlier festivals. Cologne, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Nice, France; Binche, Belgium; and Ivrea, Italy, are a few examples of the best Carnival revelries Europe has to offer.
Winter Has a Charm of Its Own
Some may even say that sunshine and warmth are overrated once they get a taste of Venice's magical and moody fog or the snowy mountains in Austria, visual treats that only winter can supply.
The cold gives travelers an excuse to indulge in the traditional foods—goulash in Hungary, snowball soup in Estonia, and cheese fondue in Switzerland—best enjoyed from a seat in front of a fogged-up window of some charming little cafe.
It also lends to more intimate experiences at the popular restaurants and museums and even though it'll be cold, it won't be too cold to enjoy the outdoors. You'll find that the south of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and most of Greece remain pretty balmy (at least relatively) during winter. This is a great time to visit Spain's Andalusia gems, the trio of Seville, Cordoba, and Granada. Or perhaps you'd rather visit the almost-deserted Pompeii with a stopover in Naples in order to fuel up on some pizza and pasta, the ultimate winter comfort food.