Why You Should Visit Europe in the Winter

Paris during the winter.
Philippe LEJEANVRE / Getty Images

Why not travel in winter? Hotels and airfares are cheap, sweaty summer crowds are a dim memory, and there's plenty going on. While it's great fun hanging out under the August sun slurping spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce at an outdoor cafe in Rome, winter travel offers some interesting opportunities you may not have considered.​

There are the obvious ones, like skiing and snowboarding. But what about the opera and orchestra season? European cultural events in historic halls are going full blast in winter. Winter offers you a chance to see Europe in a whole different--albeit dimmer--light. The season presents you with a chance to put on your woolies and hike snow-covered peaks, or squeeze into a tux and go to an opera gala.

Saving Money

If you think you can't afford a winter vacation, take a look at winter airline prices. It could cost you a half to a third of the price of a summer flight to get to Europe in the off-season. Hotels usually offer discounts in winter as well.

Cooler Temperatures in the Winter

Some places are indeed quite chilly. But the south of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and most of Greece are pretty balmy in winter. Winter is a great time to visit Spain's Andalusia gems, the trio of top cities Seville, Cordoba, and Granada. Or perhaps you'd rather take a winter visit to almost deserted Pompeii with a stopover in Naples in order to eat some of the best food in Italy. 

Winter Has a Charm of Its Own 

Why look for sun and balmy weather at all? Winter has charms of its own. Instead of a seat at an outdoor cafe, think of wandering through Venice's wintry fog, peering into the city's steamed-up windows in search of a cozy cafe--or, better yet, think of eating rich, winter foods beside a roaring fire beneath the intricately carved timber-beams of an historic guild hall restaurant in Basel, Switzerland.

In winter, European cuisine changes dramatically. Southern Mediterranean dwellers wouldn't think of eating heavy cream sauces in summer (although they will whip butterfat into just about anything for tourists who demand such culinary blasphemy).

But once the leaves fall off the trees, European kitchens burst into winter mode--creamy, long-cooking sauces, preserved duck and goose, root vegetables, and the roasting of wild game all contributing to aromas that will leave you wishing you could stay in Europe forever. In winter you'll come to find all those food "specialties" you've read about in guidebooks but were never able to locate in summer.

Cultural Events also come alive in winter. The opera, theater, and symphony seasons are in full swing. Sure, in summer you can spend good money going to a historic building to see short ditties truncated for the enjoyment of limited-attention-span summer tourists, but the shorter days of winter leave time in the evenings for the real deal. Today you'll find many ticket sales for these events online.

Festivals and Carnival

Carnival is a festival of rebirth--a time of discovery and chaos. Shame is absent; the world is oblivious to original sin. Always there is reversal; peasants replace kings, the world is turned upside down. Carnival traditionally occurs as the last wild feasting prior to the start of Lent.

Although the Venice carnival is one of the most popular European carnivals, it has become by most accounts a rather commercial affair, lacking the spontaneity of earlier festivals. But Carnival in Venice is a still a great tradition, and moody pictures of the celebration often shrouded in fog are there for the taking. There are carnival celebrations elsewhere in Europe, of course, too.

Hotels Are Less Expensive

Hotels, especially small, family-operated ones, are generally less expensive in winter. Watch out, however, for supplemental heating charges that may be added to your bill during colder months. It's most likely a legal and justifiable charge, but if you're on a budget you'll have to account for it. Ask at the desk if you're unsure.

In colder weather, look for hotels with cozy, charming restaurants that serve local favorites made from local ingredients. That way inclement weather doesn't interfere with my evening meal. In France, when you're not sure where to go, look for the Logis de France designation for family-run hotel restaurants. An Italian version is in operation as well. These hotels offer a good value and local cuisine.

If you're really into breakfast and skiing, rest assured that most hotels in northern Europe put on quite enormous breakfast buffets. If you don't ski or walk all those calories off after pigging out at your hotel you can often get by with a light lunch or no lunch at all, thus saving yourself more than a few Euros. Alas, in the south breakfast still hasn't entirely caught on as a major gastronomical event, but breakfasts do seem to be getting more substantial every year.

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