Some of my warmest European memories have been gained while wearing a sweater in the off season.
In winter, you can usually walk right in at sights that are plagued with lines in peak season. Without having to buy advance tickets, you can often show up when you want at places such as Florence’s Uffizi, Paris’s Orsay and Barcelona’s Picasso Museum.
Sightseeing crowds are thinner, allowing you to spend some time enjoying Europe’s treasures up close.
The weather can be cold, windy, drizzly and generally dreary, and you’ll need to pack heavier, including a good waterproof coat and shoes.
In winter, sightseeing priorities change. You’ll probably do less meandering and exploring of neighbourhoods, and more bee-lining to and from sights.
Off-season is a fine time to visit big cities, which bustle year-round, as well as the Mediterranean region (Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc.), which is often horribly hot and crowded in the summer, but fairly mild in winter.
While Europe’s wonderful outdoor evening ambience tends to hibernate during winter in the north, it survives all year in the south. And, of course, in some places, such as Switzerland, winter activities — skiing, sledding and other snow sports — are an important part of the culture (and tourism).
The month leading up to Christmas is an especially fun time in Europe.
For instance, German towns big and small light up with Christmas markets, highlighted by carollers, festive decor, artisan ornaments and other handicrafts, and seasonal treats such as hot spiced wine. Christmas markets are also popular in Switzerland, Austria and other countries.
In Paris, hundr of fresh-cut fir trees line the Champs-Elysées, sparkling with a dazzling display of lights.
Late winter brings more raucous revelry, when various Mardi Gras/Carnival celebrations brighten the mood throughout Europe in February.
The quintessential destination is Venice, which erupts for 18 days in an extravagant festival of costumes, parties, dinners, themed parades and masquerade balls — a final debauchery before the restrictions of Lent. The festivities end with a huge dance on St. Mark’s Square, lit with fireworks.
While fields and squares are filled with colour and vibrancy in the summer, in winter the atmosphere feels intimate, as naked branches, lonely vistas and solitary candles flickering in windows offer a peaceful charm with the promise of life and renewal just around the corner.