Europe in the Winter? Sign Me Up!

Berlin Zoo
Berlin Zoo in the winter

As a teenager growing up in Minnesota, we got hit with a 3-day blizzard, known to this day as the Halloween Blizzard of ’91.  Rather than hole up inside, a friend and I bundled up in our bulky snow pants, scarves and ski goggles and trudged for blocks through a couple feet of snow.  Just to go trick-or-treating.  So it should come as no surprise that the idea of visiting chilly Europe in the dead of winter doesn’t faze me.  Just the opposite – I really love it.

For starters, winter in Europe is still generally milder than what I experienced growing up in Minnesota or what I currently live with every day now in Chicago.  When I was in Berlin a couple years ago in January, they were in the midst of what everyone was calling a deep freeze.  Yet it was still warmer than back home!  And when you get further south toward the coasts, it’s even milder.  Visiting Portugal in early February, I enjoyed sunny days and got along fine just wearing the liner of my ski jacket.  Italy in late November brought low 70s on the Amalfi Coast and mid 50s in Florence.  I’ll take that over a Thanksgiving snowstorm any day!

(Disclaimer: if you live in Australia or anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, or even southern California, you likely do not share my sentiments about the weather – I know many of the Aussies I met did not!)

Day in Rome
Beautiful November day in Rome

It’s not just winter in Europe that I love, but the holidays in particular.  There’s something about the Christmas markets in Germany that are just so quintessential Europe to me. I just adore the atmosphere – neighbors and strangers alike coming together, drinking mugs of hot mulled wine, snacking on hot pretzels or roasted nuts, watching kids skate round and round.  It just feels like what the holidays should feel like.  Add in some gently falling snow and it doesn’t get much better.

Stuttgart market
Stuttgart

And of course there’s New Year’s Eve.  Admit it, ringing in a new year in your hometown gets a little old after a while and rarely lives up to the hype.  But welcoming a new year just has a different feel to it when you’re overseas (okay, I guess this point doesn’t apply strictly to Europe).  I’ll never forget bidding adieu to 2008 in Prague’s Old Town Square, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to dance to a Czech pop band and then running for cover as soon as the clock struck midnight and homemade fireworks started going off all around us.  I admit, it might have been a bit scary (for a few minutes, I thought we had been transported to a war zone), but it definitely beat the same old champagne toast at a bar in Chicago.

New Year's Eve Prague
New Year’s Eve in Prague

Winter in Europe also brings the fabulous reason to party known as après ski!  Never let skiing get in the way of a good ski trip – that’s the motto of Players Sports Group here in Chicago, the group that first introduced me to the wonderful world of après ski.  And boy, do they mean it! Less than 24 hours after arriving in Saalbach, Austria, I found myself dancing on a bar in ski boots, ski pants and a tank top, chugging a large pint of beer (the only choice at the bar was big or small) and singing along to a  crazy techno remix of John Denver’s Country Roads.  Did I mention it was 4:00 p.m. on a Sunday?  And that was just beginning.  By the end of the week, my ski to après ski ratio was probably less than 50:50, but I had made a ton of new friends and knew all the words to Country Roads, Hey Baby and Who the F*ck is Alice by heart.  But I digress…

Apres ski
Apres ski in Saalbach, Austria

Europe in the winter can also be great logistically – cheaper and less crowded, depending on where you go.  Obviously, the ski resorts will still be pricey and crowded (although going with a group like I did can significantly lower the costs).  But elsewhere, November through March or April is the low season and you can find great deals on flights and accommodations.  Even the holidays can be inexpensive if you’re flexible with your travel dates.  When I flew to Berlin, I left on Christmas Day, which was about $100 cheaper than flying any other day that week.

And finally – the lack of crowds.  We were able to visit the Uffizi Gallery without waiting in line, even getting in before the time on our ticket.  The wait for the Vatican Museum was about half what it was when I visited previously in September.  I felt like I had the museums in Budapest almost all to myself (I literally did not see another visitor while I was in the Hungarian National Gallery). And I was the only one hanging out at the Berlin Zoo watching the polar bears roll around in the snow (okay, maybe that’s not so appealing to everyone in the middle of winter, but they are really cute!)

Polar bear
How can you not love an adorable polar bear?

So it may not be for everyone (i.e., you southern hemisphere folks), but for me, Europe in the winter is pretty perfect.

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11 thoughts on “Europe in the Winter? Sign Me Up!”

  1. Oh I am so glad you posted this! I have it in my head that I want to spend my Christmas in Germany (or somewhere “similar”) this year (and I just wrote next year and had to erase it to put THIS year!). It just seems like it would be the perfect place and you’ve confirmed that!

  2. I have a good toleration of cold weather too. I grew up in North Dakota and now live in Minnesota so I’m used to it. I have to agree that visiting other countries during the winter months isn’t all that bad. Plus, seeing how other countries celebrate Christmas and New Years is a great experience.

  3. Thanks Val and Steve for the comments!

    Val, definitely check out Germany for Christmas next year -it will be fabulous! I recommend Berlin or Munich!

  4. Katie,

    just discovered your site, and I could not agree more! I have been to Europe four times, once in November and three times in September. I am so craving the holidays in Europe and the less crowded places next time I go. If things go according to plan, it will be 2012. Also, so funny about those songs at the ski bar, those are the same songs they song over and over at Oktoberfest in Munich!

  5. Agree. Love Italy in november and January (haven’t been in December yet). The only thing I don’t like are the shorter days. Luckily every time I was there at that time we were still able to sit outside for drinks.

  6. I’m with you on this. I love Europe in the winter (& lots of places in the U.S. for that matter).Some places are really perfect during the holidays, like London & Paris. The German Christmas markets sounds wonderful and I’ve been wanting to go to Prague for a long time. I grew up and lived in Chicago for many years. I wasn’t always happy about the weather there, but in general, I liked winter. I still enjoy visiting there any time of year!

  7. Scott – thanks for reading! Yeah, it’s funny, Austria was the first time I heard a lot of those songs but we have a couple of German-fests here in Chicago and now I hear them there all the time too!

    Kim – you’re so right about the shorter days – that is one major drawback.

    Cathy – I think just about anywhere in Germany would be great for the holidays and Prague had much the same feel – the Old Town Square was one big Christmas market.

  8. I did a few weeks in Europe last Dec – as a NZer it was cold but not unreasonably so – -10C with snow and no wind was a lot more pleasant than home at +8C and a howling southerly gale and rain! The main disadvantage I think are the short days – but otherwise it was great – and we though the heavy snow falls just gorgeous particularly in Paris and Prague – but we are very close to NOT getting to relatives in Ireland for the actual Xmas day because of the snow’s affect on air travel! Get some travel insurance if you travel at that time of year

  9. I’m happy for you that you enjoyed Europe in winter, but as a Belgian, all I can dream of is spending a winter somewhere hot and dry:D

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