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