Once or twice in your lifetime you need to experience a European winter. There is a romance to the season that floats snow to the ground, creates moody afternoons lit by ornate street lamps, where every indoor environment is toasty warm in cities and villages built for the cold. There are less tourists jostling for their place at iconic sites and attractions. When you layer up from top to toe to head outside, nothing will stop your enjoyment.
Here are 10 things you need to know about touring Europe in winter:
The first thing you will notice is there are far fewer people travelling in European winter. Enjoy streetscapes and natural attractions more like a local. See Europe in a more authentic way as you watch people go about their business through the colder months of the year. Have more time to interact with shopkeepers and to linger, unheeded by the next group of tourists following in your footsteps. Museums, galleries and places of interest are all open in the winter and are welcome warm places to explore at a more leisurely pace.
If you are an indoor person then you will be happy spending time on a coach travelling across the European countryside at this time of year. The colder climates make it hard to be outdoors for long periods of time. The local people spend a lot of time in their homes during the winter months. It is the perfect time to visit galleries and museums, explore eateries, markets, shops and department stores. You are always warm indoors in the European winter.
For Australians and New Zealand travellers who rarely or never see snow fall in their cities and towns travelling through Europe in winter holds a certain romance. There is something wonderful about watching snow fall quietly. Floating snowflakes are restful to watch and create a beautiful vision across rooftops, and open fields. It's a pleasant surprise to wake to see snow has fallen overnight transforming the landscape to winter beauty. Remembering it is winter, there won’t be the deep green foliage and florals of the warmer months. Be prepared for more monochrome days and find colour in the rich European culture and heritage.
Daylight hours are much shorter in Europe during the winter. The sun might not appear before 8am and the afternoons skies start to darken mid-afternoon. The ornate glow of streetlamps in European cities is a sight to behold, especially around the festive season. This is where European cities and towns put on a show rarely seen at any time of year in Australia. If you are travelling in December, you will experience a display of Christmas lights and decorations like you have never seen before. Locals enjoy this time of year immensely, and can’t imagine doing Christmas on a beach! Even without the addition of the Christmas glow, Europe lights its buildings and windows with coloured lights that create a picturesque scene to warm the winter afternoons.
The colder climate is the time to indulge in the rich European cuisine. It’s a time to eat hearty stews and soups, roasted meats and creamy potatoes, homemade pastas and risottos. Sample the plethora of heavy breads and cheeses on offer. Snack on roasted chestnuts, pretzels and pastries. Drink mulled wines, hot chocolates and creamy lattes. Warm foods made for comfort keep Europeans warm through the winter months. It's not an accident that European eating in the winter is all about keeping you warm from the inside out. Don’t worry about your waistline, colder climates work your body hard and the little extra you might bring home will melt away as you return to the summer heat!
Europe’s winter is not all indoors and snowbound. The truffle season in France takes off in the winter months, Venice is uncrowded and romantically misty while the Colosseum looks superb under a dusting of snow. Germany turns on the best of Europe’s Christmas markets while Copenhagen and Finland claim the best of Santa’s homeland. Budapest’s Palace is a superb site, lit with fairy lights while the city soaks in soul reviving thermal baths. Spain offers a mild winter where you can 'tourist' without crowds. Milder winters on the Croatian coast, with less crowds in Dubrovnik means you can explore the city more freely. Greece also has a milder winter and it is a great time to see the relics of time past without the crowds. For a natural winter light spectacular head into the Arctic Circle to experience the Northern Lights.
Like the extreme heat of summer, cold temperatures are harder work and you need to pace yourself. Everything takes a little longer in the cold of the European winter. You need to give yourself time to dress warmly in your layers. Give yourself time to acclimatise too. You layer up to go outside and take your layers off when you are indoors. The cold air can be literally breathtaking, and it creeps in if you are not dressed appropriately. Unless you visit the snow annually there is no comparison, except the walk-in fridges at boutique butcheries or the bottle shop! Take your time walking from place to place. The ground can be wet or icy which makes it slippery. You need to tread carefully. If you are out and about, punctuate the day with stops indoors. Find a window seat in a snug café for a warm drink and sumptuous pastry.
We have all dreamed of a white Christmas. ‘Tis the season to tour the European Christmas Markets. This tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages brings festive joy to cities and villages across Europe. An authentic cultural experience, warm your Christmas spirit in among the local stalls selling Christmas trinkets and toys, winter and festive foods. Sip on mulled wine paired with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts and inhale the aroma of freshly cut Christmas trees. You can explore Christmas markets in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the Czech Republic.
Dressing for the freezing temperatures outside and the warm temperatures indoors, or on your coach, requires planning. Dressing becomes an artform, as you learn to mix and match lots of thin layers. You need thermal under garments, warm hats, scarves and gloves that can really grip onto things in real cold. Layering thin woollen tops and jumpers allows you to warm up and strip down depending on the environment. Good quality, lightweight thermal wear made from natural products such as merino will keep you warm under your normal clothes. You need sturdy soled boots for walking on wet, icy ground and most importantly to keep your feet warm and dry.
A day out in the European winter can be invigorating. Don’t let the cold weather hinder your desire to explore the beauty of Europe at this time of year. After all, the European communities have been living with cold weather for centuries, and before they had central heating! You can rest assured you will be comfortable indoors, everywhere you go, providing you can strip off the layers that you need to wear to be comfortable outdoors! As Billy Connolly says, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes". Do your research and rug up appropriately.
Ready to start planning? Make yourself a warm drink and explore over 280+ Winter Tours and River Cruises!