By Rick Steves
Some people have flexible enough jobs and lifestyles to cherry-pick when to take their vacations, but many others have less choice. Fortunately, Europe welcomes visitors 365 days a year — and each season offers a different ambience and experience.
In travel-industry jargon, the year is divided into three seasons: peak season (roughly mid-June through August), shoulder season (April through mid-June and September through October), and off-season (November through March). Each has its pros and cons. Regardless of when you go, if your objective is to “meet the people,” you’ll find Europe filled with them any time of year.
Summer is a great time to travel — except for the crowds and high temperatures. Sunny weather, long days, and exuberant nightlife turn Europe into a powerful magnet. I haven’t missed a peak season in 30 years. Families with school-age children are usually locked into peak-season travel. Here are a few tips to help you keep your cool:
Arrange your trip with crowd control in mind. Go to the busy places as early or late in peak season as you can. Consider, for instance, a six-week European trip beginning June 1, half with a rail pass to see famous sights in Italy and Austria, and half visiting relatives in Scotland. It would be wise to do the rail pass section first, enjoying fewer crowds, and then spend time with the family during the last half of your vacation, when Florence and Salzburg are teeming with tourists. Salzburg on June 10 and Salzburg on July 10 are two very different experiences.
Seek out places with no promotional budgets. Keep in mind that accessibility and promotional budgets determine a place’s fame and popularity just as much as its worthiness as a tourist attraction. The beaches of Greece’s Peloponnesian Peninsula enjoy the same weather and water as the highly promoted isles of Santorini and Ios but are out of the way, underpromoted, and wonderfully deserted. If you’re traveling by car, take advantage of your mobility by leaving the well-worn tourist routes. The Europe away from the train tracks is less expensive and feels more peaceful and relaxed. Overlooked by the rail pass mobs, it’s one step behind the modern parade.
Spend the night. Popular day-trip destinations near big cities and resorts such as Toledo (near Madrid), San Marino (near huge Italian beach resorts), and San Gimignano (near Florence) take on a more peaceful and enjoyable atmosphere at night, when the legions of day-trippers retreat to the predictable plumbing of their big-city or beach-resort hotels. Small towns normally lack hotels big enough for tour groups and are often inaccessible to large buses. So they will experience, at worst, midday crowds.
Prepare for intense heat. Europeans swear that it gets hotter every year. Even restaurants in cooler climates (like Munich or Amsterdam) now tend to have ample al fresco seating to take advantage of the ever longer outdoor-dining season. Throughout Europe in July and August, expect high temperatures — even sweltering heat — particularly in the south.
Don’t discount July and August. Although Europe’s tourist crowds can generally be plotted on a bell-shaped curve that peaks in July and August, there are exceptions. For instance, Paris is relatively empty in July and August but packed full in June (conventions) and September (trade shows). Business-class hotels in Scandinavia are cheapest in the summer, when travel — up there, mostly business travel — is down.
In much of Europe (especially Italy and France), cities are partially shut down in July and August, when local urbanites take their beach breaks. You’ll hear that these are terrible times to travel, but it’s really no big deal. You can’t get a dentist, and many launderettes may be closed, but tourists are basically unaffected by Europe’s mass holidays. Just don’t get caught on the wrong road on the first or fifteenth of the month (when vacations often start or finish, causing huge traffic jams), or try to compete with all of Europe for a piece of French Riviera beach in August.
Some places are best experienced in peak season. Travel in the peak season in Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland, which rarely have the horrible crowds of other destinations, where sights are too sleepy or even closed in shoulder season, and where you want the best weather and longest days possible. Scandinavia has an extremely brief tourist season — basically from mid-June to late August; I’d avoid it outside this window.
“Shoulder season” — generally April through mid-June, September, and October — combines the advantages of both peak-season and off-season travel. In shoulder season, you’ll enjoy decent weather, long-enough daylight, fewer crowds, and a local tourist industry still ready to please and entertain.
Shoulder season varies by destination. Because fall and spring bring cooler temperatures in Mediterranean Europe, shoulder season in much of Italy, southern France, Spain, Croatia, and Greece can actually come with near peak-season crowds and prices. For example, except for beach resorts, Italy’s peak season is May, June, September, and October, rather than July and August. As mentioned earlier, Paris is surprisingly quiet in July and August.
Spring or fall? If debating the merits of traveling before or after summer, consider your destination. Both weather and crowds are about the same in spring or fall. Mediterranean Europe is generally green in spring, but parched in fall. For hikers, the Alps are better in early fall, because many good hiking trails are still covered with snow through the late spring.
On a budget note, keep in mind that round-trip airfares are determined by your departure date. Therefore, if you fly over during peak season and return late in the fall (shoulder season), you may still pay peak-season round-trip fares.
Every summer, Europe greets a stampede of sightseers. Before jumping into the peak-season pig pile, consider a trip during the off-season — generally November through March.
Expect to pay less — most of the time. Off-season airfares are often hundreds of dollars cheaper. With fewer crowds in Europe, you may find you can sleep for less: Many fine hotels drop their prices, and budget hotels will have plenty of vacancies. And while many B&Bs and other non-hotel budget accommodations may be closed, those still open are usually empty and, therefore, more comfortable.
To save some money, show up late in the day, notice how many open rooms they have (keys on the rack), let them know you’re a hosteler (or student, senior, artist, or whatever) with a particular price limit, and bargain from there. The opposite is true of big-city business centers (especially in Berlin, Brussels, and the Scandinavian capitals), which are busiest and most expensive in the "off" season.
Enjoy having Europe to yourself. Off-season adventurers loiter all alone through Leonardo da Vinci’s home, ponder in Rome’s Forum undisturbed, kick up sand on lonely Adriatic beaches, and chat with laid-back guards by log fires in French châteaux. In wintertime Venice, you can be all alone atop St. Mark’s bell tower, watching the clouds of your breath roll over the Byzantine domes of the church to a horizon of cut-glass Alps. Below, on St. Mark’s Square, pigeons fidget and wonder, “Where are the tourists?”
Off-season adventurers enjoy step-right-up service at shops and tourist offices, and experience a more European Europe. Although many popular tourist-oriented parks, shows, and tours will be closed, off-season is in-season for high culture: In Vienna, for example, the Boys’ Choir, opera, and Lipizzaner stallions are in all their crowd-pleasing glory.
Be prepared for any kind of weather. Because much of Europe is at Canadian latitudes, the winter days are short. It’s dark by 5 p.m. The weather can be miserable — cold, windy, and drizzly — and then turn worse.
Pack for the cold and wet — layers of clothing, rainproof parka, gloves, wool hat, long johns, waterproof shoes, and an umbrella. Dress warmly. Cold weather is colder when you’re outdoors trying to enjoy yourself all day long, and cheap hotels are not always adequately heated in the off-season. But just as summer can be wet and gray, winter can be crisp and blue, and even into mid-November, hillsides blaze with colorful leaves.
Beware of shorter hours. Make the most out of your limited daylight hours. Some sights close down entirely, and most operate on shorter hours, with darkness often determining the closing time. Winter sightseeing is fine in big cities, which bustle year-round, but it’s more frustrating in small tourist towns, which can be boringly quiet, with many sights and restaurants closed down. In December, many beach resorts shut up as tight as canned hams. While Europe’s wonderful outdoor evening ambience survives all year in the south, wintertime streets are empty in the north after dark. English-language tours, common in the summer, are rare off-season, when most visitors are natives. Tourist information offices normally stay open year-round, but have shorter hours in the winter. Opening times are less predictable, so call ahead to double-check hours and confirm your plans.