I was originally going to call this post “Cities Where I’ve Never Seen The Sun But Love Anyway,” but decided that was a little unfair. It remains though that there are indeed many places around Europe that I’ve only visited during the off season and so honestly have never actually seen the sun. But that’s fine by me; I love visiting Europe when the weather is grey and misty (or worse) because it means the crowds will be long gone, and I’ll get to experience a side to these wonderful cities that many folks don’t get to see. That being said, not all are made the same so I thought I’d share a few favorite off season European cities that not only do I love, but that I bet you will too.
*Let me forestall some of the inevitable criticism. Yes, I do know that all of these cities are lovely in the summer and probably even spring. That’s not what this post is about. This post is about cities that can be great to visit even when the weather gods are not happy, so in effect this post is complimenting these destinations.
I love Brussels and find myself returning time and time again, although always in December. Light rain and grey skies are normal in this part of Europe in the winter, but it adds to the spirit of the season. The highlight of spending time in Brussels around the holidays is the annual Winter Wonders Festival, the city’s Christmas market. The fun starts in the iconic Grand Place, which hosts a gigantic Christmas tree and at night features a light and music show that can’t be missed. It loops every 15 minutes, so don’t worry about missing it. From there follow your nose along the side streets and meander through the stalls that have a little bit of everything from hot mulled wine to snacks and of course gifts. My favorite spot is located in front of Church of St. Catherine where the majority of stalls are housed in addition to a Ferris wheel, ice skating rink and a rotating array of musicians. I’ve been twice and I would gladly go every year if I could. The festival is just a lot of good, honest fun and while the weather WILL be grey and cold, I think that only adds to the experience. While you’re in town be sure to see the other more famous sites like the Old Town, the Atomium and all of the delicious chocolate shops found around town.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, there’s a lot to love about Reykjavik, but its wintertime weather is not one of them. There’s actually a bit of a misconception about Iceland. Given its name, most first time visitors expect Iceland to be freezing, and while it’s definitely chilly in the winter it’s not as extreme as one would think. Iceland hovers around the low-mid 30s in January, which is the same or warmer than a lot of the US at the same time. Meteorological phenomena ensure that this island nation never gets too hot or too cold, which is perfect for tourists. There’s plenty to do year round and especially in the winter months, from enjoying the thermal pools found around the country to more adventurous pursuits like diving, snowmobiling, glacier hiking and ice cave exploration. Don’t make the mistake that so many other tourists make though and skip Reykjavik. It’s a great city and a fun place to walk around and explore, window shopping and stopping off for a snack or two. One caveat about the weather, while the base temperature may be in the 30s, intense wind is very common in the winter making it feel much colder and sometimes creating mini-blizzards, as I discovered last February.
One of Europe’s great cities, this imperial city has been attracting tourists at all times of the year for as long as there has been tourism. It’s also a lively place to be in the off season, especially if you visit in December right before Christmas. There are several Christmas markets around town, but the main one is located right in front of the Rathaus. Like so many other Christmas markets, the chief draw here is the food and you’ll find some delicious Austrian specialties, along with treats found only in Vienna. This enormous city though has a lot more to offer and if it’s cold and grey like it was the last time I visited, then be sure to head indoors and visit some of the many museums around town. While the mainstream ones are fine, I instead decided to visit a couple of quirky museums: The Esperanto Museum and the Globe Museum. Located inside the National Library, both offer interesting, if not brief, looks into the history of both this international language and the evolution of globes throughout the ages. Before you leave town though, be sure to warm up in traditional Viennese fashion by enjoying a cup of coffee and some cake at one of the many coffee shops found throughout the city.
It was cold, very cold, when I visited Venice one December a few years ago. For whatever reason, many of us typically think of Italy as a warm destination, which it is – in the south and during the summer. Venice is not in the south and it was anything but summer as the cold wind bit through my jacket, but it was those weather conditions that ultimately made the experience so very special. Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and in the warm summer months is frankly mobbed with people. Yet there I stood in the middle of St. Mark’s Square with only a few other brave souls. It was remarkable and I felt like I had the city all to myself. That experience instantly proved to me the tremendous value of traveling in the winter. Walking around the Doge’s Palace and later navigating the labyrinthine alleys and streets of Venice we were joined by other tourists, but not that many. Not once did I have to wait in a line and I even had to wake a sleeping gondolier to take us around for a brief cruise. It made me fall in love with the city, one that I may not have liked had it been overrun with other tourists.
It may seem odd to include two Belgian cities on this list, but that is a testimony to not only how much I love this small country, but how great it is to visit in the off season. Bruges tends to get all of the attention, but nearby Ghent in my opinion is just as much fun to visit. Strolling along the beautiful canals, which I personally like better than the ones in Amsterdam, and learning the layout of the city at the same time is just a lot of fun. There is a holiday market in front of the massive St. Bavo’s Cathedral, but the real fun in exploring the city is in its food. From mustard to hams and even beers, Ghent prides itself on a long and festive culinary tradition. The best place to learn about this, and Flemish food in general, is at the Het Groot Vleeshuis. Housed in an old meat market, this innovative space showcases the best foods of the area, morsels that can only be found in Flanders. Free tastings and quick lessons in the traditions are available for anyone and is an easy and non-threatening way to learn your way around Ghentian cuisine.
Where are some of your favorite places to explore in the off season?