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Authored by Ashlea Wheeler

Winter in Australia results in most of the country retreating inside and complaining loudly about the decrease in temperature, myself included. Instead of dealing with a mild change in the weather between seasons, we all tend to pout and whinge when it’s not as warm or sunny as we’d like.

As a result of this culture, backpacking through Europe in winter seemed like a great novelty. I’d be heading to a place where the climate would be drastically different during the winter months. I dreamed of a celebrating a white Christmas, wandering through charming winter markets, and escaping the hoards of summer tourists to enjoy the snow covered streets with locals.

It took a few weeks of backpacking before I made a few key discoveries about travelling Europe during winter. There were a number of reasons that it was both better and worse than if I had chose to do the same thing during summer.

Munich

Munich during Winter.

Here are 5 things I noticed, and a few things you should consider before you follow in my footsteps.

Winter in Europe is a Celebration

Buildings are decorated with fairy lights and ice skating rinks are set up in public areas. Outdoor Christmas markets line the main squares in many cities, where people flock to drink mulled wine and eat gingerbread biscuits iced with cheery holiday messages.

The Europeans believe that winter is something to celebrate, a time to rug up in a coat and scarf and enjoy the season with your friends and family. You had better be keen on embracing the cold and spending some time outside!

Tourists are Forgotten

 

We came across a few fellow travellers, mostly those who had been on the road for 6 months or more, but the locals seemed to have missed the memo that there are still tourists in winter.

This can be a good thing. You’re less likely to be hassled by people trying to sell you tacky souvenirs as they’ve mostly retreated to their hometowns, returning when tourists start hoarding in during the summer months. And there’s no need to line up for an hour and a half to get into the Louvre or go up the Eiffel Tower!

Christmas Markets in Wroclaw's Market Square, Poland

Christmas Markets in Wroclaw’s Market Square, Poland.

But you’ll have to expect that some attractions will be closed. In Wroclaw, the only activity we could do was wander the streets as nothing was open. In Hallstatt, we could only find one restaurant serving food to visitors. Just ONE! And apparently the dwindling tourist numbers require the closure of every cable car in Europe.

Want to see pretty views from a mountain top? Too bad.

Things are cheap

 

Save few bucks by travelling in off-peak season. You can bet those hostels and hotels have a fair few spare rooms at this time of year, so cheap rooms are abundant, and finding affordable flights to Europe is a cinch. Tour prices and entrance fees are also reduced in an effort to increase visitor numbers.

For an idea of how much we spent during our time in Europe, see Backpacking Europe – How much does it cost? 

Some Sites Look Super Fantastic

 

Settled snow makes some things look incredible. White peaks on the spires of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow was a sight to be seen, and the English Garden in Munich was wonderfully serene as we walked through after a blizzard.

St Basil’s Cathedral covered in snow, Moscow

St Basil’s Cathedral covered in snow, Moscow. Photo CC by Sergey Rodovnichenko

Even our day trip to Prypyat and Chernobyl was made extra eerie by the untouched snow surrounding us.

These sights would also be lovely in Summer, but winter just makes them a little more magical.

Some Sites Don’t Look So Great

 

Parks and nature aren’t at their best during winter. If you want to see colourful flowers and green grass – winter is going to severely disappoint you.

Streets that were normally lined with leafy trees featured only bare branches and water puddles. Gardens that would normally boast marble statues had them covered in wooden boxes as protection from the weather.

The Champs Elysees looking a little dreary.

Paris. The Champs Elysees looking a little dreary.

It was almost half way through our trip before we actually found a fountain with running water – most of them are switched off during winter.

To Travel Or Not To Travel: Europe in Winter

 

On my journey I discovered that Europe isn’t better or worse in winter. Some places were made fabulous by the snow and the cold, and others may have been nicer to experience during warmer months.

It’s really about what type of travel experience you want to have – for me it was about the opportunity to try something entirely different.

Like many others, I enjoy travelling to places with sunny beaches and warm weather, but this time I wanted to get far out of my comfort zone to create incredible memories, and that’s exactly what I got when I travelled Europe in winter.

Ashlea is a 26-year-old colourfully clothed and excitable vegetarian who loves photography, cooking, and exploring the world. Currently blogging from Sydney, Australia, she lives a minimalist lifestyle and spends the majority of her modest income on whatever trip she’s planning next.

Follow her travels on A Globe Well Travelled, or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

    52 Comments

    • I love traveling during the off season for exactly that reason! Less tourism in my eyes is the best thing you can aim for on a trip!

  1. Nice article! The best part for me to travel to Europe in winter would be the cheap flights from Dubai. I always thought that winter would not be a good time to visit Europe because many attractions are closed. But I suppose it’s still a good time to experience a country in a non touristy way.
    Natasha Amar recently posted…A Photo Journey Through Halong BayMy Profile

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Natasha! There are definitely pros and cons – having traveled through Europe in the summer it’s definitely a LOT more touristy, so I guess it’s also about deciding whether or not you’re traveling for a specific attraction. If not then it may not be an issue if they’re closed!

  2. I visited Barcelona in November, it was fabulous! The sun was shining, I could wear thongs during the day (admittedly with jeans), there were no queues for anything I wanted to see! It was great!
    Sammi Wanderlustin’ recently posted…Tim Burton Saves the Day in PragueMy Profile

    • Sounds amazing – especially the no queues!!

    • Lol so the novelty for you would be getting to Australia over Christmas – we have lovely sunny beaches and 35 degree C weather every day!

    • Just before or just after peak season is also a great time to go – gives you the lack of crowds, but everything not closed down just quite yet.

  3. Some of those places look so beautiful all covered in snow! I’m not sure if I would choose to visit some places in the winter, but I can see that some are well-suited to it! Plus, less tourists and cheaper to go!

    • Especially the cathedral in Moscow right!! I’ve definitely traveled through my fair share of wintery destinations in the past, and while the cold can be crazy, it’s definitely an amazing experience!

  4. I honestly hate traveling anywhere in winter unless it’s tropical destinations. I think going for the celebrations and the Christmas markets might be reason enough to brave the cold though!
    Beth recently posted…The Sights and Sounds of SalzburgMy Profile

    • Lol you should try for Australia this year then – you’ll love our warm Christmas weather where everyone is in singlets and shorts!

  5. This is my favorite time to visit Europe! You feel like so much more of a local when you go in winter. Plus, so many of the monuments and street scenes of Old Europe I like to photograph just need a sunny day – who cares if it’s freezing outside? Definitely has its advantages.
    Dave Cole recently posted…Local Artisans at Work in Red Hook, BrooklynMy Profile

    • They invented warm clothes to combat freezing temperatures lol – I agree though, I find photography during the winter to be absolutely magical. Street scenes have been shot so many times over in the summer, though there’s not a lot out there showing us scenes during winter.

  6. I have to agree coming from England that Winter in Europe is awesome and so much better than here in the States (Sorry USA, you know I still love you!)

    The traditions at Christmas are celebrated with so much more festivity and people just seem to get into the spirit much more! We are really looking forward to taking a trip around Europe this Christmas starting in Iceland and then heading over to England, Switzerland, Italy and Ireland!
    Chris Boothman recently posted…Travel Tech 101- Travel Stylishly with the Sleeper ScarfMy Profile

    • Lol having experienced both, I actually agree with you; they seem to celebrate in a much more communal way in Europe which I haven’t witnessed in the States.

      You’ll absolutely love Iceland – sounds like a pretty wicked Christmas trip! Safe travels!

    • In that case Europe in winter would be the perfect choice for you! Christmas is coming up and there’ll be so many different deals you can snatch up. Happy travels!

  7. I love Europe in winter! Lace up my winter boots and I’m a happy bunny. Mulled wine, hot cheese, snow, clear haze-free skies, log fires, no tourists: it’s perfect!
    As an often off season traveller, I adore winter, it makes for great photography, especially pre-Christmas when all the lights are up and the markets are twinkling.
    Rachel A Davis recently posted…George Town, the multicultural jewel of PenangMy Profile

    • I hear you! We’ve started to develop a love affair with winter travel as well – the pros really do outweigh the cons!

  8. What I love most about the change in weather isn’t the cold it brings or the need to replace all of my summer clothes with winter ones, it’s the reminder that it’s almost Christmas. I was never much of a Christmas person before (blame too many years spent working in retail), but seeing Europe over Christmas whilst travelling has made me appreciate it more for what it means to so many people and how cheery they become.
    Dale recently posted…The Grey Line Between Travel Bloggers And WritersMy Profile

    • What a wonderful perspective, and it’s true, people really do seem to become more upbeat and positive around the holidays. Which in turn means that it’s a wonderful time of year to travel when spirits of the locals are so high.

      I hope you have a wonderful winter this season!

  9. I love Christmas markets and how fancy the cities look with all those lights and decorations 🙂 Though, I wouldn’t say it is worth going to Paris on Christmas and New Year as it gets super-crowded.

    As for the weather, it’s rather warm in Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy.
    Elena@Elena’s Travelgram recently posted…Best French Food Series | Franche-ComteMy Profile

    • Good tip – I did travel to Paris during January a few years back and it was indeed very crowded. I think as you get further East perhaps towards Germany and the Czech Republic etc you’d probably have a more memorable experience.

      Maybe I can combine a trip to Eastern Europe with snow and then quickly jump down to Southern Italy or Spain to warm up!

    • Very true! I would consider whether you want to avoid tourism or not, (in which case skip touristy spots like Paris as Elena mentioned above which can be crowded during winter), and if there are any countries you specifically want to see anyway.

      I spent winter in the Czech Republic one year and LOVED it – Prague was magical, and there was a tonne of snow. I went in january for a month and can’t recommend it enough!

  10. Traveling in Europe during winter always comes with a risk, especially if you’re going to Northern Europe and Scandinavia. You just never know if you’ll get caught in a snow storm and -15 degrees 🙂 Like you mentioned, most places look amazing in December or in the snow. Thanks for sharing.
    Miriam of Adventurous Miriam recently posted…How to Plan a Yoga Retreat in BaliMy Profile

    • Very true! I actually made that choice in 2007 lol when I decided to spend my February holidays in Finland. I think it got to about – 19 celsius; was SOOO cold! Though that being said, with the snow I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life!

    • I would love to do a full tour of Europe during the winter, to truly see everything in it’s snow covered glory! Though as a few people have mentioned, not all of the continent sees snow, but totally agree – places like Ukraine would definitely be unbelievable!

  11. I visited the Mosel and Saar regions of Germany one winter for a few days. It was peacefully but eerily quiet, compared to the hustle and bustle periods of the year. I would love to see more areas of Europe during the winter.
    Charles McCool recently posted…8 Great iPhone Travel AppsMy Profile

    • I hope you do get the chance to spend more time in Europe during winter – have also been to germany during the winter period and it was just magical. Loved it!

  12. You are absolutely right with the whole details in this piece. Europe is undeniably an astonishing place especially during winter. I plan to go back in Europe this year’s winter season.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Ale, Europe truly is stunning in winter, and I almost can’t believe winter is off peak – those tourists who can’t bear the cold are missing out! Happy travels – enjoy winter again this season!

    • Absolutely! Maybe we’ll bump into you somewhere around Europe later in the year! Happy Travels 🙂

  13. Looking to backpack some of Europe by myself for 3 months from October, and am thrilled because I love cooler weather and the autumn-winter transition. Just a little worried that I won’t be meeting and sharing my experience with others because tourist numbers dwindle… Are the hostels practically empty or just not as full as in summer?

    • Awesome to hear, you’re going to have an amazing time!! And don’t be worried at all – yes, tourist numbers dwindle, but even in the dead of winter the hostels are still at least 50% full with travelers from all over the world.

      I was in Finland in February which was a ridiculous time of year lol because the temperature was -17 degrees and it was TRULY the middle of winter – there were still a decent number of travelers across the different hostels I jumped between, so making friends and new travel companions for the day wasn’t a problem at all. The other spots I’ve hit in Europe over winter were Copenhagen and Munich, and found the same thing.

      Do check out my recent post though about a new app which you should download; it’s called Ventoura, and you can search it to try and contact and start chatting with travelers who will be in the city you’re heading to at the same time. It’s a brilliant idea for setting up your contacts before you leave home 🙂

      Link is: http://www.mappingmegan.com/how-to-meet-locals-for-an-authentic-city-tour-ventoura-app/

      Have a fun trip, you’re going to have a blast! Let us know if you have any other questions, always happy to help.

    • Thanks for the advice! Will definitely check out Ventoura and go through your blog. I certainly see myself having a few more questions 🙂
      -Erol

  14. My company is sending me to Dusseldorf from mid-October to mid-January and I was thinking of staying on a few extra weeks to travel, but I wasn’t sure if Europe in January was a great idea. Thanks for listing the pros and the cons…it’s helpful!

    • Glad you found the post helpful Emma – Dusseldorf will be so much fun! Cold for sure around that time of year, but you’ll have an amazing time. And being in Europe over Christmas means you can take in the amazing Christmas Markets the region is so famous for 🙂

      Definitely stay on for a few extra weeks to travel if you can – it’s such a magical time of year. Just pack warm clothes 😀

  15. Hi! I am planning a 3 week getaway starting somewhere after Christmas. I am fine with visiting lesser number of places. I would love to know the destinations in Europe which can be done in the winters too without getting much affected by the weather. And by that I mean, without loosing out on something really incredible.

    • Hi Aman, thanks for reaching out – how exciting to be traveling through Europe in Winter! I would highly recommend destinations like Switzerland and Austria; they are truly incredible during winter and really built to handle it well. Locals throughout Europe flock here for the ski slopes which are some of the best in the continent too if you’re a fan of winter sports.

      Also consider Scandinavian countries too – if you venture through Finland, Norway and Sweden you can take a trip close to the Arctic and have the chance of witnessing the Northern Lights which would be incredible. There are also a range of really unique accommodation throughout these countries, like the ice hotel in Sweden, igloo accommodation in Finland. So I would recommend either of those two regions for winter travel if you’re looking for something really special.

      Hope that helps! Happy travels!

  16. I did a few weeks around Europe during the holidays a few years back. It was great! There were less travelers, and more opportunities to meet locals and people I may not have met during the busy holiday months. The highlight of this trip for me was going to the bathhouse in Budapest. They had an outdoor area that was open. The water was so warm and steamy yet we were outside, which was pretty cool.

    • So glad you enjoyed your time in Europe Gladis! It really does make for a much more wonderful experience when you’re not fighting against hundreds of other tourists and travelers to get into the same attractions – we really enjoy traveling in the shoulder or off seasons just to get away from the crowds. The experience is always so much more better for it & you can get the most out of your time.

      The bathhouse in Budapest sounds lovely! I’ll have to add that to our list of ideas for this coming winter!

  17. Certainly agree on the pretty part. We went to Brussels in January this year and we were greatly disappointed. About 75% of the town was shut down. We now plan our winters around Christmas-themed activities i.e. Christmas Markets and skiing.
    Jennifer recently posted…My Top 5 Deutsch Weihnachtsmärkte Wish ListMy Profile

    • Sorry to hear that you were disappointed in Brussels Jennifer – winter can definitely be a gamble in terms of having access to a lot for the facilities and shops which would normally be open in the summertime. But then you’ve got the perks of no tourists and everything being very pretty covered in snow. So I guess it’s a trade off for people to decide which they prefer more.

      Themed activities for winter holidays is a brilliant way to go 🙂 Happy travels! Hope you have something fabulous planned for this winter 🙂

    • Very true about some attractions being closed down in winter – it’s definitely something to consider if you have certain spots that are on your “must” list. I love Europe in winter though – the lack of crowds is the winner for me 😀

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