Traveling in Winter: The Pros and Cons
Blame it on the brochures, but for some reason when people think of traveling through Europe, they picture it in a constant state of sunshine. Blazing blue skies at the Eiffel tower, strappy tops and flip flops on the beach in Barcelona, and lashings upon lashings of gelato, well, all across Italy. Nice as those things may be, by forgetting about traveling in winter, you may be missing a trick. First you’ll miss the Christmas markets, with their cinnamon-scented gluhwein and intricate handmade crafts. But there’s much more to it than that.
Read on, dear travelers, to explore the pros and cons of traveling in winter.
Traveling in winter: The pros
1. Those Christmas Markets
Europe comes alive from late November onwards with sparkling lights, steaming wine, handcrafted goods and candy cane treats. From Munich to Paris, and London to Salzburg, Seville to Prague, everyone wraps up and gets outside for a dose of festive shopping cheer. There’s nothing else in the world quite like it.
Tip: It’s a tough call but my favorite Christmas Market is the one held in Munich.
2. Save money
As the crowds disappear, so do the peak season rate hikes in accommodation.
3. No crowds
Visit Istanbul in summer and you’ll struggle to see a patch of bare floor at the iconic Blue Mosque. Head to the Louvre in Paris and you’ll spend those hours of sunshine in a queue for the Mona Lisa’s smile. Visit in winter, however, and have the place to yourself.
4. Travel more flexibly
Some high-speed trains require reservations, even if you have a Eurail Pass. In the height of summer, you may not be able to travel on a popular high-speed route if all the reservation spots are full. Travel in winter, though, and you’re far more likely to get what you want. Even for a service that’s departing within the next ten minutes.
5. Beautiful snow scenes
Some places were just born to dazzle in white. That picturesque Swiss mountain scenery undeniably looks better with a light touch of snow.
Tip: Salzburg, home of the Sound of Music and Mozart, looks particularly enchanting in the snow.
6. Watch a panto
Catch up with the peculiarly British tradition of the pantomime, available only in winter. A stage show aimed primarily at children, pantos relive old fairy tales with a few secret adult jokes and an array of slapstick comedy. It’s a cultural experience for sure.
7. Ski and snowboard
From the Alps to the Pyrenees to the Sierra Nevada and beyond, Europe offers up plenty of chances to hit the slopes and hire skis and snowboards. That’s much harder to do in the height of summer…
Tip: Even in Spain you can fit in some skiing by traveling by train to Granada, gateway to the Sierra Nevada.
8. Put history into perspective
The stage of Europe is littered with ghosts from bleak recorded history. Paying respects at concentration camp sites such as Auschwitz in the heart of icy winter gives a greater degree of understanding as to what conditions were really like.
Tip: You can reach Auschwitz by traveling by train to Krakow in Poland.
9. Connect with locals
For most countries in Europe, winter holds the most cherished festivals. There’s Christmas, of course, but also Hogmanay in Scotland, Reyes Magos (Three Kings) in Spain, and Santa Lucia in Scandinavia. Not only will you get the chance to take part in festivals you’d otherwise never get to see, you’ll also find that people are in a better mood – and likely to invite you to join in.
And the cons…
1. It’s cold
Yes, Sherlock, it’s colder in winter. It’s also usually wetter. Although many stations are cosy and indoors now, not to mention all those shops, bars, restaurants and museums, if you’re planning on sipping a cappuccino at the edge of the Spanish Steps or hate standing on a draughty platform then winter may not be the time for you.
2. It’s dark
Bear in mind that the further north you go, the earlier it will get dark in winter. Southern Spain will still only get dark at around 6pm. Paris and London lose sunshine at around 4. And in the furthest reaches of Scandinavia weeks can pass without seeing the sun at all.
Again, for many activities this doesn’t matter. But remember to check that you’ll be able to see something before embarking on a particularly scenic journey.
3. It’s hibernating – a little
Museums and tourist offices often shorten their hours over the winter season. So, for anything crucial, remember to check in advance. On the other hand, at least in winter you miss the August shutdown that occurs in many Mediterranean countries as workers pack up and head to the beach, leaving ghost towns in their wake.
For a sprinkle of “winterrail” inspiration, check out our 8 winter train travel moments.