I'll never forget my first trip to Rome. It was early July; temperatures hovered in the high 80s, and spending each day jostling with crowds of fellow tourists at the Colosseum and St. Peter's Basilica made the city feel even hotter. Since that trip I've learned the joys of traveling to Europe during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), which come with shorter lines and milder temperatures -- and on a recent Mediterranean journey, I discovered that winter might just be the best time of all.
At first, the thought of visiting Europe in winter might not sound so enticing: You'll find chilly temperatures, fewer hours of daylight and many attractions closed for the season. (You'll also probably want to buy travel insurance in case you encounter snow- or ice-related airport delays.) But there are some major advantages to visiting Europe in winter that could make up for these drawbacks.
The time of year you travel can mean the difference between standing in a two-hour line and having an incredible historical monument nearly to yourself. While many European cities are popular year-round, traveling during the winter will help you avoid the worst of the crowds, which can reach truly epic proportions in July and August.
Lower Fares (and Less Crowded Planes)
On my flight to Barcelona last December, my travel companion and I had a row of four seats to ourselves. While I can't guarantee such good luck on every winter flight, the odds are better then than they are during the summer high season.
The lower demand for winter flights to Europe means not only a chance of an undersold plane, but also lower fares. For example, I found a midweek February flight from New York to Paris for less than $450 roundtrip per person in a recent Kayak search -- as compared to $614 for a similar flight in July.
Lower Hotel Rates
Flights aside, you'll also save money on winter hotels in Europe -- and likely have more choice. The most popular spots to stay (including both hotels and vacation rentals) tend to sell out early over the summer months, but in the winter you'll have more options at better prices.
Need proof? We compared February and July rates at a few of the most highly ranked Rome hotels on TripAdvisor. At the ultra-luxe Portrait Roma, a few blocks from the Spanish Steps, you'll pay $442 in February vs. a whopping $644 a night in July. Those on a midsized budget could try the Artemide, which drops to $175 a night in February from $240 a night in July. Rates at the charming QuodLibet B&B fall to $71 a night in the winter from $191 over the summer. With these discounts, you can afford to stay an extra night or two.
This one varies depending on where you go, of course; if you're looking for temperate climes, you'll want to avoid cities such as Oslo (where the average January temperature is 27 degrees Fahrenheit) or Moscow (a brisk 18 degrees). But you might be surprised by how pleasant it is to take a winter wander through cities like Barcelona, Athens or Lisbon, where average January temperatures are in the 50s. Pack a light jacket and enjoy not having to sweat through your entire European vacation.
Take advantage of those long winter nights by seeing one of the world's most remarkable natural phenomena: the northern lights. You can check this off your bucket list in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland. One cool option: At Kakslauttanen, an Arctic resort in Finnish Lapland, you can sleep in a glass igloo and watch for the aurora borealis without even getting out of bed!
More easily accessible spots for northern lights viewing include Iceland and Scotland. (Icelandair offers free stopovers in Reykjavik if you want to combine a trip to Iceland with a visit to the Continent.) Wherever you go, choose a clear night and venture outside the main cities to seek dark skies in remote areas.
Christmas Markets and Holiday Lights
We're cheating a little bit with this one, as the weeks leading up to Christmas are technically still part of autumn. But you'll feel the winter spirit as you sip warm spiced wine, munch on gingerbread and browse handcrafted holiday ornaments at Christmas markets across the Continent. The most traditional markets are located in Germany, Austria, and parts of Italy and France. (For ideas, check out a few of our favorite Christmas markets.)
Aside from the markets, many cities are at their most charming in December, with white lights twinkling from every lamppost and enchanting holiday displays in every shop window.
You May Also Like
25 Ways to Save on Europe Travel
Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
How to Pack for a Winter Vacation
Planning a Trip to Europe: Your 10-Step Guide
Get Our Best Travel Tips and Trip Ideas!
--written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.