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.
Except for the crowds and high temperatures, summer is a great time to travel. The sunny weather, long days, and exuberant nightlife turn Europe into a powerful magnet. Here are a few tips to minimize the crowds and help keep your cool:
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. For example, Geneva is big and famous with nothing special to offer the visitor. 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, under promoted, and wonderfully deserted.
Hit the back streets. Many people energetically jockey themselves into the most crowded square of the most crowded city in the most crowded month (St. Mark’s Square, Venice, July) and then complain about the crowds. You could be in Venice in July and walk six blocks behind St. Mark’s Basilica, step into a cafe, and be greeted by Venetians who act as though they’ve never seen a tourist.
See how the locals live. Residential neighborhoods rarely see a tourist. In Florence, for instance, most tourists stick to the small section of the city covered by the ubiquitous tourist maps. Wander beyond that, and you’ll dance with the locals or play street soccer with the neighborhood gang.
Plan your museum sightseeing carefully. Avoid museums on their monthly free days, when they’re most crowded. Being that many Parisian museums are closed on Tuesday, nearby Versailles is open, and predictably crowded. So, it follows that Parisian museums are especially crowded on Monday and Wednesday. For some top museums, you can reserve your visit in advance to avoid the lines entirely.
Be aware of the exceptions. Although Europe’s tourist crowds can generally be plotted on a bell-shaped curve, peaking in July and August, there are odd glitches. For instance, Paris is relatively empty in July and August, but packed full in June (conventions) and September (trade shows). 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. Tourists are basically unaffected by Europe’s mass holidays.
For many, “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 that is still eager to please and entertain.
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.
The advantages of off-season travel are many. Off-season airfares are often hundreds of dollars cheaper. With fewer crowds in Europe, you’ll sleep cheaper. Many fine hotels drop their prices, and budget hotels will have plenty of vacancies. Off-season adventurers loiter all alone through Leonardo da Vinci’s home, ponder in Rome’s Forum undisturbed, and kick up sand on virgin Adriatic beaches. Off-season adventurers enjoy step-right-up service at banks and tourist offices and experience a more European Europe.
But winter travel has its drawbacks. Because much of Europe is at Canadian latitudes, the days are short. It’s dark by 5:00 p.m. The weather can be miserable cold, windy, and drizzly and then turn worse. Off-season hours are limited. Some sights close down entirely, and most operate on shorter schedules, with darkness often determining the closing time. Winter sightseeing is fine in big cities, which bustle year-round. However, it’s more frustrating in small tourist towns, which often shut down entirely.
To thrive in the winter, you’ll need to get the most out of your limited daylight hours. Start early and eat a quick lunch. Tourist offices close early and opening times are less predictable, so call ahead to double-check hours and confirm your plans. In the winter, most hotels are empty and charge less. To save some money, arrive late, notice how many open rooms they have (keys on the rack). Let them know you’re a hosteler (student, senior, artist, etc.) with a particular price limit, and bargain from there. Regardless of when you go, if your objective is to “meet the people,” you’ll find Europe filled with them 365 days a year.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020. Rick grew up in Edmonds, Washington and studied at the University of Washington where he received degrees in Business Administration and European History. But his real education came in Europe since 1973 he’s spent 120 days a year in Europe. Spending one third of his adult life living out of a suitcase in Europe has shaped his thinking. Today he employs 80 people at his Europe Through the Back Door headquarters in Edmonds where he produces 30 guidebooks on European travel, the most popular travel series in America on public television, a weekly hour-long national public radio show, and a weekly column syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Rick and his wife Anne have traveled each of the last 22 years with their two kids, Andy and Jackie.