7 great reasons to see Europe before the summer

Pining to explore Europe but intending to wait for the sun? Think again: the crowds might arrive in spring and reach full swell midsummer, but European travel in the cooler months is superb timing for off-season prices and local flavour.

1. Off-season bargains

The rush for Christmas and New Year flights is long gone so there are deals galore as typically ‘summery’ destinations snooze through their off-peak season. It’s a great time to make an offer on a holiday bidding site like Priceline.com or to scour the usual favourites like TravelZoo, Expedia and Opodo. A number of sites, like OffSeason.com and CheapTickets.com, scoop up all the off-season travel deals in one place, so snagging a deal is like shooting fish in a barrel.

2. Jump in, the weather's fine

Southern Europe laughs in the face of Jack Frost. Plenty of European destinations are still balmy before spring, like southern Spain, the south of France, Sicily, Cyprus and Crete. Contact the relevant tourist office and ask for the stats if you have weather worries. And if you need your dose of vitamin D, get the info on daylight hours in your destination from EuroMeteo.com. Warm destinations won't swelter as they do during their summer peak, so you can see the ruins of ancient Greece without risking sunstroke and you won't have to avoid beaches during the midday sun. Time for another ouzo, then.

3. Don't fear the frost

But there's no need to chase the sun, as lashings of rain and snow give added charisma to Europe's classic city destinations. Who could fail to be moved by an icy glaze on the turrets of Europe’s castles? And what could elicit more envy than snapshots of romantic Budapest under a smattering of snow? Wrap up in layers and embrace the cooler weather.

4. Get some elbow room

If your travel photos are usually invaded by hordes of other tourists, spare yourself the time Photoshopping them out and travel in winter for a crowd-free view. Big-hitting destinations are open for business, but in winter more of the streets will be yours: that means fewer pairs of sandaled feet pacing La Rambla and less jostling for a view of La Sagrada Família. Over in France, the major sights in Provence favourite, Avignon, are still open for business so you can pose on the famous pont St-Bénézet and gawp at the immense Palais des Papes.

5. Live like a local

Without so many tourists flocking into their prettiest piazzas, life returns to normal in many tourist hotspots. And as locals' guard comes down, all the better to people-watch. Try stomping into a warm Parisian brasserie to see chic locals shake their umbrellas (and wring out their soggy pet poodles). Or maybe you'd prefer to eavesdrop on Londoners as they endlessly discuss weather reports with that quintessentially British air of gloom.

6. Winter madness

Why not unleash your daring side by timing your trip to coincide with one of Europe's hedonistic winter events?  Something about being cooped up indoors unleashes the wild side in Europeans and it'd be rude not to join in the chaos. Scandinavians leap into ice-cold lakes as part of their sauna regime, Sicilians explode in a riot of colour for the Feast of San Sebastiano, and Croatia’s February festivals are a spectacle of giddy mayhem (particularly raucous in Rijeka).

7. Cuddle up

Unless you’re hunting the Northern Lights or riding husky dogs across a frozen plain, Scandinavia might seem like a crazy choice for cold weather. A Stockholm city break with short hours of daylight? Traipsing up to Tromsø for dark skies and gloomy museums? But in Scandinavia, the colder it is, the most tempting the cosy comforts. March your rain-battled self to a Finnish sauna, snuggle into one of Gothenburg’s beautiful cafes with a sinful hot chocolate, or head to Denmark to experience hygge, an untranslatable phenomenon akin to cosiness and goodwill.

But don't forget to plan. Make your European travels a breeze by heeding these winter winter warnings:

  • Road to nowhere. Ferries, buses and train routes can slow down or come to a complete stop over winter. Don’t pin your hopes on island-hopping Croatia or railroading across Russia before you check whether the routes will operate.
  • Hammering in your head. Hotels sometimes use the low season to renovate their properties. If you want to be sure you’ll avoid a noisy night, check online reviews for mentions of building works, or be bold and ask the hotel outright.
  • Closed for business. Hotels, museums and galleries sometimes give themselves a hard-earned rest after the hubbub of high season, so call ahead or check the website before you rock up.

Anita Isalska is an editor and writer based in Lonely Planet’s London office. Follow her on Twitter @lunarsynthesis.