When summer finally winds down, many of Europe's hottest destinations kick back and regain their balance, free of the swarms of tourists. In winter (the off-season) prices are low, hotel rooms quite available and streets uncrowded. You can actually see what you're trying to see and visit those places you've always wanted to tour, often at a fraction of the cost.
Here are three off-season picks and one winter wonderland bargain you won't want to miss.
Enjoy Culture, Arts And Breezy Beaches In Barcelona
Once a medieval city, Barcelona is also considered Spain's most modern city. The old and the new make an eclectic mix of history, culture and attractions, drawing millions over the summer months. However, when wintertime temperatures slip into the high 50s or low 60s, the summertime crowds (and lines) are gone. Hotel rooms are at their cheapest in January and February, and you can enjoy all the architecture, arts, shopping and food the city has to offer.
You can explore Las Ramblas, Barcelona's most famous street in the heart of the city, with its restaurants, entertainment and notorious human statues or check out the Gothic Quarter, Barri Gòtic. Barcelona is an architectural wonder, with numerous cathedrals as well as landmarks by Antonio Gaudí like La Pedrera and the Sagrada Familia, or Great Basilica. Poble Espanyol de Montjuïc demonstrates Spain's varied architectural styles while allowing artisans to display traditionally made handiwork. If you like museums, you can spend days wandering through the Barcelona FC Museum for football, the Picasso or Miró Museums, or the National Museum of Art of Catalunya MNAC. The city has a zoo and an aquarium, L'Aquàrium de Barcelona, and the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc is the site of a nighttime spectacle of light, music and water.
Barcelona also has a number of beaches, but temperatures may be more suited for walking than sunbathing. Nevertheless, the city offers endless options. Barcelona has its own airport, and we found flights for under $800 round trip. Quality hotels can be had for under $100 a night, and budget hotels actually have vacancies, clocking in for as little as 35 euros a night (about $37) with stellar online reviews.
Go Native In Croatia
Unlike many cities in Europe, Zagreb doesn't roll up the sidewalks once the tourists go home, and it isn't dreary, either. Many compare it to Budapest but without the commercialization. Croats come home from summers at the shore and settle into an urban lifestyle that is rich in history but full of joie de vivre. Wintertime high temperatures average in the low 40s, but for all who have been there in the chill months of December through March, it doesn't seem to matter.
The city's historical area, the Gornji Grad and Kaptol, is full of medieval churches, palaces and government buildings as well as museums and art galleries. At Christmas, Zrinjevac, the beautiful park in the city's heart, becomes a fantasyland of tiny lamps, fountains and trees. Tomislavac, another park in Zagreb's center, becomes an ice skating rink. Tkalča, however, is the social district, bursting with restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, clubs and shopping; the city has a plethora of large shopping centers. About 20 minutes north of Zagreb, visitors can spend a day or more at Sljeme, home to the Audi FIS Ski World Cup; you can ski at the resort and return to the city for the evening or stay at Sljeme, with lodgings under $50 a night.
Getting around Zagreb is fairly easy. The historical area has the funicular (a cable car), to span city levels and it's worth a ride and visit just because. The inner city has government-subsidized trams as well as taxis that fairly recently became more affordable thanks to competition. Even a five-star hotel room can be had for $80 or $90, and food is plentiful, affordable and as international as you want it to be. Round-trip airfare came in under $650, with no connectors, keeping the flight easy and affordable.
Explore Athens Or Hop The Greek Islands
Despite the economic crisis, Greece continues to welcome tourists. Recommendations include changing your money to euros before you go and sticking to small denominations, but the Greek people are eager to please, and accommodations are available and inexpensive in many cases. Round-trip airfare can be had for under $900, and many times, hotel rooms are under $50. Athens is the most obvious destination, with its plethora of architectural wonders ad ruins.
In wintertime, you can enjoy it all: the Acropolis, Athens Archaeological Museum, Corinth Canal, Mycenae, Thermopylae, Delphi and all the rest. But the difference is that you don't have to stand in line or snake your way through tourist crowds to get a decent selfie. While some restaurants may move tables inside and some souvenir shops close, plenty of businesses remain open. The promenade, usually full of tourists, becomes walkable, "joggable" even. For bargain shoppers, Athens offers the Monastiraki flea market as well as winter sales on Ermou Street and in the Kolonaki boutiques. By February, weather is warming, and Apokreas, Greece's Lenten carnival, is close at hand.
If you run out of things to do, island-hopping is always an option, too. While many tour operators leave the islands over the winter months, most museums and archaeological sites remain open. Slip over to Santorini to spend a few winter days in the former playgrounds of Atlantis. With its base a volcanic caldera, the island is known for the steep cliff sides of whitewashed or lime-washed Cycladic houses looking down over the Aegean Sea. The island has Minoan ruins and is known for its wine and food. If you're looking for walking and hiking, Kea may be more your speed. While it's a summer beach favorite, Kea's residents have tried to maintain the beauty of the island, converting most of the old mule tracks not to roads but instead to walking trails. To the south is Crete, island of the Grecian windflowers and a favorite of many winter visitors. Chania, Therisso, Omalos, Rethymno and Deres are all towns and villages worth a visit. Car rentals are inexpensive, with rentals available from as little as $16 a day. Not only are the hotels cheaper in winter but a number of the island's residents also rent rooms, apartments or even country houses to visitors, and some will even feed you, too.
Ski The Slopes In Slovakia
If you want some reassuring credentials before you book, Jasná Nízke Tatry (Jasná in the lower Tatra Mountains) will be hosting the Alpine Skiing World Cup in women's slalom and giant slalom March 5-6, 2016. The resort is in the Low Tatras National Park, and over the last several years, European investors have spent millions of euros improving, overhauling and reconstructing the Jasná ski resort on Chopak Mountain. Connecting the northern and southern sides was 44 million euros alone, and upgrades continue. Jasná has nearly 16 slopes and 20 miles of skiing. Slopes are serviced by 23 lifts, and vertical drop is over 1,000 feet. The resort also has cross-country trails, night skiing, snowboarding and half-pipes.
Thanks to north-facing mountains and tree-line, the slopes have powdery snow 5 months out of the year. At Jasná, you can get a ski package for two that includes lodging, buffet breakfast and a full host of resort amenities for 3 nights and 2 days for 564 euros (around $614). Increase your two-person stay to 7 nights, and the package is under $1,400. If you want just the ski passes, you can pick them up online for a discount; you can get a 1-day pass in peak season for under $40. A 4-day ticket will cost about $145 while a 6-day pass runs about $208. Packages come with a GoPass card that allows additional discounts.
If weather fails to cooperate, passes are good for a number of water parks (thermal mineral springs are prevalent here) and wellness centers. The area also has the Hurricane Factory, Maxiland and the Fun Zone. A number of restaurants, shops and accommodations spread throughout the area, offering variety and hospitality. The nearest airport is the Bratislava Airport in the capital, which has international service through a number of budget airlines.