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A 2 week European vacation in winter might not be your first thought when you consider such a big holiday. But – hear me out – Europe in winter actually has plenty of positives! I took a (typically American) whirlwind trip through 5 cities in 2 weeks with a very dear friend. And I think you should consider doing the same.
Once upon a time, I blogged in almost-real time. Those days have long since passed, mostly due to my freelance writing job that keeps my fingers tapping keyboards all day long. I’m working on catching up on travels gone by, as well as blogging about current adventures.
So, here we are…I’m about to share my experiences on a 2 week European vacation in winter 2017. Yep, over two years ago. But the concepts are evergreen, so don’t you worry!
The thing with travel blogging is that I can’t possibly tell you that my experience was the best experience that you should 100% duplicate. I’m a big advocate for following local and expat bloggers in your destination so you can get valid, current insights into a place.
A travel blog is great for inspiration and ideas! But visiting a place once and declaring to have the ultimate, definitive, best suggestions is a gross misrepresentation of reality.
So, I’ll tell you where we went and what we did and how we felt. If you’re currently travel planning for any or all of these destinations, seek out the local or expat bloggers who can help you with more detailed information.
But if you’re just looking to distract yourself from work for a few minutes while living vicariously through me and my galavanting, well then let’s do this!
Prefer a less frenetic vacation? I recommend southern France in winter!
A 2 Week European Vacation in Winter
Let’s start with why winter? Visiting Europe is primarily done in the summer when temperatures are high and the kids are on vacation.
But Europe in the summer can also be oppressive. With overbearing temperatures (that will continue to rise in the years to come) and crowds that continue to swell, many popular cities in Europe are downright uncomfortable in the summer.
Visiting European cities in winter instead offers several positives:
- Smaller crowds everywhere
- Cheaper rates for accommodation, airfare, and even some activities
- A much more local vibe
I’m a fan of getting the local experience in a place, which is why I love house sitting with TrustedHousesitters. I like the sharing economy in general – when it’s used well.
If I’m honest, these 2 weeks in Europe in winter were chosen by my travel buddy.
She was living and studying in Israel at the time, while I was living and house sitting in Ireland at the time. She had a few weeks between semesters, so mainland Europe sounded like the ideal meet-up point during her school break!
Where We Went for 2 Weeks in Europe in Winter
We went back-and-forth on destinations for a few weeks before deciding based on location, our own previous travels, and convenience. We considered a wide variety of cities before settling on these 5 for their connectivity, historical significance, cultural attractions, and overall timing for our trip.
Your stops could differ greatly from ours! But we opted for the following cities:
- Luxembourg City
We opted to travel entirely by train between cities. This was another back-and-forth decision as we narrowed down our destinations list. We considered renting a car to get outside of the cities, but ultimately decided against it.
There are pros and cons to both methods of transport, so choose the best for you!
Planning your own multi-city European vacation in winter? The Interrail pass for UK customers is a great option to minimize the logistical stress!
Want to have your own wheels for more flexibility? I’ve used and found Europcar to be an affordable, easy option!
Visiting Brussels in Winter
The first leg of our 2 week European vacation in winter was to Brussels, where we would rendezvous for the first time since my friend’s most amazing wedding in New Orleans. (Yes, that is yet another post I have to write!)
Brussels was a brilliant place to meet up and to begin our explorations. New to both of us, we ventured around to the spots that interested us mutually and independently.
Travel tip: When traveling with a friend, schedule time to venture out on your own! Otherwise, you’ll both end up compromising on things you want to see and do. Go together to the places you both want to see, but then split up for a few hours to have your own adventures. You’ll then have plenty to share over drinks that night!
We took a free walking tour, which is a very popular option in many European cities. (I also did a great walking tour in Valletta while living in Malta.) Walking tours are excellent ways to get overviews of the city, so I try to arrange mine for the first day whenever possible.
I stumbled upon a celebration in the Grand Place, where these men in very colorful outfits stomped around in their wooden clogs and handed out oranges to spectators. I was confused and entertained, which is my general style of travel!
We were also there for Chinese New Year! Random events happen throughout the year in most cities, so it’s a good idea to see what’s happening during your days there. The off-season events are often more local, although this was a fabulously international celebration.
Visiting the newly-opened GardeRobe Mannekin Pis Museum was another fun option. So many costumes, so little time! This tiny guy is a popular fountain/statue that gets dressed up to celebrate various events throughout the year. The museum is a fabulous idea to show off those plentiful costumes.
I had no real expectations for Brussels but was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the city. It’s unfathomably international and eclectic, while still offering a glimpse into local life in Belgium. I felt very at ease here and could easily see myself living in the city someday!
Travel tip: Plan to eat and drink a lot in Brussels! From waffles to chocolate to beer, this city is known for some rich fare. I definitely indulged – in the name of research, of course!
Extra bonus: Eating and drinking will keep you warm during your winter European vacation! See? So many positives to winter travel.
Ready to explore? Find a place to stay while in Brussels
Falling in Love With Cologne
From Brussels, we hopped on the train to the small city of Cologne, Germany (locally called Koln).
Oh, Cologne, how you enchanted me! I had (very) low expectations for Cologne, knowing literally nothing about the city and just hoping for a fun little stopover en route to more famous Frankfurt.
Travel Tip: Just because you’ve never heard of it doesn’t mean it’s terrible! And exactly because you haven’t heard of it probably means there is great potential to learn and to explore more.
Cologne was interesting in every way. We took a walking tour and learned the history of the city, from its more romantic beginnings, to its dark WWII and Holocaust era, to its more current banana-painting graffiti and pop culture. There are many layers to this city, which reminded me of my beloved Edinburgh.
My favorite little bit about Cologne was beer-related (shocking, I know). Cologne has its own eponymous beer: Kolsch (remember – the city is called Koln in German). In all beer-drinking establishments, you will be served a rather tiny little glass of Kolsch upon ordering.
This made me frown.
I am small, I know, but my beer should initially require 2 hands! This made me look like an actual giant while holding it! But I quickly learned – and appreciated – the magic of the Kolsch.
These tiny glasses are very readily replaced as soon as they near empty. There is a carrying device for busy bars that looks like a typical circular tray, except the glasses all have slots within which they rest comfortably. A server walks around, checking for nearly empty tiny glasses, and duly replaces them will full ones.
This keeps your beers constantly cold and refreshing…as well as keeping you rather unclear on your total amount imbibed.
Great for the bar, fun for you, all is well!
We learned from a local that you should place your coaster on top of your glass when you do not want a replacement. You’ll also note that said coaster contains your tally of beers imbibed…so when that tally is no longer very clear, that’s your cue to go 😉
Travel tip: Another bonus of a 2 week European vacation in winter? Gluhwein! Mulled wine is my go-to while living in (cold) Scotland, so I obviously also took advantage while in Germany.
We also happened to be in Cologne during a festival that involved dressing up in colorful costume and drinking copious amounts of beer. We – naturally – veered toward the bars filled with costumed men. They were entertaining!
We guessed this had something to do with the impending Carnival celebrations, though we were in the city weeks before the actual festival. Did you know that Cologne has one of Europe’s biggest Carnivals? Yeah, well, neither did I!
Again – a European vacation in winter can be delightfully surprising! These celebrations in both Cologne and Brussels were unexpected and offered us a glimpse into more local life than we would have gotten in a summertime visit.
We also spent an evening chatting with locals at a bar who were rather confused about 2 Americans, living in Ireland and Israel, traveling to tiny Cologne in February. I adore such conversations.
When you travel abroad, you become a de facto representative of your entire nation. As an American, I try to defy the stereotypes and to surprise someone from another country as often as possible. I think our two stories certainly surprised those locals that evening!
Travel Tip: If you’re traveling to learn about local culture and to try to absorb something new about a place, go during the offseason. It might rain, or snow, or be absolutely miserable. But it will also be a richer experience for you with fewer other tourists around.
Check out the costs. Find a place to stay while visiting Cologne
A Winter Visit to Frankfurt
Upon departing the pleasantly surprising Cologne, we took the train toward Frankfurt.
While a much more well-known city, Frankfurt did very little to impress me, if I’m being honest (cue the angry emails…go on, tell me why I’m wrong).
Frankfurt was a very typical city. People work and live there. They have efficient public transportation to go between work and home. They have a very popular international airport, a river running through the city, and an international variety of familiar stores and brands.
Frankfurt felt like home, which isn’t how I want to feel when I travel. I like to be surrounded by unfamiliarity that shakes me awake.
Frankfurt had nothing wrong with it. In fact, I really enjoyed visiting the Main Tower building for views of the whole city – I’m a sucker for great views.
I also adored the tiny historic center with Tudor-style buildings. I have a thing for Tudor construction (don’t ask me why, it’s irrational).
Otherwise, I didn’t do too much in Frankfurt and that was okay for a mid-trip break! I caught up on taking notes, I caught up on some emails and phone calls, and I allowed myself to feel “normal” in this seemingly normal city.
Check it out for yourself! Find a hotel or hostel in Frankfurt
Off-Season Travel to Luxembourg City
From Frankfurt we knew we wanted to head toward Paris. Guess what’s en route between the two, almost perfectly in the middle?
One of the smallest countries on Earth, Luxembourg is also one of the richest. So we opted for a one-night stopover in Luxembourg City to see a new country to both of us, while saving our wallets from too long a visit.
Luxembourg City looked like it had amazing potential to be stunning…come summertime. During the winter, the city didn’t impress me too much, to be honest. But that’s mostly because everything was dead (for now).
There are lots of natural spaces and parks around, so I imagine when all of that is lush and alive, then the views are beautiful. We still enjoyed wandering the city and having a hotel room for the first time in our travels thus far.
We’d opted for hostels at the beginning of the trip since those were much more affordable and we figured we could pretend we were still in our 20s for a few nights.
Getting a hotel room for our final two cities was the perfect compromise for our costs and sanity.
Travel tip: When traveling with someone else (partner, friend, or family!), be sure to discuss your budget early in the planning process. If your budgets are wildly different, then odds are your expectations will be, too. Try to find a compromise on the shared expenses of transportation and accommodation. Activities and meals/drinks can be individualized much more easily.
Curious about this wealthy country? Find your own hotel room in Luxembourg
Romantic Paris in Winter
From Luxembourg, we took the train to Paris, our final city (a return to Brussels for our departure flights notwithstanding).
Ah Paris. Love it or hate it (I’ve always been definitively in the LOVE camp), Paris evokes strong emotions for most visitors. My first visit to Paris was during my very first trip abroad back when I was a teenager. It blew me away then and continues to beguile and enchant me every time I visit.
I was lucky enough to have a very dear friend living in Paris at the same time I was living in Bilbao, so I made several visits during that time. It gave me a better glimpse into life in the city, staying in her small studio apartment and exploring her local neighborhood.
When I visited during this winter European vacation, I had a few priorities.
First, I wanted time. I adore wandering Paris with nowhere to be or go. There’s a reason so many artists and writers have felt drawn to Paris over the centuries. It oozes romance and creativity; its very essence emanates from the Seine and fills your lungs with every step you take along the riverbank.
I adore Paris.
Paris in the winter is just as enchanting as any other time of year…perhaps even more so given the smaller crowds.
That said, we did still face an epic line to get into Versailles. Despite the multiple visits I’d made to Paris previously, I’d never been to the Palace of Versailles, so that was another priority this time around. I figured it would be easy to get in, but the crowds were still (unfortunately) plentiful. It made me wonder what August must be like!!
Want to avoid the lines? You can get your tickets and a private tour with Get Your Guide.
Other than Versailles, Paris didn’t feel overly busy or touristy during our winter visit. To be fair, I didn’t go to the Louvre this time, and I tried to wander neighborhoods more than visiting attractions.
The downside to winter travel in Europe can be the weather, obviously. When we visited the Eiffel Tower, unfortunately, we had no view at all from the top, due to the fog below. This was actually a blessing in disguise for my heights-averse friend, however! We still enjoyed glasses of bubbly at the top to celebrate her birthday, feeling literally on cloud 9.
Timeless romance…experience it for yourself! Find a place to stay in Paris
A 2 week European vacation in winter can help you to save money and avoid crowds. Sure, you might have to bundle up and you could experience bad weather…but you can also experience overbearing heat in the summer and be just as uncomfortable!
For me, traveling in the off-season is ideal. I like lowering my travel costs whenever possible (which is why I do a lot of house and pet sitting, too!) and I especially like getting a more local feel for a place.
If you’re considering a 2-week vacation in Europe, check out your options for winter travel. Time it over the holidays for Europe’s famous Christmas Markets or opt for even lower costs and smaller crowds by traveling in January or February.
Thanks for joining me on this city tour of my European vacation in winter!
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