2 weeks driving around Europe at Christmas - what not to miss?
December 3, 2009 9:12 AM   Subscribe

European road-trip for the holidays (filter).

Meeting up with a friend in Paris on the evening of the 19th - both of us traveling there from different continents and wrapping up on Jan 2nd back in Paris. Here's the current plan:

Week 1 (Road Trip!):
12/19 - Arrive Paris, stay overnight.
12/20 - Drive to Munich, staying with friends.
12/21 - Explore Munich, Christmas markets, etc.
12/22 - Drive to Vienna with a stop in Steyr, Austria*.
12/23 - Explore Vienna, Christmass markets, etc.
12/24 - More Vienna, Christmas Eve Mass at St. Stephansdom*.
12/25 - Drive to Venice.
12/26 - Explore Venice.

Week 2 (based out of Geneva, where we have a free apartment):
12/27 - Drive to Geneva.
12/28 - Ski Chamonix, stay in Geneva
12/29 - More skiing, still in Geneva.
12/30 - More skiing, last night in Geneva.
12/31 - Drive to Paris for New Years.
1/1 - Explore Paris
1/2 - Friend flies out, I'm off to London for a day then flying out myself on the 3rd.

*Both of these were "local recommendations" given by friends - cool things to see and do. I am particularly interested on these around our route.

My questions:

1. Cheap / decent hotel near the airport in Paris - any suggestions?

2. Driving - we're both pretty set on it because a) we both love driving / road trips, and b) we crave the flexibility of being able to stop off in this or that place along the way, stay at a B&B outside the city rather than a hotel in it, etc.. We realize trains are good around here but would really need a strong argument against driving to sway us at this point. Any tips on tolls / etc. appreciated, as well as things along our routes not to miss.

3. Hotel in Vienna - same as above, we are looking for something more local / small, preferably on the city outskirts. From what I understand most of Europe will shut down on the 25/26th, so I figure on spending Christmas day on the road.

4. Hotel in Venice - see above.

5. Best skiing recommendations within reasonable driving distance of Geneva? I'm pretty set on Chamonix as I've been reading about skiing there my entire life, and extreme skiing is my "thing," although not my friend's, so I'm only pushing for one day there - the other 2 days we're looking for something more enjoyable to ride together.

6. New Years Eve in Paris - where to go? What to do? Where to stay?

Any input on the above or anything I'm not thinking of is appreciated in advance. I've only been to the UK and Greece before so if parts of (hopefully not all!) my plans are idiotic, please hope me. We're pretty much going off of the Lonely Planet guide and the AskMe tags (i.e. Vienna, Venice, etc.) for things to do in the cities we are at, but any other suggestions on stops along the way that are don't-miss are appreciated.
posted by allkindsoftime to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
Wow, thats a lot of driving and much of it on highways if you hope to do any good time at all - but which means less scenic routes.

Do you know about viamichelin? It shows for example that just driving from Venice to Geneva will take you over 6 hours and cost you 155 euros - in both tolls and petrol.
posted by vacapinta at 9:38 AM on December 3, 2009

If Europe is shut down that is an excellent time to walk around without the crowds. I spent the holidays in Madrid one year and the empty streets were very cool.
posted by acidic at 9:38 AM on December 3, 2009

Best answer: If you're free the night of the 22nd and have any interest in music whatsoever, head over to the Staatsoper to see their production of Tristan und Isolde. I saw it a couple of years ago, not even liking opera at the time, and it was one of the most sublime 5 hours I've ever experienced.
posted by bassooner at 10:08 AM on December 3, 2009

If you're from the US, please be aware that driving can be much more stressful in Europe than it is in the States. Also consider that there's going to be a lot of snow in the Alps in December and January and roads might not always be open; plan accordingly and have snow chains at hand for local roads.

To be honest, your trip sounds very stressful to me and not like something I'd have fun doing even though I've taken lots of roadtrips in the US and Canada. Of course driving offers a lot of flexibility, but I doubt that you would really be able to stop much along the way if you want to stick to your itinerary.

Good luck with your planning and have fun!
posted by amf at 11:50 AM on December 3, 2009

Best answer: tolls: in France, you pay along the road (toll booths every x miles), in Italy, you get a ticket at the autostrada entrance, and pay at your exit. In Austria and Switzerland, you have to buy a "vignette" sticker *before entering the highway* to put on your windshield. Austria sells a 10-day one, while I believe the swiss one lasts a year (not cheap). I stress the *before entering the highway* part because they do control that and fines are very steep. German highways are toll free.

Strasbourg has a beautiful old town and a superb cathedral, and is surrounded and crossed by canals. There's an area called "la petite France" which, although touristy, is very nice for a walk. You should also see the cathedral in Ulm (well, you're going to see it from the highway, anyway -- highest belltower in the world). When traveling from Vienna to Venice you can leave the autostrada at the border (or slightly before, as in Villach or Klagenfurt) and cross the Tarvisio pass by normal road until, say, Osoppo or San Daniele in Friuli, then rejoin the autostrada to Venice. The road is wide, safe, well kept, very panoramic and might save you time otherwise spent in queue on the highway.

From Venice to Geneva, you'll have Verona on your way, which might deserve a short visit (especially the Arena), and Milan (well, you'll be on its ring highway, at least -- plan so that you don't get here during rush hour -- OTOH I wouldn't expect much traffic on the 27th). You'll be crossing the Alps through the Mont Blanc tunnel, which has a separate toll.

Expect snow, and plan accordingly.
posted by _dario at 12:05 PM on December 3, 2009

2nding the driving is more stressful - European roads are generally more busy and more narrow if you are off a motorway, people drive faster and in some countries a lot more chaotic than in others.

Fuel prices vary greatly from country to country but as a rule it is A LOT more expensive than in the US.

Places will shut down lunch time on 24th and will probably not be open again until Monday (28th) as Sunday trading is restricted. This may also include sights you want to see in Venice as museums/galleries etc will not be open 25/26th and there will be church services in the churches.

Suggest you get your accommodation sorted sooner rather than later.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:43 PM on December 3, 2009

Response by poster: FWIW, we don't expect the driving to be too stressful, but thanks for the concern. I've been doing it in Africa for the last few years. The little I've done around Europe to-date has been a breeze, comparatively.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:59 PM on December 3, 2009

Best answer: For lodging just outside of Vienna, I'd recommend staying on the west side of the city. If you think of the city with a clock overlaid on it, I'd suggest you stay in the arc between 7:30 and 12:00 (that's where you'll find the Wienerwald and the quainter small towns).

I live in Vienna, so I don't have a whole lot of experience staying in hotels, but this one looks like it might be up your alley: Pension Monika. It's in a quaint little town on the edge of the Winerwald called Mödling. You'll have some small mountains/hills, a nice little main street with shops, some good restaurants and some light hiking possibilities nearby. The fast train to Vienna takes about 20 minutes, a drive to the city center will take 20-30. My friends and I spend a lot of time out there in the Summer, hiking and doing some rock climbing.

Other than that, you could look for something similar in Perchtoldsdorf, Gumpoldskirchen, Purkersdorf, Baden or Klosterneuburg - small towns that are about as far from Wien as Mödling. All of these are on the ewst side of the city, about as far from the center as Mödling, and I'm pretty sure all of them except Gumpoldskirchen have good train connections to the city.

If you'd like any other tips on Vienna or the area, let me know.
posted by syzygy at 1:40 AM on December 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, we don't expect the driving to be too stressful

Thirding the concern about the amount of driving you're going to be doing. Paris-Munich will be a long day; I'd plan on at least 8 hours driving time, probably more like 10. You will probably not have time to stop anywhere along the way. You're doing a lot of driving into major cities, and traffic will likely be worse than you think. I did a three-week driving tour of Europe last year, and every time we went into a city (no matter where, from Munich to Budapest to Strasbourg), it was a nightmare. If you're dead-set on driving, get a GPS unit that will give you turn-by-turn directions. (Also, are you aware that when you get to Venice, you will have to park your car on the mainland and take a vaporetto to your hotel? That will be a hassle and add time to your transit there.)

I would suggest doing a search for itineraries on the European Delivery forum at Bimmerfest. They're experts on driving tours of Europe and get a lot of requests for input much like yours; universally, the advice is to pare down the number of places you're visiting, and avoid major cities as much as possible. (They will also recommend the abbey at Melk, outside of Vienna, which I can personally second.)
posted by asterix at 10:56 PM on December 4, 2009

Best answer: One other thing occurred to me: in Austria, you are required by law to carry safety vests, one for each person in the car, and they must be carried in the passenger compartment of the car (i.e., not in the trunk). Some other countries have similar requirements; if your rental car doesn't have them, you can buy them at any gas station near the Austrian border.
posted by asterix at 1:29 PM on December 5, 2009

Response by poster: For the records: We ended up driving and it went great (except for the part where I slammed my finger in the door and broke it in Munich). We cut Venice out of the itinerary and went straight to Geneva from Vienna, on Christmas day - absolutely zero traffic. Munich wasn't even that bad when we did drive into the city (we stayed outside it).

Munich - Best Christmas Markets we saw, hands down (the food, zomg the food). Locals were delightful. Nice place to shop for clothes if the airline has lost yours. Good emergency room at the University in the city, natch. Keep an afternoon free to tour Dachau - pretty chilling.

Saltzburg - Not on our original itinerary but the best thing we added to it. Spent a day here, 2 would have been nicer. Small, but big enough to keep discovering things. Good way to start here is by heading straight up to the castle on the hill to get the lay of the land before diving in. Nice Christmas Markets tucked in here and there.

Vienna - Nice Chirstmas Markets but not as cool as Munich (although the Erdbeerpunsh and Kraskeiner thing - sausage filled with cheese were our favorite drink/food of the trip). Cool downtown area, and a lot more city we never got out to see, could have spent more time here. Service at St. Stephansdom was a nice touch, as was the orchestra concert we went to.

Geneva - We were spoiled here, a lake-front apartment for free (hence the longer stay). I'm not sure how people afford to live and eat in Geneva, they must get paid a shit-ton of money. We couldn't find a decent dinner out for under 100 Euro. But the downtown area was delightful, particularly the older architecture on the hill going up away from the lake-front. Very cool tours of the catacombs beneath the church in the central part of town. Pro-tip: drive to France and pick up groceries for cheaper just across the border.

Paris - rented a small apartment in heart of the Latin Quarter, was cheaper than a hotel, super-comfy, and couldn't have been better located, 5 mins from Notre Dame, 3 from the train to anywhere. Loved Paris enough that I could see living there some day, something I can't say for London. Did all the touristy things. Found the top 3 hot chocolates in the city. Ate tons of street food. Promenade Plantee was a cool place to go for a morning walk. One week here is not nearly enough time for all the museums and cool stuff to see. Running on the river in the morning was the best.

Paris was the only point we hit major traffic, and I dropped the car off the evening we got there, so it really wasn't a big deal. Travel insurance paid off in spades when EuroStar trains broke down in the tunnel and I got temporarily stranded in London at the start. Would highly recommend that to anyone traveling in Europe especially in winter.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:38 AM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Pictures here.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:38 AM on July 30, 2010

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