European travel in December without crowds?
November 30, 2005 4:26 PM   Subscribe

Anyone have a recommendation great European destinations for last minute late december travel for two Bay Area 30-somethings? Someplace that isn't totally overrun with Christmas or ski tourists, but where all the restaurants and museums aren't closed for the season?

Because of the cold I'm leaning toward cities figuring they'll offer more indoor activities than the countryside, but a small city would be fine, as long as there's a little nightlife and some interesting things to do and see. We like walking around loosing ourselves in a place with interesting atmosphere. Will all of the major cities in Italy be impossibly crowded? Will Prague be arctic? Are all the museums in France closed for the month of December? I'd love any ideas.
posted by tula to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I was in Naples and Rome in January a few years ago and thought winter was a perfect (although chilly) time to visit. The crowds were very manageable then. From Naples, you can also easily visit Pompeii and Ischia. Ischia has some thermal hotels/spas and you can get really cheap rates in the winter. If I could vote for your vacation, my second choice would be for Munich. It's pretty cool (and cold) in winter. The Deutsches Museum is a perfect way to spend a cold day inside, though.
posted by Staggering Jack at 4:57 PM on November 30, 2005

posted by Captaintripps at 5:56 PM on November 30, 2005

If we're on an Italian theme, Venice is a tourist clogged hellhole in the summer and very pleasantly wanderable in winter (and mostly stays open, other than Christmas week, but that's true of anywhere, of course). You need a good overcoat, however, because the wind and rain can sometimes be a bit grim. You could combine a trip there with Milan. Or yes, Rome. It's always the right time to visit Rome. Florence is fantastic in winter, too.

Or what about Spain? Christmas in Barcelona could be fun. Or if you'd like better weather, you could fly down to the south, rent a car and explore around Seville or Granada way.

Prague can get very cold, yes.
posted by normy at 6:28 PM on November 30, 2005

Prague is not that cold. I It seldom dips below 20 fahr/ -6 Cel. Czechs are not religious, so things are not close for long. There is seldom more than a dusting of snow. Museums close down at about 6 pm on the 23rd, and open up at 8-12 on the 25th. Pubs only close down on the 24th for a few hours.

The worst thing is the annual carp slaughter, since it's the traditional X-mas dish. There is carp blood everywhere-- a veritable holocaust.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:47 PM on November 30, 2005

Amsterdam is great in winter. Paris is great all year round. Barcelona is huge fun at Christmas time. London is always jolly so long as you know what you're about. Dublin is good, especially if you like drinking. Berlin, for sure.
posted by Decani at 7:28 PM on November 30, 2005

December in Paris is great - especially Christmas day. The Maraise district (the Jewish Quarter) is in full swing (unless it happens to fall on the Sabbath). There are also some old-timey outdoor holiday markets throughout Paris the month of Dec - great eats, shopping and people-watching in pretty decent weather. The museums are all open, too. August is the month when everything shuts down for vacation.
posted by DandyRandy at 7:50 PM on November 30, 2005

If you're not so into crowds, I'd avoid London anywhere near Christmas.
posted by normy at 8:43 PM on November 30, 2005

I found London to be nearly deserted at Christmas. I think everyone had gone to Dublin, so unless you really like crowds don't go there. Personally I've always wanted to go to St. Petersburg for the White Nights, skating on canals, drinking vodka under the Northern Lights etc. but I've never done it so I can't tell you what it's like.
posted by fshgrl at 9:15 PM on November 30, 2005

Thessaloniki, Greece.

A good size city, built perimetrically around a bay, nice Xmas decorations, great food, nightlife that caters to all tastes.
posted by carmina at 9:29 PM on November 30, 2005

I found London to be nearly deserted at Christmas

Huh? On the day itself, maybe for a few hours, but any time in the weeks before it's packed with shoppers and tourists and immediately after, the sales start. Between Christmas and New Year you can add in assorted drunks. Using The Underground anywhere near the center of town is a claustrophobic's worst nightmare.

Of course I'm talking about the West End and places a visitor is likely to want to be for seeing all the standard tourist sights. Get a bit out of town and things become more sane.
posted by normy at 9:43 PM on November 30, 2005

Response by poster: Okay normy, you've convinced me, so now London is pretty much out of the picture...
posted by tula at 12:59 AM on December 1, 2005

I hope I didn't give the wrong impression. I lived, studied and worked in London for a dozen years and still love the place. Christmas in London can be a lot of fun, but you did give the impression in your question that you weren't enthusiastic about crowds, hence the above.
posted by normy at 1:37 AM on December 1, 2005

Stay away from Budapest. Everything closes for three days starting Dec. 24th. Prague too. Consider istanbul....
posted by zaelic at 2:24 AM on December 1, 2005

We'll split this up into three periods:

Until December 29th: Christmas in Rome is fairly quiet as it's a family holiday and thus most people head home/ out of the city. The actual public holiday dates are the 24th-26th.

Don't hang your hopes on a white Christmas unless you head out of the city proper. Though the cold weather here tends to be humid, it's snowed all of twice in the 7 years I've been here, both times melting at just about my eye level (read: 5 ft. off the ground).

Museums won't be open for public holidays, and some of the smaller ones might beclosed until after Befana (Jan. 6 - Epiphany). So you might want to figure out which museums would interest you the most and then check their holiday hours.

Midnight Mass at the Vatican is a pretty formidable display of pomp. If you're interested in tickets try the info on this bulletin board as trying to find info on the Vatican's website is hobbled by bad navigation and an even shittier search engine.

Vatican & its museums will probably be the most crowded thing in Rome around that time, but still better than peak summer season though now that I think about it, maybe it will be a little more crowded because of a new Pope...?

Elaborate creches & Christmas stalls with candy coal and befana puppets will be around, most famously in Piazza Navona for the latter & Piazza San Pietro for the former. Roasted chestnut vendors will never be too far away wherever you meander in the center.

Some restaraunts will be open for la Vigilia (Christmas Eve) & Christmas. More will be open on the 26th for San Stefano. Traditionally Christmas eve dinner is fish-based & Christmas day is red meat based. I'd ask your accommodations if they know about options in the area because...

...public transportation the 24-25 will be limited. Bus & metro information here

December 29th - January 1st Rome gets busy. Very, very busy. Accomodations will be priced accordingly & I wouldn't risk not reserving ahead of time. New Year's Eve watch out for the fireworks being shot off everywhere (I love it but you might not be so enamoured of dodging firework battles between buildings...)

Getting into a club before midnight is insanely expensive, though it will usually include a posh dinner buffet & champagne. Dinner at restaraunts likewise will be very expensive & very elaborate. In both cases reservations will most likely be required. The discos will have a lower price after midnight, but it will still be fairly pricey.

Piazza del Popolo is the Roman equivalent to Time's Square in terms of New Years Eve Street parties. I'd like to tell you how it is but every year I'm either visiting the folks or funnily enough never quite make it down there...

January 2 - January 8: The befana period. Befana is the 6th which falls on a Friday this year, making a long week-end holiday this year. Accomodation prices will be lower than New Years, but higher than low season/Christmas.

By this time Rome is back to pre-December 24 tempo (less tourists, or rather, less international tourists. Italians will hang around after New Years until Befana is over.) Piazza Navona is the place to be early the evening of the 6th for the children's party; afterwards it's the adults' turn to party.
posted by romakimmy at 4:03 AM on December 1, 2005

I have only been to Rome in the summertime, and only for a short period of time, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. I found it dirty, noisy and polluted but it may be different in the wintertime.

Berlin is a great city. Highly recommended.

This feels kind of self-linkish since I was born and raised here, but how about combining Berlin with a couple of days in Copenhagen, Denmark? Berlin is big and exciting whereas Copenhagen is small and romantic.

You could go outdoor ice skating on the rink at Kongens Nytorv Square, do some Christmas shopping at Illums Bolighus or Georg Jensen (most shops will be closed December 24th - 26th) and take a stroll through Tivoli Gardens. These things are all within walking distance of each other.

More info about Copenhagen. If you're into architecture you might find this guided tour of Copenhagen interesting.
posted by sveskemus at 5:51 AM on December 1, 2005

I've been to a few places in Europe in late November. In France and Venice (Northern Italy), the big negative was rain. The weather wasn't that bad, maybe in the 50's, but it was grey and overcast all day with frequent showers. It really harshed the vibe. Southern Italy was much nicer, as was Spain.
posted by smackfu at 7:22 AM on December 1, 2005

If you're not so into crowds, I'd avoid London anywhere near Christmas.

No, just the central West End. It can be cool elsewhere. London is a very, very big city.
posted by Decani at 8:59 AM on December 1, 2005

fshgrl: Personally I've always wanted to go to St. Petersburg for the White Nights, skating on canals, drinking vodka under the Northern Lights etc. but I've never done it so I can't tell you what it's like.

The "White Nights" refer to the long hours of daylight in the summer, due to the northern latitude of St. Petersburg. In December, it gets dark quite early. It, is true that you can cross the river and canals on the ice, though. In the summer, it is strange to see all the steps that lead from the street directly to the water, but it makes more sense in winter and is somewhat convenient when you wish to cross between two bridges.

St. Petersburg is such a great city, WHENEVER you go!
posted by achmorrison at 9:06 AM on December 1, 2005

Basel (Switzerland) offers everything you want and is close to other large cities that can be reached within hours (Strasbourg, Freiburg, Z├╝rich, Bern). Have a look here. Temperatures will be around 0 celsius and wheather is expected to be sunny.
posted by m.openmind at 7:26 AM on December 2, 2005

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